JOEL DINERSTEIN writes and teaches American culture and literature at the intersections of popular culture, urban history, ethnic identity, African-American music and the concept of cool. All of these interests and questions emerged organically from my Brooklyn childhood in the 1970s,
Women and Cool
From the catalog of American Cool (Smithsonian Books)
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. They took comparatively few chances compared to, say, Faye Dunaway, Susan Sarandon, or Julianne Moore.
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 culturally if less iconic at a national level. Yet rarely (if ever) does a website or article call attention to a woman’s cool, although it is easy enough to find such arguments for Dean, Cash, Jay-Z, and Sinatra. 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. (See links to cool Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, and Kim Gordon below.)