On hotness and blogging while female

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.


17 Responses to On hotness and blogging while female

  1. Dr says:

    Here in Sweden we’ve recently got a new TV Show called “Dr Åsa”. It’s a female doctor talking about the body and health in general. Is she:

    Fat and ugly?

    Ordinary looking?

    Basically a super model?

    You decide:

  2. Dr, I think you missed the point. Option D is ‘who the hell cares?’

    but kudos on being an asshole

  3. Dr says:

    Well, that sort of was my point to. But thanks for establishing the friendly tone of the internet. Such a lovely place!

  4. Miriam, I understand what you’re saying about attractiveness being important in our society for people like actors and politicians. However, in a medium like a blog, where people only read your words (or in the case of our recent Podcast of the Blue, hear your voice), does it really matter? I’ve been communicating with you over the blogosphere for months and honestly have no idea what you look like- nor do I really care. I don’t count that little thumbnail image that shows up on your posts on Southern Fried Science, since I can’t really see anything there anyway.

    And Dr, seriously, what are you talking about?

  5. Actually, I think Dr got my point. A female doctor on TV MUST be supermodel hot (actual TV-doctoring skills are secondary), while a male doctor…well

  6. WhySharksMatter, that is the ideal attitude. (And for the record, as a fellow member of the tribe, I look JUST LIKE YOU. 🙂 ). But in reality, male and female bloggers are criticized in very different ways. This post was written in response to the unpleasantness (1, 2) that Sheril’s been dealing with. Ideally both men and women should be criticized on their ideas and actions, but in reality (even in precious science-land) that is not how it goes.

  7. whysharksmatter says:

    You look just like me? Awesome Darwin beard and all?

  8. DNLee says:

    actually, I didn’t really ‘get’ what the fuss at Sb was all about. I read the comment and saw nothing particularly lewd or offensive. I mean, Sheril is pretty (and Chris is cute, too). Is that a bad thing to say?

    But I totally feel you on the looks and TV thing. For example, I would really would love to host my own science tv show, but the reality is, until I lose some weight, it probably won’t happen. It doesn’t matter that I have the smarts, passion, and enthusiam..Oh and age matters, too. Many celebrities (even sexy ones) lie about their age because a younger chronicle age is sexy, too. But I’m less worried about that issues because I’
    m very fortunate to look years younger than my real age. Good genes, yay! Thrifty genes, boo!

  9. Peggy says:

    The issue for me isn’t that comments saying Sheril pretty are offensive per se. It’s more that a number of commenters felt the need to immediately jump in and point out how hawt they think she is and how it doesn’t matter what she writes because she is so sexay (and the one that said “mmmmmmmm……….. wo-man” was just ew). Meanwhile, no one made any comment on Chris’s appearance, but focused on his writing and politics. Get enough of those comments in one place and I think it sends a message that a woman’s most important quality is her appearance.

  10. OceanChaos says:

    I think this is part of the bigger and older trend of deciding yearly that “___ is sexy.” For centuries, it was “well fed” is sexy, then “3 inches of make-up” is sexy, then my personal ironic favorite “chastity is sexy”. (That one deserves more attention, particularly as it persists today). Two points: some of this may be buy-in. I am your typical grumpy misanthropic troglodyte computer troll AND happily married (and male) but I still very much want to feel sexy/attractive. Perhaps to the point where if there ever is a legitimate geek-chic, I’d buy in.
    “Smart is sexy” is a tacit acknowledgement that some women are smart. We still have a million miles to go; but if you define progress as things getting worse more slowly, then this is progress!

  11. i’d just like to go on the record saying that i first objectified chris mooney a full 2 years before any of this sheril kerfuffle…


  12. Karen says:

    Miriam, now I feel guilty about my scientist pin-ups series.

    Rick, you always know what to say.

  13. Dammit, no! If I had an awesome Darwin beard I would totally enter the contest.

  14. Oh no, don’t feel guilty! There is still a big gulf between the popular perception of what female scientists look like (either TV hotties or hideous unloved dorky dorks) and what we really look like (normal. ok, slightly more attractive than normal. 🙂 ). Seeing normal female scientists has great value, I think – whenever I do outreach the kids are pretty surprised that a young not-totally-dorky woman is a scientist. Perhaps I’m contradicting myself, but whatever, I contain multitudes.

  15. Hisly says:

    It’s true! When I volunteer, the young girls always ask if I have a boyfriend and they are pleased to find out that I do. And that I wear T shirts with cartoons on them and jeans and like to go out and have fun am friendly and (somewhat) normal on an interpersonal level.

    Yes to “seeing normal female scientists”! It’s more about demonstrating that some Lady Scientists can look and act like “normal” people and not just sit in a dark lab all alone (which is where I am right now).

  16. Jason R says:

    Are there any women on TV with the slightly pudgy, schlubby looks of the Mythbusters guys?

    One of the sexiest women ever on TV fits this description. And she was a scientist (albeit a social one, how’s that for discrimination :P). I don’t know if she has a show anymore, but then I watch less and less mainstream television. And I think therein lies part of the answer. Why look to the past for an image of our future? In the past, mainstream broadcasters had control of scarce resources (airwaves) that they tried to distribute to as many of the lowest common denominators as possible. So it is not surprising that they presented caricatures of both men and women and science. But the Internet is disruptive and the Danielle’s of the world can launch their own shows with very few barriers between them and an enthusiastic audience.

  17. Just to let you know your web site looks a little bit different on Safari on my netbook using Linux .

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