Back in 1985, when I was beginning my “career” as a relatively feisty and entirely earnest rock critic, I began dating a woman of my own age (25) who worked (as a stockbroker) and lived (in a studio apartment in a cramped arrangement with another woman who wasn’t quite living with her fiancé, and who became so used to my presence in the place that she once inadvertently started changing her clothes as I sat at the small table by the fridge) in Manhattan. As I was still living in my mom’s basement in West Paterson, New Jersey, at the time, this was a big deal. Also big deals: she was stunningly beautiful, incredibly witty, prodigiously energetic and worldly in ways that I’d never even known existed. She introduced me to sushi.
Early on in our dating, we were discussing music, as I, a rock critic (not full-time, mind you; I also worked, spectacularly badly, in telemarketing) would have been wont to do; I mentioned that one of my favorite bands was Pere Ubu, then known largely as an aggressively abrasive post-punk combo distinguished by a heavyset frontman who made a performance virtue out of being tone deaf. “Oh, I love Pere Ubu,” said My First New York Girlfriend. “When I was at Antioch, I used their song ‘Chinese Radiation’ as the soundtrack for my Sight And Sound film!”
“Oh really?” thought I to myself at the time. All this and she likes Pere Ubu, too? How lucky can you get?
The romantic component of our relationship didn’t last much longer than a year. At some point before that, she confessed to me—not angrily, or bitterly, or anything; it was more that we had just gotten comfortable enough with each other that we knew that, whatever else was going on or was going to go on, we both really liked and enjoyed each other, as human beings and stuff—that she actually didn’t really like Pere Ubu at all, and she had not used “Chinese Radiation” as the soundtrack to her etc. etc. “That was Suzi who did that,” she revealed, referring to her best friend. (Who later went on to found ISSUE Project Room, and died in 2009.) “I just thought if I told you that you would like me more.”
I was gobsmacked, honestly. Because there was no real way at the time that I could have liked her more, for the reasons I mentioned above and a few others. I was genuinely moved that she’d had such an interest in impressing me, an opinionated loudmouth schmuck from Jersey with impressively thick hair and some slightly marketable writing skills. And while she and I fell out of touch for a long time, and now just intermittently catch up without being in regular communication, she has ended up being a really important friend to me in very trying times. So, you know—all good.
In any event, many years later, around the turn of the century, I made the acquaintance of a woman who was at the time in her senior year of college (“I don’t wanna talk about it”—Warren Zevon) and in one of our conversations she bemoaned the fact that a fair number of the fellows she had dated on campus were extremely eager to put anal sex on the table right away, as in, pretty much before appetizers were finished if they were even bothering to take her out to dinner in the first place. I considered this pushy, at best, as well as an interesting if not entirely palatable example of the weird kind of sex-entitlement guys who grow up around a lot of porn are likely prone to. I distinctly remember thinking of a phrase from Robert Christgau: “This reflects poorly on the moral and intellectual resources of young people today.”
Similarly, in 2010, considering Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture, in which Dunham’s character, Aura, is treated like a doormat with a vagina by at least one male character, and stands for it, I wrote, “one is rather used to men being awful in Manhattan-set films concerning the romantic travails of young women, but man, if these two guys are really representative of the dating pool these days, ladies, you have my utmost sympathy.”
Somehow this all brings us to Gone Girl, both Gillian Flynn’s novel and Flynn and director David Fincher’s film version of it, in which Amy Dunne’s massive resentment of what she calls the “Cool Girl” construct compels what one might charitably characterize as several overreactions. As articulated in the novel, and reproduced (I think) pretty much verbatim in the film, it goes like this: “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”
Cross this with Dunham’s vision of sexual relations and a young woman is likely to get a very disturbing message: you should consider yourself lucky if a guy is engaged enough to even put you up for consideration as a “Cool Girl.”
Of course Flynn/Amy’s complaint exaggerates somewhat, for both comic and grotesque effect. The “shit on me” business, if taken entirely literally, is a bit of a reach; statistically speaking, Today’s Man isn’t that much into scat. Or maybe he is, how do I know. But Gone Girl’s overstatement is useful not just for its considerable genre entertainment value, but for indirectly pointing out the really toxic roots of this construction that, no matter how much it might seem is being willingly adopted by women, is entirely male. Esquire magazine’s “Funny Joke From A Beautiful Woman” is Cool Girl nonsense writ small. Any profile of a young female celeb who is depicted liking a dish that involves rib sauce, same thing. Those Chris Evans and Channing Tatum profiles were Cool Girls Who Know Where To Draw The Line (Or Did They?) buy-ins—written by women, but in men’s magazines, so there you are. As my wife pointed out to me the other day when I brought up the topic, the economics of this game are pretty potentially devastating; for instance, these days a bikini wax is considered de rigueur, and a bikini wax is about fifty dollars: fifty dollars that goes out of a woman’s pocket and into, mostly, a man’s. And by the same token (this was my observation, not my wife’s), as sex is further and further commoditized through porn, the actual having of pubic hair itself becomes a fetish. In the first anecdote I cited, you can discern some kind of grey area; My First New York Girlfriend, a genuinely terrific person, maybe wasn’t going for Cool Girl status, but just putting on a small mask to make herself more appealing at a particular stage of our relationship. I guess I did the same thing, by pretending that I was a person fit for gainful employment. But anyway. That’s not to say the construct didn’t exist back in the day, but I’d still argue that in the days before Tad Friend coined the egregious phrase “Do-Me Feminism,” a bit of misogynist water-muddying if there ever was one, there existed among young heterosexuals a certain raised consciousness. Sexism wasn’t banished; hell, I don’t think my own socially-conditioned/ingrained sexism is even close to a thing of the past, my best efforts notwithstanding. If Gone Girl has any "relevance"—and I have to say that I have little patience with a lot of the breathless “rips the lid off American marriage” and “The Way We Live Now” proclamations—it’s in the truth it unveils, in a Fractured Fairy Tale fashion, about how sexist expectations can drive someone from Amazing to Avenging. Andrea Dworkin got a lot of shit during her lifetime for, among other things, her absolute refusal to tailor her presentation to what might have been appealing or even ingratiating to men. Some say she went too far, that the worthwhile things about her message got lost as a result. I’m beginning to wonder if in her way she was not exactly correct.