Science, intelligence, and teh pretty

So, razib relates a recent observation of the apparently rare species hottus chicas scientificas at a local wine bar. Shelley’s ticked:

Not sure whether to be more irked that Razib suggests that smart women aren’t hot (and vice versa), that hot women don’t like sci fi, or than sci fi somehow denotes intelligence. Booooooooo.

While razib tells her to “focus on the science fiction part. not the intelligence,” I agree with Shelley’s later comment that who cares exactly whether he was talking about SciFi or intelligence–the idea that, because one is female and “hot,” one therefore cannot be a certain way or like a certain thing is just stupid. More annoyed ranting after the jump…

Now, I know in the grander scheme of things, a comment about the reading preferences of women at a wine bar is insignificant. What bothers me the most about this is that a fellow scienceblogger–who is surrounded by women who have *competed* at being nerdy, for crimeny’s sake–is surprised by an attractive woman who shows an interest in science fiction, and thinks that this is a rare enough event to comment on it. Have we made absolutely no progress? Is sci fi still a “boy thing,” while I should be more interested in Martha Stewart and Oprah? Is it just an anomaly for “hot” girls to read science fiction, or do science, or any “boy” thing you could name–but it’s OK and expected for lesser attractive women to do so? This would seem to be the case, as razib says later (describing his personal experience with women and scifi):

… i see the type of people who hang out in the SF sections in bookstores. not smokin’ chicas.

Booooooooo.

Maybe this is partly because “smokin’ chicas” can feel themselves being looked at as if they have two heads or something whenever they stop to browse the SF? Maybe this is partly because “smokin’ chicas” have internalized the stupid “girls do this, boys do that” stereotypes–and *especially* the “boys do that, pretty girls do this” version–that still permeate posts like razib’s?

To give in to a bit of a stereotype myself, I occasionally watch Grey’s Anatomy, a soap opera about young surgeons. One of them, an attractive blonde, worked through med school as a lingerie model, and still has trouble reconciling her physical attractiveness with her intelligence, because people assume that she’s a bubblehead based on her physical appearance. In one of the episodes, she says something along the lines of, “I know to most people I’m just a pretty girl,” when in fact she is also a smart, funny surgeon–something that most people will never realize. I’m no lingerie model, but even I get that sometimes too, and I’m sure many attractive women do as well–people wonder if they’re competent in their job for the sole reason that they’re also “smokin”. Indeed, one of my chemistry professors in college was an attractive, fairly young woman. She wore rather short skirts (not minis, but above the knee–scandalous!) and tall boots to class most days, and you can bet that her appearance generated as much buzz as her lectures. On top of this, she was the first female tenured faculty member in the physical sciences at Yale–not exactly a minor accomplishment. Yet some people simply couldn’t, or wouldn’t, get past the fact that she was young and hot–as if those qualities were somehow not able to be reconciled with her incredible scholarship. Why is still the attitudes of students–both male and female–at one of the top colleges in the country? Why is this the attitude of some posters and commenters here at Scienceblogs? Why do people continue to award intelligence points to the attractive man, but take them away from an equally attractive woman, even in educated circles where one surely knows good-looking, highly intelligent women with all kinds of different interests?

These are mostly rhetorical questions; I’ve done enough reading on stereotyping, gender, and intelligence to know some reasons why this still happens. But it still depresses the hell out of me to see it in my own backyard, so to speak.

Comments

  1. #1 bigTom
    December 14, 2006

    Tara,
    I suspect there is a correlation. Not with intrinsic beauty, but with the desire and effort a woman puts into being precieved as “hot”.
    Clearly a woman who is not-so-smart knows she needs to attract a partner by other means. For a smart accomplishment oriented woman, the pursuit of “hotness” is probably secondary, and it is likely reflected in first impressions. The same thing probably happens with men, the nerdy types spend less effort on traditional first-impression attractiveness, and are generally regarded as unsexy.
    Of course the traditional role for a couple, with the man as breadwinner, clearly explains the attractiveness of ability/accomplishment as a bigger selection factor by women of men, then the other way around.

  2. #2 Christopher Gwyn
    December 14, 2006

    “What bothers me the most about this is that a fellow scienceblogger–who is surrounded by women who have *competed* at being nerdy, for crimeny’s sake–is surprised by an attractive woman who shows an interest in science fiction, and thinks that this is a rare enough event to comment on it.”

    The whole thing is very odd. Every woman Scienceblogger who has a picture up is ‘smokin hot’, as is every woman pictured in the chemistry link that you provided. Razib’s corrolation has less factual support for it than suggesting that because the women Sciencebloggers are ‘teh hot’ most ‘hot’ women are interested in science…

  3. #3 jeffk
    December 14, 2006

    While it goes without saying it’s incredibly unfair to assume a woman can’t be smart because she’s attractive, like many stereotypes, I think a grain of truth hides in this one. I’ve been a science student for 6 years of college now, in a variety of settings – engineering student at a big school, physics student at a small one, and now a graduate physics student at a big one again – and I can tell you, the harsh truth is that the fields don’t seem to draw attractive girls in general. One of the best parts about the small school setting is that it was easier to interact with people in other fields of study, and therefore, easier to find attractive girls.

  4. #4 Kristine
    December 14, 2006

    the harsh truth is that the fields don’t seem to draw attractive girls in general

    Or maybe the fields don’t seem to draw enough girls in general?

  5. #5 jeffk
    December 14, 2006

    Obviously that’s true too, but I think even with that aside…

  6. #6 razib
    December 14, 2006

    uh, i don’t care about the whole intelligence & attractiveness angle. as someone who has only dated intelligent and attractive females i know they exist in droves. but i’m not going to pretend as if there is a sex balance in reading science fiction. and yet it isn’t like even among guys there is some prestige in SF. on average loserish guys read science fiction (with more loserish guys reading fantasy). i speak as one who enjoys SF & fantasy. i’m willing to accept data which shows that there is a sex balance in SF & fantasy reading, but in all the science fiction clubs i’ve been involved in women are

    a) a small minority

    b) and there are fewer than population normal levels of hot ones

    i don’t think either assertion is pernicious. i also don’t think that women are driven out of SF & fantasy.

  7. #7 razib
    December 14, 2006

    i also don’t think that women are driven out of SF & fantasy.

    i am speaking of the readership. btw, in high school there was a very popular girl i knew who read a lot of fantasy. i caught her checking a fantasy book out once and asked her why she was closeted about it, and her response was basically, “tony carrell read’s this crap, and he smells and doesn’t wash his hair, so why do you think i keep a low profile about this stuff?” (you should have seen the look on the english teacher’s face when she wanted to do a book report on a marion zimmer bradley novel, i was never stupid enough to try something like that :)

  8. #8 Dale
    December 14, 2006

    Sci fi attracts a disproportionate number of unattractive individuals of both sexes, in my opinion.

  9. #9 Tara C. Smith
    December 14, 2006

    I know your focus was the scifi, which is why I said what I did: “the idea that, because one is female and ‘hot,’ one therefore cannot be a certain way or like a certain thing is just stupid.” And I’m not claiming there’s a sex balance in reading scifi either; I’m sure it skews toward men. It’s not specifically the SF I care about; it’s the whole attitude that there are things that women, or “hot” women, can’t/shouldn’t/don’t/is weird for them to do. Maybe if society wasn’t so generally negative about it when women *do* 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.

  10. #10 razib
    December 14, 2006

    tara, there is a strong stigma among high status males reading fantasy as well. a friend of mine caught his chagrined PI with a fantasy book he’d mentioned once and the guy denied that he was reading it. i get your point, but the sf/fantasy analogy really isn’t apropos. as for the hot woman thing, well, she is hot, and i notice hot females, it really improves my quality of life. the intersection of a hot chick reading ‘low brow’ (society’s perception) fiction and discussing it in public that has a nerdish association was a positive thing for me. i’m a little confused as to the rest of the inferences being made about what i said. i never made a deterministic assertion or anything like that, or a normative judgment of how things should be.

  11. #11 Tara C. Smith
    December 14, 2006

    Because the rest wasn’t all about you–you were just a jumping-off point, one example.

  12. #12 razib
    December 14, 2006

    ok. but just so you know, the term “scifi” has negative connotations in the science fiction community. too associated with visual media and trekkies. i am not into “scifi,” but science fiction (as in books).

  13. #13 Tara C. Smith
    December 14, 2006

    Duly noted. :)

  14. #14 Daryl McCullough
    December 14, 2006

    I find it a little uncomfortable when people object too vigorously to stereotypes of the form: People of type X are generally of type Y. What’s wrong with being a Y, anyway?

  15. #15 carlman23
    December 14, 2006

    “i also don’t think that women are driven out of SF & fantasy.”

    As an avowed science ‘geek’ dating a ‘hot’ girl, I can say from personal experience that this statement is patently false. Have you ever looked at the covers of most fantasy/sci-fi books? What do you see? That’s right, giant-chested women in chain-mail bikinis (who invented the chain-mail bikini anyways?) and/or giant-chested women in skimpy sorcery outfits.

    Every time I bring a sci-fi/fantasy novel home, my gf takes one look at the cover and rolls her eyes. And I won’t even get into how most of these stories portray females as prizes for the hero to obtain upon completion of the ‘quest’. Non-sexist sci-fi/fantasy novels are rare.

  16. #16 PZ Myers
    December 14, 2006

    Uh, what kind of sf/fantasy do you read, anyway? You’re perpetrating another kind of stereotype about the genre.

    I mean, look at who is writing some great fantasy: Bujold, Cherryh, Lee, LeGuin, Moon…it just doesn’t fit the chain-mail bikini stereotype.

  17. #17 Kim
    December 14, 2006

    I’d like to add Katharine Kerr to that list.

  18. #18 Jane
    December 14, 2006

    “Why do people continue to award intelligence points to the attractive man, but take them away from an equally attractive woman…?”

    Yes, I’d love to know why too. I really would. It is, apparently and even in 2006, still a pervasive assumption that attractive women are dumb. And if an attractive woman knows a whole set of things or even one thing outside of the set of knowledge she is supposed to have, she is typically treated like some sort of freak.

    It is all such a waste of time and energy.

  19. Every woman Scienceblogger who has a picture up is ‘smokin hot’,

    Self selected sample.

  20. #20 intepid
    December 14, 2006

    Actually I think the stereotype is fairly gender neutral from me experience… sci-fi nerds are not expected to be hot, whether they be male or female.

    IMHO Being attractive makes it easier to thrive in an unstructured environment, since all things being equal people will be drawn to you. Activities based on special interests (eg sci-fi, sport etc) tilts the bias away from appearance and towards knowledge and skill, and therefore I’d say it makes sense to expect a lower proportion of hotties (ie closer to the general population) in any knowledge/skill based domain.

    The less relevant physical beauty is to “success” in a given domain, the less reason there is to expect to find beautiful people there.

  21. #21 Daniel Martin
    December 14, 2006

    I suspect that the surprise comes from the image of science fiction fandom, which is unfairly slanted towards the obnoxious guys with bad social skills that, because of Geek Social Fallacy 1, no one wants to kick out of the group, or even confront.

    As a result, nearly every geek social group of significant size has at least one member that 80% of the members hate, and the remaining 20% merely tolerate. If GSF1 exists in sufficient concentration — and it usually does — it is impossible to expel a person who actively detracts from every social event.

    Note that in the presence of a significant number of socially clueless young men, the environment is going to be particularly unfriendly to those women who find themselves the objects of these men’s attentions. (“significant” here can be as small a number as 1, given sufficient social cluelessness). This would presumably lead those women to be somewhere other than where they would get hooked on good SF books.

    There’s also been a traditional image of bad hygeine associated with SF fandom. I think this has markedly changed in the last 10 years or so (Steve Eley, the guy who runs Escape Pod said on one of his recent podcasts that “fandom smells a lot better these days”), but there is still this lingering stereotype. Whatever your tastes are, “hotness” and “bad hygiene” are likely incompatible, so I suppose seeing one near something associated with the other could cause a moment of confusion.

  22. #22 llewelly
    December 14, 2006

    carlman23:

    … that’s right, giant-chested women in chain-mail bikinis (who invented the chain-mail bikini anyways?) and/or giant-chested women in skimpy sorcery outfits.

    PZ Myers:

    Uh, what kind of sf/fantasy do you read, anyway?

    Looking around at my own collection … the worst offenders are the illustrations inside D&D rulebooks. (Backwardly, the current 3.5e stuff has more sexualized depictions of women than the old 1e stuff I have). I also recall much of the 1950s-1980s fantasy had a huge proportion of ‘chainmail bikini’-type covers, but nearly everything I still have from that era does not have those kinds of covers. (MZB, Cherryh, Andre Norton, etc, make up a fair bit of collection.)

  23. #23 Freki
    December 14, 2006

    “Why do people continue to award intelligence points to the attractive man, but take them away from an equally attractive woman…?”

    IME, it’s the opposite. Attractive women of what I would find standard intelligence are always described as “smart” …. by the guys.

    Have you ever looked at the covers of most fantasy/sci-fi books?

    It’s not as bad in Europe, I noticed. Case in point, I started reading Phil Farmer’s the World of Tiers series in UK. The covers were scenes from the book, no “babes”, T/A, etc. Well, I had to finish the series here. The cover of “The Lavalite World” was a Boris Vallejo. ‘Nuf said.

    It’s kind of hard for a young woman/teenager to pick up one of those books, unless, like me, you’d reached the “f**k it” point already. I reached that point long before HS, and I was a grrrl geek long before there was such a thing. In the mid-70′s I was a computer nerd, gamer and SF fan. There were some guys that had issues with having a girl in their clubhouse, then and now.

    I had a *woman* in the not so distant past tell me “Girls don’t game”. She was going into quantum mechanics.

    So that stupid stereotype is still alive, well, and kicking.

  24. #24 Stacy
    December 14, 2006

    As a girl in high school, I was extremely closeted about reading scifi/fantasy, because the time or two anyone saw me reading it, I became the object of much fun on their part. It got so bad I wouldn’t even watch it on TV unless nobody else was home (although nobody in my family ever cared, it was just a thing on my part).

    That sort of treatment could definitely scare somebody away from scifi, and I do think it was worse for me because I was a girl.

  25. #25 carlman23
    December 14, 2006

    “Uh, what kind of sf/fantasy do you read, anyway? You’re perpetrating another kind of stereotype about the genre.”

    I’m not claiming that all sf is that way, and the best sf I’ve read (Pournelle, Niven, Scott-Card etc.) definitely doesn’t fit in with this. Honestly though, when I go to my local Chapters with my gf, she’s always quick to point out all of the ‘sexualized’ covers in the sci-fi/fantasy section (from my reading, the text itself isn’t ‘sexualized’ in any particular way). I guess I did read most of my stuff from the 80′s, so perhaps it is a biased opinion. However, I think that there are a fair amount of ‘sexualized’ covers in the local sci-fi and fantasy sections compared to other genres like Horror, Mystery, etc. Perhaps this only applies to pulp sci-fi/fantasy (which is what I used to read!).

  26. #26 Scott Eric Kaufman
    December 14, 2006

    Responding to PZ and Carl, I think there’s something to Carl’s argument even in reference to high-brow scifi–and yes, I call it “scifi,” despite being a haughty graduate student in a literature (pronounced “li-tra-chure”) department. I should be a good little humanist and call it “speculative fiction.” But I digress:

    As a graduate student whose “scifi” collection consists mostly of secondhand copies of canonized speculative fiction, I can say with certainty that even the best of it has its problems. It may not be chain-mail and bikinis, but, for example, my copy of Octavia Butler’s Dawn looks like this. Soft-core lighting, blandly attractive women with doe-like eyes, implied lesbianism…it is targeted at a male audience, even without the BDSM gear.

  27. #27 Rob Knop
    December 14, 2006

    Looking around at my own collection … the worst offenders are the illustrations inside D&D rulebooks….

    Roleplaying games are the absolute worst.

    I got into a flamewar on the Steve Jackson Games discussion boards when they came up with their cover for the new edition of GURPS Fantasy, and sure enough there was a bikini-clad slavegirl on it. I suggested that this was perhaps not the best choice, and that it only fed into the (incorrect) perception of the hobby as something meant only for hormone-soaked 13-year-old boys. I got dogpiled; I’m a puritan, they said, what’s the big deal, they said, I don’t hear the women complaining, they said. It all reminded me of the “there’s no problem” responses I see when talking about the issue of there not being very many women in Physics….

    There have been sci-fi books I have not picked up *because* of the salacious cover. And, yes, I get my wife, and sometimes my friends, rolling their eyes at even only borderline salacious covers of sci-fi books and gaming books. It’s really too bad.

    -Rob

  28. #28 Seth Manapio
    December 14, 2006

    “Looking around at my own collection … the worst offenders are the illustrations inside D&D rulebooks. (Backwardly, the current 3.5e stuff has more sexualized depictions of women than the old 1e stuff I have). I also recall much of the 1950s-1980s fantasy had a huge proportion of ‘chainmail bikini’-type covers, but nearly everything I still have from that era does not have those kinds of covers. (MZB, Cherryh, Andre Norton, etc, make up a fair bit of collection.)”

    ——-

    My ex-wife once recruited me as a research assitant for a paper that surveyed every Asimov’s cover in the history of the magazine. The number of revealingly sexualized depictions of women was almost nil. In fact, in the letters section, men complained when the cover was too risque, because they didn’t want people to think they were reading trash. Mostly, they had guns… IIRC.

  29. #29 E. Powers
    December 14, 2006

    You are right, Tara, but let’s be realistic. Women who are REALLY into sci fi can be generalized as not-so-attractive. But then again, regardless of the gender there is a whole lot of ugly going on at those things.

  30. #30 Bunsgoil
    December 14, 2006

    Huh…I’ve somehow managed to reach the magisterial age of 25 without ever learning that reading SciFi was a male hobby. Oddly enough, I always though it was intensely feminine, mostly because my little sister was a big fan, so in my less confident days I avoided the taint of girlyness that seemed to be emanating from that section like a plague.

    Still, can’t hold a patch on the genre of historical fiction. Now that’s real writing.

  31. #31 Freki
    December 14, 2006

    Roleplaying games are the absolute worst.

    Interestingly, White Wolf did something very interesting with “Vampire: The Masquerade”. Half of the character examples were female. A lot of guys thought it was “weird”. Yo! How do you think it feels for us when every character write-up is male?

    The sad fact is that the default is male. I’ve been online since the BBS days, and I generally don’t mention my gender. I am always assumed to be male. I think perhaps 2% of the online population has noticed that I haven’t said, and exhibited due caution on that score.

  32. #32 Shelley
    December 14, 2006

    Thanks for getting my back Tara, and posting your thoughts. Right on.

  33. #33 Mike Crichton
    December 14, 2006

    Sadly, the “Girls can’t like/write Sci Fi!” meme is even prevalant among publishers. Go grab a copy of one of Chris Moriarty’s books and read the blurbs and author bio (Read the book too, while you’re at it). There’s nary a gendered pronoun to be found. I asked her, and she says it was no accident; The editor made a conscious decision to obfuscate her gender, for fear of losing potential readers. Sad, that.

    As for the “It’s so terrible for pretty people to be judged by their looks!” line… Oh, PLEASE! Speaking as an ugly person, I think I find that about as annoying as, say, a black person listening to someone complain about how terrible it is that “Whites are a persecuted minority now!”. Someone really needs to do an ‘Ugly like me’ experiment, to provide some needed perspective on this issue. :-P

    carlman23 wrote:

    “Every time I bring a sci-fi/fantasy novel home, my gf takes one look at the cover and rolls her eyes. And I won’t even get into how most of these stories portray females as prizes for the hero to obtain upon completion of the ‘quest’. Non-sexist sci-fi/fantasy novels are rare.”

    You’re reading the wrong stuff, then. No one can deny that an unfortunately large portion, probably even a majority, of the books published fit that description, but the _good_ ones don’t. Unfortunately, though, a lot of the non-sexist books are still tagged with bad cover art.

    llewelly wrote:

    “Looking around at my own collection … the worst offenders are the illustrations inside D&D rulebooks. (Backwardly, the current 3.5e stuff has more sexualized depictions of women than the old 1e stuff I have).”

    When third edition first came out, they made a concerted effort _not_ to do that. Or at least, that’s what the self-congratulatory editorials in Dragon magazine claimed. :-P

    E. Powers said:

    “You are right, Tara, but let’s be realistic. Women who are REALLY into sci fi can be generalized as not-so-attractive. But then again, regardless of the gender there is a whole lot of ugly going on at those things.”

    I dare ya to come to Dragon Con and say that. But you have to wear a sign saying “I was stupid enough to asume you would all be ugly”, so the babes can mock you. :-p

  34. #34 carlman23
    December 14, 2006

    Don’t get me wrong, I definitely agree that ‘good’ sci-fi is not about titillating teenagers with tales of ‘buxom babes’. I’ve always felt that sci-fi/fantasy has been an under appreciated genre, rife with stereotypical judgments thrown at it.

    I did read a lot of pulp in my high school years that featured scantily-clad girls on the covers among other things. What I’m saying is that, if an uninitiated person were to walk into the sci-fi fantasy section in my local bookstore, for every Asimov, Cherryh or Clark cover they’d see a fair number of John Ringo, David Webber or Jack L. Chalker -style covers. These authors may all be very good and write stories that are just as appealing to males as to females, but the covers are definitely not targeted towards females.

    I’m simply suggesting that, by having such depictions on the covers of many books (not all or even most) the genre is probably turning away many girls who otherwise may be interested in taking a look.

  35. #35 Caledonian
    December 14, 2006

    I have noticed a definite tendency for people who are into fandom not to put a lot of effort into having a spectacular appearance. Not that most fans are slovenly or have poor hygiene, although of course a few will fit those descriptions, but a smaller proportion will work hard at looking good. I generally perceive this as a positive characteristic.

  36. #36 Seth Manapio
    December 14, 2006

    “No one can deny that an unfortunately large portion, probably even a majority, of the books published fit that description…”

    ———-

    I can. I’ve only read one paper on this subject and it came to the opposite conclusion. Is this an impression you have, or is this a research based conclusion?

  37. #37 Mike Crichton
    December 14, 2006

    Impression. On the other hand, I have over a ton of science fiction books (last time I moved, they weighed the boxes) so I like to think my opinion is an informed one. On the gripping hand, “unfortunately large” is a purely subjective measure, so even if I’m not _objectively_ right, I’m still right. ;-)

  38. #38 Jon H
    December 14, 2006

    At work over the summer we had some interns from MIT, engineering undergrads, who were female, and hot. On the other hand, I don’t think either of them had any stereotypically nerdy interests.

    I think the key thing may be that women in the past may not have been as willing to demonstrate their geekiness in public, or that it might not have taken the forms we see today. They might have been geeky in more stereotypically feminine ways (don’t hit me for writing that.) Like, I dunno, literature, or art, or something. (Again, don’t hit me. Better suggestions would be welcome.)

    It isn’t just women, of course – the social acceptability of geekiness is way higher than it was when I was in college (89-94). But I suspect men tend to find it easier to let their dork flag fly (probably from socialization, nothing more.)

    As anecdotal evidence, note that in the ‘war room’ where I worked with up to 20 people in close quarters, until last week, I had a plastic viking helmet and a shiny Bootsy Collins hat. The guys frequently wore the hats, primarily the viking hat, over about 9 months. Even visiting men from other groups often put it on. I think a woman put the viking hat on *once*.

    There’s certainly nothing preventing attractive women from being as stereotypically nerdy as they want to be. It certainly happens.

  39. #39 micro mel
    December 14, 2006

    So why is it assumed that “really really ridiculously good looking” (name that movie!) people and sci-fi, sci-ence, sci-entific, sci-(put your ending here)… are thought of as anomalies?

    I’m a scientist, not a mathematician, but when others make random assumptions like: smokin’ + sci-fi = a being from outside our galaxy, I think we have mainstream media to thank.

    Isn’t it interesting how the ever-cliché “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” never seems to apply to the books? Yep, same thing here.

    For all the “hottus chicas scientificas” out there, hold your heads high. After all, without this “rare species” the world would be a very boring, unintelligent and ugly place. :)

  40. #40 False Prophet
    December 15, 2006

    And I’m not claiming there’s a sex balance in reading scifi either; I’m sure it skews toward men.

    Posted by: Tara C. Smith | December 14, 2006 02:36 PM

    I’m not so sure. If we look at Ian McEwan’s (admittedly non-scientific) survey where he tried to give away free novels in central London, women are the greater proportion of novel readers. Hands down. I saw this supported by a statistical survey in a publishers’ or library trade journal (Publishers Weekly maybe, but I can’t be sure), where even science fiction had something like 51% female readership.

    I see this at work as well (I’m a public librarian). Women are always coming up and asking about novels in most genres. We skew towards mysteries, romance, Judaica and literary fiction, but speculative fiction and historical fiction also come up. Several men ask about non-fiction titles, but the few men who ask about fiction tend to be interested in action thrillers (Tom Clancy/Jack Higgins-type stuff) or Westerns, or are one of those handful of young boys who love reading and devour books (sniff, I’m reminded of my own youth), generally science fiction, fantasy or adventure series.

    To use McEwan’s own closer: Reading groups, readings, breakdowns of book sales all tell the same story: when women stop reading, the novel will be dead.

  41. #41 Casey
    December 15, 2006

    I’m a woman and i like some fantasy, but mostly prefer scifi. especially hard scifi. i’ve always been this way. and i’m also considered attractive, at least now. when i was in high school, though, i might of been considered attractive, but the very fact that i was a nerd (only girl in my programming classes, etc.) rendered me inattractive. (yes, even by the nerdy boys. they seemed to think of me as a guy really, despite the fact i had huge boobs.)

    Could this have to do with the perceived difference of attractive and nerdy ppl? a lot of times “nerdy” renders someone ugly in people eyes, no matter what you look like. and if your stunning, it might render you “stupid” no matter what your intelegince.

    beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and perception varies among everyone.

  42. #42 Robster
    December 15, 2006

    Having worked/ hung out with with teh hawtest of scientists and scifi fans, and being married to one of these (scifi fridays are an inviolate holy day for us), I can say that this is ba-log-na. While AD&D 3.5 isn’t great with positive body image stuff for either men or women, 2nd ed was far worse. My gaming group is 50 50 male female (none of the girls are unatractive). Ba. Log. Na. Look a bit further, or don’t be so picky.

  43. #43 Zuska
    December 15, 2006

    Razib, you said:
    i’m a little confused as to the rest of the inferences being made about what i said. i never made a deterministic assertion or anything like that, or a normative judgment of how things should be.
    What you said on your blog was:
    I’m having a really weird moment, I’m at the local wine bar and a very attractive hostess1 is recommending books in the science fiction genre to another…hostess…Am I a freak to think this is freaky?
    Yes, you WERE making a normative judgment of how things should be, because you were implying that “normally”, attractive women don’t read science fiction, and the occurrence of such is so bizarre that you find it freaky. Finding it freaky is making a normative judgment about the way you believe things to be, which is just one tiny step from the way things should be…and you have to know that putting out the kind of stupid stuff you did only suppports the morons who believe that yes, that’s the way it should be or that’s the way it has to be by nature.

    Head. Up. Your. Ass. http://scienceblogs.com/thusspakezuska/2006/12/razib_head_up_his_ass_on_women.php

  44. #44 mulamster
    December 15, 2006

    “It may not be chain-mail and bikinis, but, for example, my copy of Octavia Butler’s Dawn looks like this. Soft-core lighting, blandly attractive women with doe-like eyes, implied lesbianism…”
    —-

    And you forgot to mention white.

  45. #45 Chris
    December 15, 2006

    I commented on this over at Zuska’s place, but I thought I’d say something here too. I understand why Razib’s post is offensive. He was surprised because of a stereotype that says attractive women don’t do science fiction (to be fair, it also says that attractive men don’t do science fiction either — science fiction fandom is pretty much synonymous with “loser,” stereotypically). That’s a shame, even if we could probably show that attractive people are pretty rare in the science fiction world. But nothing Razib said implied that an attractive women can’t like science fiction — just that he was surprised to see an attractive woman who did. Again, that surprise comes out of a stereotype, but not one that says attractive people can’t, just that they generally don’t. Let’s get rid of the stereotype, but by actually addressing what the stereotype is, not a straw man version of it.

  46. #46 JW Tan
    December 15, 2006

    Freki said:

    I’ve been online since the BBS days, and I generally don’t mention my gender.

    Freki has male connotations though.

  47. #47 Torbjörn Larsson
    December 15, 2006

    My experience is that science and technology has attractive women (and men). It is more that the women aren’t so many in some areas. In fact, one of the most attractive women eva’ was studying for engineering and later disserted in physics at the same time as I. It was really difficult to abstain from making an ass of oneself by treating her differently. (Or by drooling. Hey, it’s hormones too!)

    So I had an early hunch that the stereotype was wrong. What took me some years to find out was that it is true that women has generally to do better to compete with men. That is the real stinky point for me.

    Not that a razib-berry isn’t deserved: Pfrrrrrthhh!

    Apparently there isn’t much of a correlation between beauty and intelligence. But if there is, wouldn’t one think that symmetry is a sign of good development and correlate with general intelligence?

  48. #48 Matt McIrvin
    December 15, 2006

    I’ve been a science student for 6 years of college now, in a variety of settings – engineering student at a big school, physics student at a small one, and now a graduate physics student at a big one again – and I can tell you, the harsh truth is that the fields don’t seem to draw attractive girls in general.

    That hasn’t been my experience at all. In the physics departments where I studied, there were few women, but those who did enter the field were not particularly unattractive. In fact, since undergraduate and graduate students tend to be young adults in the age bracket conventionally considered most attractive, they were probably prettier on society’s terms than the general population; I knew several who were drop-dead gorgeous. Especially in astrophysics, for some reason (probably just a small-sample-size effect).

  49. #49 Matt McIrvin
    December 15, 2006

    As for where the stereotypes come from, I think a lot of people are still chewing on resentments acquired during early adolescence. A typical middle school or high school takes a broad sample of local society, and if very pretty people (by the brutal standards of a population where almost everyone is young and healthy) and nerdy, academically smart people are both small minorities, simply by chance you’re usually not going to see a lot of overlap between those minorities. A nerdy smart person who is not pretty or popular could well assuage envy by developing a compensatory theory of virtues, leading to an assumption of negative correlation where none exists.

  50. #50 Shodane
    December 15, 2006

    If I compared my students’ looks with their IQ, it would probably show that the more attractive ones are also smarter.

  51. #51 Seth Manapio
    December 15, 2006

    “It may not be chain-mail and bikinis, but, for example, my copy of Octavia Butler’s Dawn looks like this. Soft-core lighting, blandly attractive women with doe-like eyes, implied lesbianism…”

    ————

    Oh no! It’s a scene of two fully clothed, attractive women in low light! Just like the lighting in the first 45% of the book! LESBIANISM!

  52. #52 JYB
    December 15, 2006

    I remember one of my professors talking about something like this when it came to equity theory (IANA economist so I could definitely have the name of the theory wrong). He didn’t generalize it just to women, but basically said “Some people decide to spend their time on making themselves look better, like working out, buying nice clothes, and primping, others decide to study.”
    I would tend to argue that science/math anything has a lower proportion of attractive people just because there doesn’t seem to be a great advantage to being attractive, unlike something like sales. Go by your local tech company, the sales folks will be disproportionately hot, while the engineers are…ummm… engineers.

  53. #53 Sandy D.
    December 15, 2006

    I’d like to include a link to this post in the next Carnival of Feminists (see http://feministcarnival.blogspot.com/ ).

  54. #54 Daniel Morgan
    December 15, 2006

    -but it’s OK and expected

    This seems to confuse is-ought. Razib did not make a statement of “ought” regarding stereotypes. He seemed to simply make a statement of “is”.

    And I think in taking that in, most people will cool their heels and realize the intrinsic difference between saying one and the other.

  55. #55 Kate
    December 15, 2006

    Tara, Shelley, Zuska, etc: Right on.

    As a lady who likes teh scifi and fantasy and likes to show it, I hold my LeGuin stash high (but not my Robert Jordan Wheel of Time series! don’t let anyone know about those!).

    I don’t think it matters whether Razib meant “is” or “ought” when pointing out what he saw as “freaky.” I think pointing out something he thinks is anomalous that goes against gender oppression, is oppressive itself.

  56. #56 Daryl McCullough
    December 15, 2006

    To me, the most damaging stereotype here is that it is so much more important for a woman to be attractive than it is for a man. Both the claim “Smart women aren’t hot” and the counterclaim “A woman can be both brilliant and hot” are feeding into this stereotype.

  57. #57 Robster
    December 15, 2006

    Razib should have gone up to her and said, “Hi.” He could have crashed and burned, but if you don’t know any attractive science and scifi interested women… It is your fault, not theirs.

  58. #58 Samantha
    December 15, 2006

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    The problem of fewer attractive women in hard science endeavors isn’t that the women aren’t just as normally distributed as anywhere else. It is that the observers are far more judgemental and observant of any flaw.

    I have also noticed that men with skills at flirtration and romance, as opposed to the lesser effort of unreasonably insulting pickup lines shows the same observational disparity. I’m not sure if that difference is solely due to my subjective viewpoint, however.

  59. #59 TheBrummell
    December 15, 2006

    Carlman23 is a friend of mine; he’s extended his discussion of this issue on his blog.

    Link: http://carloetal.blogspot.com/2006/12/think-before-you-talk.html

    My personal opinion: I really like Matt McIrvin’s comment above about spurious negative correlation based on small, biased samples. Opinions formed early in life may survive unchallenged into late adulthood by virtue of lack of exposure to an environment similar to the formative environment – in other words, if you start hating the beautiful people in high school, you’ll probably still hate them when you’re 50 unless you’ve become a high-school teacher or have a job with similar weird sampling biases as a high school.

    As far as sci-fi/fantasy, I read lots of sci-fi, particularly the “hard” stuff, but due to education-induced poverty I tend to restrict myself to second-hand books, often more than 20 years old – so I don’t have a good grasp of current trends in either cover art (I rarely shop for books, too dangerous to my bank account) or content. Carlman23 spends much more time (and money) than I on current sci-fi and especially fantasy, so I’m inclined to trust his opinion that while many (if not most) covers are blatantly off-putting to young women, the actual content of these books is usually pretty good, and not heavily sexualized (but see his review of one of R.E. Feist’s latest offerings: http://carloetal.blogspot.com/2006/12/book-club-rise-of-merchant-prince.html).

    Personally, I’m no longer surprised to meet an attractive woman who likes sci-fi/fantasy. I am also not surpised when I meet an attractive woman who doesn’t particularly like that genre, but does enjoy mystery novels, or historical fiction, or thrillers, or whatever. I am surprised, and disappointed, when I meet a woman (physically attractive to me or not) who is uninterested in reading for pleasure – for that matter, I’m surprised and disappointed to meet a man who does not read for pleasure.

  60. #60 Kristine
    December 15, 2006

    As for the “It’s so terrible for pretty people to be judged by their looks!” line… Oh, PLEASE! Speaking as an ugly person, I think I find that about as annoying as, say, a black person listening to someone complain about how terrible it is that “Whites are a persecuted minority now!”. Someone really needs to do an ‘Ugly like me’ experiment, to provide some needed perspective on this issue.

    Done. I don’t look fabulous all the time. (Who does?) Let me tell you, once you’ve gotten the “Why go to school when you have your looks [can I eat/invest in/have a career based on my looks?] and anyway, pretty women can’t think, it’s just cute when they discuss ideas” you don’t care how good you look anymore. Especially if this person is a professor! (I grew up being called ugly and “the brain” so when this finally happened in college, believe me it was a slap in the face, not a compliment.)

    Denying respect to anyone for any reason is reprehensible. (And being of any race and being the victim, say, of a crime (it happened to me) by anyone of any other race who uses that a some kind of justification doesn’t mitigate the crime just because you happen to be white. It just also doesn’t excuse racism.) Got it?

  61. #61 Sandy D.
    December 15, 2006

    Hm, it seems like this would be a good place to put in a plug for the Feminist SF Carnival at http://carnival.feministsf.net/

  62. #62 yolio
    December 15, 2006

    Sometimes women in male-dominated fields dress-down to avoid drawing attention. There was a “Piled Higher and Deeper” comic about this.

    I have had this experience, I work in an interdisciplinary field, I go back and forth between the biology building (lots of women, especially my department) and the applied math department (few women, in the engineering building) and I really notice the difference in cultures. When my lab moved to the engineering building I slowly started to dress more drab.

    I am not sure why I did this exactly, but if you look too sharp people assume you are a secretary or a lost student or something—like you don’t belong, this wears on a person after awhile, constantly being treated like you don’t belong.

  63. #63 fred
    December 15, 2006

    I think that you can check out the social psychology literature and find that, in business, the more attractive the woman, the less competent she is assumed to be. The stereotyping is pervasive. I wonder if much cross-cultural study has been done, particularly in non-western societies. If the phenomenon is widespread, it might suggest something basic to male psychology, which would be really depressing.

  64. #64 LauraJMixon
    December 16, 2006

    What’s perhaps most ironic about his (INCREDIBLY ANNOYING STEREOTYPICAL) remark is that the majority of SF readers are women. 52%, according to one study I read.

  65. #65 Brian X
    December 16, 2006

    Not so much into SF, but I like cartoons (but I’m a guy, so for the purpose of this discussion, who cares?). They did an episode of Kim Possible about that not too long ago where Kim and Ron had to protect a brilliant robotics scientist. Long story short, they didn’t find out until the end that the person they were protecting was the excruciatingly attractive blonde with a taste for slightly trashy clothing. Though she had been published in some of the most important robotics journals, she tended to be fairly anonymous, having gone so far as to build a fat male nerd robot to front for her so people wouldn’t judge her on appearance.

  66. #66 JakeB
    December 16, 2006

    All I want to say is that in my opinion few things look better on a woman than a Ph.D.

  67. #67 Freki
    December 16, 2006

    Freki has male connotations though.

    Posted by: JW Tan

    1) I have several different nyms. Some could be read as feminine, some could be read as masculine, but none are explictly either.

    2) Freki is described as Geri’s sister. That’s pretty far from “male connotations”, albeit pretty damned obscure.

    My real point is that, culturally, the default is still male. Usually white and hetero, too.

  68. #68 Shawn
    December 17, 2006

    I actually think I was much better looking when I used to read Sci-Fi. I started reading more conventional, stuffy literature in college, and coincidentally, my hairline started receding.

  69. #69 Caledonian
    December 17, 2006

    If the phenomenon is widespread, it might suggest something basic to male psychology, which would be really depressing.

    Not necessarily. If the trend holds for women evaluating women, it suggests something basic to human psychology, not just male.

    As an aside, there was a more-than-normally-attractive girl in my junior high G&T classes who often acted a lot ditzier than I think she was. I suspect (and a few conversations with other students over the years reinforce this) that she had developed a habit of not using her brains so that she’d better fit in with the social cliques she hung out with. Being smarter than other people can alienate you from them.

    Women are often said to be more social (on average) than men. I wonder how many girls dampen themselves down in order to better fit in with a group? Tall Poppy Syndrome manifests in all kinds of ways.

  70. #70 Helen
    December 21, 2006

    I had to laugh at the comment differentiating between the “hot” woman and what one normally sees in the science fiction section at a bookstore.

    Duh. If I spend 30 seconds in a science fiction section at a bookstore, I wind up with either some random stranger trying to chat me up, or one or several mouth-breathing covert oglers who try to pretend they’re not really following me around and staring at anything below my neck. Ick.

    Yay for online shopping. It helps us avoid the razibs of the world.

  71. #71 Helen
    December 21, 2006

    “All I want to say is that in my opinion few things look better on a woman than a Ph.D.”

    Yeah, because we go to all that trouble, not because it’s fun or challenging or creates fantastic new discoveries for the benefit of the planet, but so we can “look good” to whatever random male happens to be viewing us.

    So much so that anyone will actually care when some online stranger affirms that for us. I know, I know, the poor guy was just trying to intimate that he is one of the “good” guys; too bad he failed by assuming that what he finds attractive matters to anyone except whoever he’s currently involved with.

  72. #72 Tree
    December 21, 2006

    Boys still read SF? Last I heard (from Betty Ballantine, at DragonCon a few years ago, IIRC) SF readership was leaning 60% female, 40% male, because boys don’t read as much anymore; they play video games instead. That seems to reflect my experience of fandom in the last decade. The women are in the panels (and in the art show, dealer room, belly dancing class) while the men are in the basement, engaged in pissing contests. I mean wargaming. (I am only partly joking.) Women buy more SF, and they participate more in online communities writing/discussing/celebrating SF (just browse through Live Journal sometime).

    But never mind that. What I really want to know is if the hot chick advised reading anything by Susan R. Matthews. That’d be my kind of hot chick.

    Tree, passed the link to this blog to dozens of hot SF chicks

  73. #73 Heather
    December 22, 2006

    I get it from my mother. She can’t understand why I love to study and why I’m not out every night dancing. She says I should make the most of my looks, why not make the most of my brain I say!

    So we even get it from the girls.

  74. #74 Wayne
    December 23, 2006

    ‘Yeah, because we go to all that trouble, not because it’s fun or challenging or creates fantastic new discoveries for the benefit of the planet, but so we can “look good” to whatever random male happens to be viewing us.’

    Hold on, Helen, wasn’t this entire discussion about “hotness” and how it does or does not correlate or is or is not perceived to correlate with other qualities? This isn’t, say, simply a discussion of women who pursue academic careers. The reasons you list go without saying, but they aren’t the present topic. I have to agree with you that most of those participating in this discussion either don’t especially need reassurance of their attractiveness or aren’t likely to get it from JakeB’s assertion. Nonetheless, you seem to be a bit heavy on the snark, particularly when you begin with the above quote.

    Of course, I wonder if I see the remark as more cutting because it was delivered under the name of “Helen”, but I think not. In particular, I note that in the immediately previous remark Helen’s telling us how she feels about unwanted attention in bookstores. I think she’s assuming that what she finds unattractive matters to anyone except whomever she’s currently involved with.

    Incidentally, what about the exceptional case, those who are not involved with anyone? Is there absolutely no one interested in what we find attractive? Even though that would seem to explain how I’m doing with the “hot” women in my department, I don’t think it makes sense.

    Back to the discussion, at our department we do seem to be doing pretty well for women, though not at parity. I think simply having a large department and a decent population of females among the undergrads and TAs no doubt helps, too, so no woman’s stuck alone between us nerds and the other, less nerdy guys. If the undergrads find themselves wondering “Can I study mathematics and be hot?”, they can readily see that the answer is yes. I do agree with Daryl’s Dec. 15 remark, considering it unfair that women feel extra pressure to be attractive, but what are you going to do?

    Regarding men’s attitudes, thinking that there aren’t many women in X activity is understandable, because whether it’s true or not one could get such an impression anecdotally. I could see unconscious resentment, perhaps because women with shared interests may still not consider one suitable mating material. I’m cautious of that, myself, since I harbor a fair bit of envy generally. However, conscious hostility perplexes me. What’s wrong with people?

    Then again, there are those men who insist on being “better” than their partners, whether in something as serious as finances or perhaps even in casual games. There are also women who play into that, deliberately losing as part of courtship. That idea of a romantic relationship as subjugation rather than partnership just bugs me, and I’m not saying that in hopes of impressing the women here with how sensitive I am, because I’m not.

  75. #75 Mel
    January 6, 2007

    Maybe this is partly because “smokin’ chicas” can feel themselves being looked at as if they have two heads or something whenever they stop to browse the SF?

    Yeah, seriously. I’m probably not a “smokin’ chica” by razib’s standards, but I’m thin, cute, and have good skin, so most people would probably call me at least “pretty” (I also have short hair, glasses, and a slightly hostile demeanor). Most of the time, people don’t hit on me. I walk into a comics store, and creepy weirdos come out of the woodwork. Roleplaying? Two-headed stare. Hobby stores? You can see them thinking “Did she walk into the wrong store? Girls don’t build models!” Find out I’m a scientist? “Isn’t math hard for most girls?”

    Yeah, whatever. Where’s the incentive to hang out in geekboy territory when I can order my F&SF novels off Amazon?

  76. #76 JOhn
    March 8, 2007

    They used to say, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder but it is no more valid to quote this in 2007 due to hi-fi-sci technological changes. You see, it is much better to say “beauty lies in the saloons and beauty parloures.” lol

    Besides, we are no more a stereotypes we are just not moderate enough :P