June 2, 2010

Real nerd girls

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 5:30 pm by chavisory

Jezebel ran this today.  A casting call is out for a new “reality” TV show, NERD GIRLS. “Smart, sexy, and tech-savvy?  WE WANT YOU!”

Stuff like this always burns me up.

Firstly, they’re not really looking for nerd girls.  They’re looking for wannabe reality TV stars willing to wear thick plastic cat eye glasses with their usual makeup and short skirts, “intentionally sex up their tech personas,” and embody a fetishized fantasy of what pop culture thinks a tech-savvy fantasy girl should look and be like.  Here’s an example, right on the Nerd Girls website: http://www.nerdgirls.com/page/learn

Oh, here are some more:  http://www.nerdgirls.com/profiles/

Secondly, they’re only further promoting, not undermining, hurtful and harmful stereotypes about real live girl nerds.  The casting call quotes a Newsweek article from 2008 (which burned me up then, but I wasn’t writing a blog yet): “The Nerd Girls may not look like your stereotypical pocket-protector-loving misfits…”

In other words, Oh, but these girls aren’t like those girls.  These girls are pretty.  These girls are sexy.  These girls are fun and flirty and know how to dress right–like real girls.  Not like nerdy girls.

Those girls exist (we weren’t wearing pocket protectors anymore, though, even in the early ’90’s), only to the producers of NERD GIRLS, they’re not even good enough to be called nerds anymore.

I have news for the creators of NERD GIRLS.  I was a nerd.  I am a nerd.  And it wasn’t fun.  It wasn’t sexy.  I wasn’t pretty; I still can’t stand the feel of makeup on my face.  Things were not good for me, and nobody wanted me the way I was, for many, many years.  But THAT is not what you want to make a TV show about, because that’s not what your audiences want to see and acknowledge.

“Why are Nerd Girls hot right now?” the website asks.  But nerd girls are not hot right now.  A romanticized, superficial and highly-sexualized fetishization of a fantasy girl pretending to be a nerd is hot right now.  I’m willing to bet that things are just as hard as they’ve ever been, and completely not hot, for real girls who don’t fit pop-culture notions of what’s desirable.  Who don’t fit in with their peers.  Who love science, computers, or books but don’t also love makeup and fashion or look like a Seventeen model.  Who can’t wear those shoes because they hurt.  Who are odd, who are introverted, who don’t make friends easily.  It’s lonely and hard to be smarter than everyone around you, or disinterested in stupid peer culture, or rejected because you’re not willing to pretend to be–not sexy.  People don’t love you for it.  They sure as fuck don’t want to put you on TV for it.  The pretty plastic picture is easier.

NERD GIRLS claims a couple of different goals: To dismantle myths that boys are better at math and science than girls, and that “a female engineer is socially inept with no sense of style.”  And, from the website (I’ll be done with this post soon, because I wanna barf every time I have to go look at that website again), to “celebrate smart-girl individuality that’s revolutionizing our future,” and to “encourage other girls to change their world through science, technology, engineering, and math, while embracing their feminine power.”

Okay, so just do that.  It would be fantastic to see a series about real female scientists and their struggles in the school and work world, normal women with prestigious scientific careers.  I would adore watching a series that really was going to deeply explore and debunk myths about girls’ mathematical ability and follow their journeys through school.  But what you’re selling here is not individuality.  It’s a pinup girl, just a different one than we’ve seen before, which has little to do with the real lives or feminine power of real girls.  It’s nothing but pornography for people who would rather that real, awkward, smart girls were something prettier and more acceptable to mass tastes than they are.

This, NERD GIRLS, is hurting real girls.  This is just holding up one more unrealistic, unattainable, beautiful package that they have to embrace or else be judged as not enough.

As an antidote, here a couple of my favorite real girl nerds:

Barbara McClintock, who discovered a type of gene called the transposon, which can jump between chromosomes.  She was my historical scientist heartthrob in high school.

And Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote acclaimed, Nebula Award winning science fiction for many years under the pen name of James Tiptree, Jr.  She was a Renaissance woman, also having worked as a watercolor artist, a satellite image reader during WWII, and run a poultry farm.  There’s a fantastic biography of her out, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, largely about her painful struggle to be herself in a world that wasn’t crazy about who she really was.


  1. Anna Moore said,

    i heart you, emily paige ballou.

  2. DeviousLauren said,

    I agree that a show about women scientists and their struggles would be amazing if the goal was to educate the masses about the status quo of engineering. This is not what Nerd girls is trying to do. We are trying to show young females, who may dismiss the idea of a career in math, science or engineering because the believe they have to give up their feminity, that this is not the case. We are trying to provide rolemodels that show that you don’t have to fit the negative stereotypes to be successful in this field. We are trying to grab the attention of high school girls, so we have a chance to show them how cool engineering can be.

  3. DeviousLauren said,

    Oh, and I forgot the most important part – we ARE looking for real nerd girls. Our definition is just a bit more broad then most – if you are passionate about science, technology, math or science then please apply!

  4. chavisory said,

    Sorry, DeviousLauren, I don’t believe you. What you’re trying to sell here is, again, an airbrushed, sexualized pop fantasy of a “nerd girl,” or else you would’ve just said “if you are passionate about science, technology or math, then please apply!” in the original casting call. But no, you should be “sexy,” too. You only want real nerd girls if they’re also photogenic. Oh, sure, they should like science and math, but they should also like shoes and makeup.

    If you were serious about making things better for real girls, then you wouldn’t keep pushing the negative stereotypes in order to sell your show. If you were serious about undermining stereotypes and educating girls about their options, then you’d just do a show about real women in science, who they are and what it took them to succeed–not put out a casting call for sexy 18-23 year olds.

    The pictures and profiles on your website make it perfectly apparent what kind of girls you will and won’t be casting.

  5. Jennifer said,

    way to not back down – just scanned the web-site… the profiles of the ladies, wow… i like to party and wear mini dresses? eek. i agree – if i was in the 18-23 range, i wouldn’t apply because of the photos and descriptions of the profiles, there’s a look they’re going for and i wouldn’t fit…
    ‘you don’t have to fit the negative stereotypes’ what does that mean? glasses ponytail no make-up comic book carrying girl… ? or does it mean the male dominated world where women philosophers are locked out of meetings…
    by the way – i have not given up my femininity – it’s intact and i embrace it. you don’t have to wear Manolo Blahniks to find it either.

  6. matt said,

    emily, your bullshit detector is as sharp as ever and your logic is well laid out. nerd power!

  7. Patrick said,

    That Lauren says her definition of a “nerd girl” is broader than most is laughable. It’s quite the opposite.

    Great post Emily.

  8. chavisory said,

    Exactly, Jennifer–I was the girl in a ponytail, with glasses and no makeup, dressed in Eddie Bauer and Converse high-tops, and usually carrying too many books. (Incidentally, in my school at least, nerd-hood extended to anyone who was over-interested in their academics and not enough in looks, partying, and popular music, and that definitely extended to English, poetry, and theater as well as science and math.) I hadn’t given up my femininity. I just wasn’t the specific kind of feminine that these people want to promote on television, and never will be. Of course we’re just as feminine as the girls on the website–we’re just not the kind of feminine that they want to see. The women who work in science who don’t look like the website profiles–who keep their hair short, who might be overweight, who dress for comfort and practicality (like you have to when you spend your days in hip-waders trawling through stream mud for insect samples, or run an experimental organic farm, or are out in the Gulf tracking enormous underwater oil plumes) and not to look like a fashion spread, have not given up their femininity to work in science. They’re just the wrong kind of feminine as far as NERD GIRLS is concerned.

    And that says that our popular conceptions of valid femininity are fucked up, not that we have a problem with girls thinking they can’t be both smart and pretty.

  9. chavisory said,

    Incidentally also–I went with a nerdier picture of her here in my post, but the picture of Barbara McClintock in my high school biology textbook was a much younger picture of her, in longer hair and a cute dress, lounging on a porch swing. I found it magnetic because she *was* pretty and feminine and also taken seriously as a scientist, but even moreso because of how comfortable she looked in herself, in her life, in her body. And that was what I wanted for myself more than anything. Would she have made it onto NERD GIRLS? Not a chance.

  10. Roboroad said,

    Now, I’m curious. What women are out there right now working in the Gulf of Mexico to track and repair the damage done by this oil spill? I would love to see a blog post from you, or Nerd Girls, or anyone for that matter, showcasing women scientists working to clean up the mess BP created.

    • chavisory said,

      One of the leaders of the ongoing research on the giant plumes is Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/09/us/09spill.html?hp (NY Times article)

      http://www.marsci.uga.edu/directory/mjoye.htm (Dr. Joye’s personal staff page at UGA. She provides a link to her blog about the spill.)

      Go Dawgs, woof woof woof!

      • Roboroad said,

        You should contact her and see if you can do an interview for your blog to highlight a REAL nerd girl.

      • chavisory said,

        It’s not that I wouldn’t like to do something like that…but she seems to be pretty busy right now. (And honestly, I’m about to have a busy couple of weeks at work; I don’t really have the time myself to take this blog to the next level journalistically.) Probably I’ll write her a note just to say how much I appreciate her work, and that she makes me proud to be a UGA alumna these past couple weeks.

        Let me be clear; my intent is not to hold her up as a representative of quintessential nerd-hood. I don’t know her and I don’t necessarily know if she sees herself that way. My point was that most female scientists can’t do their work while dressed like fashion models, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve given up their femininity to work in science.

  11. Julie said,

    Yay for Emily and independent thinking! Way to speak your mind.

    We real live nerd girls gotta stick together and resist the strong pressure to conform to any *look* that doesn’t express who we really are, costs too much money and takes too much time to maintain. Put down the eyeliner, step away from the heals, ponytails are beautiful and quick, throw on some comfy/casual pants and a grab stack of BOOKS!

    We can be role models for each other and the younger women in our own lives. Who needs reality TV when you have actual reality.

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