Smart Is Sexy, Or Is It?

The story is almost a cliché, isn’t it? A young girl in grade and middle school loves to tinker, is great at math, enjoys digging in the dirt for bugs and toads, and is a voracious reader… until she gets to high school. Becoming pubescent, she will stop caring about math – claiming that it’s “too hard”, that science is “gross” and worrying a lot more about her social network than her GPA. The most important lesson is that being pretty and popular is more important than being smart – or at least seeming smart.

Of course, these days we tell ourselves that it’s just a teenage phase. And that modern, 21st century women have broken away from those high school gender norms. They don’t need to “play dumb” to get a date anymore. That being smart is hip. Even that being smart is sexy.

Well, maybe not. The other day, my colleague came across a new paper by researchers at the University of Buffalo that addressed people’s attitudes for STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) in relation to feelings their about career, friendship and romance.

In the experiments, adult subjects were shown images or heard conversations that focused on romantic goals (dates, fancy dinners), intelligence goals (libraries, tests) or friendship goals (conversations, visits).  Afterwards, they completed questionnaires assessing their interest in STEM vs. other fields.

Single celled organism jokes rock

Results showed that women (but not men) exposed to cues related to romantic goals reported less positive attitudes toward STEM compared to other disciplines (this didn’t happen with the intelligence or friendship goals). This ended up being true not just for women in general, but for women already in or pursuing a career in a STEM field! In the end, they’re saying that when they’re focusing on romance, women don’t want to be seen as too nerdy-smart, though arty-smart seems to be okay.

So, do you buy it? I think consciously every woman on in that study would say, “No! Smart is sexy!” and yet there seems to be something subtle going on underneath that is still dissociating romantic-goals from STEM. Are they just mutually exclusive, or is this still latent societal norms still playing out?

That got me thinking of whether there are any women currently on television or in movies that are STEM-oriented, but being portrayed as romantically desirable? Think about that. I say cops and government agents don’t count because they carry guns and are super-dangerous – so that gets rid of Fringe, Alias, Covert Affairs, etc.  Medical professionals don’t count either – as someone that’s had to tutor pre-med and nursing students through organic chemistry can attest. So, sorry Grey’s Anatomy ladies, you’re out too.

Sorry, doc

Emily Deschanel as forensic scientist Temperance Brennan on Bones is certainly smart and pretty but is portrayed as nearly hopelessly handicapped in the realm of human interactions – and this is most common trope I think that is seen, that to be good at hard science, you can’t be a “normal” person, you have to be some sort of ultra-nerd. Thinking about Bones, maybe Angela (Michaela Conlin) is the best example I can think of a normal person that is portrayed as both smart and attractive.

Normal and Attractive

Help me out here, who am I missing that could be a decent example?


39 thoughts on “Smart Is Sexy, Or Is It?

  1. I can’t think of anyone.

    But, I’m hopelessly out of touch on pop culture. I’m hoping that is why. (I also can’t think of any male scientists who meet your criteria and are portrayed as being romantic leads, except maybe Hodgson on Bones. So perhaps all this proves is that the only TV show I’ve watched in recent memory is Bones.)

    • I wonder if we’d be able to come up with more examples of men that are scientists but aren’t agents, etc. Sadly I don’t think your disconnect to pop culture is the main reason you’re having a hard time.

  2. Smart is definitely sexy. And i’m a male so i’m not just saying to protect my sex or anything.
    As for examples? What about the female leads in “Better off Ted”. They’re very good looking.

  3. Crossing Jordan had a lead who both smart and attractive and had no trouble getting dates, but she was hopeless at relationships.

    Since I watch very little television about the only current show I have to look at is The Big Bang Theory. Let’s see — there are three women on that one. Penny is clearly the attractive one. She’s an actress/waitress. Bernadette is cute as a button and a scientist, but she’s a microbiology grad student. It’s hard science, but without the heavy math is it really “hard” science? 8:-) And then, there’s Amy. She’s considered the “real” scientist of the three (if you’re willing to count neurobiology – Sheldon struggles with that concept) and portrayed as being hopelessly unattractive and socially inept. Even the nerds are supporting the stereotype.

  4. The two gals on NCIS. Ziva and Abby. Maybe Abby is a little to ‘artsy’ for some, but I think their characters come across as sexy and smart.
    I married an engineer. I had to play smart. Man, was I ever relieved when we were finally married. Pretending to be smart was hard! :)

    • Hah! Somehow I don’t think you had to pretend all that hard. :) I haven’t seen NCIS — I think that Angela in Bones is also sort of “artsy” — which of course is more acceptable… sigh.

  5. There’s Camille on Bones, who might be a better choice than Angella, who is more “artsy” and less science-oriented than the other characters on the show. I think Camille comes across as more intelligent. Other than that, I come up empty.

    Now, she wasn’t a STEM career woman, but I like how intelligent Claire Huxtable came across on The Cosby Show. She had a family and a great relationship with her husband, but was serious about her law career.

    • Camille is a good choice too — though isn’t she an MD, too? Maybe being an MD is okay if you’re a researcher.

      I think we’d have a much easier time finding portrayals of smart, independent women lawyers than scientists. Why is that?

  6. Very cool post!! I’m trying to remember, this one woman (I want to say on Lost, but that may not be it) – ultra sexy, got a job at a restaurant and told the owner she paid her way to a Ph.D. by waiting tables….was protecting her son, I think. Damn, now I’ll be up all night trying to remember.

    I have to tell you, Steve, I don’t put much stock in these types of behavioral studies. Far be it for me (not at all educated in social sciences) to act like I know, but interpreting these results does not seem exact at all. It could mean anything, based on the glance I took at the methods mentioned in the abstract. I know that hearing or thinking about math does not put me in a romantic mood. More like gives me a headache.

    • Hah — well clearly you shouldn’t have to calculate the tip when you go out for a romantic dinner… :)

      I think more than the results of the study itself what it made me realize was how poorly STEM professionals (particularly women) are portrayed in popular culture. I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised I suppose but I guess off the top of my head that I would have thought we’d made more progress.

  7. Your stipulation of “no government agents” knocks out my first choice, Dana Scully from “The X-Files.” So that leaves my next choice, Jodie Foster’s Dr. Ellie Arroway from “Contact.” Laura Dern as the paleobotanist in “Jurassic Park” spends most of the movie screaming, so I’m not sure that’s sexy. Peta Wilson gets a honorable mention for her Mina Harker in “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” if only because Mina is supposed to be a chemist in the movie and she appears briefly behind a tangle of Victorian test tubes, flasks, and beakers. (Peta/Mina is very sexy.) I don’t recall any female mathematicians: in the last two films I saw that featured mathematics, “A Beautiful Mind” and “Good Will Hunting,” women were consigned to supportive non-math roles.

    (If you’re wondering, yes, I spend a lot of nights watching movies on cable and streaming online.)

    Interesting post, Steve. I hadn’t really given thought to this issue until now.

    • HG — yeah, I naturally thought of Scully first, but I think the whole law-enforcement get-to-carry-a-gun part mixes up her being the “rational scientist” to Mulder’s “conspiracy theorist”. Ellie Arroway is a great choice. Maybe the best one that’s come up.

      I don’t think Mina gets to go because isn’t she a vampire or super-powered vampire like person? I bet that’s what got her into the League more than her chemistry skills. :)

  8. Umm..actually, I can’t remember ANY STEM women in movies, portrayed as “normal” (!) people. And I am sure there are none in Indian movies. There are a couple of men shown as scientists (e.g. Kamal Hasan in Dasavatharam), but women? NOPE. Sad.

    “They don’t need to “play dumb” to get a date anymore”

    I seriously hope so. Boys fled in panic from me because I was interested in (and worse,
    good in) quantum chemistry and such. Although I am now happily married to a seriously academic intellectual who would have been repelled by me had I played dumb, I sometimes regret that I did not have a “normal” teenage with crushes and flings because of my nerdiness. If I could go back in time, I’d be tempted to play dumb, I suppose.

    • LG — I’d like to think that nerdy girls can also have crushes and teenage flings. Is that too much to hope for? It’s weird to think back though — I was always a pretty smart kid and it was never suggested to me that I hide it. Though I was certainly encouraged to play sports in HS so that I was more well-rounded, which in the end wasn’t terrible advice.

  9. Sorry for the double comment – I was going to say Foster in Silence of the Lambs, and HG reminded me with her mention of Contact. Agree completely! Also I think we can look to literature as the saving grace in that way as well. Although one more point – I think professional women being portrayed as sexy beings by some behind-the-scenes producer is the same as women weighing science against romance – on television, the actors are chosen for their looks and told to act that way for ratings – and not usually for the female viewer’s benefit.

  10. Yeah, I think Angela on “Bones” would be considered Arty-Smart. And Camille is a doctor, so that cuts her out.

    What about Claudia on “Warehouse 13” (SyFy Channel)? She’s a computer wiz, and cute as a button. Also, on that show there’s the “real” H.G. Wells, who turns out to be a woman and smokin’ hot.

  11. Charlotte on Lost was an anthropologist. Does that count? She’s cute and not totally crazy. That was the only, non-medical person I could think of. (which I kind of resent, being a nurse by trade, myself.) but, we’re not entirely math-y, so I guess that’s what you’re talking about. Cant come up with anyone else. Yikes.

  12. Great post, Steve! I would say that, for me at least, it’s not the guy’s profession but his attitude toward life and his heart that contribute more to what I find attractive. That being said, my first serious boyfriend was an accountant and Ryan is in IT — both STEM (math and technology), so obviously I find this sort of smart attractive.

    What about Chuck?! Smart, nerdy, technology-focused…but seriously attractive. I’d eat him up with a spoon.

    I’m not sure…would Ross Geller from friends count? He’s an anthropologist and many women might find him attractive (not me…I found him annoying).

    Many interesting thoughts in this post and the comments…

    • Cori — see? That’s why you’re several standard deviations outside the “normal” gal… :) Though it’s interesting that men don’t seem to have the same hang-ups in dissociating their STEM professions and attractiveness.

      I don’t think Chuck counts because he gets super-powers and most scientists I know don’t have super-powers.

      Except at Scrabble.

      • He was cute before he got his super powers.

        I am my own brand of nerd — editor. Obviously I need to work on my Scrabble super powers though…a scientist of some repute is kicking my tush.

  13. There was Elizabeth Shue in the movie The Saint. Though she didn’t seem very realistic as a scientist (definitely as the sexy part though).

  14. I already told Steve this, but I thought I should mention it for everyone. Amita from Numbers. High-level mathematician, extremely smart, normal, hot. Perfect example of what we’re looking for.

  15. I know this is an “old” post now, but I saw this on the news this morning and it was appropriate. JCPenney is pulling a t-shirt for girls off the shelves after complaints. The shirt says, “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother does it for me.”

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