Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nerd Crushed: Where Are the Average-Looking Female "Sex Symbols"?

Around the time I started “casually” walking by the home of a man who gave me my one and only skydiving lesson, I realized one of the factors that makes me find someone attractive: If I watch a man do something he’s good at and loves to do, it's likely I’ll develop a little crush on him. It’s not a sexual crush necessarily, nor is it a crush that I’d actually act on—in fact, much of the time the object of my crushdom is someone I know full well I’d have no interest in otherwise. Most of the time the crush doesn’t persist past the moment (the skydiving instructor was an outlier, because, I mean, the dude jumps out of planes on purpose). My minute-long crushes are usually an acknowledgement that watching someone at their best makes them attractive, regardless of their attractiveness overall.

So of course, midway through watching the premiere of the rebooted Cosmos, I’d developed a crush on its host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. His barely-contained eagerness to share the secrets of the universe, his slightly jumpy demeanor, the liquid pools of his warm brown eyes—if he hadn’t had me there, he’d have gotten me with his tear-jerker anecdote about being hosted for the day as a 17-year-old kid from the Bronx by his hero, Carl Sagan. 

Now, I may understand the drive behind my own mini-crushes, but I also know that my predilection has led me to some highly unlikely crushes; I had a photo of Tom Brokaw hanging in my locker in seventh grade. But I’m used to those crushes being seen as sort of idiosyncratic—let others have their obvious Clooneys and Pattinsons, I’ll stick with the unexpected, thanks. So when I searched for what other viewers were saying about deGrasse Tyson, I didn’t think I’d find that just as we’re not alone in this universe, I wasn’t alone in my crush. Neil deGrasse Tyson, according to Twitter, is everything from a “science crush” to a “nerd crush” to a “celebrity crush.” He’s “superhot” and “handsome,” making us “hot and bothered,” what with his “sci-sexy” “sexy voice” and general “hotness.” In fact, he was once listed in People’s annual Sexiest Man Alive list as the Sexiest Astrophysicist, is routinely listed as a “nerd sex symbol” in headlines, and has been asked about his sex appeal to the point where he even has the crushworthiest response possible ready at hand: “When you tell people something that's intellectually delectable, they can feel sensually towards it. But I think at the end of the day, the object of their affection is the universe." (Swoon!) Point here is: My NDT crush isn’t idiosyncratic, offbeat, unexpected, or unlikely in the least. The man isn’t just a little crush of mine; he’s a bona fide sex symbol, regardless of whether it’s qualified by the word nerd.

I think it’s splendid that so many people are freely acknowledging what most of us already know from our own experience: Sex appeal isn’t strictly tied to conventional good looks, and average-looking people can become immensely attractive in our eyes if we find their other qualities appealing. I mean, Neil deGrasse Tyson is nice-looking enough, but I doubt he’d be seen as “handsome” or “superhot” were it not for his other gifts. (Sure, there’s an argument there about the dangers of labeling everything appealing as “sexy” and why a good astrophysicist can’t just be a good astrophysicist in peace—but really, it’s the quieter sort of sex appeal that has made us humans keep propagating the species, so I’m all for it.) I mean, who among us hasn’t experienced an unlikely flutter of the heart or loins in watching someone blossom before our eyes in a single moment? A headline proclaiming an utterly normal-looking man as a “sex symbol” of any sort means that we as a culture are eager to see beyond the surface when it comes to human appeal.

But when I tried to think of a woman who is widely seen in the same light, I came up short. Sure, there are plenty of well-known women who are seen as “nerd crushes” because they speak of their nerdy interests (like Mila Kunis) or are involved with nerd culture in the sense that they go to Comic Con. Then there are the women who have been christened as “the thinking man’s sex symbol,” like Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Susan Sarandon, and Rachel Weisz, all of whom may be excellent performers and writers, and all of whom are also pretty much exactly the definition of the beauty standard, even if they’re not as cheesecake-perfect as sex symbols who don’t usually garner the prefix of “thinking man’s.” Sarah Palin of all people is actually the closest I can think of, in that she's a well-known woman viewed as attractive in a field where you don't have to be a professional beauty to succeed—but besides the fact that her sex appeal became a tool of ridicule, she was literally a beauty queen, hardly landing her in the same camp as Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Also, she’s Sarah Palin, but whatevs.) Google turns up a few other women labeled “thinking man’s sex symbol” who aren’t entertainers—writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Sheryl Sandberg—which come closer to the spirit of the deGrasse Tyson phenomenon, but they’re acknowledged as sex symbols on a far smaller level. The point: Call her a nerd crush or the thinking man’s sex symbol—if she’s a woman, she’s still got to be pretty damned good-looking to get the title. I mean, when The Wonder Years child star Danica McKellar went on to be an advocate for girls in math, she was doing book promotion in lingerie. 

Just as we’d be unwise to blame individual men for patriarchal beauty standards, we can’t say that the lack of widely acknowledged atypical female sex symbols is a reflection of men’s abilities to see beyond the physical. Men are just as capable as women of finding someone attractive for reasons that have little to do with visual attraction, and I’ve heard plenty of individual men share their crushes on somewhat unlikely targets: soccer player Abby Wambach, economics blogger Megan McArdle, Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, poet Nikki Giovanni, and tennis player Martina Hingis before the makeover. An ex once sheepishly told me he had just a wee little crush on Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, you know?

Still, collectively we’re slow to recognize the possibility of a female “sex symbol” who doesn’t possess the hallmarks of a traditional sex symbol. And to be clear, on its face this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, the flipside here is that anytime a prominent woman does anything nifty, she’s suddenly a “sex symbol.” Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi: the Hill’s sex symbol! Doesn’t Alice Munro look hot as a Nobel laureate? By no means am I arguing that we should sexualize women’s accomplishments just so we can have a female equivalent of a Neil deGrasse Tyson. But the thing is, we already do sexualize accomplished women, assuming she’s conventionally attractive. What’s missing is room for a wider public acknowledgment of the enormous swath of qualities that make accomplished women attractive. We give it to the gents, and on an individual level we give it to women too. But when it comes to our culture—or hell, just Twitter—christening an utterly average-looking woman a sex symbol of any sort, we shy away from the possibility.

Basically, this is a version of the same old song—I mean, news flash, women are expected to look conventionally pretty. It’s just interesting to me that we as a culture are willing to go to greater lengths to extend the definition of attractive to include skill and charisma when we’re talking about men, but not so willing when we’re talking about women. Or are we? I’m hoping I’ve got a major blind spot here. Are there famous women I’m overlooking who are widely known as “sex symbols” despite not matching the definition of conventional beauty? I’d like to learn that I’m mistaken.


  1. Oh goodness, I'm going to have to ponder this one for a bit. I will say that one woman who came to mind was Britney Griner, although it seems to me that her girl-crush fanbase is mostly female and/or queer, so I don't know if that really meets this definition. I also thought of Helen Mirren. She was pretty foxy in a conventional way when she was younger and showing her boobs in stuff like Caligula, but I still hear men - like a coworker of mine, who adores her - rave about her and she's well into her 60s.

    BTW I am soooo excited to see you blogging again. Not just because it means that your blogging and so I get to read your work, but also because I hope it means we are that much closer to getting a book from you. And with that, I am now going to read the other posts you've written in the past few days.

    1. It's funny—in discussing this with female friends, many women, straight or queer, mentioned Ellen deGeneres. I wonder if queer women who sort of fall into this category (like Griner) are seen somewhat differently even by straight women? And WORD on Helen Mirren.

      (And thanks for the welcome back to blogging! I'm rusty but it feels good to be back.)

  2. Who wouldn't be attracted to Neil? He love his work and is devoted to it. That's sexy. He was the perfect choice for the "Cosmos" re-boot. Carl was equally attractive for the same reason.

    I like this post. It poses important questions. Your natural interest in sociology mirrors mine.

    Personally, I'm drawn to women who are unconventional. Who pursue their individual dreams, independent of societal expectation. I fall in love with women as people and later find myself attracted to them, not the other way around.

    1. Your point about "who wouldn't be attracted to Neil?" got me thinking, and sure enough, there are plenty of (straight, I assume, because of the phrasing) men on Twitter who profess their "man-crush" on him. He's just damned attractive all around...

      Your comment on being drawn to unconventional women reminds me of something an ex said about hair length—I asked him whether he preferred long or short hair on women (he'd known me with both) and he said he didn't really have an aesthetic preference, but because short hair sort of opted out of the default of femininity, he preferred that because it signaled a beat of individualism. He was definitely more like you in the sense of falling in love with people and later finding himself attracted to them—one of my only boyfriends I was friends with first.

  3. I was thinking and burbling about something related just this past week, and I struggle to think of any examples.

    Is it in part about power? I found myself thinking of Judi Dench as M in the new James Bond movies, and that character's confidence and power and immunity from sentiment reminded me of some male sex symbols. Power. Charisma. A manner that suggests that she just doesn't give a bleep what you think of her. Is that part of it? Only a subset of male sex symbols need that charisma, but maybe a woman who isn't going all-out-please-please-admire-me-glamor needs to go to the confidence extreme?

    That's my thought in this moment, anyway.

    1. Excellent point—yes, I think it has something to do with power, and for some reason I didn't get this comment notification before writing my updated post, and I wish I had because this seems central. And I think that's part of why it might be difficult to find public women who fit this category, because we're still conflicted as a society about powerful women—it's so easy to categorize her as a "dragon lady" or just a plain old "bitch" or something like that. Now I'm wanting to see Dench in this role.

  4. Rachel Ray and the girl from Mythbusters come to mind and both have been featured in sexy men's magazines spreads...


    1. I hadn't known of the Mythbusters co-host—it does indeed seem like she fits the bill, even if she's not hugely well-known. Her fans seem to rave not only about her looks but about her manner/affect, and certainly the science factor doesn't hurt! (Me, I can't get past Rachel Ray saying "sammies" to even conceive of her as a sex symbol...)

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    Original Post by chickey_soup:

    Are you hip y? I am and have a horrendous time with pants. They have to be a certain size to fit my hips and caboose and then proceed to slide down as I move. It is really irritating because you have to slow you're groove to constantly adjust!

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    Original Post by theholla:

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