Nerd Girls, Sex Appeal, and Stereotypes

I’ve just returned from several weeks of traveling—ICA in Montreal, a couple weeks in Boston, and a week in Madrid, where I gave a talk on my gaming research—and found a flurry of emails from folks who quite rightly knew I’d be interested in reading about Nerd Girls. (Thanks CTW, Church, Dan, Paul, Tony, and anyone I missed!) The latest issue of Newsweek has an article about this group of female engineers at Tufts, focusing on their attempt to revise the nerd image to have some room for femininity. I’m not sure how much of the group’s mission is concerned with promoting nerds as sexually attractive—it seems like the kind of thing that might get mentioned in passing and then blown out of proportion by a journalist—but it’s clearly the major concern of those commenting and blogging on the article.

At Sciencewoman, for example, Alice Pawly describes the article as “problematic”:

I’m glad women feel like they can dress how they want, look “girly” and 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.

And over at Salon, Catherine Price expresses her own mixed feelings:

My confusion … stems from the fact that the Nerd Girls video makes it seem like sexual appeal is a necessary component to being part of their group. …

[P]erhaps the Nerd Girls aren’t as all about their sexuality as the video makes it seem. I certainly hope that’s the case — ideally, we’d convey to young women that they shouldn’t be afraid to be into science even if they aren’t holding down part-time modeling gigs, and that there’s more than one definition of what it means to be “hot.”

The commenters on those posts seem divided on how much of a problem it is that the nerd girls promote “hegemonic femininity.” And, as Catherine notes, it’s hard to say how much of this is actually relevant to the group.

Gizmodo, meanwhile, doesn’t offer much editorializing. Its (mostly male) commenters, on the other hand, occasionally offer some friendly or critical notes, but mostly either hostile or blatantly sexist interpretations, from what I saw:

Ferg1 at 11:06 PM on 06/15/08
no thank you

smcallah at 11:10 PM on 06/15/08
I don’t like when people try to act like a nerd. Because god damn it, I was born a nerd, and I went through school in the 80’s as a nerd, not a great time to do so.

So I get uppity when someone who appears to have never gone through middle and high school being considered a nerd suddenly wants to say she’s a nerd.

Hello_Newman at 12:06 AM
It’s just a normal picture of young women casually dressed and not a photo shoot. Cut them some slack, I think we’re too used to booth babes dressed to the nines, this is what nerds look like. I’m sure if it was a story about women who go out to night clubs they’d look a lot hotter, but it’s not.

cubensis at 01:43 AM
I’d hit #2, #6 and #7.

I put the link there in case the post goes back online, but at last check, the post was deleted. I like being able to refer back to comments for research, though, so it’s a good thing I was able to find it in my Safari cache and print a PDF of the basic text and images, sans CSS formatting. (Thanks, Retrospective!)

I can see why some people are wary of the Nerd Girls’ approach; the reaction among many Gizmodo commenters is a neat demonstration of how some nerdy men will respond to sexualized nerds (especially with the veil of anonymity). And, of course, there’s the danger that the ladies who don’t have self-esteem about their looks will fear that majoring in engineering will compound their social woes.

That said, from the perspective of social psychology research, promoting female nerds as possessing feminine sexuality may actually be an effective (if not ethically unproblematic) means of shifting nerd stereotypes. According to some research (which I hope I can be forgiven for not digging up right now), stereotypes are linked in our minds. Someone who believes that young black men are criminals, for example, would also be likely to believe that such men are natural athletes, have good rhythm, etc. If you present such a person with an example completely atypical of their mental construction of the group—e.g., a young black man who is shy, unathletic, and good with computers—that person will conclude that your example is an exception to the rule. If you only tweak the stereotype slightly, however, such as by presenting said person with a young black man who is into basketball, freestyle rapping, and studying medicine, you have a better chance of getting a prejudiced person to reconsider the belief that young black men are criminals.

One actual example of this strategy, if I remember correctly from my Social Psych class a few years back, involved an ad campaign for women’s soccer which promoted the women as both athletic and sexy. This is basically what the Nerd Girls are (purported to be) going for. This takes on an added sense of urgency, perhaps, considering that the “unsexy” stereotype may actually be part of what steers girls and women away from studying engineering in the first place. That’s one of David Anderegg’s biggest concerns in Nerds: Who they are and why we need more of them. Adolescents and post-adolescents are especially concerned about seeming sexually desirable, and this plays a role in the career choices they’re considering around the same time.

I hope I covered my back enough by acknowledging how problematic this strategy is, if that’s really how the Nerd Girls are promoting themselves. I suppose it raises the question, then, of which stereotype demands greater resistance from a group of female engineers: the idea that women should be attractive according to traditional norms of femininity, or the idea that nerds can’t be women? I’d like to think that any one person can resist both of these in her own life if she so chooses, but that is different from making a unified, public statement to gradually prod a stereotype into a slightly more acceptable direction.

Perhaps, though, going for “nerds are sexy” is overshooting a bit. The nerd stereotype is still bad enough in the eyes of many that asserting that “nerds are attractive” really doesn’t take much more than pointing out: “Look, we bathe regularly (and we’re getting much better at noticing that your eyes glaze over when we start talking about Battlestar Galactica).”

4 thoughts on “Nerd Girls, Sex Appeal, and Stereotypes

  1. I need to dig deeper into this when I’m not trying to code three different things at once, but this post combined with the Sex In The City post has left me wondering about a backlash movement with in the geek/nerd arena. There appears to be a growing situation where if you don’t meet certain social norms, then you can not be part of the group.

    The irony here is that the so called “nerds” are doing to others what was done to us for years. It is the same elitist bullshit that we pissed and moaned about in high school, except now it is coming from so called “nerds” and “geeks”, which frankly, leaves me feeling a little ill.

  2. I don’t think the nerd girls are really about “nerdy is sexy”. The message is very simple if one happens to be a nerd girl. The message is more like: nerds can be sexy too. There are a lot of intelligent females out there who does not fit the sterotypical image of a “nerd”. however, they consider themselves to be “nerdy” becuase they have certain “nerdy” interstes. I think they should be applauded for what they are doing. It is better for young girls to think nerdy can be sexy than being dumb as glamrous and attractive.

  3. well put Summer. The Nerd Girls mission is not to sexualize nerds and its not to say that making nerdy sexy is the only solution either. i feel that the goal of the group is to abolish the negative stereotypes that go along with being interested in math/science/nerdy things and spin it into a positive. it seems to me that the group is trying to take something great (being a smart female) and celebrating it. i think a lot of people out there are missing the point: it’s not that they’re trying to sell sexy they’re trying to say “hey its pretty great to be a smart girl, and let me tell you why”

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