Conway’s comments aren’t particularly shocking. The sentiment that any woman who likes men, be those men their lovers, husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, co-workers or beer pong doubles partners simply can’t be a feminist because all feminists are card-carrying members of the Society for Cutting Up Men is a silly but persistent cliche, based on a false definition of feminism that makes Don Quixote’s windmills look in realistic need of a good tilting.
If you’re willing to work beyond the exhaustion of this ridiculous talking point, though — and I am, just barely — Conway’s I Can’t Be A Feminist, I Like Men Shtick is the key that unlocks an interesting cultural phenomenon. Conway is the ultimate conservative “Cool Girl.”
The idea of the Cool Girl comes from Gillian Flynn’s 2012 thriller “Gone Girl,” about Amy Dunne, who disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary after her marriage deteriorates. Halfway through the novel, we learn the twist: Amy is alive after all, and faking her murder to frame her cheating husband Nick. She resents him for many reasons, among them her belief that he fell for a persona she was putting on, only to be horrified when she revealed her true self to him.
“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,” at least in the iteration of the role Amy adopted, she tells us bitterly. “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–––––– thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.”
Conway’s comments, and those of all the women she is echoing, make literal the big idea lingering behind the adjustments Flynn’s Cool Girls make. They like men. And not only do they like men, they don’t want to leave men in the slightest bit of doubt about whether or not they are liked. If a Cool Girl who gives up her own tastes in food and alcoholic beverages and reading material is subordinating her personality for a man, there’s an extra frisson to the way conservative Cool Girls — particularly the ones who back Trump no matter what — validate not merely the policy preferences of conservative men, but specifically, the things that conservative men do that are demeaning to women. They don’t merely reaffirm men’s ideas of themselves to those men: they march out and sell that flattering image to other people, no matter how humiliating the sales pitch.
(I would acknowledge that Conway diverges from the Cool Girl model in that I believe her broader conservative politics, including her opposition to abortion, are sincere rather than something she adopted for gain. Though when it comes to specifics, there is literally a debate underway about whether Conway is too dishonest, or merely too out of the loop, to be booked on cable news shows.)
Take Conway’s answer at a post-election forum in November when another woman asked of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, “How do you rationalize that as a woman and also as his campaign manager?” Conway described the question as an attempt to be “personally mean,” flipping her questioner’s assumption that women owe each other some solidarity and recasting it as divisiveness; suggested that Hillary Clinton was the real turnoff; and finally argued that “It also doesn’t matter because Donald Trump promised he’ll be a president of all Americans.”
These aren’t particularly effective arguments. Neither was, for example, CNN commentator Kayleigh McEnany attempts to draw an equivalence between the “Access Hollywood” tape and Clinton’s email server as tests of character, nor Tomi Lahren’s attempts to present Trump as some sort of feminist pioneer in his business enterprises. But however weak the assertions, Conway, McEnany, Lahren and other Trump-aligned conservative Cool Girls can present with perhaps an electron’s-worth more credibility than their male counterparts.
Conway’s response to the Women’s Marches that followed Trump’s inauguration in January was a slightly smoother example of this attempt to recast her boss as a hero, the opposition as hysterical and herself as the real reasonable person.
“I frankly didn’t see the point,” she said at the time. “I mean, you have a day after he’s uplifting and unifying and you have folks here being on a diatribe where I think they could have requested a dialogue. Nobody called me and said, ‘Hey, could we have a dialogue?’”
In this version of events, which has been treated with a heavy dose of psychological Photoshop, Conway is a genuine bridge between the president she serves and the women (and men) who are opposed to him, and thus someone who could facilitate a real dialogue. In pretending to make an offer and acting as if it’s been rejected, Conway is trying to disguise the fact that the Cool Girl, in any iteration, isn’t a neutral party. She’s chosen a team. And the side she picked isn’t even really her own.