Guest Post by Nicole Sbitani. Nicole is an adult convert, a woman of color, and a professional diplomat. She blogs at nandm.sbitani.com and writes microfiction @nsbitani on Twitter. The content of this post does not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or any other U.S. Government agency, department, or entity. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and in no way should be associated with the U.S. Government.
When I was in high school, I was introduced to the concept of the Cool Girl, now more commonly referred to especially by Gen Z as the pick me girl. Cool Girls or pick me girls suffer from internalized misogyny and seek to separate themselves from other girls, women, or gender minorities. The main (if sometimes subconscious) goal of the Cool Girl is to impress, attract, or fit in better with boys or men. As a result, Cool Girls engage in some stereotypically performative, masculine behaviors like burping and watching sports while carefully preserving aspects of femininity such as adhering to conventionally attractive beauty standards.
As an adult convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I also believe there is such an archetype as the Cool Mormon (a concept McKay Coppins mentions in his article in The Atlantic, titled “The Most American Religion”). Like the Cool Girl, the Cool Mormon is eager to please others and willing to change their own interests, personality, and behavior to earn others’ approval. For example, they may force themselves to laugh when others mock their sacred beliefs or to participate in social events involving excessive alcohol or drugs so as to avoid being called prude. At the other extreme, they may look down on others who do not live their lifestyle in order to appear more worthy to fellow members and create the impression that adhering to strict church-imposed standards is effortless – at least for them.
When these two concepts – the Cool Girl and the Cool Mormon – are combined, someone may feel pressure to conform to the intersectional image of a Cool Mormon Girl. I have felt that pressure myself and continuously aim to resist the tendency to contort myself into a Cool Mormon Girl ideal even when it makes me uncomfortable. Cool Mormon Girls are themselves full of contradictions, seeking in some contexts to distinguish themselves both from stereotypically sheltered, innocent Mormon girls and in other situations from stereotypically promiscuous, mainstream girls. The latter attitude is often exemplified in Sunday meetings and official church materials; see, for example, a 2008 New Era piece called “A Note to the Good Girls” written from a young man’s perspective that includes the lines: “I think it’s cool that you don’t dress like a lot of other girls. It is much more comfortable for us guys when a girl dresses modestly (and yes, girls who dress modestly are very attractive) and uses good language.”
If you are a woman and find yourself bragging that all of your friends are men because women and gender minorities “have too much drama going on,” then you might be a Cool Girl trying too hard to impress men. If you are a Mormon and find yourself bragging that you wouldn’t even know how to have fun at a party without alcohol because you’re “not like those Mountain West BYU grads,” then you might be a Cool Mormon trying too hard to impress non-members. If you are a Mormon woman and find yourself bragging that you’ve never even considered buying a bikini because you don’t want to “lower your standards to those of the world,” then you might be a Cool Mormon Girl trying too hard to impress Mormon men. Each of these expressions of identity do not exist in isolation but come at the expense of others.
A major wake-up call for me was having a higher-ranked, non-member coworker tell me, “You’re so great to have around. You’re not like other girls or Mormons who just can’t take a joke.” The truth was, that person had hurt me multiple times with their inappropriate humor, disrespect for women and my religion, and treatment of others. Instead of calling that person out on their behavior, I had decided I cared more about being the Cool Mormon Girl. Even as other women and people of my faith were marginalized by this person’s comments, I failed to speak up because I was too afraid of losing my own tenuous but higher status in the eyes of someone with more power and influence.
There are certainly individuals who themselves naturally fit closer to the profile of a Cool Mormon Girl. Perhaps their interests are simply more aligned with those stereotypically associated with a Cool Girl or their relationship with their religion situates them in a space commonly associated with Cool Mormons. What really sets Cool Mormon Girls apart, however, is not their own preferences but their conflicted relationship to their sense of self and the need to diminish others to appeal to a perceived audience. It is the choice to privilege the coveted external gaze at the expense of others that makes these archetypes worthy of rejection.
Mosiah 18:9 asks us to stand as “witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places”, not just when it is “cool” or when others praise us for it. Moreover, the scriptures are full of countless examples of God declaring all children equal in divine worth and exhorting us to unity. Attempts to distinguish ourselves as individuals by putting down any other group, as Cool Mormon Girls do, are a sign of spiritual and emotional immaturity. We don’t need to generalize or mock others to assert our own values and preferences. On a larger scale, when everyone chases the approval of those in power then the whole community loses. So let’s reject the Cool Mormon Girl within us and do better.
I love your nuanced perspective. Thank you!
Thank you! This makes me pause and think about those times I no doubt engaged in some of these behaviors. I’m glad you laid this out.
Oof. I see myself in this.
Some of the worst bullying I experienced in the church was from people like this. I was raised in an abusive household where a lack of observance had serious consequences and it was especially hurtful to realize that I would find no companionship or safety at church as a young person. The most frustrating part was that no adult would stand up and call out what was happening.
Thanks for your insight here. You bring up an excellent point: if we are to “stand as a witness of God at all times, in all things, in all places”, then we need to be true to ourselves and the divine qualities our heavenly parents have given us, and allow others to do the same. We can’t compromise who we are, act like we’re holier than thou, and tear down others if we’re going to live up to our divine nature. Those who put on the Cool Mormon Girl front do all of those things.
The scary thing about this is that single guys in the church actually WANT the Cool Mormon Girl. They think the Cool Mormon Girl ACTUALLY EXISTS, as opposed to what it really is: girls putting on a façade and being what guys want them to be.
Single guys in the church want a girl who rams junk food into her mouth 24/7/365, and never works out, yet looks like a Victoria’s Secret model who knows how to cook delicious, high calorie meals. They want a girl who has 6 kids in 6 years and is a size 00 with rock hard abs WITHOUT cosmetic surgery after the fact. They want a girl who can look like a pencil right after giving birth. They want a girl who dresses modestly like in the New Era piece you posted (insert nauseated and barfing emojis here) but who is a dominatrix in bed. They want a girl who is a gospel scholar until she actually contributes to discussions in and outside of Sunday school and/or it becomes evident she knows more than he does. They want a girl who can get dirty and be “one of the guys” one minute, but be ready for date night and exude elegance at the snap of a finger. They want a girl who is submissive, likes all of the same things they do, and doesn’t ever complain.
Question is, how do we help the single guys understand that the Cool Mormon Girl is a fantasy? Similar to how women shouldn’t want to be the Cool Mormon Girl, how to we teach the single guys that they shouldn’t want that, either? Not just because of the fantasy, but because the Cool Mormon Girl is truly an affront on all women?
This is an absolutely crucial addition! The Cool Mormon Girl is truly the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of our contemporary church culture. It makes me so grateful I found my non-member husband before I found the church… We sometimes referred to the dynamic in my YSA ward as “Animal Planet” with completely different rules (certainly made worse by a horribly low male-to-female ratio) from the rest of society.
I know someone who just went through a brutal divorce. He was married to a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who rode him hard, used him, and contributed nothing to their marriage. She was pretty, quirky, and whimsical like all the Manic Pixie Dream Girls in the media. I still wonder if he would’ve liked her if she wasn’t classically Mormon beautiful or attractive. We all know that a woman can only have the qualities of the Cool Mormon Girl or the Manic Pixie Dream Girl if she is, above all, good looking.
The tragedy is that he wasn’t married to a real person, but to someone who was likely pretending to be something she never was at all. Not to mention that if a person did any of the things a Manic Pixie Dream Girl did in real life, it would be grounds for a restraining order and/or jail time.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that I’m not sure it’s possible to get single men in the church to understand that the Cool Mormon Girl is a fantasy. The “Animal Planet” dynamics in single adult wards don’t help and then there’s also agency. Church leaders and women can tell single LDS men until they’re blue in the face that the Cool Mormon Girl doesn’t exist and that they need to stop holding out for a super model… but it doesn’t mean they’ll listen. Perhaps the best thing to do is emphasize Christlike attributes and encourage the men to look for a woman who exhibits those qualities.
President Ezra Taft Benson gave two talks specifically geared for single adult men and women. The talk for the single men can be found here: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1988/04/to-the-single-adult-brethren-of-the-church?lang=eng
The talk for the single adult women can be found here: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1988/10/to-the-single-adult-sisters-of-the-church?lang=eng
What I find interesting is that President Benson told the single adult men and women to prioritize Christlike attributes when looking for an eternal partner and to not focus on the material and physical aspects. He also told the single adult sisters, “I also recognize that not all women in the Church will have an opportunity for marriage and [parent]hood in mortality. But if those of you in this situation are worthy and endure faithfully, you can be assured of all blessings from a kind and loving Heavenly Father—and I emphasize all blessings. I assure you that if you have to wait even until the next life to be blessed with a choice companion, God will surely compensate you. Time is numbered only to man. God has your eternal perspective in mind.”
What’s curious here is that President Benson told the single adult sisters that, but not the single adult men. It makes me wonder if he saw the writing on the wall regarding today’s single LDS men holding women to unrealistic standards and being hyper focused on the fantasy that is the Cool Mormon Girl/Manic Pixie Dream Girl despite them having more options and more quality women in the church to choose from than single LDS women have regarding their paltry dating pool of quality men.
It makes me think that single LDS men WILL be held accountable for holding women to unrealistic standards and holding out for something unattainable when all is said and done.
Amen to everything JC said.
Let’s not forget that single LDS guys also want a girl who is impossibly beautiful (as Gillian says in GONE GIRL, “Cool [Mormon] girls are above all, hot”), debt-free, has a doctorate, and is gainfully employed a seven-figure salary, while they themselves (again, referring to the single LDS guys here) are up to their eyeballs in debt, have no education, and are unemployed.
Oh, and they expect the Cool Mormon Girl to be all of that, plus everything JC said above, and to only be 19-years-old and have served a full-time mission.
That is what they say, but I don’t believe that anymore either. I am a decent looking (not impossibly beautiful, but not conventionally unattractive) debt-free with a doctorate and a good job and they are still not interested because they think I won’t be a good mother since I’m “too busy”. I am seriously confused as to what weird combination of fantasies they actually want.
“I am seriously confused as to what weird combination of fantasies they actually want.”
That’s the point. The men in the church want a fantasy, insist on keeping unrealistic standards they hoist onto women, and get away with sending out mixed signals in the process.
They want a feast – and then reserve the right to nitpick everything about the appetizers, soups and salads, main course, desserts, and drinks – but bring nothing to the table themselves. It’s an all-too familiar song and dance of the men wanting to have it both ways.