I confess I’ve been alienated by a lot of the “Female scientists ARE SO totally hot!” action. I’ve never cared much for performing femininity, as the humanities kids say. And being more…shall we say…Bette Midler than Bette Davis makes for a very different experience, both on the internet and in real life. But the foolishness that’s been going around science blog land lately is ridiculous.
Lisa from Sociological Images (one of my very favorite blogs ever) has insight from an unusual source. A while back, she posted this cover from Vogue Magazine in which Judd Apatow’s chubby actors lounge about in body suits. It’s funny because it’s a parody of another Vogue cover with naked ladies, only the guys get to wear clothes. As Lisa says:
I think we would be unlikely to see a similar cover featuring women, even women comedians, because women are allowed to be rich, nice, or funny but they must ALSO be good-looking and fit. A cover featuring chubby women would JUST be gross. It wouldn’t be gross and funny.
Being good-looking and fit is ONE way for men to be admire in our society. Being good-looking and fit is a REQUIREMENT for women to be admired, no matter what else she brings to the table.
So women MUST be attractive – no matter what else they bring to the table. And if a woman is attractive, that is just as important as whatever she’s actually doing or saying. (Hi, Sarah Palin.) Consider the backlash against Gail Trimble, who dominated UK quiz show University Challenge. Nobody could figure out how to talk about a smart woman, so everyone just argued about whether she was sexy or not, or bitchy or not.
But this could not possibly be true in science, right? Except that a brief examination of scientists on TV bears this out. Are there any women on TV with the slightly pudgy, schlubby looks of the Mythbusters guys? I flipped through Discovery Channel’s shows and couldn’t find any, though to be frank it was a tiny sample size since there were barely any women at all. Anyone have a counter example?
This dialogue over sexiness in science makes me think of female choices in Halloween costumes. Little girls can be a cowgirl or a detective or a “Kimono Kutie” (ewwww) but all of the choices are pink. Women can be a police officer, a referee, or a detective but all of the choices are sexy. The message for women is “You can be anything (even smart!) as long as you’re feminine and cute! Looking good is THE most important thing for a girl or woman.” Frankly, that is also the message that I get from Danica McKellar’s math book and Dora’s makeover.
I think too much emphasis on “smart is sexy” overlooks the ubiquitous societal message that “sexy is everything if you’re female.” That’s why commenters feel they have the right to ogle female bloggers – why should they pay attention to what she is actually saying when everything that society says is important is right there in her picture? When women in the public eye are free to be funny or butch or dorky or even (shock! horror! omg the world is ending!) fat, then Totally Hot will just be another way for female scientists to be.