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In Search of the Elusive She-Nerd

January 18, 2011

"Friends? These are my only friends. Grown-up nerds like Gore Vidal, and even he's kissed more boys than I ever will."

This post was supposed to be something else. It was supposed to be a Top Ten list of Nerd Girls in Pop Culture. A quick Google search can give a wide variety of gorgeous geek girls in real life, but there is a very different story when you look for them in fiction.

The idea for a list came from watching season one of Primeval. The sexy biologist Abby was trying to help nerdy Connor with his women troubles by letting him practice his pickup lines on her. When Connor goes off on a tangent of his passion for comics, Abby scolds him for even mentioning the topic, telling him, “Girls don’t like comics!”

Naturally, I took offense.

In Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Sam Sparks is a weather girl who feels she needs to hide how smart she is because, apparently, there’s something wrong with a girl wearing glasses, a ponytail, and showing her nerd side. This was news to me, and I couldn’t help but wonder if young girls watching were getting the wrong message. Sure, by the end, Sam embraced her true nerdy self, but it was still clear that a girl being a nerd was an undesirable trait.

We can’t confuse “nerd girls” with “smart girls,” something mainstream media is more than happy to show us. There are plenty of lady doctors, scientists, technicians, so on. But which of them are nerds? When I think nerd, I look at the male nerds that are prevalent. Socially awkward, obsessed with various sci-fi or fantasy worlds, love of science and technology, often befuddled by the opposite sex.

"That arrogant, misogynistic East Texas doorknob that told me I should abandon my work with high-energy particles for laundry and childbearing?"

Taking these traits into account, my top ten list is stuck firmly at four: the aforementioned Sam Sparks, Lisa Simpson, Leslie Winkle of the Big Bang Theory, and Codex of the Guild.

The “smart girls” in movies and TV are still sexy and cool, and would no doubt be insulted if anyone ever labeled them a nerd. They are nearly always a side character and romantic interest, with zero geek interests outside their specific smart specialty. Is NCIS‘ Abby really a nerd by these definitions? Veronica Mars? Willow? Ugly Betty?

These days it’s quickly becoming hip to be square. Everything nerdy and geeky is being embraced by the mainstream, and the awesome show Big Bang Theory shows that geeks can be sexy and make loyal friends and terrific partners. Male geeks.

It was here that we met Leslie Winkle, played by Sarah Gilbert. She is the perfect counterpart to Leonard, and for a show about nerds, she’s the only female one we’ve really gotten to know. She’s bright, eccentric, and yes, sexual. But that doesn’t make her any less of a nerd. She’s comfortable with sex, but not with relationships. She’s got her own social quirks. It’s refreshing to see a woman flawed in this way, and we don’t get nearly enough Leslie. The show’s writers admitted that they didn’t know how to write for her.

"I guess online flirting can be interpreted many ways. Especially if you're delusional. "

Codex was going to be number one on the list of female nerds. Admittedly, she isn’t mainstream being a character in a web series. Codex spends most of her time in her room in front of her computer, gaming. Her only relationships are online with people that she’d never met face to face until the events that kicked off the terrific series, when Zaboo showed up at her doorstep. She’s neurotic and not all that confident in any setting, but still sweet, loving, and cute. Is it any surprise that Codex was created by lady nerd Felicia Day?

What is the point of this? Why do we need to see more socially inept women in the media? Isn’t is a negative portrayal of woman to see them as dorky shut ins?

It’s a realistic portrayal. Male nerds are everywhere, and men are being told increasingly to embrace their nerdism, but women are more often being told to change. That geekery isn’t sexy, feminine, desirable, and it sure as hell isn’t going to catch you a good man. Get rid of that ponytail and those glasses! Hide your quirkiness and nerdy passions. Get a makeover!

Only one example of many.

All this, in turn, tells nerd men that a decent women will never share their interests, and tells media makers that women don’t like nerdy interests and we are largely ignored when it comes to things like video games and comics. It is a vicious cycle that hurts everyone involved. While the media is only now catching on to the reality that nerd women exist, everyone else has female friends and relatives who are absolute dorks, and chances are they are loved, quirks and all.

Girls read comics, Connor. We’re out here in the real world.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Christine permalink
    January 18, 2011 4:17 pm

    I’ve been having an argument with myself since I saw your twitter question about whether or not Penelope Garcia from Criminal Minds would qualify. I’m having trouble because it’s almost like the writers try a little too hard sometimes to shoehorn her into every single stereotype they can find, but at the same time I love the character. I’m still conflicted, but I think she qualifies. We’ve been told and shown she’s a gamer who loves comics and is the coolest girl in the room. Ok, now I’ve convinced myself.

    • January 18, 2011 4:25 pm

      Cool, we’ll throw her in, then! Another show I don’t watch, but if she’s into the stereotypical nerd things, very cool.

  2. January 18, 2011 4:20 pm

    You may have mentioned her somewhere already, but I gotta suggest Liz Lemon of 30 Rock. She constantly throws out Star Wars/Trek references and everyone acknowledges she’s the resident nerd girl.

    And Christine, I TOTALLY am with you on the Penelope Garcia character. Good call! She’s a firm lover of all things nerd, including cosplay and of course, dating Xander from Buffy 😉

    • January 18, 2011 4:24 pm

      I have to admit that I’ve never seen 30 Rock, but if you say she’s nerdy, we can throw her in! And another nerd girl written by a nerd girl.

  3. Tiferet permalink
    January 18, 2011 4:36 pm

    I’m conflicted about Amita in Numb3rs–on the one hand she was an online gamer and a mathematician but on the other hand she was always trying to get Charlie to act more normal which I hated.

  4. January 18, 2011 6:51 pm

    Ugh. No likey Codex, no likey Codex >.< Tried watching that series several times, I just can't sit through it. Though I did get a kick out of the Christmas carolling 'episode' they did a few years back, but that's the only positive I can give it 😦

    I do agree the female geek is a bit hard to pin down, and I think the…DUDE. How could you have missed Claudia from Warehouse 13? Blasphemy! I was gonna say that I think the only place you can find a well-done female geek would be a geeky channel, thus Le Syfy. And *ding* Claudia.

    The 'problem' with geeky girls in shows and the like is commercially simple. While there might be a market for them, it is rather small and thus not commercially viable/worth the risk. Making a good geek chick requires a microscope-like focus on a topic or source close to them, and a single show is unlikely to showcase a good example. Also if a writer is attempting to submit a script, would he rather try something bold and daring (insta-trash, 'change is bad') or try to get actually paid and going with the more stereotypical build?

    "So you have the female lead as a geeky librarian…can we swing that more into a, oh I don't know…more of a hot blonde sort of role? We have about a buh-gillion *vigorous* actresses that could play that part."

    Another one at least worth a parting mention is Abby from NCIS. She's close to decent, but she's the only actual character they got on the cast. But is she geeky? Kinda…smidge'in bit of Goth and some might say that flags her as a different vein, but that's just semantics to me.

  5. January 19, 2011 3:07 am

    Don’t forget Willow Rosenberg 🙂

    • January 21, 2011 5:47 pm

      She didn’t 😀 Miss Geek mentioned her inbetween Ugly Betty and Veronica Mars. Unless she was referring to ‘peck’ from the Willow movie. Man, that little ewok gets around.

  6. January 22, 2011 1:18 am

    You’ve missed two of my favorite pop cultural girl nerds! (Who are also two of my favorite characters period):

    1. Rory Gilmore (Gilmore Girls): Overachieving bookworm whose best friend is her mother, and spends all her time with her other best friend, Lane Kim, obsessing over bands. When Rory starts at a fancy private school, she spends lunch eating alone and reading, and gets picked on by the popular girls. She wants to be a political journalist and eventually becomes a blogger, and when she goes to spring break while at Yale, she has to force herself not to spend the whole time in her hotel room watching C-Span.

    2. Hermione Granger (Harry Potter): Know-it-all swot who makes her two only friends by engaging in the extreme bonding experience of fighting a troll. Cleverer than anyone else her age, she tries to study every single subject the school has to offer, and reads all her textbooks before the first day of class.

    • January 22, 2011 11:11 am

      A friend suggested Hermione, but I wasn’t sure if I’d put her in the nerd category as opposed to the smart girl category. And I never watched Gilmore Girls. Thanks!

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