Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Smart grrrlz

My sister recently sent me a link to a Girl Scout social media fact sheet that discusses the ways girls portray themselves on sites like Facebook and Twitter. The study found that "girls downplay several positive characteristics of themselves online, most prominently their smartness, kindness, and efforts to be a good influence." Moreover, "the most frequent words girls use to describe how they come across based solely on their online profile are fun (54%), funny (52%), and social (48%)."

I'm really not surprised girls downplay their intelligence—online and offline—but it's still such a sad comment about society's expectations of what makes a cool, attractive female. When I was in middle school, someone gave me the nickname of "Brainiac," and I hated it. I started resenting my intelligence, and I even let my grades slip until I started hanging out with other advanced students and realizing how foolish it was to ruin my education over a nickname.

Thankfully, today's world is full of smart grrrl role models I never had while growing up. I'm from a time when Madonna was the woman young teens wanted to be—and that was long before anyone revealed she had a high IQ.  Here are five reasons why it's cool to be a girl with brains nowadays.

Natalie Portman, who played Padme in the Star Wars prequels, graduated from Harvard and once told The New York Times, "I don't care if [college] ruins my career. I'd rather be smart than a movie star."  She's beautiful and successful—yet she values her brains.

A recent Entertainment Weekly issue spotlighted Emma Watson's quest for a college education. Not only does Emma play Hermione Granger, a character who makes intelligence look like a vital tool for undertaking an adventure, but in real life she attends Brown University. She says of her post-Potter university days, "I'm just...happy." 

I recently finished reading Jacqueline Kelly's The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and absolutely loved it.  The heroine of the 2010 Newberry Award-winning novel is an eleven-year-old girl who develops an interest in science and finds encouragement from her eccentric naturalist grandfather.  The problem: Calpurnia lives in Texas in 1899.  She's not supposed to be interested in science; she's supposed to be preparing to become a wife.  Her struggles against resigning to a non-academic life of domesticity are both entertaining and heartbreaking—and Calpurnia is proof that a smart literary heroine doesn't have to be the nerdy sidekick in glasses.

Once upon a time Danica McKeller played Winnie Cooper on a 60s-set TV show called The Wonder Years.  She grew up, had a tough time transitioning from child star to young adult actor, but instead of becoming washed up and drug addicted, she graduated summa cum laude from UCLA with a degree in mathematics.  Furthermore, she authored two bestselling smart grrrl math books: Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail and Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss.  My husband keeps both books in the high school math classroom where he teaches.  Girls tend to lose interest in math around the fourth grade, so it's fantastic that Danica has come along and written these books that show a hipper, non-threatening side of the subject.

If literary intelligence is your strength, check out Sarah Utter's line of "Reading Is Sexy" mugs, magnets, T-shirts, etc., available from She also makes "Future Librarian" items, among other designs. If you think guys will laugh at you for flaunting the sexiness of reading, do you really want those particular guys? Many males are book nerds, too, so there's no need to waste one's time, smart grrrlz.

Nothing bothers me more than a movie about a bookish woman in glasses who loses her specs and intelligence to get the man in the end. My top recommendation for smart grrrl cinema is Real Women Have Curves.  Not only does the protagonist, Ana (played by Ugly Betty's America Ferrera), embrace her less-than-perfect body image, but she fights for her education in a family that's pushing her to stick to tradition and work in a sweatshop.  I plan to show this movie to my daughter in a year or two.  It's young female empowerment at its best. 

There's no shame in having brains.  I'm proud of the fact that I just turned in a manuscript with a smart grrrl heroine, and my hope for my own daughter is that she doesn't feel any embarrassment about her intelligence. Thank you, modern role models, for showing girls there's more to life than surface beauty.  Here's to the females with brain power!