Geek Girls and Sexy Scientists: the Media and Women in STEM
There’s an interesting binary when it comes to women in the sciences, as portrayed on TV and in the movies: either they’re geek girls, or they’re sexy scientists. Each of these categories is problematic in its own way, and each of them deserves to be deconstructed, because each of them represents a different problem about how society addresses the issue of women in the sciences. It should be recognized that each of these labels represents not a real category of actual women, but rather a trope designed to reduce women in the sciences to particular characteristics that make them easier to stomach-~-and that is truly where the problem lies.
The Geek Girl trope generally seems to appear in story lines featuring younger people-~-for example, when the setting of a movie or show is a high school or college environment. Here’s what will typically happen: 1) the geek girl will get a makeover thus “saving” her from her geekiness OR 2) the geek girl will be portrayed as somewhat high-strung but still hot, and somehow her looks will become a main feature of her character throughout the movie/show.
To put this in perspective, let’s talk about a couple of examples.
1. John Tucker Must Die: Carrie Schaefer is one of the four main female characters in this movie, and is one of the masterminds behind the plot to get even with ex-boyfriend John Tucker. She’s insanely smart-~-but her intelligence is like a running joke in the movie. Instead of celebrating the fact that she’s one of the best students in her class, the writers, through their characters, continually poke fun at her, painting her as too high strung, semi-crazy, and just kind of a drag…because she’s smart. Her redeeming quality is that she’s really pretty-~-pretty enough to attract the school’s top guy-~-but you never actually get to see Carrie’s genius in action.
2. High School Musical: drawing from a slightly different genre, let’s look at Gabriella and Taylor from Disney’s High School Musical. Again, both of these girls are incredibly intelligent-~-Gabriella is introduced as a sort of whiz kid. But the movie does its best to show a divide between geeks and non-geeks, with Gabriella and Troy’s friendship (and decision to start singing) causing a minor scandal among their friend groups. YES, they do overcome this in the movie, but they never actually build a lot of their characters into more than one-dimensional representations of teenagers. Taylor’s character has exactly one quality throughout the movie: she’s a geek. As a result, it’s as though coordination and popularity are fundamentally off-limits for her. Welp.
3. Mean Girls: in all fairness, Mean Girls does its best to poke fun of the “geek girl gets makeover” plotline…but it does so simply by taking that plot to its logical extreme. Cady Heron, the film’s protagonist, is absurdly good at math. We learn this incredibly early in the movie. But she’s talked out of joining the Mathletes because it’s “social suicide”, and turns into a vapid brat over the course of the film, only to snap back to her nerdiness at the end. Her math teacher (played by the wonderful Tina Fey) even points out that she’d “love to have a girl on the team just so the team could meet a girl”, highlighting the lack of girls involved in these kinds of activities and, again, pointing out the line between geekiness and popularity. Cady becomes a non-threatening presence as she gives up what I’m just going to call her math superpowers in order to be popular and try to gain a guy’s attention. Looked at as a satire, the movie points out the absurd expectations of girls in high school dealing with body image and sexuality, but never actually solves for the reality that geek girls get written off.
But why are we so focused on these women’s looks? The actual reality is this: when geek girls AREN’T portrayed as pretty or sexy, they aren’t treated as girls. That’s not only true of films/television, but often in life as well. This is why conventionally feminine women are more likely to be accused of being “fake geek girls” and less likely to be taken seriously. They’re also more likely to be reminded that they’re women, and that women are bad at math and science, and to be slowly pushed out of the field.
A little further along the age arc, we meet the sexy scientist trope. Often, the Sexy Scientist is too young to have conceivably gotten the academic credentials and/or experience needed to be the expert she is portrayed as, but again, unless the woman is sexy, producers believe no one will pay attention. On top of that, in order for the female character to be taken seriously as a woman, she has to be considered beautiful. Her selling point is rarely her intelligence, but rather the fact that she’s pretty-~-her brains are just sort of a bonus.
We see this all the time in films and movies. I’ll structure this a bit differently, but my point here is the same. Every time a character pointed out that Izzy Stevens in Grey’s Anatomy was too pretty to be a doctor, they underscored the idea that pretty women aren’t smart, or shouldn’t be bothered with demanding careers. The female protagonist in Bones, Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brenner, is a brilliant forensic anthropologist…but every time people meet her, they are blown away by her looks. There’s a perpetual sense of sexual tension between her and her crime-fighting partner even though they don’t develop that kind of relationship, and once Bones has a baby, she stops making rational decisions. Abby, from NCIS, also gets portrayed as the quirky, sexy scientist: she’s incredibly smart, but her looks are also a part of her character. This trope also appears in The Amazing Spider-Man: although Emma Stone’s character is young, I’d argue that she falls into this trope for a couple of reasons: her character gets hypersexualized (watch the movie and look at how she dresses, for example), and even though she plays an integral role in helping Peter Parker at the end of the movie, the reality is that her primary role is simply as Peter Parker’s girlfriend.
Why Does This Matter
What these tropes tell us is this: women aren’t taken seriously if they aren’t pretty. Men don’t listen to them and don’t consider them women. So the only way to have a female character be legitimately female is to have her be conventionally feminine-~-but that’s a problematic idea that we see in every day life as well. The idea that it’s more important to be pretty than to be smart, that to get a guy you can’t be a geek, that people won’t pay attention to what you say if they don’t like how you look…those are genuinely problematic messages that are being reinforced by the media.
On top of that, girls who are interested in the sciences are seeing female “scientists” on TV to whom they can’t necessarily relate. Since the focus becomes the woman’s looks in too many cases, and the psuedoscience makes no sense, and because the women are so young they must have been teen geniuses or something to that effect, they are rarely real characters to whom girls can relate. The result is that the sciences still in some ways seem foreign, a fake environment in which girls struggle to picture themselves…and that’s not helping us get women into STEM. It’s not enough to have female characters in lab coats; we need more.