The decade of the Cool Girl

Gone Girl’s searing, satirical monologue about male fantasies of womanhood has found a new life online. But have we forgotten its original meaning?

August 22, 2023
Losing her cool: Rosamund Pike in David Fincher’s film adaption of “Gone Girl”. Image: Album / Alamy Stock Photo
Losing her cool: Rosamund Pike in David Fincher’s film adaption of “Gone Girl”. Image: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

Girl dinner. Hot girl summer. Hot girl walk. Girlboss. Girlfailure. Lucky girl syndrome. Delulu girls. Lover girls. Manic pixie dream girls. That girl. We live in a girl universe, where everything, from food to work, from success to failure, from love to hate, has become something to be done by “the girlies”. If you trace this girlification of the world back, it leads us, a decade previous, to one central figure: The Cool Girl.

If the girlified, infantilised universe had a monarch it would be the Cool Girl. In the summer of 2013, as Gillian Flynn prepared to release her bestselling novel Gone Girl in paperback, the Cool Girl was already everywhere. Her figure, created in a speech the Machiavellian murderer Amy Dunne gives in the middle of the book, had already become the takeaway from Flynn’s novel, and had already captivated and divided her readers. “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl,” Flynn writes. “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. Men actually think this girl exists.” 

It wasn’t long before the Cool Girl speech developed a fandom all of its own, separate from the book itself. Cool Girl is ruining our reality, said one critic. Cool Girl defined the decade. Cool Girl, like a piece of biting satire hidden amongst the pages of a crime drama, “gave name to a smothering, invisible force”. It was both a monster manifesto and a rallying feminist cry. It even inspired a song. Even now, just over 10 years on from the initial release of Gone Girl, which sold 20 million copies, spent 112 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was adapted into a movie (Rosamund Pike, who played Amy, was nominated for an Oscar, while Ben Affleck, who plays Nick, cost the production millions by shutting down filming for days at a time because he refused to wear the hat of a baseball team he didn’t like) it is the Cool Girl that remains the indisputable cultural legacy of the Gone Girl machine. 

And Gone Girl really did become a machine. Not just in sales, but as a literary and publishing trope in its own right. The so-called “Gone Girl effect”, a predecessor to the publishing world’s current obsession with “sad girl lit”, led to a deluge of stories told by unreliable female narrators, taking Amy Dunne as their starting pistol. From its initial hardback publication in June 2012 through to June 2022, a cool 680 books were published with the name “girl” in the title. There was The Girl on The Train, A Girl Like That, The Girl With All The Gifts, Final Girls, and even simply The Girls (Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series preceded Flynn, but didn’t lead to the same influx of lit girl titles). The genre became so oversaturated that it eventually led to parody; Netflix’s The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window came out last year. The thing that unites all these titles, bar the fact the eponymous girls have not reached literary womanhood, is the unreliable female narrator. They become the formative texts of those searching out “the notion of the ‘unlikable female character’”.  

The mega success of the Gone Girl Industrial Complex means it’s inevitable that some of the original intention of not just the book but this particular speech will be lost in popular translation. Flynn’s “Cool Girl” monologue was initially divisive; critics argued over whether it was misandrist or misogynistic. The full quote, which rarely appears online, is as critical of women pandering to the male “cool girl” fantasy as it is to men for propagating it. Cool Girl, in her original iteration, was an exploration of pretending to be someone you’re not, which is as much a theme of the book as gender or power or sex or anything else. “The whole point is that these are two people pretending to be other people, better people, versions of the dream guy and dream girl, but each one couldn’t keep it up, so they destroy each other,” said Flynn of her creation. Little wonder that after initially oscillating between calling Amy a misandrist and a misogynist, critics usually settled upon: both.

Amy Dunne, in her Cool Girl diatribe, is railing against women who see themselves through the lens of men. You can draw a through line to the cool girl through John Berger, or Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, published a decade before. “Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it's all a male fantasy,” Atwood writes. “Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.” Amy Dunne—and by extension all women, in Flynn’s universe—is the cool girl and the nightmare, both the Madwoman in the Attic and the perfect bride, the angel and the monster.  

Or at least, she was. Just over a decade on, Cool Girl has taken on a life of her own, divorced from both the original context of the novel (and the film) and from Flynn herself. The monologue has found new life on TikTok, where the hashtag “cool girl” currently stands at 2.7bn views and Amy Dunne has become one of the patron saints of female rage. This makes sense. “I certainly think that the acknowledgment of female anger as a viable emotion, as something that should be dealt with and acknowledged and appreciated and women feeling that way was one of the reasons that so many people connected to Gone Girl,Flynn said herself of the book’s legacy.  

Gone Girl has been rediscovered, or perhaps reclaimed, by Gen Z-ers who see more relatability than annoyance in the girlification of the universe. Her figure sits adjacent to the rise of the self-referential, aesthete nihilism of femcel ideology. Taking inspiration from the incel movement, but seeing themselves as apart from it, online femcels celebrate many of the character traits that made Amy Dunne—and the deluge of other awful female protagonists that came after —who she was.  

If that feels like a wilful misreading of Gone Girl’s original intention, then at least it’s not as frustrating as how young men metabolised Amy and how they understood her Cool Girl speech. I spent most of my twenties hanging out with these kinds of men, the kind of men you could imagine regurgitating Nick Dunne’s line in the novel: “Women are fucking crazy. No qualifier: Not some women, not many women. Women are crazy.” Sadly, the wild popularity of the unhinged female victimhood publishing craze didn’t just impact female readers, it contributed to a belief in young men that this was simply what all women were really like. “I know so many girls like that”, a boy once told me at a party when Gone Girl came up in conversation. “Just crazy, you know. We’ve all met a girl like that.” “What?” I asked. “A murderer?”  

The endurance of Cool Girl’s continued cultural capital should be a testament to Flynn’s writing and how well she articulated the performance of femininity under the patriarchy, albeit through the conduit of a “narcissistic psychopath” character like Amy Dunne. But instead it has become twisted away from its own original, satirical meaning. It’s championed in earnest by the incredibly online girls of TikTok just as it was by the incredibly online girls of Tumblr who preceded them. And it’s taken as an admission of guilt by every man who didn’t read the book, and maybe didn’t even watch the film, but has definitely met a girl they think is as unhinged as Amy Dunne. 

Although its legacy is muddied, it’s admittedly not all bad. The Cool Girl speech did help legitimise the idea of female anger, which is now celebrated by TikTok. But at the same time, it opened the door for our girlified universe, where every woman is crazy; every woman is really just a girl; every woman is hiding something.