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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.


Photo by flattop341

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Caroline Devitt August 16, 2013 at 8:03 am

“Did you ever feel pressure?” YES! Lots of men are intimated, or at least turned off, by intelligent or successful women, even these days. And lots of women are jealous of intelligent or successful women unless we’re pig-ugly as well. Both groups will be overtly or covertly vindictive towards you. (I’m British and have lived in sveral European countries, but not the US. And, as you can probably tell, I’m a woman. :-) )

Love your site, by the way – I’ve only just discovered it.

Caroline Devitt August 16, 2013 at 8:07 am

Sorry, I meant ‘intimidated’, not ‘intimated’!

Sandra August 16, 2013 at 10:50 am

In primary school (ages 5-12) I was probably the top of the class, made teachers pet, and routinely shunned by both genders. I remember crying in private after nobody would sit beside me on the bus to go on one of the annual school tours.

In secondary school (ages 12-18) I went to an all-girls school. I found some geeky peers and we hung out together. This was way easier to deal with, but the slings and arrows and hurtful comments from the “popular” girls (usually about appearance) were an occasional obstacle.

I remember having a really bad hair day as a teenager, and one of the gorgeous, cruel creatures on the school bus barely waited for me to get out of earshot before exclaiming to her equally intensely-groomed friend, “Did. You. See. The. Fringe!?!” I went straight home that day instead going into school, because I just couldn’t cope with the pain and embarrassment of it.

If I had known any guys as a teenager, I probably would have down-played my mind, not as a way to avoid scaring them off, but because I associated being thought of as brainy with being isolated and ridiculed.

(Maybe karma struck though, because the following week, that girl who made me feel so bad tottered back to the school bus on the way home, and I overheard her describing her mortification as she walked away from the group of boys she was trying to impress, when she realized her skirt had been tucked into her pants all along!)

Tirzah August 16, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Coming in late…but yes, I did and I do feel pressure about this. I’m very intelligent, very good in school, and if it’s not making some guys feel threatened because I’m better at something they think they should be better than me at, it’s about not bragging, or not making other people feel bad because they didn’t do as well, or some sort of pressure to not let on that I’m doing really well.

At this point in my life, I’ve reduced that pressure to what I still impose on myself from decades of conditioning, but I’ve internalized it to the point where it took me a year to even consider pursuing a doctorate.

You mentioned how free you felt to pursue your geeky interests, but I note that none of those interests were stereotypically female interests. I think that played a bigger part in things than you realize. I’ve never had a man feel threatened that I’m a good knitter, or that I can chop vegetables rapidly, but feats of strength and intellect are perceived as threatening.

It Calls Me Onanon August 17, 2013 at 12:37 pm

I think anyone who has their eyes open can look back on their past and understand that they’re shaped by their environment/culture/society and experiences. It’s a generally accepted idea these days, regardless if you’re not too familiar with it. We’re in the year 2013, where, even in the 70’s people had already been hovering around this idea. It’s not new.

The real nugget of interesting, controversial thought is in deconstructing why we as humans with differing psychologies respond to ques at all, since it’s not something that one, even as a female, is required to reciprocate. I’ve seen a lot of people in these comments say that it “felt like the right thing to do” or muse on the idea of consequences. Even the people who are polar-opposite by choice of being against ever “dumbing” themselves down think in terms of the benefits they’ll get from their actions. The common pattern is their insecurity and need for safety—and how their psychological evaluation of the situation aims for the circumstantial benefit or resolve of it. To be honest, none of the subjective experience-based information offered to explain why these people do what they do makes a difference because it comes down a very objectively simple observation –they all skip the information that answers to why they as humans have changed their positions in the present time (assuming that most of these people are aware of their past actions and strive to no longer do what they did).

They’re aware. Ignorance plays a big part in founding an individual’s “personality” because it forms a base for their insecurities. People later react and form boundaries—colored by whatever culture or society or gender or experience one was developed in. Within these terms people seek safety through benefit and realistically, after that, the only way to maintain safety is by isolating themselves from anything that opposes what they’ve constructed of themselves—their “personality” becomes a structure they respond to by default and the typical person continues to develop without looking back. That’s why people find themselves reacting to the same fundamentally insecurity-provoking things and avoiding confrontations that poke holes in their artificial resolves and reveal their hypocrisies. People write over their insecurities in all manner of ways (and thus we have the field of psychology to observe this—see “useless”) and that’s why the subjective observations about culture, society and gender don’t really make a difference–because they’re starting the conversation from the middle—skipping the part that will answer to why they’re the same as everyone else in the progression of pattern in their actions. To me, all of these people, even the ones who frame that they are better off now and behave differently, are still the same as the women who dumb themselves down… they’re just developed further down the road. Insecurity/offended argument made, cherish the ones who don’t respond that way — they’re the only ones who aren’t masturbating over themselves.

It Calls Me Onanon September 2, 2013 at 11:20 am

Found myself thinking about this topic again and reaching a simple observation:

If you were to look at the world objectively and conclude that it doesn’t have any meaning — no subjective meaning — then you must conclude, logically, that humans project meaning onto everything.

That being said, in most culture industries, school is little more than a playground for ignorant persons whose only reality is to consume the swaths of pop culture/standardized beliefs and consequential needs. Kids necessarily form groups that validate themselves in this type of environment because we are all insecure deep down.

It becomes easier as different generations go by to find groups that echo the same sentiments as you because different interests get picked up that suit the changing popular sentiments. For example, making fun of geeks used to be a sentiment, DND used to be a catharsis for the unpopular with no “social skills” to do. This later became video games, but popular culture began to change and so did the idea of what is socially acceptable and these things actually became the majority, where, if you needed validation and security and friends you would want to get into these interests, even superficially.

Then we have those studies of the teen girls. The gender that has the most up for stakes regarding superficial interests. OF COURSE if you have any independent streak you’re going to see these things as superficial and not pursue them — you’re not special because of this, you’re just not an egghead. It’s easier to be ousted just as it’s easier to be ousted as a male with ideas about masculinity. Did you notice the ones with more family support did better through these times? In contrast, did you notice some of the good observations on here that detailed the ethnocentric beliefs that push superficial ideals to “put a blanket” over insecurities?

Of course the show was going to have a bad turn-around…

Really the objective understanding is that, culturally, seeking friends and people is a manufactured “psychological need.” We are ignorant and vulnerable as kids (or as someone else put it “not well-rounded”) so we seek the easiest means to avoid insecurity. The truth is, if one were to be responsible for themselves (mature) and knowledgeable about life, being a “Social Animal” would only mean that we seek to form herds for safety/validation and not as a necessary means of survival. If we understood that, we wouldn’t look outside of ourselves to resolve insecurity and we wouldn’t need to reciprocate and respond to insecure feelings because of it– we would no longer need other people because we’d have peace and happiness with ourselves.

I pity the girls who were either a part of that scene and weren’t required to have a care for intelligence and I think that some of the women on here that subtly call them idiots or look down on them are insecure, selfish human beings. And no, that’s not just a subjective opinion, it’s evidenced by their actions in context with everything.

Andrea August 17, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Because a woman’s value has been placed more in her looks, the amount of time devoted to enhancing and/or maintaining those looks is superbly demanding. Due to this, the likelihood of being able to devote equal dedication or time to the pursuits of the mind dwindles.

Further, I do remember getting nasty looks when I would get high marks in school. In fact, when it would go back and forth between me and one Asian kid in Algebra, no one would blink an eye for him; myself, the guy I had a crush on, I could tell he shied away from me every time I scored higher than he.

In college, I remember getting half the class to dislike me because they had thought I messed up the bell curve after an important test. When I told them I had gotten a couple points less than what the teacher said was the highest score, and a guy stepped forward as that owner, they turned back to what they were doing.

I think this comes back to the way we are raised in that a small boy acting in any way feminine diminishes him, in which case, being completely female makes one less than male. So when a female does well, or better than males in ANY feet, she becomes a threat to his perceived masculinity. If he is less than a female, he is in a worse predicament than when he initially imitated feminine attributes.

It Calls Me Onanon September 6, 2013 at 7:50 pm

“Feminine” attributes are culturally acquired. Most of those traits have a needy logical underpinning. They are passive, dependent, frail and incapable upon confrontation. So, if a woman in a culture like this assigns themselves “feminine” traits, it’s only because it’s beneficial for artificially resolving their insecurities. It doesn’t make them any better at getting over them, it “puts a blanket” over them.

The disdain for you wasn’t because of your gender. You posed a threat to your classmates because you were outside of their collective need to be a part of a social group that carries a sentiment by watching out for one another in the limitation of themselves.

Jeff August 17, 2013 at 6:27 pm

I think the problem is not with gender but with the assumption that “most” high school students are well rounded and in touch with the contemporary world. Frankly, I think most male students would have given similar responses. I’d be curious as to their selection process. I’m suspecting that they didn’t exactly screen for the “reach for the top” students.

Leticia August 18, 2013 at 7:40 am

I am sharp as a tack, I was always cute as a button, I have the uncanny ability to navigate both hard sciences – math, logic, programming – and humanities – graduated in art in college, fluent in multiple languages. That growing up and living in South America – macho country. I found some respect in Boy Scouts – of all places – where my accomplishments and quick wits where appreciated and from few teachers here and there who didn’t feel threatened by such a student. I worked for many years as a programmer and it was tiring to prove at every new job that I was twice as capable but make 30% less than my male counterparts. Dumbing down to please men was never an option for me, so I spent long spells alone. Women here are expected not to get smart in the first place, so I guess I never got with the program.

Andrea August 18, 2013 at 4:22 pm

I’m a 28 year old female, and I can’t exactly say I felt “pressure” to dumb myself down. In high school people would attempt to tease me about how smart I was because I did well in school, but I always found it silly that they were teasing me for being good at something. And luckily, being the one with the brains I could usually shut them up easily with a smart reply. On the opposite of the spectrum, my boyfriend had a lot of trouble in high school being a guy that did well and liked to read. He was fine hanging with the nerdy crowd, but was ostracized by the popular or athletic kids. I’m told by some of my elementary teacher friends that now kids are starting to think the smart kids are cool….I hope thats true. Something is wrong when society shuns intellectuals!

Line August 20, 2013 at 8:47 am

Interesting to read. I am a 19 year old girl from Norway, and I have just begun to study psychology. I will tell you a little bit of my experience from my years in what you call Elementary school and Middle school (if I’m not mistaken). As early as in first grade in Elementary school, I experienced in many occasions being the smartest/best in my class. I appeared more mature and reflected than the other pupils, and I obviously knew a little more than them in some matters. A little too often, the teacher mentioned my name out loud as the only one having all the answers right on a test.

In the first three or four years of Elementary school, this was my brand: the walking and talking encyclopedia who had the answers to all your questions. But I recall the change being in fifth grade or so. Then, suddenly being smart was equal to being a geek, nerd, teacher’s favourite, and so on. Despite that, I continued raising my hand on questions, or even supplying the teacher with fun facts from TV-shows I had seen.

But at the end of Elementary school (which is seventh grade here in Norway), I was really tired of the negative “status” intelligence had, and of being classified as a nerd. At that time, being stupid was cool, and especially NOT doing your homework or paying attention was the key to social acception. So, when we started in eighth grade (the first year of Middle school), my goal was to finally be one of these so-called cool girls who was all above schoolwork.

This resulted in:
– never raising my hand
– intentionally asking everyone around me what the teacher just said
– “forgetting” my books, or other important information
– always answering the teacher, when he asked me, with “oh I’m sorry, I didn’t pay attention”
– listening to music while in class, and so on…

But what the others didn’t know, was that I got good grades on almost all my tests. But nevertheless, my image was nearly changed. But, eventually my teacher mentioned this problem in a conversation with my parents, and he said that I had to be more active in class. So in ninth grade I stopped caring about what other people thought. And, in “High school” (man, you have very different school systems than in Norway), it was suddenly cool to be smart and get good grades. Yay me.

Helen August 21, 2013 at 6:25 am

I think my experience has been quite different. I was born in a small Soviet Republic and first went to school the same year that the Soviet Union collapsed. The Communist ideology was big on equality between the sexes, and even though it was far from perfect, some of it really sank in. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there was of course a huge desire on many fronts to change gears completely, but some things were too deeply ingrained. For instance, in the early 90s, a kind of a “sex revolution” took place – suddenly, the naked female body was everywhere (especially in advertising), and women morphed into “mega-babes”: bleached hair, acrylic nails, micro-minis and everything. (It has toned down since then, although women are still expected to be beautiful, slim and feminine.)

On the other hand, at least I personally have never felt the pressure to be dumb. Of course, this may be particular to my experience. I was a bona fide bookworm as a child, and touted as something of a wunderkind. I was always the best student (or at least one of the best) in my class, and quite popular at that, although there were some awkward years as well.

However, it is true that I stopped raising my hand in the class at some point, mostly due to the willingness to not seem over-eager. It was (and is) cool to be smart and well-read, but not to be the annoying “teacher’s pet”. I must say this tendency has stayed with me to this day – I rarely like to speak up in public, but I’m constantly working at becoming a smarter and more knowledgeable person. All of my pesonal and romantic relationships, too, are based on a mutual respect for the other’s mind, personality and intellect, and I cannot imagine it any other way.

If anything, I feel there is a sterotype of the “good girl” here. That is, girls are expected to be diligent and get good grades, whereas boys can get away with missing school and resisting authority. However, in both cases I feel that intelligence as such is more likely to make one popular, although it’s important not to be seen as sucking up to the teachers.

jo August 22, 2013 at 12:42 pm

I can remember feeling this way when I was a teen, and I think a tiny bit still persists with me today; however, I think it is for a different reason. When I was a teen, I dumbed myself down in front of my friends somewhat because they would make fun of the *smart* kids, and I didn’t want to be made fun of. I regret that. I wish I would have been more *me* and less who they wanted me to be.
Fast forward to today, and I still find myself being like this, but now it isn’t because I’ll be made fun of, but more because I don’t want to come across as a “know-it-all” kind of person. You know, those people who just annoy the crap out of you because they HAVE to be right ALL the time? I’m a pretty smart gal, but when a question arises and I KNOW that I know the correct answer, I’ll answer it now, but a lot of times, I’ll follow it up with a “…I think” or a “…that’s what I’ve been told”…silly still that I cannot give myself credit in front of others for just knowing something!

chacha1 August 22, 2013 at 1:31 pm

I was a know-it-all and proud of it. From age 7, when I was forcibly transplanted from Wisconsin to Georgia, I most definitely saw that girls were meant to be, at best, charming accessories to men. I was so hostile to the whole environment that I did not let this directly affect me – and my parents made it clear I was expected to go to college, so schoolwork was not just a time-killer chez nous.

Girls were not actively discouraged from class participation, but were less likely to be receiving educational enrichment at home, less likely to be called on in class, and less likely to be encouraged to pursue a college career. When they were, it was overtly implied that the purpose must be to secure the “Mrs. degree.” That is, a girl went to college not to become a doctor or lawyer, but to *marry* a doctor or lawyer.

I am now 48 and I have repeatedly observed that women are discouraged from acknowledging their own achievements or knowledge. It is generally understood to be unattractive to know more about anything (except sports) than the men in one’s life.

And I still remember one of my high-school classmates; one of the smartest girls in the school, as well as one of the most beautiful; the sum total of whose ambition was to get married and have children. That’s a great ambition, but it was also (I thought then and still believe) a great waste of raw material.

It is not a coincidence that men in power are STILL trying to roll back women’s rights. This pervasive attitude that women must be less-qualified, less-intelligent, less-independent, less-productive, less-everything except pregnant … ugh.

Eva August 24, 2013 at 10:44 am

I’m not only smart, but tall as well. I can tell you that most men want to feel like the leader, the smartest one, the strongest one and the tallest one. Compared to most of my friends I usually get very little male attention, due to the facts above.

From my experience, both intelligent boys and girls were ostracized for being intelligent (in the 80’s when I was in school). But I think for girls it becomes harder during puberty, because of all the said pressures. All of a sudden being pretty becomes a status symbol, because men are visual creatures and if you are pretty you get attention, you get power as well, and your self-esteem goes through the roof. There is a very interesting documentary that you should watch to get better insight: which not only addresses these issues, but also the images that as a woman condition you, especially through the different media, where sadly it’s still men that write most women’s roles http://www.missrepresentation.org/

Shari August 26, 2013 at 4:38 pm

Perhaps I experienced and atypical childhood, as well, because I never remember being oppressed or discouraged to achieve in any way. I think that this experience is likely becoming less the norm.

Susan August 26, 2013 at 8:00 pm

I was born in 1965. I absolutely remember asking and debating whether it was ok to let boys win. This is an issue in the book Bridge to Terabithia. When I read it to my son in the early 2000’s he didn’t understand the issue. I took that to be a good sign, but maybe boys in the 70’s and 80’s were unaware of it too! For more insight about what happens to girls in adolescencce you should check out Mary Pipher’s classic Raising Ophelia. And I love your blog. Keep up the great inquiries.

Kruidig Meisje August 28, 2013 at 9:01 am

I didn’t feel much pressure to dumb down. But then, I didn’t have to many friends. Now I feel very much at home in a geek circle…..
That said, I have an interesting anecdote. When I applied for a job, an IQ test was required as part of the procedure. When I was informed of the results by the (female) psychologist, she just said: “you have a very high visual IQ, which is quite astounding for a woman”. I was pretty perplexed, as the job was gender neutral (a computer doesn’t really care whether a man or woman touches the keyboard programming it) and no gender specific questions had arisen during the procedure before. If even psychologists have gender specific expectations on IQ….

Avygator August 30, 2013 at 8:28 am

I think as an adult women occasionally i have to dumb my self down to make people comfortable around me (maybe im hanging out with the wrong people). I was born and raised in India and came to the US to be an aeronautical engineer. I was generally a intelligent, self aware teenager brimming high confidence levels. Then I joined the workforce (which was predominantly male) and immediately i realised that no one liked me unless i was just a little dumber. For the initial half of my career I was in a competition with other young women for appearing to be more fun (& dumber). Thankfully I have gained the self confidence that comes with being in your thirties. I have moved on from what i feel was societal pressure to be accepted and make freinds and not appear intimidating and serious. No one likes a smart girl is the general message sent to women from my limited experience.

Toni Brown August 30, 2013 at 1:43 pm

It still happens, especially in the work place. Maybe it’s the industry I’ve always worked in (construction), but the expectation for me to be decorative and dumb (visibly) but (behind the scenes, silently) be wholly effective at the same time is so consistent that I’ve given it my own name. I call it the ‘Shrink to Fit’ syndrome.

Ashley P September 4, 2013 at 1:51 pm

I think that a lot of women are afraid that they will be made fun of for being smart. They don’t want men to say they are to smart, which doesn’t make sense to me. If your smart, then flaunt it.

Andrea September 4, 2013 at 3:29 pm

I think the detail that’s missing is the fact that it’s a tv show. The type of girl that would 1.) Show interest in and 2.) be cast in a tv game show is going to be skewed towards a more attention seeking and conventionally attractive young woman. So the nerds ( meant as a compliment -I’m one) The goths, and the other outcasts that actually know the answers are most likely not watching or participating. There are better things to do.

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

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

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.

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:

(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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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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