If Rule 34 of the internet is “if you can imagine it, there’s porn of it”, Rule 67 must be “if you are a woman who openly admits to having mostly male friends, you will cop shit for it, with or without your knowledge”. Actually, this isn’t limited to the internet, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
I’ve touched on this before here (scroll down to just below the Meryl gif) but have long wanted to explore it further – because a) I have been that girl, and in some ways, I still am, and b) like literally everything else in life, it’s more complicated than “if a woman has mostly male friends, it’s a massive red flag”.
Now, there is a very clear difference between women who simply happen to have more male friends than female ones, and women who explicitly claim it as a point of pride. We’ve all come across the girl who says, “I just don’t really get on with other women; I find them too bitchy, you know?” We tend to conclude – often rightly – that the woman who blithely states that all other members of her gender are too bitchy for her to bother with is probably the biggest bitch of all. The thing is, this assumption allows us to ignore the fact that the woman saying this has, in all likelihood, had a really shitty experience at the hands of other women. And while of course it’s not OK to blame an entire gender for the actions of a few, the things that girls do to each other can often be vicious.
If you’ve been picked on in an all-female environment, you know what goes on, don’t you? The sudden freezing out from your group of “friends”. Whispers, laughter at a joke you’re not in on, weekend plans made clearly within your earshot but not involving you. It’s sophisticated, in a way – individually, these things seem small, innocuous, harmless. They’re not ignoring you. They weren’t talking about you. They were laughing at a teacher, not you. They thought you were busy at the weekend. Altogether though, day after day, for weeks at a time, these things become huge, inescapable, crippling. Whoever you are: if you’ve been bullied by a group of girls, then you have all my empathy.
And yet, real, heartfelt, bone-deep friendship is one of the things women do best. Nothing bolsters you like an afternoon spent with a good female friend and some wine. Nothing makes you glow like a compliment from your best girl mate. There is no nicer post than a card from your favourite woman, just because. I’ve often been guilty of not valuing my female friendships as highly as I should, but in recent years I’ve learnt a heck of a lot about the power you’re imbued with when you spend time with your best women.
I did spend a long time wanting to be, and then being, a bit of a Cool Girl. I will never claim to have fulfilled even half the Cool Girl criteria – for a start, the only sports I know anything about are the equestrian ones – but there have been times in my life when I’ve had far more male friends than girlfriends, and I have absolutely been told by boys – not men, boys – “you’re not like other girls”. And it’s only when you’ve grown up a bit that you realise how fatal those words are. If a boy – not a man, a boy – tells you you’re not like other girls, consider it your four-minute warning. Save yourself the heartache – for it will come, as sure and heavy as rain in October – and walk away. If you have even the faintest inkling that you’re wanted because you seem “cool”, see it for the omen it is.
But once you’ve been cast in that role for a few years, it becomes easy to default to. It’s only recently – embarrassingly, in the last couple of weeks, actually – that I’ve realised how damaging it is to take on that part.
Because the problem with being seen as “one of the guys” is this: you end up feeling like you have no right to ask for anything. You’re the Cool Girl – you go along with what your guy says and does; you take your cues from him and don’t express your own wishes. You shoot only yourself in the foot by playing the Cool Girl role because human beings will do what they can get away with; if you’re not forthcoming with your own desires to begin with, it only gets harder to get them heard as time goes on.
And the kind of guy that wants a Cool Girl – well, there’s a reason for that, and it’s not that he’s super-balanced and well-adjusted as a person. He’s unwilling to hand over any control, or compromise; he’ll do what’s good for him and if a woman wants him, well, it can’t be on her terms. When he tells you, “you’re not like other girls,” what he means is: “I do not care that you have wants, needs and feelings of your own”. Take it from me: you do not want the guy who wants a Cool Girl. He will not be careful with you and your precious heart.
I’m loath to blame The Goddamn Patriarchy for everything (well, actually…) but I think it’s the connection here. Because until relatively recently, we’d all been fed an incredibly narrow view of what men and women could “be”. We’ve done so much work in the last few years to dismantle the stereotypes (“women are needy and emotional”, “men are cold and stoic”) but the damage that’s been done to everyone – not just women – is going to take a long time to unpick. Perhaps the viciousness with which women can turn on each other is explained by the fact that for a long time, they were so limited in who and what they could be. Perhaps the reason some men can only deal with Cool Girls is because they learnt from a young age that emotional engagement was off-limits to them.
How do you solve a problem like a set of damaging stereotypes that’s taking too long to die? I’ve no idea. All I’ve got is this: notice how people make you feel. Pay attention to what they do, not what they say. Love is a verb, after all. Stay close to the good ones. Hopefully, the rest will follow.