I love J-Law; you love J-Law; everybody loves J-Law. Or so seems to be consensus following last week’s Academy Awards, where she tripped up the stairs, made a self-deprecating speech, performed authenticity and humility without seeming tri-hardy, reacted amazingly to Jack Nicholson in the awards press, and gave the best responses to banal post-award reporter questions in the history of banal post-award reporter questions. She was, in a word, charismatic. And she differentiated herself from Anne Hathaway, who seemed, according to whom you ask, calculated, too happy, ingenuous, too performative, etc. etc.
In the week since the awards, the battle between these two types of contemporary female stardom have battled it out in the pop culture opinion blogosphere. If you’re interested, check here, here, and here. Posting these arguments to this blog’s Facebook page, I was impressed with the reaction, characterized by a recoil at the idea that both types of stardom, and the negotiation of femininity they represent, can’t co-exist. TRUTH, READERS, TRUTH. As several of you pointed out, no one is comparing Daniel Day-Lewis and Christoph Waltz or Ben Affleck and Ang Lee — there’s room for plenty of men at the top. But when it comes to women, we’ve got to pit them against one another. There’s a long tradition of this “women against women” strategy: see, for example, the crazy, entirely-press-fueled “war” between Garbo and Dietrich, or, more recently, the enduring attempts to pit Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie, both powerful women in Hollywood, in a fight to the death for Brad’s affections.
To be clear, I have zero problem with articulating one’s dislike or like for a particular star. When we talk about the stars we like and dislike, we’re associating their images, and what they represent, with ourselves. The things we like — television shows, music, stars — are signifiers of our own personality. To like Jennifer Lawrence, to like Anne Hathaway, is to say volumes about the type of contemporary femininity you admire and with which you would like to associate yourself. With that said, I don’t think that lambasting the person with whom you don’t want to associate yourself is very productive. Be a fan all you want, and articulate why you don’t like another star, but don’t be an ass, and don’t frame it in terms of “there can only be one!” There can be many. The more, the better. Anne Hathaway’s image is not one to which I do not cotton, but that doesn’t mean that I think she’s a bitch, worthless, or should retire. In fact, she’s really f-ing talented. But just like you can admire an argument and not agree with it, I can admire her and not “like” her.
But I do want to unpack the unadulterated affection for Lawrence, whose “star” performance has been framed as wholly natural, authentic, and unperformative. Hathaway molds her image; Lawrence just is. In truth, Lawrence, with the help of her publicist and agent (who have been lauded all over the place in the trades) is just good at appearing to not perform. She shares this attribute with the most enduring stars of old — Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, early Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts. In our current moment of hyper-manipulation, we cling even more to those who can seem wholly unmanipulated. And I’m not trying to be a asshole when I suggest that Lawrence understands that what’s she’s doing, in terms of madcap honesty, will further her career and brand. She’s smart. She’s savvy. I don’t think she’s a conniving, manipulative star, but I do think that she is very much cognizant of what she’s doing.
Lawrence’s particular negotiation of “naturalness,” skill, emotion, and femininity wouldn’t be popular at any given moment in time. It’s very specific to our current cultural moment, in which the “cool girl” fills a specific ideological function, adhering to a paradoxical understanding of what a woman should and should not be, a peculiar negotiation of feminism and passivity.
The best articulation of the “cool girl” comes from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I have some serious problems with this book (is Flynn a misogynist? DISCUSS.) but as Mallory Cohn, one of the smart commenters on one of the Facebook posts about this topic, astutely pointed out, Lawrence is the embodiment of the “cool girl” persona perfectly described by Flynn’s heroine. Here’s the passage in full:
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. 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. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”
Again, I’m unsure if Flynn hates women or if this protagonist hates all women, but the outlines of this “cool girl” resonate, do they not? That’s because it’s a product of ideology, and ideology is always super contradictory and falls apart under inspection. The cool girl is a guy’s girl who also loves sex. She’s masculine yet super feminine. She’s all the “good things” (read: amendable to contemporary patriarchy) about girls and none of the “bad things” (read: ball busting, interested in her own destiny, willing to advocate for her own rights). But that’s how the media, and more specifically, stars, work: they provide us with examples of “real people” who are proof positive that images like “cool girl” exist.
Lawrence is a powerful, beautiful woman who also thought that Seth McFarland was “great.” This infuriates me, but it works perfectly with her image: she’s no ball-busting feminist. She’s chill. She can take a joke. She is, as People Magazine recently declared, the woman that all women want to be like and all men love. She’s the effing cool girl. Only time will tell if she has to hew to that image or breaks out of it entirely. For now, however, we need to think about what our adoration of that image represents — and complicate our unadulterated affection. I still love her, but I need to continue to think about why.