he said, she said

Warpathjenluc_7Ooh! Blog fight! Several folks over at ScienceBlogs are in a tizzy over a post by Razib at Gene Expressions, who expressed his surprise at encountering a hot young woman  (or, as he prefers to phrase it, "a smokin’ chica") interested in science fiction at a wine bar recently. Shelley at Retrospectacle and Tara at Aetiology took umbrage at his thoughtless remarks, specifically the underlying assumption that a "hot female" can’t or shouldn’t be a certain way — in this case, interested in something as geeky as science fiction. (P.Z. and the mysterious "Dr. Joan Bushwell" have also eloquently weighed in with their takes on the dust-up.)

On the whole, the discussion has been reasonably civil, but Razib rather predictably retreated into defensive mode, claiming he never said no such thing, and even if he did, it was taken out of context and besides, statistics would bear him out. So there. Razib’s counter-argument might have been more convincing if he hadn’t bragged in his own comment thread about having a "smokin’ hot chica" all his own — which in turn elicited the blogging equivalent of "high fives" from certain less-evolved male readers. *sigh*  Because everyone knows that having a hot girlfriend legitimizes one’s manliness in a way a science degree never could. Jen-Luc Piquant thinks it’s rather sad that a smart, talented guy like Razib is so insecure, he has to draw a big chunk of his self-esteem from the relative hotness of his girlfriend. He even commented on Tara’s blog that seeing an attractive woman discussing science fiction in public "was a positive thing for me" — a kind of social affirmation. That said, I think Razib is sincere when he claims to be confused as to why his comments have caused such a ruckus. There’s a subtlety to the issue that young guys in particular seem to miss. Repeatedly.

The whole exchange reminds me of a conversation I had about a year ago with Kimba, one of my best friends, and a hardcore Geek Boy. One day I called him on a verbal tic: every time he mentioned one of his male friends in conversation, he’d feel compelled to toss in, "And his girlfriend’s really hot, too." Kimba isn’t sexist; he admires and respects intelligence in women, and has a heart of gold. So I expressed surprise at his constant knee-jerk commentary concerning the physical appearance of his pals’ female companions. Why, I asked, was this at all significant to his male friends’ overall worthiness? After all, the obvious implication is that attractive women are trophies that magically confer status and respect on the men who have them on their arms. Like Razib, Kimba’s first response was to get defensive, profess his innocence, and insist I was misinterpreting his words. But eventually he admitted I had a point, and that he hadn’t been aware of his own latent biases.

One reason it’s tough for some guys to see this kind of thing, is that most of them haven’t been subjected since birth to the "can’t do" attitudes frequently directed at young girls and women. Every single one of us has some such tale. Girls play with dolls, not guns. Girls don’t like math, or science. Girls aren’t as good at sports (certainly not good enough to compete against men, even those who happen to be athletically gifted). Girls don’t like drag racing/monster trucks/boxing, yadda, yadda, yadda. Or if they do, it’s because they’re freaks, or ugly, or in some way undesirable per the prevailing "norms" of popular society.

Invariably, the "can’t do" attitude is accompanied by some argument of the "innate ability" variety: boys are just "naturally" more inclined to have certain interests, behave in certain ways, excel at certain subjects, and there are all kinds of "scientific studies" cited to back up these kinds of assertions. Apparently they’re just innately better at everything, which is why a woman excelling in just about any male-dominated sphere is often met with disbelieving astonishment. Even the frickin’ Discovery Channel store offers gender-specific Christmas gift guides, featuring science kits and erector sets for boys, and jewelry making, lip gloss and similar toys for girls.

These arguments and attitudes are nonsense, of course — even Razib would agree. But then he shouldn’t be surprised at the reaction his comments provoked. Don’t go pushing that particular button, dude, unless you’re prepared to face the consequences. Aliensripley
Because we hear it over, and over, and over again, and after awhile, we just get sick of it. Gender stereotyping is real. It matters. And frankly, it really pisses us off, and occasionally spurs us to go on the warpath. As Tara wrote, "Maybe if society wasn’t so generally negative about it when women do things that are typically associated with men (holy cow, there’s a girl reading SF! Take a picture before she escapes!), women wouldn’t feel so out of place doing it in the open."

Which is not to say geek boys don’t suffer negative stereotyping and social stigmatization, too, particularly in high school — ergo, the fascination with scoring a "smokin’ chica" to validate themselves in the eyes of the world. In Razib’s defense, there’s nothing wrong with appreciating female (or male) attractiveness, and desiring an attractive partner. Let’s face it, attractiveness matters to all of us to some extent. I have yet to hear anybody say of their partner, "Yeah, s/he is smart, funny, successful and a good person… if only s/he were uglier." Heck, even Wired runs an annual "sexy geeks" contest, although it’s rather telling that the female candidates have racked up tons more votes than the male candidates. Clearly, it’s the geek guys, not the women, who are most concerned with voting. Thank god for the always-fabulous SkepChicks, who keep things nicely balanced by offering both a SkepChick and a SkepDude calendar — where else could we see Phil Plait naked?

Speaking of geeky attractiveness, tomorrow, December 15, is "Reveal Your Blog Crush Day" (hat tip to Angela Gunn). Here’s your chance to confess the identity of your own favorite "smokin’ hot" blogger — of either gender. I jumped the gun a bit on that one; everyone already knows about my blog crush.

24 thoughts on “he said, she said”

  1. I think the key point is that people rarely approach hot chicks and use geek topics as a conversational gambit.
    And hot chicks who are into geeky stuff are unlikely to bring up geeky stuff in conversation unless they’ve pegged their conversational partner as a fellow nerd. I’m sure they get plenty of utterly mundane people talking to them, so nerd topics would be pretty pointless most of the time.
    I mean, even ignoring the hotness factor, I doubt many nerds leap right into nerdy topics with a new acquaintance, unless that new acquaintance is wearing a nerdy shirt, or otherwise is advertising his or her nerd status. Sit a nerd down in his airline seat, and he’s not going to bring up the Transformers with the sales guy in the next seat.
    So the likelihood of coming upon a hot nerd being publicly nerdy in the wild (not at a nerd-appropriate event) would depend on a situation like razib’s – overhearing the hot nerd in conversation with someone he or she already knows.
    Then there’s the whole other issue that high intelligence does not guarantee an interest in things like SF. Plenty of intelligent people channel their nerdiness into other areas, like sports trivia.

  2. I used to read Gene Expression avidly for a time. Being in physics, I thought I was guilty of an excessive tendency to reductionism, but after a while I started to get the feeling that they were more devoted to the idea of genetic determinism (to an extent) than to the science itself. Plus, the occasional and baffling posts about hot chicks having one racial characteristic or another.
    If you’ve got a tender heart or just don’t like politics mixed with your biology, I recommend staying away from their comment threads — one too many very confident posts about the innate inability of women to do high-level science, or about how you’re better off making sure your doctor isn’t black because odds are he/she has a lower IQ and is more likely to screw up your treatment.

  3. eh, I htin kyou are talking about Classic Gene Expression. The post in question was on Razib’s new Gene Expression, and until this post he’s done quite well at avoiding the kind of racist, sexist junk that the Classic is full of.

  4. but Razib rather predictably retreated into defensive mode, claiming he never said no such thing, and even if he did, it was taken out of context and besides, statistics would bear him out.
    look, tara started out her post like so:
    relates a recent observation of the apparently rare species hottus chicas scientificas at a local wine bar.
    the rest of the post had to do a lot with women in science. as tara said, i was just a starting point. i wanted to make it clear that my post wasn’t about women in science or the intelligence of women. it was about a robin wright penn ‘princess bride’ era hot female + boistrous discussion of early adolescent science fiction in the same person. if it was a good looking guy i would have throught it was really freaky too, but good looking guys aren’t worth a blog post because they don’t make me wonder if god does exist.

  5. Since when was Hyperion “early adolescent”?
    (I think I’d disagree with your acquaintance about it being a good book for people new to sf too. It seems to me a good book to recommend to people who’ve already read an awful lot of sf: half the enjoyment of reading it is enjoying its treatment of many classic sf tropes.)

  6. I used to feel that having an advanced science degree and a hot girlfriend legitimated my masculinity. Then I saw that picture of Phil Plait naked, and now I feel like less of a man.

  7. Whoah – what kind of confluence of planetary forces is there this week?
    Lee’s taking TBR to task about underrepresenting women, I’m on DC’s case for naming their new line of comics “geared towards getting girls to read comics” Minx…and you’re all about the same deal in the science/geek blogosphere.
    I think we all need to go out and have a few good rants over a drink. LOL

  8. To clarify, Razib, I’m not accusing you of be sexist, I’m saying you have a blind spot where women are concerned. For you, these are separate questions. What everyone is trying to point out is that, for GeekGrrls, women in science/engineering, etc., they are NOT separate issues; they are closely interlinked. You’re looking at an iceberg and claiming that only the tip poking out of the water exists, willfully ignoring the big ugly mess below the surface. So if you’re going to make those kinds of comments, don’t act all surprised when you get this kind of reaction. That’s all…
    And, um, Robin Wright Penn in “The Princess Bride”? Dude, c’mon! 🙂 I’m a big fan of the movie myself — Inigo Montoya roolz — but no self-respecting Geek Guy would call Princess Buttercup (who whines, sobs and waits around to be rescued) their female ideal. Scully in the X-Files, for example, is more their speed…

  9. And, um, Robin Wright Penn in “The Princess Bride”? Dude, c’mon! 🙂 I’m a big fan of the movie myself — Inigo Montoya roolz — but no self-respecting Geek Guy would call Princess Buttercup (who whines, sobs and waits around to be rescued) their female ideal. Scully in the X-Files, for example, is more their speed…
    There are a number of highly attractive Geek Women in science fiction movies. Ripley, shown above without comment (nice touch!), is one. The woman who figured out cold fusion, whose name I forget, from The Saint. (Hey, it was a movie, it’s OK to have cold fusion.) One can never forget Willow from Buffy, whom many geek guys found infinitely attractive even if she turned out to play for the other team. There’s Kaylee from Firefly. (Zoe from Firefly was more of the gun totin’ Ripley type.)
    At the younger age, there’s of course Hermione Granger, and also Jordan (name right?) from Real Genius.

  10. Mmm…. Ripley.
    Look, I have nothing to say other than anyone who wants to go for “hot chick” can go ahead and go. If that’s your only criteria, the “hot smart chicks” are going to be unimpressed. Since hot is nice but hot/smart is the criterion I find most attractive, I like that my competition pool for hot/smart just got one guy smaller.
    Speaking of GeekGrrls, I bought my daughter a really cool telescope[1] for Christmas since she’s been geeking out to space science lately (she’s 7 years old). I really don’t want to go too much into her future dating prospects, but she’s clearly going to be smart and geeky some day, and judging from her mother…
    Mostly just to bring my thinly-connected tangential monologue to something resembling full-circle, I was first attracted to my wife when I knew her as the mechanical engineer intern with the really great body who worked in the same research lab as I did. Good times.
    [1] okay, okay, it’s a Celestron 4.5 reflector since you *had* to know.

  11. I have a problem with the morals you proclaim in this post. It goes beyond equality without saying so: “If you don’t agree it’s a sexist latent bias.” No. Smart and successful men have trophy girls, and smart successful women have trophy boys, is a completely sex neutral scenario in which the criticized statements are absolutely normal.
    (A psychology friend of mine pointed out a study saying that successful women become much more interested in the looks of their partners, if anyone is interested I’ll ask her for the reference.)
    So while it is absolutely fine to disagree on the grounds of principles with such statements, swinging the club of sexism and bias against these statements is at least simplistic and possibly disingenuous.
    As for geekery and beauty, well geeky behavior is to a degree anti social, whereas beauty confers to a person social power. So there are inherent factors there that make the two a “mismatch”. Also geekyness is the focus on ideas, beauty (in so far as it is attained through work) is the focus on the body.
    This is true as much for the male geeks as for the female geeks. Male geeks are quite frequently not the paragons of aesthetics either.
    So basically I feel that the necessary and important strive for gender neutral perspectives is conflated with personal morals quite often. Basically the idea that the social structures that are partly or largely coded as male/female need to go away for the discrimination to go away, when in fact it is likely or at least plausible that these social structures are natural and fulfill clear functions for the operation of a society and the goal should be the dismantling of the sex based coding associated to them.

  12. Off the point but …
    Jennifer’s book got a good review in Wired maggazine’s new issue. She is bracketed with Freeman Dyson and Thomas Pynchon- they got good reviews too

  13. Frankly, even I think Ripley is kinda hot.. 🙂 and Matt, I bought my nephew the exact same telescope for Christmas! What are the odds? Well, probably pretty good, considering Celestron is a top manufacturer…

  14. “Verbal tic,” that’s a good way to describe it. My father, as long as I have known him, that is, at least 50 years, will ALWAYS first say, if a woman is mentioned to him, “Is she pretty?” No matter what situation the woman is in, whether Nobel prize winner or Olympic gold medalist or famous writer, whatever, it’s always, “Is she pretty?” Sometimes followed by, “Is she fat?” He has even asked women professional contacts directly, “Are you pretty?” At which point one woman, used to such things, replied, “Oh, PLEASE.”

  15. Since Razin seems to be short on defenders here:
    If he had said:
    “So I was in this wine bar and this hot girl came in and started talking about my favorite X- how crazy is that!?”
    Does X really matter?
    I think that the excitement of a guy who discovers he has something in common with a smokin’ chica (lung cancer, perhaps?) is independent of what that potential point of connection happens to be- science fiction, tacky grey-and-blue striped shirts, or the Collingwood football club.

  16. Replace “smokin’ hot chica” with “black/Indian/Neanderthal”, and express surprise that the individual “can read and write/speaks English without an accent/walks upright.” I guarantee you’ll hear an uproar form any blacks/Indians/Neanderthals who happen to be reading. X doesn’t matter; what matters is the making a connection to underlying stereotypes.
    You’re missing the real point by over-focusing on X rather than the underlying attitude pervading Razib’s original post and comment thread. Because what’s REALLY being said here is that women are ultimately valued on the basis of their ability to inspire male lust — per Janet Stemwedel, who summed it up nicely when she added, “That shit gets old.” And it gets old fast. That’s what got Razib into trouble: not his excitement at meeting an attractive woman with common interests — we would all be excited about finding someone attractive with common interests — but his kneejerk extension of a corrollary (geek girls and women into the hard sciences are usually UN-attractive, and therefore not as highly valued).
    I’m not a member of the “PC Police.” Personally, I’m not all that upset by the original post; I’ve been dealing with those kinds of attitudes my whole life, and mostly they just evoke a tired, “not again” sigh. I let go of my high school traumas a long time ago. I know my true worth lies in the sum total of who I am, and anyone who doesn’t recognize this simply isn’t worth my while.
    And I don’t think Razib is necessarily sexist. We’ve all made thoughtless offhand comments that have been inadvertently hurtful to some people. All he needed to do was say, “Whoops, I mis-spoke, sorry if I offended anyone,” and that would have been the end of it. Instead he tried to JUSTIFY himself by pretending he hadn’t really meant what he so clearly said. Sorry, we’re not buying it. And still, I don’t consider Razib a “bad person” for this; he’s just less of a man in my eyes.

  17. >>Replace “smokin’ hot chica” with “black/Indian/Neanderthal”, and express surprise that the individual “can read and write/speaks English without an accent/walks upright.”<< How about "She's American so I was surprised that she knew German literature so well.". Is that offensive to all Americans because it implies that they don't usually know German literature? In your example all the attributes are positive social markers in general (someone who can read is considered higher, socially, obviously), something that can hardly be said about SciFi.

  18. “Because what’s REALLY being said here is that women are ultimately valued on the basis of their ability to inspire male lust”
    In the context, that is almost correct. Why? Because he was IN A BAR. Although they have other purposes, one of the main reasons to attend bars is to slake said lust. So the relative valuation of potential partners based on their Q is appropriate for that situation. The extension of this bar-specific, relative valuation to an ultimate valuation is not made my Razib.
    If Razib said that his new PhD student or his new TA was a SHC, that would indeed be inappropriate. The job advertisement described by AmIaWomanScientist here (http://amiawomanscientist.blogspot.com/2006/12/fight-and-flight.html) is completely unprofessional. But I think that the satement is fine within the boundary conditions that he described. If Razib’s manhood is to be questioned, it is his choice of a wine bar over some biker joint that is the most obvious point of inquiry.
    The dependence of SHC’s for young male self-esteem is a larger issue which I hope to address in a blog shortly; currently the posting is stuck in peer review.

  19. Anyone who thinks smokin’ hot chicas (and smokin’ hot muchachos) don’t read science fiction needs to spend more time at WisCon (“The World’s Leading Feminist SF Convention”). Particularly the karaoke dance party.

  20. Wheee, this subject always gets a lot of commentary. Just visit San Diego’s Comic-Con, see women dressed as Slave Leia and other half-clad icons, and tell me that attractive woman can’t like Sci Fi.

  21. Jennifer, a belated reply here: thanks so much for the compliment. Reading my pseudoname in the same sentence as “eloquent” and “PZ” (I confess that I am a Pharyngula sycophant) sent me into a ladylike swoon. It’s a relief that at least one reader (you) grokked what I was trying to say, and perhaps I made my point inadequately if it didn’t make it to the teeming masses. “Be wary of generalizations and the perceptions which they engender.”
    Or there may be something else at play here. Based on a couple of the comments, specifically those of RPM & his razibness, in response to Kevin’s latest…
    …I am inspired to write about the invisibility of the menopausal human female. Stay tuned!
    Thanks again, and likewise, I think Ripley is wonderful icon.

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