Is there anything more dangerous than a woman who has made herself into a weapon?
That question has been preoccupying literary thrillers over the past few years, arguably beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and peaking in 2012 with Gone Girl. The most recent literary iteration of this weaponized femininity can be seen in The Trespasser, Tana French’s latest entry in the Dublin Murder Squad mystery series, which focuses on the hard-boiled, murder-solving detectives of Dublin’s police force.
While they all have their own specific flavor and approach, each of these books in some way focuses on women who devote themselves to punishing the wicked and getting their revenge, and who use their positions as women in a patriarchal society to do so. Most of the women in these books are essentially socially powerless: They’re not as physically strong as the men they want to destroy, and they don’t have the money or political clout to get someone else to do it for them.
Instead, they have to rely on their ability to appeal to men to get the job done. And as The Trespasser reveals, that’s a fraught strategy.
(Spoilers for Gone Girl and The Trespasser follow.)
In Gone Girl and The Trespasser, the Cool Girl is an indispensable weapon
In The Trespasser, the central weaponized woman in question is Antoinette Conway, a detective who’s newish-ly arrived to the Murder Squad. Antoinette’s unpopular with the rest of her (male) squad; they keep trying to sabotage her by stealing parts of her witness statements or trying to haze her by peeing in her locker. Part of it’s because she’s a woman, part of it’s because she’s mixed race in mostly white Dublin, and part of it, she thinks, is that they just don’t like her very much.
But Antoinette doesn’t let her squad’s hostility stop her from chasing down murderers. It’s what she loves to do, what she’s great at doing — and her favorite way to catch a killer is to talk them into confessing. In interrogations, she puts on personas like costumes:
I do Warrior Woman, ready to rush out with her guns blazing and avenge all your wrongs, if you’ll just tell her what they are, and her flipside Stroppy Man-Hating Bitch when we want to piss off a rapist or a Neanderthal; I also do Cool Girl, who’s one of the lads and stands her round and has a laugh, who guys can talk to when they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to another fella.
Cool Girl is Antoinette’s go-to in this book, mostly because she’s primarily interrogating men. Cool Girl is a nice, nonthreatening shtick that works beautifully on men because it depends on male approval.
And thanks to Gillian Flynn, it’s a familiar term by now: The Cool Girl is also the favored persona of Amy, Gone Girl’s antiheroine. Amy constructs her Cool Girl self in order to win over her hapless husband, Nick, but she hates every minute of it. In a now-famous passage, she rants over the injustice of the entire Cool Girl construct:
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.
The Cool Girl, Amy says, doesn’t really exist. She’s an impossible mirage created by men, one that real women now feel compelled to live up to.
But in Amy’s hands — or Antoinette’s — the Cool Girl is also a weapon. She’s a decoy a woman can use to get men on her side, right up until the moment that she stabs them in the back. Amy uses Cool Girl to frame her husband for murder, and Antoinette uses Cool Girl to catch actual murderers, but the basic strategy is the same.
Using Cool Girl as a weapon means using soft power instead of hard power
In Gone Girl, the Cool Girl is a basically unbeatable weapon, the nuclear option of marital warfare. Nick will never best Amy, not as long as she has her Cool Girl persona ready to throw at the media. Gone Girl’s world is one ruled by soft power, which is to say it’s ruled by the people pulling levers behind the scenes, wielding attraction and influence rather than the money, violence, and political force of hard power.
Hard power and soft power are often gendered, and soft power tends to be contingent on hard power. If a king can do whatever he wants under absolute rule, he has hard power. If his wife can convince him to do whatever she wants, she has soft power — but the queen’s power is dependent on her ability to keep the king pleased.
Under the soft power model, the Cool Girl persona might be a tool, but it’s an onerous one. If women like Amy don’t have access to power except through men, they need to take on the personas men like in order to keep their power. Their strength depends entirely on male approval.
But since Gone Girl is a power fantasy, Cool Girl becomes a nuclear bomb. In Gone Girl, Nick is strong enough to hurt Amy if he wanted to — that’s the hard power solution to a problem — but it does him no good. Her soft power means that she controls the way the world thinks of him, because she’s convinced people more powerful than Nick, like the media and the cops, that she is Cool Girl, appealing and harmless.
But in Trespassers, soft power has its limits. We see them in the form of Aislinn Murray, the central murder victim and Antoinette’s foil.
Soft power can’t do much against direct violence
Aislinn is dead because she wanted, essentially, to pull a Gone Girl. She’s out for revenge against the man who ruined her life as a child, so she turns herself into a Cool Girl, planning to reel him in, seduce him, and then destroy his life the way he ruined hers. And her plan works perfectly, right up until she doesn’t.
The plan also consumes her. As she starves herself into the designated Cool Girl body type, she begins to look “like this plan was all she had, and she could gnaw it down to the bones and still be ravenous.” Aislinn loses weight, dyes her hair, picks up a cool new wardrobe, and develops an entirely new way of talking and laughing, one designed to appeal to her mark. Her own identity is subsumed under the Cool Girl.
She’s successful. Her mark is infatuated with her, and with the way Aislinn in her Cool persona is entirely subservient to him. She dresses to please him, has no interests but listening to his stories, and is always available to his whims. AIslinn’s counting on this availability to keep him neutralized until she can completely crush him.
But instead, he crushes her. The second Aislinn lets her Cool Girl persona slip, she loses her power over her mark. He realizes that she’s been fooling him, that she has a life and interests outside of her relationship with him, and in a fit of rage, he kills her.
The Cool Girl strategy fails Aislinn, in the end, because the soft power she is trying to use depends on male approval. The second she loses his approval, she loses her power over him. And she ends up dead.
In The Trespasser, Antoinette succeeds because she can use both soft and hard power
For Antoinette, it’s a murder that hits home. She and Aislinn both do their work by acting out male fantasies to manipulate men, and as Antoinette digs deeper into Aislinn’s life, she realizes that they both had their childhoods shaped by disappearing fathers — Antoinette’s took off before she was born, and Aislinn’s left when she was a child. In fact, Aislinn’s entire revenge plot, Antoinette finds, was designed to destroy the man she blames for her father’s loss.
Antoinette worries that she’s letting the loss of her own father define her life the way Aislinn did, and that she’ll lose herself the way Aislinn did because of it. But when she finally comes face to face with her long-lost father, Antoinette finds she doesn’t need to worry.
That’s because she’s not relying solely on soft power as Aislinn did. Antoinette is a cop, and she has a gun. She has hard power.
So when her father tracks her down and lurks in the shadows outside of her apartment, watching her, Antoinette holds him at gunpoint. She sees that he wants to control her and wants to control their relationship, and that’s why he’s been following her:
Playing this the approved way — break the news nice and gently from a distance, have a few careful getting-to-know-you phone calls, meet on neutral territory when everyone’s comfortable with it, all that shite — that would’ve let me decide when and whether. This guy was never going to do that. He wanted this situation — wanted me — on his terms, start to finish.
But Antoinette has the hard power necessary to keep everything on her terms. She doesn’t break out the Cool Girl to appease her father and win his approval; instead, she sends him packing.
It’s Antoinette’s hard power that separates her use of the Cool Girl from Amy’s and Aislinn’s. When Antoinette sits a suspect down in the interrogation room, she has the full weight of the state behind her. Cool Girl is a weapon, but she is not Antoinette’s only weapon: She also has Warrior Woman and Stroppy Man-Hating Bitch at her disposal. Unlike her fellow heroines, Antoinette is not limited to soft power. Which is why, in the world of The Trespassers, where hard power reigns supreme, Antoinette flourishes and succeeds.
If the scariest thing in the world is a weaponized woman, The Trespassers suggests that she shouldn’t only be a soft weapon. She should also be hard as a bullet.