The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

“Revenge Of The Nerdettes”: Being A Female Geek Is Okay, So Long As You’re Sexy

Posted by Clem Bastow on July 8, 2008

There are times when I think if I read one more article about the “sexing up” of tech – or academia, or intelligence… – I’ll punch a hole in the wall. Today is one of those days: witness Newsweek‘s ‘Geek Girls: Revenge Of The Nerdettes‘.

The piece, by Jessica Bennett and Jennie Yabroff, seems to be torn between wanting to assert that, yes, girls can also be nerds (which is commendable) and wanting to let us know that, like, you can be smart and sexy (which is not so good). The problem I have with the latter is that the definition of “sexy” is always so narrow and geared towards the ‘men’s magazine’ gaze. To wit:

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. They’ve modeled themselves after icons such as 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.

So far, so good (so sort of; I don’t know that I would really call Tina Fey either a nerd or a geek, but that’s a whole ‘nother minefield of semantics). But then it all goes off the rails:

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.

Oh a pageant! A bikini shoot in a lad’s mag! How right on!

The piece continues to to-and-fro, stopping off in stats town (“Forty years ago women made up just 3 percent of science and engineering jobs; now they make up about 20 percent”) before ending up further along shit creek in a bikini.

Turning geek into chic isn’t always easy. It took Google’s Spertus, who is 39, years before she could proclaim herself girl and geek in the same breath. But it happened when she won the award for “Sexiest Geek Alive,” a now annual pageant that began in 2000 as a spoof of People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” Spertus beat out the men in her competition, and at her crowning, she paraded onstage in a corset made out of a circuit board and a high-slit skirt with a slide rule strapped to her leg.

Am I the only person who is infuriated by all this? I realise the ‘Sexiest Geek Alive’ pageant was more or less a gag, but whatever has come after it is far from funny. Why is it that these ‘nerd girls’ have to be seen as “sexy”? Is it so devastating not to be considered “hot” by the lad mag fraternity?

As AlterNet‘s Vanessa Richmond wrote, in response to Newsweek‘s report (if you can ignore the phrase “post-feminist triumph”, an oxymoron if ever I saw one):

[W]hen nerd girls stop looking like dorks and start looking like cheerleaders, and get more attention for both sexiness and smarts as a result, is that a post-feminist triumph? Or is it a return to the days of Mad Men, when lipstick, not ideas, was the most important thing to grace a woman’s lips?

Look, I’m one of the first people to admit that sex appeal and intelligence aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive (or at least, they shouldn’t be), and I’ve written about it a fair bit. But to me, one of the most empowering things about being a nerd/geek (and yes, I would consider myself to be both) is how it actually frees you from the whole sexy/hot thing (or at least, the pressure to be “sexy” in the eyes of the FHM crew). If I wear my Zero Wing cut sequence t-shirt and my Buddy Holly glasses, I know I’m never going to be considered “sexy” in ‘those’ terms – and that’s the way I like it.

2 Responses to ““Revenge Of The Nerdettes”: Being A Female Geek Is Okay, So Long As You’re Sexy”

  1. hannahcolman said

    “Spertus beat out the men in her competition, and at her crowning, she paraded onstage in a corset made out of a circuit board and a high-slit skirt with a slide rule strapped to her leg.”

    *is speechless*

  2. Hooch said

    I’m sure the ‘sexing up of geeks’ can be just as damaging as other sex-in-media for people that have low self esteem that classify themselves in the geek/nerd/etc group.

    Guess what geeky girls, you CAN be sexy too!
    Well, as long as you’re still tall, slim, have pretty hair and perfect teeth (and don’t forget a nice ‘rack’ if you are to be seen in a bikini).
    You don’t?
    Oh well. Double fail for you then.

    So it’s okay to be a geek… as long as you’re a pretty one that is.

    (hmm, did that last line sound familiar? I may have subconsciously ripped it off)

    On the other hand, if I somehow managed to end up working for a lad’s mag (yeah, I dunno either. Maybe the pay is good), I would pray for the day I got to do a ‘geek’ article instead of yet another ex-Big Brother implant photo feature – with, sadly, no second thought to the deeper issues going on (so would the rest of the geeks working there doing the layout/design, servicing the computers+server, updating the web site etc).

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