Recently the California-based clothing company Betabrand launched an advertising campaign exclusively featuring female models that either had already obtained a Ph.D. or were in the process of obtaining one. This campaign was the brainchild of Betabrand founder Chris Lindland. Lindland has said in a statement. “Our designers cooked up a collection of smart fashions for spring, so why not display them on the bodies of women with really big brains?”
Since the ads debuted they have received major media buzz. It seems as though the public is fascinated with the "novelty" of a smart women who is also beautiful. ("Yes Virginia, they do exist!") Really, is a smart woman who is also beautiful a "novelty"? You would think we were talking about an improbability comparable to pigs flying or hell freezing over. The public reaction would be laughable if it were not for the sobering fact that such a response is the result of the deeply entrenched societal belief that female intelligence and beauty are mutually exclusive.
All one has to do is to look back in history to see the longstanding narrative of women being categorized as either smart or beautiful but never the both. Naomi Wolf states in her book, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, "Culture stereotypes women to fit the myth by flattening the feminine into beauty-without-intelligence or intelligence-without-beauty; women are allowed a mind or a body but not both (p. 59)." She further asserts that literature, pop culture, and the media have perpetuated such stereotypes by consistently presenting juxtaposing female characters; those that represent intelligence against those representing beauty. A perfect example of this can be seen in the 1970s cartoon Scooby Doo, where the intelligent Velma is made to appear frumpy while her clueless (no pun intended) counterpoint Daphne is portrayed as the bombshell.
Beyond creating the public misconception that beauty and brains in a woman is a novelty, this cultural stereotype has also had an impact on the way in which many women, me included, have viewed themselves and how we have portrayed ourselves to others. Much of my past and current research has been focused on the intersection between this cultural stereotype, the media, and the phenomenon of intellectual downplaying.
What is intellectual downplaying? Intellectual downplaying is a term that I have coined and defined as the practice of an individual acting as though he/she is less intelligent than he/she really is. Examples of intellectual downplaying or colloquially referred to as "playing dumb" can be found in literature and on both the small and big screens. A modern day example can be seen in the movie, Mean Girls, where the lead character fakes incompetence in her math class as a way to become more attractive to her crush. The prevalence of characters that play down their intelligence in such genres begs the question, "Does art imitate life or does life imitate art?"
One would think that the practice of intellectual playing would cease to be a desirable practice in the 21st century where the emphasis on academic achievement is at an all-time high and overall college graduation rates are on the rise. This would seem to be especially true for women given that females now obtain the majority of college, master's, and advanced degrees. However, my research has uncovered that intellectual downplaying- 1) still occurs and 2) is a practice that continues to be overwhelmingly employed by women. Hence, this has become the impetus for me subsequently coining the term "female intellectual downplaying."
Motivated by my own past experience with "playing dumb," my current research project is focused on finding out what influences a person's decision to play down his/her intelligence (Survey Link). My preliminary analysis of the survey data suggests that the majority of respondents believe that the media glorifies dumb female characters, clearly equates intelligence with unattractiveness, and serves as one of the biggest catalysts for female intellectual downplaying behavior. Many respondents relayed personal examples of their own experiences with playing down their intelligence. Respondents indicated that social acceptance, media pressure, and the desire to appear attractive to a love interest motivated their decision for doing so.
Findings from this research will be shared in greater detail at the upcoming Cazenovia College Women's Research Symposium (Symposium Details), and will be included in my forthcoming book titled, Playing Dumb: A Memoir...Like Sort Of! Be on the lookout for information regarding my book release date as well as details regarding my other upcoming presentations/publications.
Professor Patty Cake
ReferencesWolf, N. (1991). The Beauty Myth. New York: Doubleday.