Beauty vs. Brains
There’s a bit of a flame war going on over at Christie Wilcox’s blog over on ScienceBlogs, and it has inspired me to sit down and write a quick post in response. For those who don’t keep up with SB, I’ll summarize what’s happening: Christie is currently competing for a $10 000 blogging scholarship, and her closest competition in the race is a makeup blog called Temptalia. Intrigued by the juxtaposition of two blogs with such very different content, Christie wrote a post about some of the biological reasons why makeup is effective. Flames ensued, as Temptalia readers became enraged at the perceived slur against their passion for makeup (although I honestly have to say, I don’t see where they’re getting the impression that Christie is bashing them — she’s just looking at it from a different angle, not saying that her take on it is somehow “better”). The flames were, of course, fanned by many SB commenters, some of whom have been very lacking in tact in their dismissals of Temptalia’s content. SB commenters are often lacking in tact when it comes to non-science topics and non-scientist commenters, so no surprise there.
Anywhos. All of this shit-flinging has gotten me thinking about a topic that often intrigues me: the western perception that brains and beauty cannot exist within the same person at the same time (especially if that person is a woman).
There are a few stereotypes that we all know. The “dumb blonde” is one that I run up against pretty regularly — it’s one of the reasons I prefer to keep my hair dyed, instead of its natural shade, because people do treat you as though your IQ is lower when your hair is blonde. The “sexy librarian” is another: the woman who looks dowdy and bookish, but then removes her glasses and becomes a bombshell, defying all expectations. The “damsel in distress” is beautiful, but totally incapable of taking care of herself — same goes for the “princess”, who needs the support of a prince to give her happiness. The media rarely gives us a female protagonist who is both drop-dead gorgeous AND incredibly brainy (sci-fi is probably the best genre in that regard, with thanks going out to Star Trek and Nichelle Nichols for starting the trend, but I’d argue that us smart-and-pretty types are still kind of underrepresented). Beautiful actresses and models who have brains and minds of their own are often encouraged to hide the fact (how many people know that Lisa Kudrow has a biology degree, or that Natalie Portman went to Harvard, has a graduate degree, and speaks 4 languages?), playing unintelligent or subservient characters who require constant help and support from more intelligent (or male) individuals. Women who are more in-your-face about their braininess, like Sigourney Weaver, are often criticized for being “butch”, “bitchy”, or “feminazis”, and their beauty is downplayed.
Being both beautiful and brainy is, apparently, a difficult combination. And if you do happen to possess both of those traits, then you can’t possibly be a nice person, too. Having all three would just be too much. [/sarcasm]
It’s this stereotype, I think, that underlies the hostility going on over at Christie’s blog. Women who enjoy science and technology get sick of being treated like butchy/bitchy girls, while women who enjoy makeup and beauty get sick of being treated like superficial, brainless princesses. Defensiveness ensues, creating even more hostilities between the two groups, despite the fact that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying both sides of the equation. I’m a biology/physics nerd, I have a passion for arts and literature, and I’m also (if I do say so myself) pretty damn good looking. Dying my hair and wearing pretty clothes doesn’t detract at all from my knowledge, nor does knowing lots of facts about a variety of topics make it more difficult for me to apply makeup or make gorgeous jewelry. Nor does any of that stuff make it more difficult for me to be friendly and kind to other people.
So yes, when I put on makeup I do understand that I am playing on ancient and hard-wired biological pathways in the human mind that determine what is healthy and attractive. My background in theatre also tells me a lot about the psychology of masks and how the face you put on creates the character you portray, and how that affects social interactions. I don’t wear makeup every day (frankly, I’m lazy, and I don’t like cleaning it off), but I don’t look down on those who do. It’s a personal choice, like wearing t-shirts and jeans as opposed to dress slacks and blouses.
In the end, people (and especially women) need to just stop finding ways of dividing ourselves, and instead focus on what we have in common. And when we’re voting on which blogger should get a scholarship, we shouldn’t dismiss any blog solely because of its subject matter: it’s the actual content, the writing style, and the understanding of the subject matter that should be on the table here. Deciding that a blog about makeup is automatically inferior to a blog about biology (or vice-versa) is judging a book by its cover. And considering that all of us, whether we wear makeup or not, would prefer to be judged on who we are as opposed to how we look — well, I guess the end of that statement is kind of obvious.
This entry was posted on November 5, 2010 at 1:31 PM and is filed under Ramblings with tags beauty, brains, feminism, media, scienceblogs, sexism, social, stereotypes, superficial. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.