Gender norms. Pop culture. Manic Pixie Dream Girl. At the intersection of these ideas?
Getting worked up over celebrities and their lives may be an inherited trait. As a child in the midst of my parents’ drawn out separation, MTV had partial custody, so I learned a good deal about the world from watching television. My mother and discuss pop culture and award shows all the time, and just last night, discussing the Golden Globes and my new glasses, she said, “You’re new frames are kind of Zooey.”
I grunted, and the grunt verged on a scream. I’ve been the way that I am my entire life; I haven’t just now gotten into wearing vintage clothes and plastic glasses and having brown hair and freckles because of some stupid show on Fox and its blue-eyed starlet.
These thoughts started when I was craving cupcakes the other day, which brought me to thinking about feminism in the context of cutesy things and a Jezebel article I read about Zooey D. the other day. She wants to wear Peter Pan collars and be a feminist, to which I say, “Good for you!” I like Peter Pan collars myself. I don’t plan on ceasing to wear them while I discuss my support for pro-choice legislation and Planned Parenthood. My problem with Zooey is not what she wears, it’s that I don’t believe her to be all she’s cracked up to be.
Admittedly, I haven’t seen New Girl, although among my varying peer groups it’s received mixed reviews. Some people love it, my “work mom” tells me that Zooey’s Jess reminds her of me, and some people see it for what I assume it is: overall not something worth my time. (I have to say, as well, that I don’t find the music of Zooey’s supposedly adorable folky twosome She & Him to be something I want to spend time listening to, either.)
I have heard tell that there’s a word that’s come into fashion as a result of the aforementioned show, and Zooey’s continually rising star: “adorkable.” Admittedly, I’d used the term while perusing OkCupid in my single days, years ago, which led one fellow repeatedly asking me if I wanted to drive four hours north to cuddle and watch Dr. Who with him. He believed we were soul mates. Whatevs. (I don’t know anything about Dr. Who. I know the name David Tennant and that Neil Gaiman wrote an episode. So sue me.) The context of the word, really, is that dorkiness is coming to be something that is attractive to others, rather than something repulsive.
(On the second page of a google image search for “adorkable”. To be fair, Zachary Quinto in glasses shows up on the first page of results, which I am totally okay with.)
While working on a piece about emerging “geek” artists, I recently spoke to a tattoo artist who talked about how much geekdom has come to more cultural prominence. To paraphrase him, it used to not be so cool to be a geek. When I spoke with him, we were at an art show at a sprawling tattoo parlour that he owned, full of comic book and Star Wars art, and his blue-haired wife was sporting a wicked pair of Mario Bros. inspired earrings.
It does seem that pop culture, as we know it, has made being geeky kind of sexy. Culturally, we now have the archetype of the “sexy nerd,” and a lot of people see Zooey as the highest realization of such. I disagree. There were lots of sexy nerds at the geek art show I attended, and some less sexy nerds too. Nonetheless, lots of assorted nerds were there, of varying levels of sexiness, getting along, playing on old school Nintendo systems, talking about Firefly and Ninja Turtles. Be they sexy or not, the nerds were out and proud.
And along the lines of the “sexy nerd” archetype, we have a lot of celebrities who fulfill that particular dream. I mean, a lot.
(Read: KEEP SCROLLING for super sexy yet non-exploitative photos of nerdy girls!)
My particular issue with Zooey D. is that she is held up as such, and it doesn’t seem that she’s genuinely earned it.
A voice from the peanut gallery shouts, “But people love her because she’s so hott!” To said voice, more than likely a male’s, I would answer that there are a lot of pretty girls in showbiz. To boot, there are a lot of very, very pretty girls who also happen to be decent role models for young women and who are, coincidentally, nerds.
Be it right or wrong, among most nerds, you have to prove nerd cred. Whether it be academic proficiency, obsessive fandom of some sort, or more times than not, both of these things combined at a high level, nerds recognize each other. It’s not just about wearing nerd paraphernalia; it’s more about displaying a singular passion and intellectual curiosity.
Taking these things into consideration, Zooey doesn’t exactly have much nerd cred. She screams Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and unfortunately, it seems she doesn’t wish to scream much else. One trick pony, anyone? Plenty of other actresses have pulled off both the MPDG as well as gaining cultural capital and showing a diverse skill set (Diane Keaton and hell, even Audrey Hepburn come to mind). So why does Zooey seem to stake the cultural claim to the queen of “adorkable” when there are so many other showbiz actresses more deserving of the title?
I also don’t like Taylor Swift, or her co-opting of nerddom for her own principles (girl, you’d better TUCK THOSE DAMNED PIGTAILS UNDER YOUR SHAKO, STAT!), and I’ve been accused before of stating that you can’t be pretty and be a nerdy girl. In no way, shape, or form am I stating that you can’t be pretty and be a nerd. There are lots of pop culture figures who are stunningly gorgeous and who clearly have way more nerd cred than Zooey D.
Let’s quickly review of some of them, shall we? We’ll wade in slowly, but we’re gonna get all math & science on you before too long…
Personally, I love Elizabeth Banks. I would see almost anything she’s in. She’s also talented enough to have traversed from unapologetic nympho to Laura Bush to an important spot in the next major film series of the time – The Hunger Games. That last bit is nerd cred enough. She also has been a leading lady for Kevin Smith and a comic player for Tina Fey, two pop culture nerd overlords. And she graduated magna cum laude from UPenn, proving she’s got not only the beauty, but the brains. And she’s an advocate for womens’ rights (meaning an actual feminist, not just someone who plays one on TV).
Something for beautiful little nerdy girls to definitely aspire toward.
This game is almost too easy. While Michelle Williams may not be super nerd herself, her associations prove otherwise. She has progressed in her career from Dawson’s Creek to Oscar-worthy roles. In regards to nerd cred, she had The Joker’s baby and is going to marry the Muppet Man. Her fiance proposed to her at Comic Con in San Diego. How much nerdier do they get?
(And before you get on my case about highlighting skinny, pretty women as having nerd cred, may I say that Williams’ fiancee, Jason Segal, is about as adorkable as you can possibly get. Rumor has it that he dated his former Freaks & Geeks co-star until she said he got too chubby, but I’ll take Mr. Segal no matter how much he happens to love pancakes that week. And yes, my husband knows all about my little crush; I re-watch enough How I Met Your Mother to embarrass us both.)
We’re just scratching the surface here. Next up, two absolutely stunning women who have portrayed legendary nerd characters:
She’s Arwen for chrissakes.
Hottest bibliophile around, or so nerd males have told me. When I would talk about how much I was able to relate to Rory Gilmore for years, guys would answer back that she’s too pretty to be sympathetic. I know a lot of really intelligent young women who grew up watching Gilmore Girls who disagree. (Sidenote: making a really pretty girl both a believable and sympathetic character is not only a signal of a genuinely nerdy girl, but good writing too.) Alexis Bledel is also a nerdy pianist and has volunteered teaching childhood literacy. Again – a real nerd, not just someone who plays a nerd on TV.
Um HELLO!! Queen of the Internet herself, Felicia Day, anyone? Find me a more genuine female celebrity geek. I dare you.
We are still far from being done.
D’ya know about the Erdos-Bacon number, an indicator of both film reel fame and academic publication prowess? Danica McKellar, best known as Winnie Cooper and also an author whose biggest cause is getting girls more involved in math and science, has one. That’s legit nerd cred if nerd cred exists at all.
Another true geek who plays a true geek on TV. My mother loves Big Bang Theory, and she watched enough Blossom in my younger years so that every time she sees a floppy hat, she rolls her eyes. (She does, however, love Mayim Bialik’s character on the Big Bang Theory.) Bialik is another legitimate scientist/actress, and also an author. She also has an Erdos-Bacon number. And also an advocate of not-totally-crazy attachment parenting (it’s a hell of a lot less insane than being an ill-informed anti-vaccination parent with a platform, like an unapologetic blonde who doesn’t warrant mention among these ladies).
Like I said, despite not having seen either New Girl or The Big Bang Theory, I think if we were to take a real poll as to who is more “adorkable”, Amy Farrah Fowler would win big.
In a non-scientific study of nerd boys, many will tell you that Natalie Portman is the most beautiful woman alive. She is also a Harvard graduate with an Erdos-Bacon number of her own and an Oscar winner. In all fairness, Natalie successfully portrayed an archetypal MPDG in Garden State, and has appeared with Zooey D. in a film within the last couple of years. However, let us not forget that she is also the fictionalized mother of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. Nerds don’t get sexier than that.
But maybe such a nerd could go from being a self-described “supernerd” to the most famous female comedian in the world. And become the woman who so many little nerd girls seek to become (even without an Ivy League degree). The supernerd who has it all: fame, money, friends, family, power, etc.
Need I go on?
So does that mean that Zooey D. doesn’t get to hang with the other nerd girls because she’s just the sweet, kooky ukelele-playing girl nextdoor and not a writer, activist or scientist? I don’t know. I do know it doesn’t make you less of a feminist or a role model just because you wear a Peter Pan collar and bat your eyelashes. I also know that simply saying, “I want to be a feminist/strong female role model,” does not make it so. Much like true geekdom, it kind of has to be earned.
In high school, I hung around mostly my music nerd friends, but many of our otherwise academic friends folded in with us. I guess in middle school or somewhat in high school we all experienced some social rejection, but we grew to be so tightly knit that we took care of one another. We didn’t reject anyone’s odd, obsessive fixations, regardless of whether they were Star Trek or Tchaikovsky or punk rock or Anglophilia. And we didn’t really reject anyone who wanted to come hang with us at lunch. All were welcome. I guess nerd cred didn’t really have to be earned with us.
I also have had many strong female friends throughout my life, many with near-obsessive interests. And I always have been immediately drawn to women who’d rather be known for their brains. They may happen to be beautiful, or like wearing lipstick, but the brain is always what sticks out past the false eyelashes. I have a hard time being around other women who hide their intellect for the sake of being cute, and I suppose in some ways, that’s what Zooey represents to me.
In reality, I’m sure Ms. Deschanel is a lovely girl. I’m sure we’d get along if we ran into each other at an Echo Park craft bazaar, and she’d coo at my vintage 1950s gold clutch. We’d probably get along, even if she’s not a nerd’s nerd. My problem isn’t so much with her personally, not that I would know, but with the pedestal she’s been placed upon.
My friends have a diverse array of interests (except seemingly regardless of race or gender or social class or how I met them, they are all Dr. Who fans), but the things that unite us are exactly what I mentioned before: at-times frighteningly singular passions (read: minor obsessions) and intellectual curiosity. When we’ve got so many role models who represent passion and intellect in our own popular culture, I just don’t understand where Zooey Deschenel gets the cultural capital that she’s given.