Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Nerd Girls

Lisa at Sociological Images points out a new reality show show, The Nerd Girls:

From the website:

Nerd Girls are as complex as the codes they crack.

They are she-brains who love equations, high heels, lipgloss and gadgets…

Nerd girls dig digits and boys ask for theirs.

They are Nerd-a-licious.

“She-brains.” Get it? Because brains are a masculine trait, you have to modify it to make it make sense when used to refer to a female. From the news story:

These girl geeks aren’t social misfits; their identities don’t hinge on outsider status. They may love all things sci-tech, but first and foremost they are girls—and they’ve made that part of their appeal.

Never forget, first and foremost, girls are girls (but boys are people… that’s why we can just call them “brains”).

While I like the idea that they break the stereotype that engineers are necessarily socially-maladjusted males, I find it a bit depressing that the only way women are considered "normal" is when they are wearing lots of makeup and feminine clothing. Also the bit that says "first and foremost they are girls" really emphasizes the stereotype that being an engineer = male. Personally, I don't think wielding a soldering iron or brandishing a calculator magically adds a Y chromosome.

See also Alice at Sciencewomen on the Newsweek article, "Revenge of the Nerdette" (that's the "news article" linked above).
Are smart women (those profiled are undergrads and grad students at Tufts, huzzah!) less threatening if we call them "girls" and they show a lot of skin or wear pink high heels? I guess so - if they're challenging one gender stereotype, at least they're conforming to others. This all being said, I'm glad women feel like they can dress how they want, look "girly" and all; when I was in school (not that long ago!), it seemed to me that women tried to blend in in how they dressed rather than stand out (undergraduate engineering education is still 80% men, after all). I just challenge that now women are experiencing a simple choice for how to display themselves, and that they just happen to choose to do so in hegemonically feminine ways. Note that the photo of the women profiled portrays them as classically beautiful - light skin, long hair, wearing skirts. [...]
Be sure to check out the discussion in the comments.

ETA: For a comparison, see this 1949 article about "Jackie Bates, Girl Chemist". It has the same kind of reassurances that she's "attractive" and has "male admirers".

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Anonymous said...

Well, I guess it's a start. I'm glad to finally be seeing women breaking through even in the media sense. I agree it is disappointing that in order to gain attention from the public, science women have to be portrayed as "Sex and the City" characters. This is unrealistic and a bit condescending.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I do not see how looking good and being smart an issue. A lot of what people think subconsciously is emotional rather than logical. If young people hear the word "scientist" or "engineer" and the image goes to their minds is something uncool, someone who is socially awkward, does not know how to dress, look, speak, or conduct him or herself properly, or does not know any manner, then most young people will not want to become a scientist or engineer. Is there anything wrong of appearing normal or act natural? If that is how those girls want to look, let them be. People has their own preference. Would you want to continue to sustain people's mind with the false stereotype many people has when they think of scientist or engineer, e.g. someone who has funny looking bunny teeth, wears thick eye-glasses, etc.? In reality, not every scientist or engineer looks like that. Neither do I want my science, mathematics, or economics professor look like some character from the movie "Revenge of the Nerds." If a professor can not conduct him or herself properly in a social or business meeting, then he or she would not get much respect from most of the students at least, let alone other faculty members. Let's face the reality, impression matters, regardless it is first impression or not. People judges each other, formulates opinion, and decides whether to trust someone base on appearance.

Are those girls beautiful? Everyone has their own aesthetic. Is it okay for scientist or engineer, or anyone to look sexy? As long as it does not cross the line of morality or obscenity, which is relative by the norm and judgment of group or society, people has the right to look however they want to be perceive. Besides, because of cultural changes in society, the adjective word "sexy" has also change. The meaning of "sexy" does not necessarily has to describe something relates to sex anymore. In fact, people can say things like "atoms are sexy," "evolution is sexy," "the watch is sexy," or in this case, being smart is sexy.

Often, one has to be able to judge, estimate, size someone up, and make quick decision base on appearance, body language, silent language, or instinct when there is very little known information or no information at all. However, if possible, if time or the information is available, one should not only judge and make rational decision base on appearance.

I guess it is like many other things, sometimes you judge a book by its cover and can instantly decide you don't want to buy it, and sometimes you have to flip through the book to make that decision. Scientist is not rational or logical all the time. After all, we are human.

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Anonymous said...

Let's look at scientist or engineer as human being. Gender is just chromosomes. Show business has business to do, but media or society needs not to debate or make a big fuss every time a scientist, engineer, business leader, athlete, politician, a great person, or someone smart is a female. The two Greatest People in the World are my grandmother and my mother, and they are female...the media and the society immediate react by extensive news coverage and gasping in must be a Big Deal, really! It's getting old and somewhat primitive (may be it's the society that is primitive) that a society still has to make a fuss every time when a woman achieve something great. Can't people see beyond gender? Can't people see other people as human being? Is the reason the news and media doing these shows and coverages, and the society react these way because there is still some primitive people who don't respect women and can't see people beyond gender? In my opinion, it takes a man and a woman to create a human being (unless you do cloning, but DNA is still require as of now), so both woman and man are great. In fact, I think my mother does a better job as a parent and as a person than my father.

Peggy K said...

Would you want to continue to sustain people's mind with the false stereotype many people has when they think of scientist or engineer, e.g. someone who has funny looking bunny teeth, wears thick eye-glasses, etc.?

Not at all. But there is a lot of pressure on women - in all professions - to conform to a feminine beauty standard. What is annoying is the emphasis that these young women are attractive and conventionally feminine despite the fact that they are brainy. It actually helps perpetuate the stereotype you describe by making them the exceptions to the rule.

My Year Without said...

Here is an interesting story for you: I was at a department store waiting in line for the elevator because the escalator happened to be out of service. There was a rather long line of people waiting for the elevator, and it was taking a long time to reach our floor. From the back of the line walked up two young, teenaged girls who were wearing brittany spears-looking clothing. They decided they were too cool to wait in line with the rest of us, so before they took the chance to read the gigantic "EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY" sign in bright red, they announced loudly that they were not going to wait for the elevator-they would take the stairs. They both shoved open the doors and immediately loud sirens screamed throughout the building, employees came running and the girls stood looking very sheepish and embarrassed. I couldn't help but take the opportunity to make a point, so I approached them and asked them a question. "Is it better to be cute or smart?" They stared at me wide-eyed, tapping their high heels nervously on the tile, not sure if I was serious. Then one of them said, slowly, "Cute?" "WRONG!" I said. "It's better to be BOTH!"

abby said...

Oh, is that what that is? I stumbled across their website yesterday ( and now I feel bad for thinking this knowing that they're actually quite intelligent women - but they make them out to look like a bunch of space cadets. :-(

I feel better watching the video because it's clear that they are intelligent and they don't appear to put on some ditzy front. Maybe this can make science & engineering look cool to girls, which is good and so hopefully that will be the main message that gets across.

But yeah, all the lipstick and heels references are a bit disconcerting, as if they're more essential to being female then using your brain. Hmm.
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microbiologist xx said...

It is unfortunate that when it comes to women, so many people still consider smart and pretty to be mutually exclusive.