High Femme and Geekery

One of my New Year’s blogolutions was to clear out my to-blog folder, and bring closure to my unfinished drafts by simply posting them as-is. This is one of those drafts. Disorganized paragraphs, unfinished sentences, and general incoherence enhance the natural character and beauty of a half-written blog post and should not be considered flaws or defects.

Draft date: June 24, 2008

The women-in-science-osphere has been trying to figure out what to make of this Newsweek article about “Nerdettes”, female engineering majors who make a point of displaying gender-normative behaviors like makeup. Fairer Science has a summary of reactions.

Perhaps I have missed the many teams of pudgy young women in ratty, one-size-too-large t-shirts that criss-cross the country, promoting science and engineering to girls who do not like to play dress-up.

Let me be clear that I am not concerned with any individual geeky woman’s desire to femme herself up as much as she wants. Rather, I am concerned with the way women’s fashion choices are presented as a natural subject for political analysis – femming out is revolutionary, or counter-revolutionary, or perhaps it depends on whether you are wearing heels or flats, or whether you’re in the lab or at a club, or whether Venus is in a fire sign or at quincunx to Jupiter. Failure to femme out might be a rejection of patriarchal norms, or a rejection of your sexuality/femininity, or a sign to young girls that brains and beauty are mutually exclusive. Whatever the case, it is vitally important that we uncover and vigorously enforce the correct social norms! The future of society hinges on women displaying themselves in an approved manner!

You know who can wear natty outfits or graph paper shirts or sexy bike shorts or the same green polo every Thursday without inspiring any political debate or unease? Men!

With girlishness and fashion, I submit that women are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. So the Nerdettes aren’t making lots of us uneasy because they’re somehow making the wrong choice. They make us uneasy because they remind us that we have no satisfying options.

As a kid, I totally bought into the brains/beauty dichotomy. I picked brains. I never worried about dating – I just assumed that I would eventually find a nice zombie who would love me for my delicious, spicy brains. Though I occasionally feel embarrassed that I never learned the basic womanly arts of eye shadow, and wonder what my life would’ve been like if I’d read

Women in science and engineering are occasionally stereotyped as sexless spinsters, but what happens much more often is that our presence and contributions are simply made wholly invisible.

Once – just once – I would like to hear someone excuse poor behavior with “aw, they’re just socially awkward geek girls, what more do you expect?”.


  1. Dr. Free-Ride wrote:

    Yes, yes, yes! This analysis is dead-on.

    Moar, pleez! (Even if it’s in outline form.)

  2. Isis the Scientist wrote:

    Maria, if this was a draft you rock my whole universe. I was thinking about these sorts of things last night when I was considering posting a video I ended up posting anyway. I thought it was funny. I was wondering to myself what message it sends and whether it was an appropriate display of femininity. And then I thought to myself that these self conversations are probably uniquely female. I mean, it seems almost ridiculous to think of a man trying on a sweater and thinking, “Boy I hope I don’t look too sexy in this. I don’t want to send the wrong message.”

  3. JThompson wrote:

    Bugger the social norms. Women with brains are hot to some of us. Doesn’t matter how they dress. They could wear clown makeup and oversized shoes for all I care.

    Geeky guys don’t really get an excuse either. What they get is scorn and ridicule. That’s pretty much what “news” stories like this are going to send at the geeky girls now as well.

  4. BikeMonkey wrote:

    Boy I hope I don’t look too sexy in this. I don’t want to send the wrong message.

    …but…but I had that exact thought this very morning!!!!!!!!!

    /flagrant lie

  5. Silver Fox wrote:

    Wow! Nice *draft*. Most of my drafts are just links that are supposed to somehow remind me of what I wanted to post about.

    I think you’re right on w/ the damned if do, damned if don’t assessment. I try to wear what I want, which goes through phases and depends on what I’m doing, and I try not worry about it too much. And I’ve *finally* gotten over never having figured out mascara!

  6. AM wrote:

    I personally am waiting for power femmes to take over the world. Wishful thinking, I know, but my experiences with such women–their joy in color, animals, babies, flowers, and abundance–have convinced me that they embody the nurturant principles that should be behind the decisions that affect our lives. Most men are nurturant-IQ deficient.

  7. Maria Brumm wrote:

    JThompson: I can tell you from personal experience that geeky guys most certainly do get excuses. In particular, “aw, they’re just socially awkward geeks” is used as an excuse for why women in male-geek-dominated social environments (e.g., my alma mater) must simply put up with creepy pseudo-stalkerishness and sexual behavior from men.

  8. NJS wrote:

    My uniform is comfort: jeans, tennis shoes, t-shirt (the real kind with sleeves that cover half of my upper arm, not the babydoll type that have chunks of fabric on the shoulders that try to pass as sleeves), and a sweatshirt. Occasionally I’ll switch out the t-shirt for a slightly nicer shirt or the sweatshirt for a slightly nicer sweater.I don’t know what message this sends, but I’m more able to deal with the world when I’m comfortable.

    Conferences are a different case. I have suits for those.

  9. Peggy wrote:

    I think your analysis really gets to the heart of my own discomfort with the attention that the Nerdettes were getting. It’s not that I think woman scientists & engineers to adhere to some kind of androgynous dress code, it’s that I’d like for women to get attention even when they aren’t looking stereotypically feminine. And when we do get attention, I’d like for it to be for our achievements and not just for our “I’d hit that”-worthiness.

  10. Comrade PhysioProf wrote:

    This seems exactly right to me, and Zuska has said pretty much exactly the same thing on a number of occasions: that no matter what women choose, they are doing it wrong.

  11. Andrew Ironwood wrote:

    Bugger the social norms. Women with brains are hot to some of us. Doesn’t matter how they dress. They could wear clown makeup and oversized shoes for all I care.

    Have a care! Talk like that is confuzzling the issue fer some of us clown-fetishists out here [grin]…

  12. Hob wrote:

    Yeah, that Newsweek article was smarmy and barfy. “Hey look, we just discovered some cute girls! And you can call them words like ‘nerd’ that are supposed to be bad, except somehow now it’s good! They’re cute!” Next: why hot librarians are better than those other boring librarians.

    ps. Bring on the drafts! I know what it’s like to dither over the last bit of editing forever, but your off-the-cuff is still pretty damn good.

  13. arvind wrote:

    Rough drafts get to the jugular sometimes bereft of niceness added on with edits…this draft has that raw awesomeness…Maybe I should also think of posting drafts…I’ll at least finally write something!

    Downside is that errors you wish you didn’t make in hindsight creep up…So it takes cojones to do this…Bravo!

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