Cool Girls love to eat, but never get fat. Photo: Getty
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Against Cool Girl Feminism

The Cool Girl Feminist doesn’t insist that men and women should be equal. The Cool Girl doesn’t even suggest there’s anything wrong with the man-woman hierarchy as it stands. All the Cool Girl demands is that she be seen as an exception.

The first time I remember knowingly screwing over another girl, I was 10 and it was so I could be May Queen. Every May Day, my school would celebrate with an outpouring of rural British tradition that means, even now, I only feel truly at home when I’m watching The Wicker Man. There would be country dancing. There would be a May pole. There would be Jack of the Green, voted for from the year six boys.

But Jack of the Green was a subsidiary role, and the competition to fill his prancing position was always muted compared to the real contest. Because there would also be a May Queen: one girl elected from all the oldest girls, who would wear her best dress and be decked with blooms, honoured at the revels and attended by the runners-up. One May Queen. And when I was in year six, I wanted to be her.

This was peculiar, because up until about a week before voting I don't remember feeling any great yearning to be Queen of the May. I didn’t think of myself as a girly-girl. I certainly wasn’t a popular girl and I was never the pretty one. Clever, yes. Not pretty. But at some point in the spring term of 1991, there was a shift, and I realised that I could probably take the crown, if I could just edge past my nearest rival.

I might not have been fussed about frocks and flowers, but I did like the idea of winning. I liked even more the idea of winning at the expense of my rival – someone who had taken leading female role after leading female role in Christmas plays from me, despite her only qualification for playing Mary being blonde hair (which, frankly, is no qualification at all for playing someone from Nazareth). This time, I would be Queen.

The year before, the two most popular girls had been best friends, and they had decided to be joint May Queens, so I suggested to my rival that we could do the same in the event of a tie, and she agreed. The vote went ahead. It was, to my breathless delight, a tie. My rival came up to me afterwards: so, she said, now we just needed to tell the head teacher that we would be sharing. Er, no, I replied (heart hammering, me thinking, /yes, yes, this is the moment I planned for): actually, I’d had a change of mind and I now thought it would be fairer for everyone if we went for the run-off. The run-off went ahead. It came down to one vote. The vote went to me. I had played, and I had won. I was exultant.

But I still had to be May Queen. Being May Queen, it turned out, was the most awful drag. I sat on a throne. I sulked and scowled. My attendants, being my rival and her friends, despised me, and continued to despise me for years after – partly a justified reaction to my House of Cards approach to playground politics, partly a simple matter of my popularity reverting to its mean. I went to secondary school. A new, cool friend went to a Girl Guides event in my old school hall. “You were the May Queen!” she exclaimed to me in class the next day, with the triumph of new knowledge. “You looked really miserable.”

Having been an ungainly, red-headed May Queen was no currency at all in the world of teenagers. My victory had brought me nothing but embarrassment and opprobrium. Even so, it was a victory, and how many of those do girls get to enjoy? Our athletic achievements barely figured compared to the proper sports the boys were lauded for. Being bright made me a nuisance, and bored. But one girl each year got to be this shining symbol of purity, and I got to be her – and I got it by being cleverer and more cruel than the rest. It was mine and I deserved it.

How much of that attitude did I carry on with me as I grew up? A lot, I think – because for a long time, I barely questioned an order in which women were reduced to scrapping over a tiny portion of the world. I only questioned the idea that it should be any woman other than me. At university, in seminar groups, I would swell myself to occupy all of the space afforded to female voices, but let the boys talk. I thought myself the equal of men, but really they had nothing to fear from me and no reason to respect me.

And this continued when I started writing. A lot of my most ferocious commentary was reserved for women I perceived as rivals; several of the arguments I made seem, in retrospect, to have been perversely tooled to show men that I was “not one of those feminists”. I wouldn't deny any man the pleasures of porn culture, or make any awkward announcements about male violence, or ask for any rights really but the right to make oneself as pleasing as one could choose to be in a patriarchal world I treated as inevitable. What I was doing was what I think of now as Cool Girl Feminism. Author Gillian Flynn describes the Cool Girl like this in her novel Gone Girl:

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.

There’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t like to eat, shag and play videogames. The problem is that the Cool Girl doesn't do these things because she likes them: they're just the tokens she deploys to show men that she can move in their world without disrupting the gender order, because she respects the man code. “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,” explains Gone Girl’s narrator, bitterly. Above all, the Cool Girl wants to please the guys, and that means that when the Cool Girl does feminism, her sternest criticisms are going to be reserved for the women who make sexist men uncomfortable.

You don’t like pornography? Well, says the Cool Girl Feminist, that’s not because pornography is a cultural form framed by the objectification of women – it’s because you're looking at the wrong kind of porn. Threatened by catcalls? That’s got nothing to do with men using street harassment to put women down in public, it’s just because feminists have taught you to be afraid, says the Cool Girl Feminist. And the fact that prostitution is dangerous? Once again, nothing to do with the men who commit abuses: it’s because feminists have generated something the Cool Girl Feminist refers to as “whore stigma”. In fact, there is no problem in gender politics that Cool Girl Feminism doesn’t believe could be solved by being a bit more amenable to patriarchal lust – or “sex positive”, as it’s now called. From each according to his ability, to each according to her sexiness. Fucking macht frei.

The Cool Girl Feminist doesn’t insist that men and women should be equal. The Cool Girl doesn’t even suggest there’s anything wrong with the man-woman hierarchy as it stands. All the Cool Girl demands is that she be seen as an exception, superior to other women because she alone has the insight to grasp that women really do exist for the pleasure of men. Like the dirty big sister of the May Queen, the Cool Girl’s distinguishing feature is that she’s not like the others.

Being a Cool Girl can be liberating. There's something splendidly freeing about announcing that you are not as other women are, and refusing to see yourself as victimised simply because you belong to the inferior class. It is, to use a despised word, empowering. But understanding how power works and using it to your own advantage is not the same thing as feminism. The Cool Girl Feminist appears to break boundaries as she breezes into the world of men, but her passport is a promise, written in lipstick and sealed with a handjob, that she won’t actually change anything.

When I started writing, plenty of women – plenty of feminists, in fact – did not agree with the libertarian line on commercialised sex that I espoused. Many women argued with me, pointed out the philosophical holes in my positions, directed me to the inconsistencies in my arguments. But where I’d been afraid of a monstering, I actually got something very different: because they were feminists, these women treated my occupation of a tiny portion of the public sphere as a good in itself, regardless of whether they agreed with me on every point or not.

These women were not aspiring May Queens, eager to nudge me out of the seat I was precariously perched on. They didn’t want their turn in the single throne. They wanted chairs for everyone, and anyway, what was all this fertility ritual with prepubescents about anyway? They wanted to change the world. They were radical. Far more traumatic, in fact, was some of the agreement with my Cool Girl Stance from certain men who were alarmingly eager to unleash their misogyny on what seemed to be a reassuring female ear. Go ahead, shit on me, I dont mind. Actually I minded quite a lot.

A few months ago, I met someone who said: “The most radical thing you can do is love women.” When I heard it, I was inclined to shrug it off. That sounds a bit simple, I thought. A bit Teach the World to Sing. But the truth is, women are widely and routinely held in contempt, treated as objects, subject to harassment and violence, judged by higher standards than men and then derided for their failure to reach those standards. All that happens. And against that, one of the most profound things you can offer is sisterhood.

It was offered to me, and in the warmth of women-only spaces, I learned what my voice sounded like in dialogue with other women. I learned that being right and being liked did not have to be the same thing, and that disagreement didn’t have to be parcelled with scorn. I learned that I didn’t have to prove myself different to other women in order to merit being treated like a person, because women are (shocking, this) people. And I learned that, underneath the noisy battles to be the Coolest Girl Feminist, there were a lot of women simply getting their heads down and doing the work that needed to be done.

Where being the Cool Girl is contingent on presenting the correct selection of individual attributes, feminism needs to be collective and flexible. It requires a sort of intimacy that Michaele Ferguson, in her essay Taming the Shrew? Choice Feminism and the Fear of Politics, even describes as an “erotic orientation to politics”. By this she means learning to see “criticisms of feminism as pleasurable invitations to learn how others see us”. This is about letting other people close, not standing apart – so close that you allow them inside you, sympathetically knowing their thoughts and feelings.

And if that sounds like a confoundingly sexy way to describe arguments about policy and philosophy, it becomes even more so when you realise how it recalls Andrea Dworkin’s writing – Dworkin, the great monster of allegedly anti-sex feminism who wrote more honestly and beautifully about sex than almost any other author. Dworkin’s Intercourse tells us that: “In fucking, one’s insides are on the line; and the fragile and unique intimacy of going for broke makes communion possible, in human reach – not transcendent and otherworldly, but an experience of love in flesh.”

What can be true of sex can be true in our intellectual lives as well. It's the moment of contact that makes change possible. Feminism is the opposite of the singular, virginal May Queen on her lonely throne, or of the perversely inviolable Cool Girl, eating and eating without ever showing the signs of it on her body. Being a feminist means accepting other women’s trust and letting ourselves be transformed by it. Love women. Everything I learned under the May Pole, I unlearned through the kindness of feminists.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit