Ooh! Blog fight! Several folks over at ScienceBlogs are in a tizzy over a post by Razib at Gene Expressions, who expressed his surprise at encountering a hot young woman (or, as he prefers to phrase it, "a smokin' chica") interested in science fiction at a wine bar recently. Shelley at Retrospectacle and Tara at Aetiology took umbrage at his thoughtless remarks, specifically the underlying assumption that a "hot female" can't or shouldn't be a certain way -- in this case, interested in something as geeky as science fiction. (P.Z. and the mysterious "Dr. Joan Bushwell" have also eloquently weighed in with their takes on the dust-up.)
On the whole, the discussion has been reasonably civil, but Razib rather predictably retreated into defensive mode, claiming he never said no such thing, and even if he did, it was taken out of context and besides, statistics would bear him out. So there. Razib's counter-argument might have been more convincing if he hadn't bragged in his own comment thread about having a "smokin' hot chica" all his own -- which in turn elicited the blogging equivalent of "high fives" from certain less-evolved male readers. *sigh* Because everyone knows that having a hot girlfriend legitimizes one's manliness in a way a science degree never could. Jen-Luc Piquant thinks it's rather sad that a smart, talented guy like Razib is so insecure, he has to draw a big chunk of his self-esteem from the relative hotness of his girlfriend. He even commented on Tara's blog that seeing an attractive woman discussing science fiction in public "was a positive thing for me" -- a kind of social affirmation. That said, I think Razib is sincere when he claims to be confused as to why his comments have caused such a ruckus. There's a subtlety to the issue that young guys in particular seem to miss. Repeatedly.
The whole exchange reminds me of a conversation I had about a year ago with Kimba, one of my best friends, and a hardcore Geek Boy. One day I called him on a verbal tic: every time he mentioned one of his male friends in conversation, he'd feel compelled to toss in, "And his girlfriend's really hot, too." Kimba isn't sexist; he admires and respects intelligence in women, and has a heart of gold. So I expressed surprise at his constant knee-jerk commentary concerning the physical appearance of his pals' female companions. Why, I asked, was this at all significant to his male friends' overall worthiness? After all, the obvious implication is that attractive women are trophies that magically confer status and respect on the men who have them on their arms. Like Razib, Kimba's first response was to get defensive, profess his innocence, and insist I was misinterpreting his words. But eventually he admitted I had a point, and that he hadn't been aware of his own latent biases.
One reason it's tough for some guys to see this kind of thing, is that most of them haven't been subjected since birth to the "can't do" attitudes frequently directed at young girls and women. Every single one of us has some such tale. Girls play with dolls, not guns. Girls don't like math, or science. Girls aren't as good at sports (certainly not good enough to compete against men, even those who happen to be athletically gifted). Girls don't like drag racing/monster trucks/boxing, yadda, yadda, yadda. Or if they do, it's because they're freaks, or ugly, or in some way undesirable per the prevailing "norms" of popular society.
Invariably, the "can't do" attitude is accompanied by some argument of the "innate ability" variety: boys are just "naturally" more inclined to have certain interests, behave in certain ways, excel at certain subjects, and there are all kinds of "scientific studies" cited to back up these kinds of assertions. Apparently they're just innately better at everything, which is why a woman excelling in just about any male-dominated sphere is often met with disbelieving astonishment. Even the frickin' Discovery Channel store offers gender-specific Christmas gift guides, featuring science kits and erector sets for boys, and jewelry making, lip gloss and similar toys for girls.
These arguments and attitudes are nonsense, of course -- even Razib would agree. But then he shouldn't be surprised at the reaction his comments provoked. Don't go pushing that particular button, dude, unless you're prepared to face the consequences. Because we hear it over, and over, and over again, and after awhile, we just get sick of it. Gender stereotyping is real. It matters. And frankly, it really pisses us off, and occasionally spurs us to go on the warpath. As Tara wrote, "Maybe if society wasn't so generally negative about it when women do things that are typically associated with men (holy cow, there's a girl reading SF! Take a picture before she escapes!), women wouldn't feel so out of place doing it in the open."
Which is not to say geek boys don't suffer negative stereotyping and social stigmatization, too, particularly in high school -- ergo, the fascination with scoring a "smokin' chica" to validate themselves in the eyes of the world. In Razib's defense, there's nothing wrong with appreciating female (or male) attractiveness, and desiring an attractive partner. Let's face it, attractiveness matters to all of us to some extent. I have yet to hear anybody say of their partner, "Yeah, s/he is smart, funny, successful and a good person... if only s/he were uglier." Heck, even Wired runs an annual "sexy geeks" contest, although it's rather telling that the female candidates have racked up tons more votes than the male candidates. Clearly, it's the geek guys, not the women, who are most concerned with voting. Thank god for the always-fabulous SkepChicks, who keep things nicely balanced by offering both a SkepChick and a SkepDude calendar -- where else could we see Phil Plait naked?
Speaking of geeky attractiveness, tomorrow, December 15, is "Reveal Your Blog Crush Day" (hat tip to Angela Gunn). Here's your chance to confess the identity of your own favorite "smokin' hot" blogger -- of either gender. I jumped the gun a bit on that one; everyone already knows about my blog crush.