geek appeal: queer gals and the beauty of brains

(Okay, so I know this post might sound awfully self-serving since it’s written by a self-defined queer sex geek, but I promise this is a cultural criticism essay and not a personal ad.)

In the winter 2007/2008 issue of Bitch magazine, Sarah Seltzer wrote an article entitled “The (Girl) Geek Stands Alone: Hollywood Even Has a Double Standard for Dorks.” It’s a fun critique of the ways in which mainstream entertainment celebrates the potential sexiness of the male geek – for all that beefcakes are still de rigueur sex objects – while remaining loath to tout the sex appeal of the female geek.

The article rightly points out that in most cases, there’s a (tired, old) dichotomy created for women between being smart and being sexy. Sometimes this plays out in the classic makeover scenario, where the gal takes off her glasses and becomes a knockout – because of course she couldn’t be a knockout with glasses. In other cases, such as in the “spate of ’90s teen movies (Ten Things I Hate About You, She’s All That, Never Been Kissed)” that feature girl geeks as protagonists, the girls’ geekiness is paired with a resentful or grouchy attitude, and both geekiness and attitude melt away “when they realize they are romantically desirable. (…) They literally stop being nerds when conventional femininity comes to the forefront.” In addition, “nerd girls in movies like Never Been Kissed and Mean Girls, or TV series like Freaks and Geeks, are invariably asked to make a Faustian bargain wherein they trade in their nerd-girl pal for a shot at a makeover and the ascent to popularity and dates.”

The article also criticizes the way in which the male geek has been celebrated in some areas of pop culture, inevitably being paired with a conventionally hot woman and loved for his mind instead of his body: “Gorgeous women selflessly nurturing awkward-but-brilliant men is a trope that these days is all too common.” The article mentions the films The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad; I also think of the film A Beautiful Mind. Of those films, and of the American reality TV show “Beauty and the Geek,” in which geeky men compete for the attention of a buxom model type, Seltzer writes, “The message is that modelesque babes should look for the inner worth of all the men around them – not just the beefcake – and value them appropriately. The geek guys, however, aren’t encouraged to see the beauty in one of their own.”

The article concludes thusly: “Girl geeks are still waiting for the day when pop culture no longer demands that their nerdiness be redeemed, transformed, or made over – but can, like the dudes’, be what makes them desired.”

All this got me thinking. I totally see the “geeky is bad” message that pervades a lot of pop culture when it comes to women, but my reality doesn’t feel like that at all. Why not? Well, because I’m queer.

This is one of those many instances where I realize in a profound way that queer sexuality isn’t just about the pink bits of the person you’re fucking. There’s really a whole range of small things that make it different from the mainstream, and one of those things is the way we judge what counts as desirable. In my experience, geekiness actually rates pretty darned high on that list.

A recent issue of Curve magazine, for example, drew my eye because the cover features a stunning close-up shot of kd lang with rumply butch hair and a gorgeous pair of über-geeky glasses – and she’s a singer, for crying out loud. She’s not opting for contact lenses to downplay her geekiness and be sexier; she’s opting for glasses because they make her look more geeky and she understands that that is damn sexy… to her target audience at least! Seriously – find me a straight pop star who does that. (And don’t even talk to me about Nana Mouskouri.)

The other reason I bought the mag is because it features a nice meaty article about lesbian professors entitled “20 Powerful Lesbian Academics.” That article begins:

“With several Curve contributors and editors working inside academia by day (the author of this list is, in fact, the coordinator of LGBT studies at Yale), it seemed timely to profile some top lesbian professors as part of our ongoing “10 Powerful Lesbians” series. But as the nominations began to pour in from electronic mailing lists and academic queer peers, it became clear that a scholarly chord had been struck and that we couldn’t just stop at 10.”

Okay, so the article was not about the sex appeal of professors. But it was practically porn to me. Any article that puts Lillian Faderman, Adrienne Rich and Eve Kosofky Sedgwick in the honourable mentions category (!!) and qualifies some up-and-coming academics as “rock stars” has definitely got my juices flowing. I can’t possibly be the only one who finds this stuff interesting, since it did, after all, appear in Curve – hardly a niche academic journal.

Clearly, dyke pop culture has lots of room for geeks. But the valuing of female geekery is also queer in other ways. Take the anthology She’s Such a Geek, edited by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders. It’s not explicitly queer in any way; its subtitle is simply Women Write About Science, Technology and Other Nerdy Stuff. But I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the editors are both unabashed superqueers.

I don’t mean to say that female geeks aren’t considered sexy in the straight world. I’m sure they are, anyplace where people realize that reality TV isn’t reality at all, in the minds of enlightened straight men who value women as whole people rather than as the bearers of boobs and orifices, and in the minds of enlightened straight women who don’t feel they need to strive to squeeze themselves into an impossibly narrow beauty ideal or disavow their intellects. Geekiness is hardly a condemnation to eternal bachelorettehood for straight gals the world over.

The difference is that in the larger culture, there’s the “but” factor to consider, as in, “she’s a geek, but she’s still sexy!” The two concepts, as Seltzer points out and illustrates, are still set up in mainstream consciousness as being a dichotomy, and therefore a situation one must overcome. Some women achieve sexiness despite geekiness. In queer culture, however, there is no “but” factor. If anything it’s the other way around – a queer gal’s geekiness is part and parcel of her sex appeal. It’s sexiness because of geekiness.

I can’t support this with evidence beyond the anecdotal, but the anecdotal is nonetheless significant, in my mind. Anecdotal evidence tells me that queer women are over-represented in academia; that nerdy girls make queer eyes light up; that glasses, the classic (if inaccurate) symbol of smarts, hold great erotic appeal, to the point where I’ve met several dykes who desperately wish they had poor eyesight so they’d have an excuse to purchase a pair; that, as the former International Ms. Leather recently enthused, queer women are “intellectuophiles”; that bookishness is encouraged among queers even in the most unlikely of places (Toronto’s queer-heavy women’s boxing club, the Newsgirls, hosts a book club for its boxers!); and so on, and so forth. We even adopt pop culture’s geeky characters as de facto queers – “Scooby Doo”‘s Velma or the Peanuts’ Marcie, for example (and don’t even start me on the kink factor of Marcie always addressing tomboy Peppermint Patty as “Sir”).

In addition to all this, there’s an existing conceptual connection between geekiness and queerness as a whole. I wrote about this a couple of years ago, back when I was still questioning my legitimacy as a bona fide geek, when my friend J invited me to join Toronto’s Gay Geeks group:

“Ta-daaam! I felt the violins swell. I said, as per my usual, “But I’m not really a geek.” She answered, rather dismissively, “Yes you are.” But, in a dazzling move of geeky gallantry, she then proceeded to prove it by pulling out none other than the People’s Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien (and how geeky is that?), and quoting to me directly from an essay therein entitled “Are We Not Geeks?” (haha!), the following illuminating passage, which she had gone so far as to highlight (and how geeky is that too??):

“My own definition of geeks is this: people who care about a subject or system so much that they’re willing to learn how to master it, whether anyone else cares about it or not.”


The essay goes on to say, “The larger group of non-geeks is always going to be nervous of somebody who resists the easiest form of social control, which is shame. In their eyes, you should be able to laugh at somebody and tease them for being different, and that should be sufficient to make them toe the line and make a bit more of an effort to appear similar to everyone else. Geeks resist that, because, well, it’d mean giving up the things that matter more than conformity.”

Gee. Switch “geek” to “queer” in that paragraph, and all of a sudden the connection is astoundingly simple. Perhaps I am beginning to understand why it is that most geeks I know are among the most non-homophobic people on the planet.”

I can’t help but see a connection between feminism, queer women’s identities, queer concepts of beauty, and the role of intellectualism in queer lives. Wrap that all together and sex appeal also becomes part of the package. How could it not?

There’s a certain cultural power in the way queer women opt out of the stigma that normally surrounds any number of items on the checklist of what’s conventionally considered unattractive – diverse body sizes, body hair, short hair, butch gender, athleticism… and big brains. Much like mainstream food culture wants us to enjoy mass-produced food that’s drained of nutritional value (white bread, iceberg lettuce, processed cheese product…), mainstream beauty standards seem to want to drain the value from women. We’re supposed to be skinny and weak rather than strong or curvy, and vapid rather than smart, and dependent on finding the perfect man to complete us rather than fully able to be complete beings on our own. We’re supposed to be quiet, take up less space, occupy supporting roles, make less money, need less support, eat less, want less sex (or want sex only for the purpose of pleasing someone else), be prettier to look at, allow our bodies to be used for others’ purposes (whether pleasure or reproduction), and just generally play second fiddle.

With that drained-out model as a basis for comparison, I think queer women’s culture values the richness of women’s potentials. Sure, the skinny gals have a place among us, but we also value the voluptuous curvy girls and the large, solid-bodied butches and the athletes with strong bodies who take up physical space; we like articulate women and have no need to cover up or downplay our smarts to calm anyone’s insecurities; we fully expect to be independent, or possibly to pair up with other independent people, and we don’t make a life plan that centres on catching a man (even if we end up with one or two along the way). We aren’t quiet, we take up all kinds of space, we eat what we want, we most certainly want sex and aren’t shy to talk about it, and we don’t spend our lives trying to fit someone else’s beauty standard.

Certainly we suffer from the discrimination that keeps our bodies under the potential jurisdiction of the state and that causes us to get stuck in supporting roles, make less money and be assumed to need less support… but that’s a factor of our participation in a world whose politics we did not create, and like most women who have even a smidge of feminist leaning, we fight against those things. In the meantime, though, in the elements of our culture over which we have the most direct control, we evidence a valuing and celebration of geekiness and other forms of misfit-ness that only pops up here and there in the larger culture. While men certainly have a place in queer women’s existence, we are not concerned with impressing the male mainstream, and so have no particular draw towards adopting or internalizing the standards that mainstream aims to impress upon us to that end. And that leaves all kinds of room for coming up with new factors of attraction. No surprise that geekiness is one of them. 

Or maybe it’s just that we know from experience that smart people fuck better.

8 thoughts on “geek appeal: queer gals and the beauty of brains

  1. Hell yes!

    I’m a geek and a dyke, and I wholeheartedly agreed. I have certain geek standards in the women I have relationships with, because I just can’t relate to someone who thinks geek is a *bad* thing. I’m a happy academic, and I love my glasses. By the way, this friend who highlights the People’s Guide to Tolkien, is she single? Ha, ha.

    No, really?

  2. One of the things I love about fellow geeks is their capacity for such emotional intensity when they talk about the things they’re passionate about. That is SO sexy, regardless of the package the person is in.

  3. As a female geek who has only dated males, I think that while the main stream might have a problem with female geeks, none of the geeky circles I’ve run in ever have.

    Thought, there is sometimes a feeling of being to coveted, wanted because I’m a female geek and little else.

    But, I suppose many of the geek circles I’ve been in have also been much more queer heavy then the main stream (even if much less queer then the circles you spend time in). So, something else.

  4. wow, and here I am, thinking that being a geek is an equivalent of being sexy. Got that wrong, uh?

  5. ASKDFAKJDAL;SKDJ!!!! SO. MUCH. LOVE. I am so posting this to the Gay Geeks list. ;D

    Somewhere, several years ago, I read a wonderful comment from a geeky girl that was to the effect of, “Of course I fuck better. I put the same obsessive attention to detail into sex as I do into other things I love!”

    (And dude, I was dismissive? Sorry! I don’t think I meant it that way. 😦 *hugs*)

  6. alesbianandascholar – Wow. Dude, I love yer name. Glad to have you here. 🙂 The Tolkien-wielding geeky gal in question is not single, but she is also not unavailable. Join the Gay Geeks yahoogroup and introduce yourself! And lemme know how it goes, I’m totally up for adding “unlikely matchmaker” to my list of accomplishments.

    Jacky – Yes, the emotional intensity is fabulous! I love watching and being around people in their element, and the evidence of passion in someone (especially about an obscure or eclectic topic) shows me 1) that the person is an individual and does not feel a need to be boring and bland, just like everyone else; and 2) that they experience passion, curiosity and wonderment in general, which always bodes well for… y’know, stuff.

    Ruie – For all that I’m queer, my experience of geek-heavy circles is much like yours. The men seem to want to be with people who have brains, and are not threatened by women who have ’em; they also aren’t super-invested in their own masculinity. The general vibe is very queer- and trans-friendly, favourable to kink and non-monogamy, and just generally pretty easygoing. So yeah, I think that the mainstream’s treatment of geeky women is very different than the geek community’s treatment. How lovely!

    Langundo – Nah, you’re right and the rest of the world is wrong. At least the mainstream rest of the world. 🙂

    dendritejungle – What a great quote! Thanks. And you were dismissive, but I mean dismissive in the kindest possible way. It was a highly validating sort of dismissiveness. It’s actually quite reassuring when someone thinks your hang-up is so evidently silly it couldn’t possibly be worth discussing, and they forge right ahead with whatever nice thing they were saying or doing instead. Know what I mean? So please, no apologies are necessary! It was a treasured moment for me. 🙂

  7. Great post, lots of really interesting observations, I’d never thought of the connection between queer and geek before, but as soon as I read it (“somebody who resists the easiest form of social control, which is shame”, it rang true.

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