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Gender + Sexuality

Nerd Girls Are Sexy Now

That's the new media mantra. But what does it mean?

Vanessa Richmond 18 Jun

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media.

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Tina Fey, trendsetting nerd?

After endless amounts of drool over sexy male nerds (like the recent NY Observer piece about male "nerds of steel," hailing the arrival of geeks who are buff), many men and women are cheering about the "revenge of the nerdette" -- the rise of the sexy nerd girl.

Of course, until now female geeks' sex appeal has been roughly equivalent to that of Napoleon Dynamite. Wikipedia describes the nerd girl as a stock character who wears eye glasses, dresses unfashionably, wears pigtails (and other little girl items like mary-jane shoes and knee high socks), is shy and socially inept and either overweight or gangly. More recently, they sometimes have a passion for social justice (see Simpson, Lisa) are feminist or post-feminist (see Granger, Hermione) or come up with the piece of knowledge that enables the plot to be resolved (see Velma from Scooby Doo). And sometimes, just sometimes, they get a makeover and become kinda pretty albeit in an awkward way (see Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

But that's not what nerd girl 2.0 looks like. The new, tech-savvy, sci-fi loving nerd looks more like a cheerleader than a mouse: this week's Newsweek introduces us to the new nerd girls, "they're smart, they're techie and they're hot."

Love your pocket protector!

The Nerd Girl group at Tufts University, for example, "may not look like your stereotypical pocket-protector-loving misfits -- [one] has a thing for pink heels -- but they're part of a growing breed of young women who are claiming the nerd label for themselves. In doing so, they're challenging the notion of what a geek should look like, either by intentionally sexing up their tech personas, or by simply finding no disconnect between their geeky pursuits and more traditionally girly interests such as fashion, makeup and high heels." An example of the new prototype is Cristina Sanchez: a master's student in biomedical engineering and a former cheerleader who can talk "endlessly" about aerospace.

Newsweek goes on to say that they've modeled themselves after 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. 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."

But when 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?

Gadget fetishes

Clearly, some things have changed. A recent Pew Internet & American Life project found that among users 12 to 17, girls dominate the blogosphere and social networking sites, and outnumber boys in creating websites of their own. Women gamers now even outnumber men ages 25-34, according to a 2006 study by the Consumer Electronics Association.

Because of the numbers, sites catering to nerd girls are flourishing. Their must-see-Web-TV is GeekBrief.TV -- hosted by a make-up clad, pigtail-free geek whose recent posts salivate over a Qik private alpha test for iPhones, for example, trialing it, and finding bugs in it that are "exciting" to troubleshoot. And there's a survey polling readers about the best gadget stores, which ends in a colorful chart.

And of course, there's io9, a must-read news aggregator (that's part of the Gawker family), all about sci-fi gossip. Five of the 12 staff are women, including the top and assistant editors. It features important topics like whether Battlestar Galactica copied (and improved upon) Star Trek, how dystopian fiction can save the world and five lessons the Hulk should have learned from Hyde.

Then there's the upcoming reality TV show, Nerd Girls, currently casting (you have to be enrolled in university math, science or engineering to qualify -- sexy Gen X and Boomer science geeks who trail blazed have been bulldozed away in favor of those for whom they cleared the path).

"They're 'Beauty and the Geek' all in one package! Meet the NERD GIRLS -- an impressive team of female engineering students, just one year away from landing top jobs with $70,000 salaries. They turn heads when they enter a room -- they're stylish, self-possessed, ambitious and confident. Whether building a solar car or harnessing wind power on a remote island, these girls fully intend to change the planet with their own ingenuity and hard work."

The show aims to debunk the two myths that boys are better at math and science than girls, and that a female engineer is a socially inept girl with no sense of style.

Yay, right?

Well, Newsweek reports there's still a dichotomy between culture and the workplace. "Forty years ago women made up just three per cent of science and engineering jobs; now they make up about 20 per cent. That sounds promising, until you consider that women earn 56 per cent of the degrees in those fields.

"A recent Center for Work-Life Policy study found that 52 per cent of women leave those jobs, with 63 per cent saying they experienced workplace harassment and more than half believing they needed to "act like a man" in order to succeed. In the past, women dealt with that reality in two ways: some buried their femininity, while others simply gave up their techie interests to appear more feminine."


The Tim Russert factor

Meanwhile, USA Today reports that the late Tim Russert initially declined NBC executive Michael Gartner's offer to host "Meet the Press" back in 1991, saying "Look, I can't do it, I'm ugly," to which Gartner responded, "I'm not looking for a handsome guy, I'm looking for a smart one." And to which blogger Doree Shafrir responded that we've always allowed overweight and unattractive male anchors and have always expected female pundits to be both intelligent and beautiful.

Sure, the new male anchor model is Anderson Cooper and not Walter Kronkite; men are definitely starting to fall under the beauty myth spell. But women have always had to get attention with their looks in order to get an audience for their smarts. And even now, the closest equivalent reality show to Nerd Girls, Beauty and the Geek, aimed to find mates for men unfailingly oblivious to grooming. The message: male geeks don't need to be physically attractive to get a good job or a mate.

Let's hope there's something to the new sex appeal of nerdy women, who love nothing more than a hard equation, have a penchant for gadgets, and spend their free time looking for bugs in new software applications -- and happen to like girly things as well. Shades of Battlestar Galactica, in which all male and female fighter pilots have sciency brains, a wardrobe that consists mostly of tank tops worn backwards (with only the occasional, fun appearance of makeup or heels), and lots of admirers.

Then again, if we're all just being reminded, once again, that smart women get more male attention and career success if they wear high heels and makeup, then, please, call me when you've changed the channel from Mary Tyler Moore.

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