A question for women

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In the opening months of 2000, NBC Universal launched Oxygen, a new cable channel aimed at women. At the time, it aired a lot of syndicated reruns of television shows with female leads, such as Kate & Allie and Cybill, but also a lot of original programming.

Robin Epstein, a New York based writer, got a job as the head writer of one of those original shows. It was a quiz show called Clued In, in which the contestants were schoolgoing teenage girls.

She loved the idea of young women demonstrating to the world that they were knowledgeable, intelligent people, defying the stereotype of the ditzy teen girl. Part of her job was to write the questions the contestants would have to answer.

Epstein had heard about research suggesting that until the age of about eleven, girls and boys exhibit about the same inclination to raise their hands in class and answer the teacher’s questions. At age twelve or thirteen, girls tend to show a dramatic decrease in classroom studiousness. There was nothing to indicate that girls were less intelligent than boys, but it almost seems as if girls, at pre-teen age, begin to focus on not appearing smart or keen.

It was controversial view, and Epstein wanted to prove it wrong on national television.

That is not what happened. When the show aired, the questions weren’t particularly difficult for their grade levels, but the girls were getting very few of them right. This was very discouraging to Epstein — she felt that not only was she failing to show that these girls were as smart as anyone, but she was making them look dumb.

More of this story, and clips of the show itself, can be heard here on the long-running radio show This American Life. Host Ira Glass asks what she did when she realized the girls couldn’t answer most of the questions.

“You dumb down the questions,” Epstein said. “You give them things that anyone — anyone of any age, any mental capacity — could possibly answer.” 

As the show moved through the first episodes, instead of basic questions about American history and science, the host began to ask who could spell their own name backwards, or who could be the first contestant to run out into the audience and get a cute boy to autograph her arm.

Epstein had tried to make teenage girls appear as role models for other teenage girls, and — at least in the limited context of this particular show — found she was not able to do that. A cable quiz show is probably not the best medium for heralding the astuteness of teenagers, but it seems unlikely to me that there isn’t a bigger cultural force behind the dismal performances on Clued In.

The biggest influences in my adult life, at least on the level of one-to-one human interaction, have been women. For whatever reason, I learn more about myself from my relationships with women than with men. I’m aware how broadly I’m generalizing here, but in my experience they seem to be better listeners, and wiser people all around. But this may have more to do with the individuals I’ve known than differences between the sexes.

I always love This American Life, but I was particularly affected by this segment. If there is a cultural trend (at least in America’s schools) that encourages young women to avoid appearing smart, I was never aware of it, although the vapid tone of the girls in clips of the show sounds exactly like what I remember from high school. There seemed to be a competition among the girls to demonstrate who was more above it all, who cared the least about what they were supposed to care about. I don’t remember the boys putting on this affectation, but I hung out with the geeks and avoided the popular kids, so maybe my experience was atypical.

At all ages of my development I remember geeking out with other boys over anything that was at all neato, no matter what kind of dork-stigma was attached: bugs, computers, rock formations, historical figures, even math tricks. Seriously, math tricks. 

In the podcast they don’t speculate much about the possible reasons behind why the show backfired. But Epstein says that it seems that the girls seemed much more preoccupied with how they presented themselves than with what they actually did. Pressures related to appearance and body image among young women are well-documented and much-discussed, but this was the first time it was suggested to me that deliberately appearing not so smart (or at least not so interested) might be part of that.

Being a white, middle-class, anglophone male I have probably have the worst possible angle for seeing how mainstream cultural pressures negatively affect certain demographic groups. I’m also 32 years old, and I don’t know any teenage girls — and now that I think about it, I don’t think I really did when I was a teenage boy either. So I have no idea.

My question for female readers: Did you ever feel pressure, from friends or others, not to appear too smart, or at least to avoid appearing to have geek-level interests? Or is this game show a misleading anomaly?

One of my geek-level interests is in individuals who defy mainstream cultural pressures in order to do what they want with their lives, but it’s hard to know quite which pressures other people face if you don’t experience them yourself.  Tell me your experiences.

Listen to the podcast when you get a chance. I can’t put my finger on exactly why it disturbed me so much. I guess it was the thought that women are still being steered away from intellectual pursuits. Say it ain’t so.

***

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{ 172 Comments }

Diana September 6, 2013 at 1:31 pm

I DEFINITELY felt pressure to not appear smart. I have an IQ somewhere between 145 and 160. I was born in 1957 and my childhood was full of smaller siblings, and a very strict, very freaked out, uber-Catholic housewife mother. The only thing that was important was that I be a “good” girl. For whatever reasons, I had very low self esteem. I would do ANYTHING to avoid the pain of not fitting in, which was futile. I never seemed to find friends and the joy of knowing the right answer was not worth the pain of ridicule for “acting smart”. I spent my time alone and lonely and feeling completely flawed. To this day I wonder if less intelligent people are happier. I know I would have done more with my life and my intellect if I’d had more cultural support to be creatively intelligent. I would have contributed more to the world. Thankfully, I’m not dead yet.

Sarah September 11, 2013 at 8:18 pm

I managed to defy that pressure throughout school, graduating near the top of my class and raising my hand more than most folks, but I also wasn’t dating, thought of myself as fairly asexual, and didn’t worry too much about the differences between boys and girls. Once I started being interested in men though, somewhere during college, some conditioning showed up that I never even realized I had and I suddenly became entirely incapable of voicing a thought or opinion… something I struggle with to this day (and am currently working on a post about.) So yes, there is pressure and it’s related, I think, to the pressure to appear desirable to men and the concept that a woman’s highest purpose in life is marriage… a concept which I always thought was outmoded until I realized how frequently it’s fed to us on a daily basis through the media. Thanks for raising this issue – I’m excited to go listen to the podcast.

Kitty September 13, 2013 at 3:18 am

I did not feel the pressure to dumb down, but I did feel the pressure to give priority to looks over smarts, which is different but yields the same results.

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Bea September 15, 2013 at 7:25 am

Hello,
I can somehow understand and corroborate what you are saying. I’m a 17-year-old portuguese girl and right now I’m pretty comfortable with my body and appearance, have high grades at school and get along well with lots of different people (even though I mostly prefer to hang out with geeks and weirdos :).
Well, but that wasn’t always quite so and certainly I cannot say there weren’t moments I felt being cast outside just because I was smart and enjoyed reading, watching documentaries, having conversations on politics, philosophy, etc. In the classes I have been through, many of my colleagues who didn’t know me so well would build this limited picture of me as either a always-studying-boring-weird-girl or an arrogant privileged smart-ass.
So, for a lot of years even though I didn’t diminished my grades, I felt so shy and anti-social and tried quite hard to be “normal”.
Actually, I felt this social pressure and jealously mostly from girls – some of them my friends and I know they didn’t do on purpose, but they would get almost mad because I managed to be a rather good student and still have a normal social life. The “popular kids” were also the most judgemental and I actually once noticed this beautiful smart but uninterested/-ing girl whispering to other while I was doing an oral presentation “she’s intelligent, charismatic and even pretty!” with the most contemptible tone I have ever heard.
Guys on the other hand tend to be cooler and more tolerant. On tops, I feel only intellectual competition on some subject and that’s rather funny and enriching for both.
To sum up, I believe there is still a greater pressure put on girls to be pretty, look good, act cool, and this leads to lots of insecurities and self-consciousness that makes us be judgemental towards other girls. I think things are getting better though and, well, we all grow up. High school is just a phase.

Bea September 15, 2013 at 7:25 am

Hello,
I can somehow understand and corroborate what you are saying. I’m a 17-year-old portuguese girl and right now I’m pretty comfortable with my body and appearance, have high grades at school and get along well with lots of different people (even though I mostly prefer to hang out with geeks and weirdos :).
Well, but that wasn’t always quite so and certainly I cannot say there weren’t moments I felt being cast outside just because I was smart and enjoyed reading, watching documentaries, having conversations on politics, philosophy, etc. In the classes I have been through, many of my colleagues who didn’t know me so well would build this limited picture of me as either a always-studying-boring-weird-girl or an arrogant privileged smart-ass.
So, for a lot of years even though I didn’t diminished my grades, I felt so shy and anti-social and tried quite hard to be “normal”.
Actually, I felt this social pressure and jealously mostly from girls – some of them my friends and I know they didn’t do on purpose, but they would get almost mad because I managed to be a rather good student and still have a normal social life. The “popular kids” were also the most judgemental and I actually once noticed this beautiful smart but uninterested/-ing girl whispering to other while I was doing an oral presentation “she’s intelligent, charismatic and even pretty!” with the most contemptible tone I have ever heard.
Guys on the other hand tend to be cooler and more tolerant. On tops, I feel only intellectual competition on some subject and that’s rather funny and enriching for both.
To sum up, I believe there is still a greater pressure put on girls to be pretty, look good, act cool, and this leads to lots of insecurities and self-consciousness that makes us be judgemental towards other girls. I think things are getting better though and, well, we all grow up. High school is just a phase.

Panda September 25, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Reading the anecdotes on this site, I guess I must’ve just been lucky (or was I?). My high school experience was characterised by growing up with equally studious and intelligent people, and for the most part we reveled in the competition to do well. In my year level at least, females clearly dominated the academic playing field. I feel like the males were the ones who suffered from the ‘too cool to be smart’ syndrome, most of them didn’t try as hard as they could have because it was ‘uncool’ to do so amongst their peers. On the flip side, no one ever looked down on my friends or I, nor did they seem intimidated, they just accepted that we were intelligent and that wasn’t a threat to them. In fact I feel like it was the opposite for me, like I HAD to do well while I was in the spotlight. I couldn’t let down my peers and teachers and family, because everyone knew I was doing well so I had to ensure that I always was.

I think that’s why when I got into university I started to slack off a lot, because suddenly I was out of the spotlight; no one knew how well I was doing or even cared how well I was doing. It was such a liberating experience. The worst part about people knowing you’re intelligent and successful is that everyone expects you to always be that. When you say a test was hard, they laugh at you and say, “You’re just saying that! You’re still going to do well!”, which is so embarrassing when you find out you didn’t do well. It’s bad enough feeling disappointment over a failure on your own, but that disappoint is so much more acute when everyone around you is surprised or pitying you because they had no doubt you would succeed. I think that’s why when I started university, I made sure to keep myself as anonymous as possible. It’s hard to keep up that level of anonymity in high school, but in university you can just blend into the background. To me, hiding my intelligence was never about dumbing myself down or making myself look ‘cooler’ or more comfortable to be around, it was more to keep everyone’s expectations of me at an average level. I guess I’m just lazy and prefer not to be the centre of attention!

LCTP October 5, 2013 at 8:46 am

I am sad to hear about how girls are socialized to “dumb down” for others. Speaking from my own experience, I think that this might vary by culture. I grew up in Asian culture and was never told to dumb myself down for anyone. Quite the opposite actually. I was always told to do very well in school and was punished if I did not make an A. Whenever a classmate or friend did better than me in school, I was told, “See, you should be like him/her. Work harder and make good grades.” Coming from Asian culture, I think girls have more freedom (or even pressure) to look smarter or to do better. It was not unusual for Asian girls to be interested in makeup and clothes and boys but also be interested in reading and math and science. So I suppose it was an all-around win for us. My observations are that mainstream white American culture is a bit different because there is more pressure for women to look good and be marriage material rather than be the next Nobel laureate. Take that as you will.

Spacebeam October 5, 2013 at 7:22 pm

I have not felt this pressure. I have a friend who had a sex change about 5 years ago–male to female and she was in her early 60s when she had it done. She is a scientist–very good at what she does. She has been commenting about how different her brain is under the influence of estrogen. She says that her brain works differently now and she has a hard time performing the same way she used to at her job. Hmmm. I’m not sure if that is common, but it is interesting and I think aligned with many ideas related to how much impact hormones have on every single aspect of…..everything! Just something to ponder.

Charlotte October 7, 2013 at 4:35 pm

I think it’s also the fear of getting an answer wrong and being embarrassed that affects girls more so than boys. It probably also stems from some male attitudes of not wanting to date a woman who is smarter than them or seeing them as boring as opposed to the giggling girls who act dumb and give the impression they need a man to take care of them.
http://sheepishlyshameful.blogspot.co.uk/

Nina November 5, 2013 at 10:43 am

Chimamanda Adichie’s “We should all be feminists” TED talk quite accurately portrays many girls’ experiences-I come from a very different ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic background than her and yet our stories are alarmingly similar. Which is sad because it only proves that this problem is global.
The last conversation I had with my parents (over 2 years ago, just as I started my engineering degree) my dad yelled at me saying that it’s not a profession for women and that he is against me pursuing it; my mom (and I know for a fact she never read anything by Nietzsche) said “every woman’s purpose is to give birth” and that I should leave school and start a family. My parents disowned me because I do not obey them and I do what I want with my life.
On the other hand, if I was a boy, they’d disown me if I didn’t pursue a degree or wanted to be a stay at home dad- men don’t have it rainbows and unicorns either, they’re just pressured in different ways (in her talk Chimamanda has some great points on this subject as well).

Felisia November 14, 2013 at 6:12 pm

I was a strait-A student, and I don’t remember being pressured to “dumb it down,” but I always got the impression that dumb is sexy. I’m not sure if this is because stupid = easier to manipulate and less intimidating, but boys seemed to go for less intelligent girls. If intelligence were sexy, it would be part of the alpha-female competition, and there would be no Betty Boop idolization. I think it is starting to trend in another direction because modern guys are expressing an interest in nerdy girls that play video games or like Sci-fi or whatever. Historically, all that mattered was tits, ass, and a “cute” persona, so that is all girls worked on developing.

Kori December 11, 2013 at 1:29 am

I guess that is the society we live in, we are taught to find worth in being cool or beautiful, I am 20 now and I still feel that pressure.
One thing nobody in my High School could stand was overzealousness.
The lamest of the lame were the poor unfortunate souls who tried too hard (like me lol).
If you were already cool you could raise your hand or bludge or do whatever you like.
If you wanted to try to be cool then you should probably just bludge and start smoking.
But that was pretty transparent too.
High social status was almost automatically given to attractive, indifferent, stylish girls.
I guess aloof indifference is the path of least resistance for girls

Serena January 5, 2014 at 1:25 am

I’ve never felt pressured to act dumb around anyone, in fact I may go pretty overboard in the other direction when I go on rants disregarding whether other people understand what I’m saying or not. However, there was a time when I had a bit of a reputation for acting that way, but it was all a game to me; I never felt pressured. I’m not sure why I did it, but it was mostly with guys. I don’t think it was as much about making them feel more masculine and in control as it was about me wanting to feel taken care of; almost like a child. There’s a lot of unconscious patterns that play out in the teenage years and girls often seek out interactions that remind them of their father. In the separation that comes between the child and the parents, they have to fulfill those needs elsewhere. There’s a certain freedom in not having to hold your own as an independent person and taking the lead from someone else, though it’s not a healthy one.

Beth January 22, 2014 at 4:26 pm

I’m really late here, but that’s what happens when you read the archives I guess!

Seeing as it was televised, I’m guessing that the women were made up and were very conscious of their appearances, and so I’m wondering if this had an effect of dumbing them down:
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-big-questions/201104/women-perform-worse-when-focusing-their-looks

(I’ve read a more scientific version of the article in a book but I can’t for the life of me remember where…)

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Jlynn March 14, 2014 at 1:29 pm

I don’t believe its entirely about ‘dumbing’ it down with teenage girls but more about self conscious behaviour. It is worse to answer a question and be wrong, then answer it at all. If you are wrong, then you might appear to be stupid and at that age appearance is everything. It might be safer to say nothing at all than risk being judged or made fun of by peers.

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