Written by: Catherine Casey
Like any well-adjusted twenty-one-year-old girl, I spend most of my time scrolling through TikTok. It’s a horrible habit that takes up far too much time and deliberately distracts me from what I should be doing. However, the short-form content and the broad range of subject matter scratches the most deficient parts of my attention deficit brain, so I still haven’t deleted the app.
In recent months, a phenomenon has begun to take hold of the app. “That Girl,” otherwise known as the It Girl, or even the Cool Girl, has become a signifier for a young woman with her life together. Slightly out of touch in nature, That Girl is decidedly middle class at least. She spends much of her time doing skincare, working out, and eating while not studying or at work, which suggests a financial stability that may be inaccessible to most women viewing this sort of content. However, what I found most interesting about That Girl was what she was reading.
One trend that occurred in tandem with That Girl (as her related content) was another type of video centered around types of readers. People would list a POV (point of view) of who they were trying to be (i.e., POV I’m a manipulative maneater, POV I’m the Cool Girl) and cycle through piles of books that would symbolize that type of attitude towards others who were aware of what the subject matter of those books contained.
It seems that Cool Girls like to read about unlikable, untrustworthy female narrators who do little and talk much. The book that grabbed the Cool Girl by storm was Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which was often paired with similar titles like The Idiot and Queenie. And the cooler That Girl is, the less known her book choices are. Anyone who wants to be That Girl reads My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Before that, they probably started with The Bell Jar, Valley of the Dolls, and anything by Sally Rooney. Then they move on to Sweetbitter and Marukami, and King’s Writers & Lovers. The really Cool Girls read Nightbitch before the TikToks about it came out, and have already read at least three books by Joan Didion, along with Patti Smiths’ Just Kids. That Girl reads for pleasure, of course, but also for the social capital that comes with being a Cool Girl who reads.
Cool Girls who read are smart, sexy, and, well, cool. They read glamorous books while doing pilates and yoga, and put on $60 face cream while turning the pages of their $23 book from Barnes and Noble (hardcover, of course). We’ve created a new type of box in which to categorize women—and I’m not sure if it’s a male or female gaze from which we’re viewing her. In many ways, the Cool Girl who reads is just a repackaging of the manic pixie dream girl. She’s interesting and niche in a way a Zooey Deschanel character would be—but she’s not quite demure enough to be called a Zooey. Anyone who reads Nightbitch is not centering herself around the wants and needs of a man. But she’s still this impossible standard for women to reach. If a woman works, she doesn’t necessarily have the time or energy to devote to reading Moshfegh and skincare and the gym and clean eating and meditation and affirmations and budgeting and a social life, and the disposable income to be spending on books and clothes and accessories. Who can really achieve this standard of the Cool Girl? Did we create her because she can exist, or because we want her to? Are we all just striving to be the Cool Girl who reads? Who’s smart and well-read, and pretty and financially stable, and in good shape and approaching some modicum of proper lifestyle in her early twenties?
Because I’ll be honest—I don’t read Cool Girl books. I am too scared to even try. I have stuck to my less cool books—my Emily Henrys and my Holly Blacks. In fact, I have read more cool boy books than girl, with The Catcher in the Rye making me cry every time I read it and The Martian being one of my favorites of all time. Why must the Cool Girl only read memoirs or character studies? Why can she not also read whatever she wants? Is it not enough to just be well-read? Must she read “edgy” books to still be considered That Girl?
Maybe that will be my summer project. I can report back here if you’d like— “my summer as a Cool Girl who reads.” I will make a list from TikTok and follow it—and maybe then I, too, will have the social capital to call myself a Cool Girl. Or maybe, I’ll be the exact same, and just a little shaken up from reading about a woman who turns into a dog. Who’s to say.