Women & Cool

From the catalog of American Cool (Prestel)

Bassist Esperanza Spaulding from the catalog. (Detail)

Bassist Esperanza Spaulding from the catalog. (Detail)

Recently I assigned my class on the history of cool to ask ten friends to name a contemporary male and female icon of cool and one male student simply called out, “Women aren’t cool”— and no woman (or man) rose to contradict him. In contrast to the enormous economic and professional progress made by American women, social pressure remains so strong in terms of body image, motherhood, and deference to men that Hollywood has not produced a single lasting cool female icon in the past generation. Of the actresses who emerged in the early 1990s with the moxie to walk the line of regular gal and bad-ass, there was a cohort including Winona Ryder, Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu, Drew Barrymore, Halle Berry, and Uma Thurman. Each of these actresses let the industry shape their careers or cuddled up with the media, became Cover Girls or self-destructed. Nor did they receive the kinds of opportunities granted to the generation of actors opposite them: Benicio Del Toro, Johnny Depp, Robert Downey, Jr., Matt Damon and Brad Pitt. And they took comparatively few chances compared to, say, Faye Dunaway, Susan Sarandon, or Julianne Moore.


Until the 1970s, cool was a masculine sensibility represented by such figures as Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra, Clint Eastwood and Johnny Cash, Steve McQueen and Lou Reed. A quick list of the core qualities of classic cool -- toughness, rebellion, detachment, self-possession, mystery, a capacity for violence – reveals a rap sheet often unavailable to women. "If a woman acted like Miles Davis, people would think she was autistic or something," author and activist Rebecca Solnit once told me. A cool woman exhibits a certain fierce independence through a signature style, of course, but the qualities of say, a Thelonious Monk or Benicio Del Toro – "the aloof unavailability part, the nonreactive part, the non-warmth" – are denied to women since "that's often a dude thing," Solnit said. For this reason, cool has received pushback from Bell Hooks (We Real Cool) and Susan Fraiman (Cool and the Second Sex), since these macho qualities often have negative effects on women and families. Even today, when Hollywood explores cool within a female framework, the plot focuses more on the dilemma of a protagonist torn between being nice and popular or bitchy and sexy (e.g., Heathers, Mean Girls, Clueless). How is (or was) a rebel woman to find her way?


Social equality does not move in a linear progression and historical movements work through eras of ebb and flow. More cool women emerged in the modernist 1920s -- Dorothy Parker, Bessie Smith, Mae West, Louise Brooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Georgia O’Keeffe – than in the postwar era. Just as Betty Friedan showed in The Feminine Mystique, due to the immense social pressure on women to think of themselves as wives and mothers, there were few defiant American women in the postwar public sphere. During the 1960s, the political energies of the womens’ movement stirred up tangible, overt social upheaval rather than underground rebel energy. So with the important exception of jazz singer-activists such as Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln, the shift did not occur until the 1970s.


The new female rebels came through rock-and-roll, the primary artistic form and forum of ‘60s rebellion: Bonnie Raitt, Patti Smith, Deborah Harry, Chrissie Hynde. Raitt apprenticed with Fred MacDowell and became the first white blueswoman earth-mother; Smith’s androgynous punk aesthetic brought together Beat poetry, rock-and-roll, the womens movement, and “the female longing for everything,” as one rock critic reflected. Deborah Harry and Chrissie Hynde were the first women bandleaders and they seemed to be born rebels: Hynde was a singer-songwriter biker chick from Ohio who transformed British punk according to her pop sensibility and fierce sexuality; Harry challenged men from within a coy, ironic glamor, a playfully aggressive punk sex bomb. Their commitment to art and style blasted open cultural space for all the riot grrrls and divas that followed.


Cool women still emerge mostly from popular music, an artistic forum where they literally must take and hold center stage. Besides Missy Elliott and Selena, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads are certainly cool artistic icons, equally influential if less nationally iconic. Yet rarely does a website or article call attention to a woman’s cool. In fact, I first saw "cool" applied to Kim Gordon in an interview from May 2013, a full generation passed the prime of Sonic Youth, and then in a follow-up article, “Cooler-Than-Ever Kim Gordon Stuns in Elle.” In fact, to judge from current trends, women will more likely chart a rebel course out of comedy than through the Hollywood grinder or music: Tina Fey, Amy Pohler, Sarah Silverman. 


Yet the future of American cool is in the hands of women since female identity and potential is in its iconic infancy. It is not simply that young women are more driven, passionate, and hungry for knowledge and achievement than young men, although this is obvious to any professor. It is more the case that women have barely scratched the surface of an expanding realm of female identity.


In the next generation, it is likely women will outnumber men for lasting iconic effect and innovative artistic impact. From a younger cohort, Esperanza Spalding, Janelle Monae, Pink and Jennifer Lawrence have already staked emotional and artistic claims on new ground. Rachel Maddow, Tina Fey, Ani DiFranco, Connie Britton and Michelle Obama are all primed to create a lasting impact on culture as they decide on their next creative phases.


American Cool is in a state of transmutation. Either American women will stake a claim to the concept -- if they find it worth saving – or it will fade into irrelevance.