I was halfway through the most recent season of Master of None when I realized I found Dev’s love interest annoying. I wanted to like Francesca because I like Dev and I like the show, and I could tell I was supposed to, but there was something about her that kept falling flat for me.
I couldn’t pinpoint why, though, until the penultimate episode when, between asking Dev if they could chase their pasta dinner with popcorn and if they should have a pajama dance party, Francesca donned Dev’s friend’s button-down shirt as leisure-wear.
The trope of a woman casually shrugging on a man’s button-down shirt is not a new one in Hollywood. In fact, it’s somewhat ubiquitous, appearing in movies like Iron Man, The Wedding Singer, Transformers, The American President, Barefoot in the Park, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and so many more they’re not worth trying to list.
As someone who’s never even entertained the idea of slipping into a man’s button-down at bedtime (a t-shirt or sweatshirt feels more logical in terms of both comfort and dry cleaning bills), I’ve always found the pop culture myth a bit absurd. When Racked published an article that investigated its origins in April, I felt strangely vindicated. The piece didn’t come to a satisfying conclusion, but it did encourage me to unpack my own feelings about it.
When Francesca advocates for post-pasta popcorn, puts on a men’s button-down shirt and proceeds to initiate a hip-swishing kitchen dance party, I couldn’t help but think of the “Cool Girl,” Gillian Flynn’s skewering characterization of performative femininity in Gone Girl.
The “Cool Girl,” as described by Flynn, is hot, brilliant, funny, adorable and a size two. She loves hamburgers and hot dogs, and pasta followed by popcorn. She wants to have spontaneous pajama dance parties in a man’s button-down shirt that somehow, on her, looks sexier than lingerie.
It’s not that women can’t genuinely be and want all of these things — it’s that for me, they don’t constitute the sum of a fully developed persona (or even a vaguely-developed one). It’s almost as if the Master of None script said [insert cool female character here]. This kind of modern manic-pixie-Cool-Girl stereotyping may seem harmless on the surface, but it’s something I think many women, including me, are maligning when we beg for more complex female characters.
Once I identified Francesca’s character as a perpetuator of the Cool Girl persona, I realized what bothered me so much about the men’s-dress-shirt-as-pajamas phenomenon: It’s a Cool Girl staple.
Curious how this cliché influenced real women, I conducted a poll on Instagram that asked women whether they’d ever worn a man’s button-down pre- or post-romantic encounter. I wasn’t surprised when 81% said no. I also received hundreds of direct messages from women weighing in on the topic, a significant number of which pointed out that it reinforces problematic body standards wherein women are assumed to be more petite than men. One woman confessed that she purchases large dress shirts to keep in her closet because she often hooks up with men who are smaller or shorter than she is. “I have large shirts awaiting me so I still feel small,” she wrote.
When my exasperation with Master of None’s Francesca character first bubbled up, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Was I being judgmental? Was I making a big deal out of nothing? Was I insecure about the size of my own body compared to my boyfriend’s?
I’m not asking those questions anymore. I felt the way I did because Francesca, while nice enough, is a reminder that the Cool Girl is alive and thriving. That she danced around in Dev’s kitchen in a button-down shirt isn’t the real offense, it’s that pop culture is still harping on this too-narrow conception of what “desirable” women should look, act, dress and feel like. It’s a conception that doesn’t hold up off-screen, and that’s a gap I’m tired of straddling.
Courtesy of Netflix.