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.

Geek Girls

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.

Sexy Scientists 

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 Bonescharacter 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.

~ by Randi Saunders on August 25, 2013.

4 Responses to “Geek Girls and Sexy Scientists: the Media and Women in STEM”

  1. Reblogged this on The Student Becomes The Teacher and commented:
    If we want to empower our girls to see themselves as MORE than the sum of their EXTERNAL parts to “catch a man,” we need to show them that “SMART IS SEXY” on its own terms (not determined from a male perspective)!

    GIRL POWER!

  2. These types of posts always annoy me. They use confirmation bias and a preselection of network TV shows and low-rated movies to try and narrow criticism to make a problem look a lot worse than it actually is.

    Is there an issue with women in TV, movies, and videogames? Without a doubt; however, choosing TV shows and movies that aren’t exactly renowned for their character development, be it male or female, is manipulation at the extreme.

    Why don’t you talk about Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, the Simpsons, Revenge, Parks and Recreation, the Good Wife, Justified, etc.? A lot of these shows do a much more nuanced and better job in relation to crafting characters, both male and female, than you give credit for. Of course, shows that are known for using archetypes will resort to the “sexy scientist” or “geek” roles, as they will undoubtedly also resort to other archetypes such as “the jock.” This is not solely a function of sexism; rather, it’s due to poor writing in general. If you actually did a detailed examination of the shows named above, explaining how maybe Arya, Cersei, Lisa Simpson, Skylar, etc. do not meet the feminist role model, than you can start fanning the flames, but don’t fan the flames by resorting to John Tucker Might Die.

    I just named TV shows also, there’s a ton of movies that also break the archetypes you listed.

    Also, I think you talked about gaming in another post. I don’t know if you’re a gamer, but this is also one of my pet peeves. People like to create a problem with videogames, calling the whole industry sexist. Once again, if people actually looked at the most critically acclaimed games — Uncharted, the Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, Heavy Rain, the Walking Dead, Tomb Raider (reboot), etc., the feminist criticism starts to sound ignorant. Yes, there are problems, but without actually exploring the industry in its whole can you actually legitimately criticize that industry. By pointing to one aspect and calling foul is exaggeration and manipulation. Hell, there’s a game coming out soon called Beyond Two Souls that seems like a feminist dream, starring self-proclaimed feminist Ellen Page.

    See, I’m not claiming there is no sexism in these industries. All I’m complaining about is how you try to highlight it. The confirmation bias is clearly visible, and you don’t do justice to the medium by examining a diverse array of material (network and cable, modern and classic, etc.).

  3. I’m not saying there are no strong female characters in media; that would be a straight up absurd claim. What I’m saying is that when it comes to women working in the sciences, there are certain tropes which get invoked frequently that are problematic in some ways. Yes, of course there has been some progress made, but not all of them have; and yes, there are some excellent shows, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t more that can be done. There IS bad writing in general, and a lot of shows employ different kinds of tropes to portray both men and women…but when writers try to break with stereotypes, they sometimes get bad reactions. You should take a look at this NYT op ed and the things it says about the construction of gender in TV shows: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/24/opinion/i-have-a-character-issue.html?_r=0

  4. The point I was trying to make was that your analysis is simply attacking straw men. Everyone knows that shows and movies such as the ones you listed are going to fit the bill nicely and cleanly because of poor writing. All I was saying was that if you’re going to discuss the way women are portrayed in different mediums, you should analyze shows that actually deal with dynamic female characters. Case and point, the op ed you linked deals with Skyler, one of the more interesting female characters on TV.

    As for the actual op ed, while I do understand that a lot of the vitriol towards her character might be related to misogyny, I do think that is slightly unfair. Her role in the first 3 seasons wasn’t very strong, and her hypocrisy was what annoyed me personally. It wasn’t that she was a woman who couldn’t deal with her husband; it was because she condemned Walter while still enjoying the life his morally illicit activities created, and WANTING more of it. She was an antagonist for the first 3 seasons, but as Walter became less and less likable, she became more and more so. The last two seasons have definitely altered that perception though, and from a lot of reviews of the show, it seems like a lot of people have taken a liking to Anna Gunn’s character (and Emmy noms follow). For example, a review even claimed that the show might actually be a heroine’s journey and really about Skyler, not the antihero Walter. While Anna Gunn’s Skyler White might get condemned (as does Lena Headley’s Cersei), I do believe that is because both characters were antagonists at one point. Look at Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys (sp?). She’s probably one of the most beloved characters on the show, and she’s one of the strongest female characters also. Arya is my favorite character, and she’s also another strong female character. A couple of posts back, you reblogged something that criticized the gaming industry by using a few people’s reactions. A few bad apples in that crowd, like this one, does not mean the entire demographic is in trouble. I think the people that dislike Cersei or Skyler because they are strong women is in the minority. Joffrey, a sexist pig on the show, is despised even moreso than Cersei, so the issue is not necessarily the gender role.

    In fact, look closer at Game of Thrones. No other TV show has as many strong and compelling female characters, yet the show juxtaposes that with blatant sexposition. How do you feel about that? A lot of interesting pieces are written about topics like the ones I mentioned because they deal with shows that portray dynamic characters. While I defend the medium, there are certainly arguments against me, but dealing with shows that portray cardboard cutouts does not actually do anything because I believe the issue is not with misogyny so much as poor acting and writing.

    And yes, for every Claire Danes, Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, Emilia Clarke, etc., there might be a hundred sexualized women, but why? There’s no doubt that shows like Breaking Bad and Games of Thrones dominate in ratings, awards, and popularity, yet network TV is filled with shows like the ones you listed. Why do we support shows that objectify women (2 and a Half Men) and that aren’t even good shows in the first place? You yourself only listed shows/movies I would bunch into the cardboard cutout pile. There are also tons of reality TV shows that I believe should never see the light of day also. I can make an argument that TV is in a abysmal state, but I ignore cable TV which would probably make the case for this being a golden age of television. I believe it’s the same with the feminist issue in TV, movies, and videogames. There is a problem and progress can be made, but people getting on a pulpit and preaching how terrible those mediums are for women without getting into the nitty and gritty is just a form of fear mongering. It’s not as bad as it seems, and there’s a lot more interesting material to be said than simply pointing out how archetypes fail across the board.

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