Miss Representation: How to Represent her Brains without Sexualizing her Body

The Evolution of the Smart, “Nerdy” Female Movie Character

While thinking about different character archetypes to explore in this final project, I looked back at the films we viewed during the course.  One character that especially interested me was Kay Scott All That Heaven Allows. Her character struck me not because of how she acted; I am pretty fond of smart and sassy women onscreen. Her character struck me because of how blatantly her character was dismissed by the other characters, especially the male characters but not exclusively. I have seen many movies that do not lend themselves to feminist values or represent women in an equal way, but I had grown accustom to the present luxury of films at least attempting to empower women in their roles onscreen. In the few scenes of All that heaven Allows we watched in class and the few more I have watched on my own, Kay’s sharp and witty comments did not earn her male attention (or attention at all). Her cute glasses and perky ponytail were constantly dismissed by the other characters as she was condemned for focusing so much of her time in academia and taking psychology so seriously. But this is what grabbed my attention. I chalked up her dismissal to a product of the time that the movie was released. In 1955, women were expected to play a certain role, in real life and this carried onto the screen. Women were expected to be physically beautiful, submissive, and not too smart.


Kay’s character, and the way she is treated onscreen, has evolved. Fortunately. Through the kind of forward-one-step-and-back-two-steps progress. Unfortunately. But as women have started to be valued at more than their face-value (literally) in society, their representation on screen and the role that nerdy women play in films has expanded. I will trace the evolution of the smart, nerdy female character from being completely dismissed by the characters and the plot to attracting the eyes of her fellow male characters and the audience—and more importantly how she expanded her role.  Through this evolution, I will utilize characters who both strictly play the nerdy female role and characters who push the boundaries of this role, either from within the archetype or from the outside. For the purposes of this analysis (and because I just finished the series), I am going to identify Jessica Day from New Girl as the modern female nerd, a much sexier and less ignored but just as nerdy female character. On the shoulders of the many nerdy personas who came before her, Jess worked her way to the center of her own TV show. But did this nerdy girl have to change from how we saw her as Kay Scott to appeal to the audience enough to have her own show as Jessica Day?


Beauty over Brains

As I mentioned earlier, Kay’s character in All That Heaven Allows, was dismissed because she did not conform to what the film industry deemed valuable onscreen during the 1950s. Although the actress, Gloria Talbott, is definitely attractive by most beauty standards, the character she plays as Kay strips her of this stereotypical attractiveness as soon as she opens her mouth. Her know-it-all attitude and refusal to sit down and be quiet makes her unsuitable in the eyes of stereotypical men during the 1950s.[1] As female characters were usually displayed only in relation to the male characters, Kay’s lack of appeal to men forced her character to the sideline for the audience as well.

While actresses’ onscreen value was largely based on their physical attractiveness, their physical beauty did not guarantee their character’s value in terms of the plot if their character did not conform to the expected female persona. A smart female character lost attractiveness points if she was too knowledgeable in comparison to the man. This does not only explain why characters like Kay were dismissed in early films, but it also explains the value behind female characters who seem to add nothing (in dialogue or action) to the plot. The archetype of this counter-character that first comes to mind is: the Bond Girl. These stereotypically beautiful and sexy characters were a staple of the series during the sixties, but their cinematic role was limited to adding eye-appeal and (in a real stretch) romance to the film. While Bond Girls might be the extreme opposite of the nerd girl in film in terms of sexual exploitation and female expectations, they speak to how women have traditionally been used onscreen, and they explain why the nerdy girls were ignored in early films.


Brains over Beauty  

As I said earlier, the evolution of female characters was not completely linear chronologically. Smart women worked their way towards the core cast of the film, but never quite accomplished a center role without altering their character. Two examples of smart and even nerdy female characters who made their way to this intermediate role are Velma in Scooby Doo and Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter Series. These two characters were intermediate characters between the early intellectual female characters like Kay Scott who were completely eclipsed from the plot and the present nerdy women characters like Jessica Day who are at the center of the series. In order to cover the distance between this important but still secondary role and earn the spotlight of the main character, female characters must exude a certain sexiness or allure. Velma and Hermione are not yet exploited sexually, but this is at a cost: their lack of sexual attraction keeps them on the relative outskirts of the action. They are not the whole package. Their intellect contributes to the plot and helps the core group solve problems and realize situations, but they are only there to help, not to lead or to be sought after.

It could be argued that it is better for a female character to avoid the main character role if it means that she is able to maintain her dignity and avoid exploiting her sexuality. Even so, both Scooby Doo and the Harry Potter Series contain scenes where the Velma and Hermione undergo some sort of transformation and dress up for an event and their physical beauty is realized by the rest of the cast. It is only after this kind of scene where they are pursued by any male characters. So while their overall character may have escaped this exploitation, the notion that their desirability exists under their glasses and know-it-all comments adds another element to their character that brings them closer to the center of attention.

Transformation Genre

Along this same line of thought, if a smart or nerdy female character shows any sort of desire to attract a partner, it is nearly a given that she must undergo some sort of physical transformation, to conform to conventional beauty standards and attract another character. Even if the physical transformation is for another reason besides attracting another person, movies that portray a smart or capable female character who does not know how or care to make herself conventionally attractive usually have a physical transformation or “make-over” weaved into the plot, as if a woman is not fulfilling her full potential if she is not appealing as physically attractive as she is able to. Two films that demonstrate this type of movie are The Princess Diaries and Miss Congeniality. Honestly, I love both of these films, and while the motivator for the female character’s make-over is not completely motivated by winning over a love interest, both Gracie Hart and Mia Thermopolis are rewarded for their transformation with a man realizing her beauty and falling for her.

Kay Scott to Jessica Day

The film industry has come a long way from Bond Girl character types and blatantly ignoring Kay Scott’s character. Female characters are now leads in James Bond-esque movies, like Atomic Blonde, and classic super-hero movies, like Wonder Woman. While the characters of these movies would by no means qualify as nerdy, they definitely put smart, powerful women at the center of the plot. And it took a long time to get to that point. But what about those Kay Scott characters? The modern Kay Scotts have evolved into Jessica Day’s. Jessica Day is smart and quirky. She is a high school principal and she loves to knit. Her best friend is a super model, putting her in the classic juxtaposition with the conventionally beautiful and revered. She even wears glasses. These Jessica Day’s have made progress from the Kay Scott’s, if progress is measured in terms of attention, plot influence, and screen time. Their lines are no longer ignored or dismissed. The TV series may even be named after her.

But Jessica Day is also attractive. She may be partially hidden behind her glasses and thick bangs, but on more than one occasion she is dressed up for a date or an event and she exudes almost every quality of conventional beauty. She is pursued by multiple men, including her 3 male roommates. She is more quirky and naïve than conservative or prude. Oftentimes, she is sexy. The hints of allure that surface rarely in Velma and Hermione are more frequent in Jessica Day. Her nerdy glasses have become chic with the times, and with that, so have her many of her quirky qualities. But more so than the changing of times, it is her physical attractiveness that allows her to exist as a nerd in the center of her own show.

How and why did Kay Scott have to change in order to become Jessica Day? Now that I have provided a more complete picture of how this archetype of the nerdy girl evolved, I will look into how smart women are represented onscreen today, especially in relation to how they got there.

VIS 369 Final Paper- Miss Representation





[1] https://the-artifice.com/masculinity-gender-roles-tv-1950s/

Music Video Compilation

I remember hearing about Beyoncé’s Lemonade being released and anxiously waiting for it to come out, and I remember being pissed when they decided to only release it on Jay-Z’s new music platform, Tidal. Besides the obvious fact that Beyonce is an all-star singer, dancer, style-icon and performer in general, a lot of the hype around the album was centered around this rumor that Jay-Z had cheated on Beyoncé and that this was her revenge album. The description of the other woman, “Becky with the good hair” preceded the album itself as fans supposed who this could be. Out of pure curiosity and interest, I purchased the entire album on iTunes, and my entire team watched it on the bus to a tournament at Harvard.

Ignorantly, I watched the entire album through the lens of Lemonade as “Beyoncé’s revenge album”. I felt empowered watching her take the high road and express her roller coaster of emotions that only come with that sort of intimate betrayal. I was jealous of her iconic outfits and creative flair that pervaded each song’s video. I was team- Beyoncé all the way. But I missed 75% of the point of the album. Watching the entire album now, I feel especially ignorant. How could I have thought this album was about Beyoncés revenge when it was about so much more? Looking back, it makes sense though. While Lemonade speaks to race relations, police brutality, and feminism. Beyoncé explores what she believes feminism to be. Further, she is exploring what it means to be a black woman from the South. This album is the intersection of so many social issues that are difficult to speak about, but Beyoncé tackles them through her music (and even more directly and creatively, through her music videos.

I thought it was mere ignorance that accounted for why I was so blind to the other social points that this album touched on. Watching Lemonade all the way through for the second time, I realize that Beyoncé capitalizes on one of the most relatable commodities she possesses as a woman, her pain in wake of a man’s betrayal. Whether it is the same exact circumstance as her or just heartbreak in general, the emotions and messages Beyonce communicates through Lemonade resonate with almost all women. It is upon this platform that Beyoncé creates the intersection between her conversation with female empowerment and uses her influence as a feminist icon in order to shed light on more controversial conversations, like racist infrastructure in the south (Ex: the depiction of the police car sinking in the floods of Hurricane Katrina. The rescue and recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are noted to be inherently less helpful to black victims) or police brutality (Ex: where the child is innocently dancing in front of a harsh line of SWAT team members). Beyonce’s album creates a platform for these conversations to gain agency and life. Of course, Beyoncé is in a unique position to do so. Uniquely, she can highlight these necessary conversations in a creative and abstract way. In this way, it allows commentary into the space of these conversations while still providing distance between her and her political stance through the creativity involved. It almost acts as a barrier. Another point that acts as a barrier is her intense fame. She is, amazingly, famous enough to bring these tough conversations into popular culture. Her previous work, statements, and demeanor have given her a aura of grace and respect that allowed her to do so with little to no backlash.

AIDS Activism in Cosmo versus the hair salon

After delving into history of AIDS and the current conversation surrounding AIDS now, it was so enlightening to learn about the extent of the crisis and the ardent activism surrounding it. In no other movement in history have people’s lives depended so heavily and immediately on the outcomes and results of the protests and activism. That in itself differentiates ACT UP and AIDS activism from other American movements. The activism surrounding this disease and the relationships and community that formed to protest such a terrible disease was a huge characteristic of this activism. The fact that such a terrible disease was terrorizing such a specific and marginalized group was obviously part of the political problem that spurred such an ardent movement of people fighting for their lives, but it was also a factor that contributed to the immensely close community that arose out of this tragedy. With this in mind, reading the articles and watching the ACT UP clips was especially heartbreaking. So while reading, one thing that struck me was the conclusion by Cynthia Chris and Monica Pearl in Women, AIDS, and Activism. This conclusion touched on the definition of activism. This conclusion states that activism does not have to entail standing outside government buildings or placing ashes on the lawn of the capital. Rather, Chris and Pearl state that activism includes, “informally exchanging safer-sex information in a conversation with a friend, or pointing out the bigotry in a colleague’s remarks, or questioning what you hear on the news from a government official…all that is required is that you are angry about the lack of information or services in your community and are willing to put yourself on the line in some way to make a change.”

I recalled this conclusion as we were watching the two clips in class: one clip about the irresponsible printing of misinformation by Cosmopolitan magazine and one clip about the organic exchange of information in the hair salon. The parallel between these two origins of information represented a larger, more problematic riff that ran throughout the AIDS epidemic. These two clips represented how false, misrepresentative information was spread by industries, companies, organizations, and the government in order to shift the AIDS problem off their plate and onto someone else’s. The marginalization of the group that this disease primarily affects and thus the marginalization of the disease itself had lasting consequences for the livelihood of AIDS victims.

The publishing of false information in an established, widely-read women’s magazine like Cosmopolitan represents the lack of regulation or even care by the government or other officiating sources across the board. This article by the doctor was published in Cosmopolitan, a source that does not have the resources to appropriately or thoroughly fact check. This type of inaccurate information sharing did not protect women, rather it put women at serious risk of contracting the AIDS virus. This type of publishing is not only irresponsible in itself but it also propagates the marginalization of AIDS victims. Although this article that Cosmo published drew attention to AIDS, by Chris and Pearl’s definition it does not qualify as activism because it is hindering the fight against AIDS by spreading false information rather than informing the population.

The other clip we watched in class showed a different kind of activism, a more authentic form of activism. The clip depicted a hair salon that encouraged and participated in honest and open conversations about AIDS in a community that is heavily impacted by the disease. This scene registers as an acceptable form of activism according to Chris and Pearl’s definition. Encouraging the conversation and providing and open and safe space to gain information and express your own experiences with the disease is an extremely impactful form of activism on a very intimate and effective level. The parallels between these two types of communicating information (and misinformation) and participating in activism reflect how the disease was addressed by the outside population and by victims of AIDS. As we saw in the ACT UP documentary and discussed in class, majority of the effective activism was carried out by AIDS victims themselves and ACT UP members who knew what the disease entailed and had a thorough understanding of what needed to be done. This is represented in the scenes of the hair salon when AIDS victims and other members of the communities most effected are able to participate in the conversation and spread awareness. The counter-protests (or pseudo-protests) carried out by the people who were hindering and marginalizing these groups of people is epitomized in the Cosmo article, as it obstructs the movement towards truth and awareness.

Female vs. Male Representation in the body and the home

After a few weeks of thinking about the films and texts we have read and watched so far this semester, it is clear how some of the readings connect with the films, but some of the connections are more complicated. One of these seemingly simple connections that we have seen this semester is between the reading of Pamela Robertson Wojcik, “‘We Like Our Apartment’: The Playboy Indoors” and Laurie Ouellette, “Inventing the Cosmo Girl” and watching Pillow Talk. It was interesting to read the Playboy article and understand the importance of a person’s space and how this represented their personhood, or their ideal personhood, especially for men. This was evident in the film through the focus on Brad’s apartment; while Jan had an equally impressive, if not more impressive home, the emphasis and transformation was viewed through Brad’s Playboy-esque apartment. However, I thought the combination of the Playboy article and the Cosmo girl article was what was truly interesting in the screening of Pillow Talk.

These two articles, in the context of their time and in the context of the film, seemed to highlight the difference in how men and women represented themselves. I am not sure if “represented” is the exactly correct term, but it seems that these two articles look into how men and women differed in projecting themselves to society. For men, as the Playboy article suggests and as Brad corroborated in Pillow Talk, the emphasis lies in their dwellings and where and how they live. It was these assets they used to impress their company, male but especially female. Through this way of projecting themselves, they can indicate their style, interests, and most importantly, their salary. While this seems obvious, it is interesting that the same emphasis is not put on the woman’s home. This film and the Cosmo Girl article suggest that their representation of themselves is confined to their own bodies. As we know, unfortunately, so much a woman’s value is dependent on her appearance, and it is interesting to see this come into play with the contrast between males’ representation and females’. The significance of a woman’s appearance is not a new discovery, but it is interesting that it does not seem that women during this time period were enabled to use other means to represent themselves. It as though they don’t have the agency or empowerment to exist outside their own bodies; whereas males and male characters during this time projected themselves onto every surface they own.

This is an even more interesting scenario when put in context with the fact that women are so closely associated with or confined to the home. I found this concept rather confusing or complicated, but as I thought about it more thoroughly, it (almost) made sense. During this time period, men had majority ownership and empowerment over almost all aspects of social and financial life, but as an archetype for single women, Jan represents how these women are valued and viewed by society. Of course, this is a relatively idealistic viewing of single women during this time, given that she is beautiful and gainfully self-employed. However, it is still evident that her value is still so much confined to her body by how the emphasis is put on her body and how she dresses; while the male is allowed to project himself onto everywhere he goes. But when the woman is married and becomes a part of a family, her identity is projected within the home because that is where she is expected to be, and that is where her societal role is. It is as if there is a role reversal upon marriage, where the woman takes over the space of the home and is now responsible for the appearance of that space while the man’s appearance outside the home and how he presents himself to the rest of the world outside his family.