OK – I know I’m sort of a one-trick pony and I like to relate everything back to Brene Brown but she’s that good. Plus I don’t do much leisure reading anymore so let’s be real — she’s all I know right now. I just watched the movie, Gone Girl, and it’s a mind bender. I did sort of predict the big plot twist and I found that I got tired of the movie once the “big reveal” happened because it was over-the-top diabolical. That said, I think there was some interesting underlying commentary about men, women, and relationships, which ties directly to what Brene Brown’s research has turned up. The “Cool Girl” monologue by one of the main characters is particularly striking:

“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, sh*t 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 f*cking 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 f*ck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”
― Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

There is this sad sense that this character, as vile as she is, has cracked because she has tried to conform to this “Cool Girl” image her entire life and it just hasn’t worked for her or her marriage. And on the flip side, her husband has probably tried to conform to an image that she wants him to live up to (the “Cool Boy”? I don’t know), and he knows he falls so far short of the mark that he’s absolutely given up trying because he knows he will never meet her standards and resents her for making him feel so incompetent.

And these false images that men/women try to live up to are reflected in Brene Brown’s interviews with thousands of men and women regarding shame. Here’s what I had gleaned previously from Brene Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability:

  • For women, shame is rooted in not  being able do it all, do it perfectly, never let them see you sweat. It’s a web of unattainable conflicting expectations of who women are supposed to be.
  • For men, shame is rooted in the fear of  being perceived as weak.

And imagine what happens when two flawed people marry each other, each trying so hard to live up to the image of the ideal woman (I can do it all perfectly) and the ideal man (I am competent and strong). It’s a pressure cooker and just can’t last. Of course this doesn’t have to lead to a twisted Gone Girl ending, but there’s hope for something so much better… That a husband and wife could drop their masks, stop holding each other to unattainable ideals, have empathy for one another, be human and flawed, and show each other grace. This is how Dr. Brown paints that picture:

You show me a woman who can actually sit with a man in real vulnerability and fear, and this is a woman who has done incredible work [i.e., working through her own shame]. You show me a man who can sit with a woman who has had it with living up to unattainable expectations and who can really listen to her, and this is a man who has done a lot of work.

I highly recommend Dr. Brown’s audio book, Men, Women, and Worthiness, if you want to explore these themes of healthy, affirming relationships between men and women further.

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