Friday, March 21, 2014

Nerd Sex Symbol Redux

A few more thoughts on why there isn’t a female “nerd sex symbol” equivalent of Neil deGrasse Tyson, i.e. an average-looking woman who is seen as a sex symbol because of her excellence in an area having nothing to do with looks:

• Maybe we have plenty of average-looking female sex symbols—but they’re just wearing makeup. As Helen points out, it’s far easier for a woman who’s average-looking to transition into good-looking than it is for a man to do the same. Yes, a man can be groomed and styled, and if he’s in the public eye he’s probably experienced enough with concealer and powder, but the average guy just doesn’t have as many options for self-transformation as women do. A good makeup artist can visually whittle your nose, widen your eyes, and lift your cheekbones, and you don’t even need anything beyond basic know-how to redden your lips and emphasize or darken your eyes, two things that are considered attractive in women. Plus, it’s not all that hard for an average-looking woman to code herself as pretty, or to be coded as such by media handlers: Put on a dress and heels, clean up your hair, throw on some makeup, show some cleavage. On women who are downright weird-looking this might backfire, sure, and depending on the field the woman is in, her dolling-up might discredit her or at least raise some eyebrows. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s cleavage?) In short: Maybe there aren’t average-looking female sex symbols because they’ve been styled in such a way that obscures their averageness. Which leads to...

• We don’t let famous women be, or stay, average-looking. Child star turned mathematician Danica McKellar was mentioned on Twitter a couple of times as an example of a “nerd crush.” Yet as I noted in my original post, she’s done plenty of promotional work showcasing herself as a traditional sex symbol; her academic accomplishments add to the package as opposed to forming the bulk of it. But when I look a little more closely, I wonder if McKellar is more of an example of our tendency to sexualize any woman who’s remotely attractive under the age of, oh, 50. Obviously McKellar is conventionally good-looking, but she became the crush of every heterosexual 12-year-old boy in America because of her approachable, girl-next-door appeal—an appeal that precludes the sort of beauty that would likely see her cast as the traditional “hot girl,” both then and now. It’s also worth noting that despite her willingness to market herself as sexy, she hasn’t had tons of Hollywood success as an adult, and—ugh, I hate critiquing people’s looks but in order to discuss these issues there’s a certain amount of it that I do, so bear with me—I can’t help but wonder if part of that is because she’s basically a nice-looking, normal-looking woman who doesn’t quite fit the usual starlet mold. In fact, this quality is part of what cements her as a “nerd sex symbol”; as Navneet points out, you have to straddle the line of sexiness and approachability in order to be seen as “one of us” by nerd culture at large. It’s not just McKellar’s math skills; it’s her specific brand of appeal that puts her in the “nerd sex symbol” camp.

McKellar is an example of someone who wears the halo of beauty despite not being quite conventionally beautiful—which has kept her in the public eye, making her an example of someone who has successfully capitalized upon our tendency to sexualize accomplished women. But you hardly need to pose in Maxim to see the phenomenon, or to see individual women’s willingness to play along—Tina Fey’s career skyrocketed after she lost 30 pounds; news commentator Greta van Susteren was hired by Fox as an utterly average-looking woman, but by the time she started she’d gotten some cosmetic surgery. I’m not criticizing Fey or Susteren for that any more than I’m criticizing McKellar for posing in lingerie; it’s a logical response to being a well-known woman. If you know you’re going to be judged for your looks even if they’re beside the point, or if you’re just trying to become well-known in the first place, you might well feel that looking your best might help streamline any distractions from the work you’re trying to share with the world. 

But more importantly, as Rachel puts it, “Our definition of ‘average’ is a lot more forgivable when it comes to men.” It’s precisely because women have more means to leap from “average” to “pretty” that we’re more forgiving of men’s averageness. If he looks utterly pedestrian, that’s just how he looks; if she does, while some of us will champion that, others will think, How hard is it to put on a little lipstick, lady?

• Maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sudden sex symbol status is part of a long tradition of hypersexualizing black men. Now, I’m pretty sure most of us crushing on deGrasse Tyson while learning about the secrets of the universe aren’t sitting there dreaming about some of the more indelicate qualities frequently ascribed to black men. But the fact is, given how far we still have to go before we achieve racial equality, sex appeal is one area where black men are, if not overrepresented, at least more proportionally represented than they are compared to being, say, senators. Part of this is because of the history of black folks in entertainment, since entertainers are in a prime position to be sexualized. But part of the hypersexualization of black men is far darker: Our culture tends to paint black men as sexual aggressors, and we still tend to equate masculinity with sexual aggression. This flies in the face of deGrasse Tyson’s actual affect—engaging but mild, eager yet seemingly just a tad unsure of himself. But perhaps the idea of black men as cocksure imbues his public persona with a sex appeal we might not be quite as willing to give him were he not African American.

• Maybe sex symbols—like news streams, entertainment, and just about anything else in an age when we can curate our information to the nth degree—are becoming more and more diffuse. After my last post, plenty of men and women came up with examples of women who are seen as attractive because of the work they do, from musician Tori Amos to gaming expert Leigh Alexander to Mythbusters’s Kari Byron to YouTube stars. All of these fit the criteria—attractive but not conventionally beautiful, admired for their skill or manner more than their looks. Yet my knee-jerk response was also that they weren’t so widely known, or so widely seen as a sex symbol, that they approached the levels of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s appeal. But now I’m wondering if it’s actually that deGrasse Tyson is a unique case here: He’s the star of a show that is an enormously coordinated effort among the Fox channels; Cosmos premiered on 10 networks. Not many shows receive that kind of roll-out. Part of the “nerd sex symbol” thing is being outside mainstream Hollywood, but most people who achieve fame outside of that framework have a smaller audience than deGrasse Tyson does with Cosmos. Truth is, it’s hard to think of a male equivalent of Neil deGrasse Tyson. I still think we give more leeway to men to be sexy while being average-looking or even odd-looking than we give women. (Exhibit A: Benedict Cumberbatch.) But once you break out of the realm of the widely famous—who are often the widely conventionally attractive, for both sexes—appeal becomes more and more fragmented. It’s interesting that there isn’t a normal-looking woman who isn’t getting headlines as a “nerd sex symbol.” But the collage of women individual straight men have qualified as such points as much to the phenomenon of sub-sub-sub-subcultures as it does to our cultural unwillingness (as opposed to our individual willingness) to deign normal-looking women as sexy.


  1. Nobody gets to host a new TV show without being at least above average in appearance, and that includes Neil deGrasse Tyson. Are you really looking for his female equivalent? Or are you looking for women who are actually unattractive or at least unconcerned with their appearance--the stereotype of the serious woman?

    1. Certainly NDT is attractive enough to be a TV host, but he's no matinee idol, you know? And certainly a woman who appeared to be unconcerned with her appearance wouldn't make a great TV host; being good-looking needn't be a part of the job but having a..."regular" appearance would be, I suppose? The more I think about it, the more I think that this speaks to the larger issue of women being expected to put in a certain amount of beauty work—NDT can show up as-is and as long as he looks normal and agrees to wear a bit of powder he's good to go. But a woman in that position would be dolled up more, which wouldn't necessarily detract from her seriousness (though some might see it that way), but would make her more conventionally good-looking. As long as women have more conventional ways to look more attractive than men have at their disposal, we'll be expected to use them. I'm guessing that the difference between Rachel Maddow at home on a Sunday morning and Rachel Maddow hosting her show is quite larger than the difference between Neil deGrasse Tyson on a Sunday morning and the NDT we see on "Cosmos."

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