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The Apotheosis Of Smart, Where Women Are Difficult, Or, Saturday Morning at 10:11am

Let’s talk about smart people. Not real smart people, mind you, but the pretend sort we see on American television and in the movies. Have you all noticed the recent apotheosis of imagined brilliants? (If we’re going to discuss smarty-pants we might as well start with a lot of syllables.)

There’s House, with the doctor who is better than everyone else. There was Numb3rs, with a math dude. There’s Breakout Kings, which I quite enjoy, featuring Lloyd Lowery child-prodigy-turned-psychiatrist-with gambling-problem. The dishiest  is Dr. Spencer Reid of Criminal Minds, played by Matthew Gray Gubler.

And then, of course, my favorite, The Big Bang Theory. I’m not alone. The show wins awards.

Having worked in Silicon Valley for 15 years, I’ve clocked my fair share with the 180+ IQ sorts. And, for the most part, I find them quite endearing. Sheldon resonates, in all his odd, over-specified, loyal ways.

Some super smart guys function with few visible quirks. I remember once sitting in a meeting listening to Bud Tribble, known for his contribution to Mac OS and the original Mac interface. I was struck mostly by how he spoke in full, grammatically correct, paragraphs. Not a single false sentence start, an ummmm, or a missed tense. A few months later,  at a Christmas party, Bud sat down at the piano without fuss and played show tunes and Christmas songs for the guests. Beautifully. Generously. Intelligence doesn’t dictate bad behavior.

But I do wonder about how similarly brilliant women are portrayed in the media.

Back to Big Bang Theory. The character of Penny provides the usual dumb blond with a heart of gold. Oh well. She’s well-written and well-played. We can’t rail against every stereotype, all the time. But how does the show deal with smart women? Much as I enjoy Amy Farrah Fowler, played by the in-real-life Ph.D. Mayim Bialik, the character seems less rich, less complex than her male counterparts. She’s a simple figure of fun. Bernadette, the degreed blond., approaches a dichotomy or two, but is nowhere near as fully drawn as Sheldon.

I think the societal conflict around highly intelligent women manifests most clearly in a very different recent series. Enter Lisbeth Salander, of The Girl Who Did Various Dangerous Things trilogy.

She comes closest, really, to the super-powered smart guys. It’s too bad that she has to be so damaged, so angry, and so at risk.

It’s Saturday morning. Let’s all engage in our favorite intellectual activities, while smiling. Have a lovely weekend.

A fun article about the smart people on TV thing.

45 Responses

  1. I think Abby from NCIS, played by Pauly Perrette, is awfully smart and pretty close to normal, She seems to have friends and a life outside of work and a ruck full life. She is capable of sustaining deep and meaningful friendships, etc.
    Also, although flawed, Bones, portrayed by Emily DesChamel is a genius character that seems fully drawn and has even shown great growth over the series.

  2. Thanks for your recent comment. I do find that the smarty pant does not mind drumming to his or her own drum. I find the story is always more interesting with one smarty, edgy character, don’t you?
    Yes, it is a click when I am finished – always mindful that if I go too far – the work will have an over done look….just like cooking, it is part skill and part instinct.

  3. Great post! A few female characters that are, to my mind, fully drawn and very intelligent (tho perhaps not genius and therefore not exactly what you are talking about)

    Alicia Florek on The Good Wife. Excellent attorney and very complicated.
    Kate Beckett on Castle ( which I enjoy more than I feel I should).

    1. “Alicia Florek on The Good Wife.”

      Ohhh. And when Alicia goes up against Kalinda, that’s just good theatre. And Diane Lockhart, another fantastic smart focused women, all superior actors.

  4. One of the benefits of watching cooking shows exclusively: I don’t get offended by the marginalization of women – everyone is an idiot.

  5. I second the vote for Bones… Emily Deschanel’s character is really complex and also insanely smart. (Also socially handicapped, much like Sheldon, but it’s much more charming on her.) Someone mentioned Kate Beckett, on Castle, and she’s definitely also smart, but I’d actually point even more at Molly Quinn’s character, Alexis Castle. She’s young, she’s unbelievably smart, but she’s also well rounded, with emotional complexity, and does things besides just “being a token brain”. (Like playing violin, spending time with her friends, and generally being a normal teenaged girl who just happens to be very smart.)

  6. One of my smart and complicated all-time heroes will always be Jane Tennison of the original “Prime Suspect”, played by Helen Mirren. Perhaps the one and only.

  7. I had issues with Lisbeth Salander. Yes, she may have been smart or intelligent but nothing in her 22 y/o background suggested the 10,000 hours of practice generally considered necessary to master a discipline, even hacking.

    Women are capable, but the legwork and hours in the lab/office/library still count. Take Abby our NCIS scientist. Now and then there’s mention of graduate school and professors; she didn’t just drop from a egg into her role as Scientist.

    We don’t do women a favor when we portray their skills as gifts from above. They’re acquired. A smart girl might acquire them slightly faster, but she’s still got to put in her time.

  8. Loved this post.

    Mr FF recently introduced my Mother to the Big Bang Theory and they laugh like drains at it on Wednesday nights.

    Meanwhile on Australian tv I am hard pressed to think of many if any faux smart women….worrying.

  9. I don’t view television, so reading your entry turns my mind to music and women and the opportunity (or lack thereof), for women to live a richly drawn life in performance. A soupcon (a jigger, a tumbler?), of life’s seasoning is enough to turn the likes of Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell into “heritage artists” while Mick and Keith (and Neil and Paul and Leonard), remain on current radar. With a few exceptions, our culture has been strict about the gender of greatest visibility. As for those high-risk women, they can be anomalized or infantilized while young. I hope they hang in for a good long time and eventually shift the whatever-ya-call it…paradigm?…to a place where women performers are perceived to be as vital as men in their maturity.

  10. Great post, Lisa…. I love Sheldon and all the guys of Big Bang Theory, as well as other super intelligent characters on other shows. Guess I’m just drawn to the geeky types! This gets me thinking, though, about smart women characters, and how they are portrayed. BTW, I’m so envious of you getting to be around all those brilliant guys in Silicon Valley area!

  11. I’m surprised that no one has brought up Mad Men yet. I love how fully-drawn the female characters are in this drama, even though that particular time period for women was anything but. I think that show is a good representation of how smart women (thinking of Joan here) were marginalized, knew they were marginalized, in some ways tried to tune-in and do what was expected, but still found themselves occasionally having to cross that line… I think that show strikes a great balance, especially considering it is basically a “period piece” of sorts. Plus, there’s Jon Hamm. Haaaammmmmmm.

  12. When I heard Cuddy was leaving House, there was no reason to watch it anymore for me — she could handle the hospital, she could handle the patients, and she could handle House. [Why pray do writers/wardrobe stylists diminish focused, intelligent women characters like Cuddy by putting them in cocktail dresses 9-to-5?] I guess for the same reason they outfitted my other favorite focused, intelligent woman character, Emma Peel, in skintight leather jumpsuits decades earlier. Revenue.

    ps, last time I watched Criminal Minds I was housebound in front of cable TV with the hundred days flu, so you’re telling us Dr. Spencer Reid has now turned dishy? What a turnaround!

  13. There is Penelope Garcia, on Criminal Minds, who is a genius data miner. She is addressed as “baby girl” by the hunky Derek Morgan, which just irritates the living snot out of me. Smart women just don’t sell on TV. On a different note, was not the Mac interface purloined from the Xerox Star, developed in Palo Alto? I do remember using the Star prior to the Mac coming to market. It’s a historical nit, but it bugs me that Xerox receives so little credit for creating such an amazing user interface.

  14. Hi Lisa! I don’t know what it is, but Big Bang Theory never caught ne. If I had to choose, I would take Top Gear, the show with the 3 guys, driving old, fast, new and crazy cars around the globe.

    Meanwhile I will use my brains and learn another language, хорошо!

    I would love to start talking about smart women and their sexual orientation. Is it just per accident, that the majority of the smart women I know in Vienna is lesbian? And when thinking of celebrities and acresses – Ellen, Jodie Foster, … what is it? (I am aware my sample is small, but from all women I know that are outstanding and really smart (I love being impressed by smart people), only a few are heterosexual)

  15. Evidently, I need to start watching TV, since I’ve never heard of one show that you’re discussing here. I tend to watch movies, when I watch at all.

  16. Very provocative post. Now you have me running through the shows I watch, how complex the female characters are (or not), and a lifetime of experience that has taught me that complex / smart women are viewed as “difficult.”

    Just one more double standard?

  17. I watch Downton Abbey – some very brilliant and savvy women in this series, in fact way more brilliant than the men.

  18. I am Shelden Cooper. My mini-me is one too. I am in a relationship with a Leonard. Our family celebrates World Nerd Day. However, where I disagree is about Penny’s portrayal. Penny is not a dumb blonde. I think she provides a good foil by being street smart versus book smart. Examples:

    1. She wins the first ever chess game she plays against Leonard.
    2. She knows how to get Shelden’s game stuff from the online bully.
    3. The episode in which their car breaks down. And the dialogue goes, “Who knows about internal combustion engine?”. All raise their hands. “Who knows how to fix it?” None of them do and they had to call Penny!

    Recently I watched the two seasons of Downton Abbey and I think the women in the season are brilliant too!

    So perhaps we need to think about smarts including a variety of ways of being!

  19. My favorite smart woman character on TV is Brenda Lee Johnson, played by Kyra Sedgwick on The Closer. She has her stereotypically feminine quirks – like being hooked on chocolate and never being able to find anything in her huge bag, but I can’t deny many of us have those same quirks in real life. (Points at self.)

    I also like her brand of smarts. I’m a math-smarts smarty pants, personally, but I like seeing her intuitive and observant smarts played out on the show.

  20. Haven’t had a TV for over 30 years, but I find real life smart people very different from TV’s portrayal of smart, as network TV generally dumbs down everything. I do like Julianna Margulies in “The Good Wife”.

  21. Lisbeth Salander is a character written by a man. Surely we cannot expect a thriller to be sensible?
    10,000 hours to master a craft? What about Beethoven & individuals like him? Baylis is OK, Gladwell is so full of crap it’s laughable, but hey he’s making $$ so he must be successful. Anyway, about how women are portrayed…Meryl Streep has portrayed EVERYONE yet we always know it’s Meryl. There are plenty of brilliant women, but sometimes they find it a bit of fun not to let the world realize just how smart they are…usually works better in the sea of men. Being a contrarian, Lisa…you’ve taught me well. :)’s

  22. I “tuned-out” almost completely last year. That makes me the smartest woman on the planet…. Or at least in the room :)

  23. Love love love Emily Deschanel on Bones, and don’t forget, the other female characters on that show are pretty brainy too!

    If anyone watches British TV, the lead character on ‘New Tricks’ strikes me as rather bright. As do Joan and Peggy and Faye on Mad Men (and Betty, who went to university but then somehow ended up housewife to Don Draper), and if anyone is watching Game of Thrones, it’s pretty clear that the Khaleesi has got it going on.

  24. It’s not TV but Harry Potter’s Hermione is an example of a smart (young) woman who’s pretty sensible/balanced as well. Joss Whedon offers some brainy women, most obviously Buffy’s Willow. And I’d say Shonda Rhimes offers a plethora of smart women on Gray’s Anatomy — yes, the best-known one, Christina, is portrayed as problematically cold, but the show also looks behind that. And there are many other female surgeons (arguably, pretty smart women, no?) on the show who do balance emotions and responsibilities and life beyond their work. Ditto for Private Practice.
    And here’s another vote for Bones and Emily Deschanel. . .

  25. Good observation! I really can’t think of many brilliant characters..
    Elizabeth Shue was smart smart in “The Saint”..

    Never bothered with “Big Bang Theory”. Assumed it was awful…sort of like “Third Rock from the Sun”…a show with a long run that I skipped entirely.

  26. This is why I miss The West wing (and still watch the CD’s). Smart men, yes, by the boatlaod, but amazingly brilliant women in every episode, From CJ Craig (Allison Janey) to Abby Barlett ( Stockard Canning), Amy Gardner (Mary Louise Parker), Joey Lucas (Marlee Maitlin), Anabeth Schott (Kristin Chenowith), Ainsley Hayes (Emily Proctor). Many other beloved women in that show too. Just sayin’. I do however love me some Big Bang theory.

  27. This is why I seek refuge in “Mad Men”, which showcases such intelligent women and so slyly and insightfully pokes at gender-based stereotypes, now and then.

    Ok, ok – it’s also for the witty banter and outrageously handsome men in suits – but the multi-dimensional women, even the dim ones, are a lot of what makes that show work.

  28. I agree about Lisbeth Salander, and also about Bones. And as to that 10000 hours crap, I’m not saying you don’t have to put in your time, and focused time at that, but having known a fair number of the 200+ types in my time I can say that the way they process and absorb information can make the merely average feel like slugs.

    I society as a whole allows brilliant men more leeway than women, and television does not aim for the highest segments of acceptance and tolerance.

  29. I adore the Emmy-winning actor who portrays Sheldon of “Big Bang Theory” and relate to his character.I am very amused by his roommate’s mother, portrayed by the sharp, always funny, Christine Baranski. She is a psychiatrist who has penned his childhood into a best selling book Penny suggested as reading in her psychology class. In the episode, he using manipulation to obtain extra sympathy (including sex) due to his Mother’s mistreatment of him (and consequent exposure of his childhood) through the book. Penny eventually turns the tables on him by dressing seductively as a come-on and as he begins to disrobe, Penny turns the laptop around to face him, his shrink Mom is on Skype and proceeds to lecture him on his immature manipulative tactics. One for Penny! When I first began watching the show last year, I didn’t much care for TV. however, I am complying with a request by my husband to spend more time with him “instead of always having your nose in a 1,000 page book or Sunday’s NY Times’ Crossword Puzzle”. (We’re working to spark to flame our 30 yr. marriage so it is taking a bit of compromise.) We both are trying to accommodate the other by sharing the solitary passions we individually developed as I was chronically ill for the last 27 yrs. It’s fun: TV is very silly but I am becoming less of a snob. I’m learning to take the scripts and characters lightly and seek out shows that make me laugh as much as they make me think. I do too much thinking as it is. Tonight we watched, ” The Bad Queen” which I find myself caught up in by the costumes, music, intrigue, sex, and very brainy women. These women were the true powers behind the throne. Especially their formidable mothers. I find them scary. That is very much like real life after all. isn’t it? Whom among us doesn’t have or hasn’t rid themselves of a “frenemy” by this age?

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