American Cool

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.



American Cool: The Four Eras

The Roots of Cool: Before 1940
The stage was set for the emergence of cool as a cultural phenomenon in the early 1940s by a series of sweeping transformations in the first decades of the twentieth century. The figures in this first section were not called cool in their day but were leading exemplars of new energies that were changing the social contours of American life. A fresh rebelliousness was revealed in the new film capital of Hollywood, in modernist literature and art, in emerging youth entertainments, and in a new music called jazz. The advent of technologies such as radio, film, and the automobile and the increasing diversity in America’s booming cities accelerated the pace of change. Though Prohibition in the 1920s sought to regulate American morality by ending the consumption of alcohol, this period saw the expression of a new independence among young people and others historically on the margins of public life. In particular, both African Americans and women sought and began to attain freedoms long denied. Cool has long denoted a person’s sense of calm and composure. Charismatic individuals such as those featured here contributed greatly to the changing mores in American society before World War II. Cool came to serve as the concept and emblematic term of a new rebel sensibility.


The Birth of Cool: 1940–1960
Being cool was a response to the rapid changes of modernity: it was about maintaining a state of equipoise within swirling, dynamic social forces. The legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young disseminated the word and concept of cool into jazz culture in the early 1940s, and it quickly crossed over as a rebel masculine sensibility. When Young said, “I’m cool,” he meant, first, that he was relaxed in the environment and, second, that he was keeping it together under social and economic pressure as well as the absurdity of life in a racist society. This mask of cool emerged as a form of American stoicism and was manifested in jazz, film noir, Beat literature, and abstract expressionism. In jazz, a generation of younger musicians rejected big-band swing entertainment to create bebop, a fast, angular, virtuosic style that moved jazz out of dance halls and into nightclubs. In Hollywood, film noir represented postwar anxiety in through crime dramas shot through with working-class existentialism and the fear of women’s sexual and economic power. Among Beat writers and abstract painters, cool referred to a combination of wildness and intensity in men unconcerned with social conformity. Starting from jazz, cool was a rebel sensibility suggesting that an individual’s importance could be registered only through self-expression and the creation of a signature style. By 1960 cool was the protean password of a surging underground aesthetic.

Cool and the Counterculture: 1960–1980
In the 1960s and 1970s, to be cool was to be antiauthoritarian and open to new ideas from young cultural leaders in rock and roll, journalism, film, and African American culture. Cool was a badge of opposition to “the System,” by turns a reference to the police, the government, the military-industrial complex, or traditional morality. Using drugs such as marijuana or even LSD was an indicator of risk taking and expanding one’s consciousness; not experimenting with drugs suggested a fear of opening one’s mind or perspective, of being “uptight” or “square.” The same was true of sexual exploration, social protest, and ethnic politics. The aesthetic of stylized understatement still held power, yet cool itself morphed under the era’s social upheavals. The counterculture valued being authentic and emotionally naked: being cool meant a person was “out-front” with others and comfortable in his or her own skin. For African Americans, what had once been suppressed under the mask of cool transformed into defiant civic engagement in music, sports, and politics. “Cool” meant to communicate a set of emotions without losing control, and rock and roll was the art form (and forum) best suited for this shift, especially for women. Patti Smith, Bonnie Raitt, Deborah Harry, and Chrissie Hynde all carved out new iconic stances, styles, and voices for independent women who were sexy on their own terms. Cool became the supreme compliment for creative public figures who broke new cultural ground and maintained their personal integrity over time.

The Legacies of Cool: 1980–Present
In 1980s America, the selling of rebellion as style became ingrained in cool. From highbrow fashion to mass-culture video games, product designers, advertisers, and consumers embraced the cool aesthetic. Selling out was no longer a curse and youth culture increasingly embraced the pursuit of wealth. In the 1990s, many essays proclaimed that cool was dead, yet the concept retained its rebellious vitality and re-emerged from many disparate quarters. From hip-hop to Seattle grunge, from skateboarding and extreme sports to the web's explosion of nerd cool, from graffiti to MTV, cool icons were central to the vitality of new cultural forms and African American culture remained central to its growth. By the 1980s cool also had an easily recognizable history, and many figures from its past—like heroes from a bygone era—continued to resonate widely. Indeed, new icons of cool often built careers that owed much to earlier exemplars. In globalization, cool continues to play a large role in the world’s understanding of America and in Americans’ own sense of national identity. The cultural concept of cool may be America’s chief cultural export.

Noir Cool as American Cool

In 1942, Paramount Studios attempted to float a new term for rising star Alan Ladd: "the romantic heavy." At the time, the "heavy" meant the villain and the romantic lead was always the hero -- so this is an oxymoron. It might be translated as the heroic badass and it didn't take. The romantic heavy was a rogue figure we now call cool, even if no one used the term at the time.

The aesthetic of noir cool was established in seven films released between 1940 and 1942, including The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane. These films defined the genre’s aesthetics, thematics, visual style, and moral ambiguity. Through Humphrey Bogart and later Robert Mitchum, the genre created a new mode of rebellious individual masculinity: noir cool -- a public mask of stylish stoicism.

The crucible of this new figure was his masking of emotion -- his cool. To be "cool" suggested self-control to the point of detachment, and signified an insolent defiance as registered in facial expression and body language. The masking of emotion communicates an inner intensity critical to the self-presentation and embodiment of Bogart, Mitchum and Alan Ladd.

Link to full PDF of article.