Saturday, June 21, 2008

Deconstruction: Nerd Girls and the Sexy/Smart Dichotomy

I subscribe to a lot of news digests from Alternet, and the selection of featured articles that appeared in the ol' inbox this morning featured the following story on what is allegedly the next hot thing in media culture: ZOMG! girls who are smart and sexy, aka, the "Nerdy Girl" of the piece's title.

Now, as a bit of a self-professed nerd/geek/dork/brainiac/whatever myself, there is plenty to take offense at in the article and the other pieces it links to.

Take, for example, this gem:

Of course, until now female geeks' sex appeal has been roughly equivalent to that of Napoleon Dynamite. Wikipedia describes the nerd girl as a stock character who wears eye glasses, dresses unfashionably, wears pigtails (and other little girl items like mary-jane shoes and knee high socks), is shy and socially inept and either overweight or gangly.

So, let me see if I have this right: to be considered an (unattractive) nerd, one merely has to possess some of the following characteristics: poor eyesight, bad fashion -- let's read "not in keeping with current trends and/or conventional norms of feminine presentation" here -- shyness or an introverted personality, gangliness or awkwardness (i.e., lacks grace, that common trope of normative femininity), and being overweight -- again, let's read this as "heavy by the ridiculous measure that is BMI and/or not a skinny sex-bot type".

There's a lot to unpack just in this part of the paragraph, but how about we start with the ridiculous and totally pervasive idea that somehow fat people can't be attractive, that is, the notion that attractiveness (or sexiness, since this is the overarching claim of the Alternet piece) and fat are mutually exclusive.


(Also, what on earth is the connection between being fat and being a nerd?!?)

Moreover, and this is something perpetuated by the title of the article itself, notice the description of the prototypical female nerd once again: she has pigtails and other childlike clothing items (mary-janes, knee socks). She is described as a Nerdy Girl. So even if she is able to design and pilot a solar-powered car, she nevertheless must be described in infantilizing terms -- and thereby rendered impotent, unoffensive to male sensitivities about weakness and the loss of privilege. (And this infantilization functions on a implicit level even when it's the women self-identifying themselves as "Nerd Girls," since this implies fun, a playful sense of humor, and none of those threatening characteristics that are associated with powerful or smart women). Add to this the fact that the Nerdy Girl is also supposed to be sexy (in a way never before possible!! How amazing, what a revolution!), and we have a creepy tinge of the pedophiliac lurking in the background, because infantilized women + sexy = ewwww.

And the piece just gets worse from there:

More recently, they [nerds] sometimes have a passion for social justice (see Simpson, Lisa) are feminist or post-feminist (see Granger, Hermione) or come up with the piece of knowledge that enables the plot to be resolved (see Velma from Scooby Doo). And sometimes, just sometimes, they get a makeover and become kinda pretty albeit in an awkward way (see Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Wow. Not only is the author of the Alternet piece totally wrong about Willow (HAWT, in every form), but she also dresses up an old antifeminist canard in a slighlty different form: feminists are unattractive, therefore any nerd self-identifying as, or perceived to be, a feminist must also be unattractive. Again, just wow. I mean really, feminists are not all hairy-legged harpies. We've been through this before: one can indeed be a feminist and a nerd and sexy and smart all at once. It's called intersectionality, folks, and it means that all of our identities have multiple, intersecting, often overlapping or contradictory, facets.* (Or, if you want to be less academic, simply recall that people have many dimensions that make them who they are.)

Moving further into the text of the article, see if you can spot what all of the examples of hot nerds have in common:

An example of the new prototype is Cristina Sanchez: a master's student in biomedical engineering and a former cheerleader who can talk "endlessly" about

Newsweek goes on to say that they've modeled themselves after Tina Fey, whose character on 30 Rock is a "Star Wars-loving, tech-obsessed, glasses-wearing geek, but who's garnered mainstream appeal and a few fashion-magazine covers. Or on actress Danica McKellar, who coauthored a math theorem, wrote a book for girls called "Math Doesn't Suck" and posed in a bikini for Stuff magazine. Or even Ellen Spertus, a Mills College professor and research scientist at Google -- and the 2001 winner of the Silicon Valley "Sexiest Geek Alive" pageant."

Hmm, could it be that all of the examples of totally hot!! nerdy girls prove the existence their ZOMG hotness! through more or less objectifying means of achieving mainstream acceptance? Could it be that the article couldn't find any examples of hot women scientists who are deemed hot by means other than the male gaze (pageants, modeling, Stuff magazine spreads, and cheerleading being just a few examples of gaze-approved activities)?

I could go on, but frankly debunking this kind of shit is exhausting.

To end on a slightly more uplifting note, there is some positive news in the article. Apparently among the 12-17 year-old set, girls are more involved in blogging and social networking sites than their male peers; on the other hand, the statistics about attrition rates for women in science and engineering professions, a drop-out rate due in large part to pervasive sexual harassment, are rather depressing.

[Also, this Alternet article on the Nerdy Girl and the Newsweek piece it links to are pretty appalling when placed alongside the gushing New York Observer commentary on the buffing-up of the nerdy manchild and brooding hipster.]


* Yeah, I realize that this isn't quite how the term intersectionality gets applied a more rigourous academic context, but I still think that it applies, even if I am providing a really loose definition here.


John said...

I really hated that article. I don't think that "nerd" and "geek" are useful descriptors in the first place. They're both just ways of othering people.

theorize this! said...

John, you're absolutely right. And even if 'nerd' and 'geek' are self-applied or used in a complimentary way, the way that they are simplistically opposed to conventional beauty standards was just brain numbingly dumb.