November
27th 2010
“Science Cheerleaders”: feminist FAIL

Posted under: American history, Bodily modification, childhood, class, Dolls, Gender, GLBTQ, Intersectionality, jobs, race, students, the body, weirdness, women's history

When I read Zuska’s comments about Science Cheerleader, I thought Science Cheerleader had to be a parody.  Apparently it’s not–but it is in fact a total joke, because (for example) it suggests that “What Everyone Needs To Know To Be A (sic) Science Literate” is the cheerleaders from the Philadelphia 76ers in spangly bras and short-shorts reading the words of an actual physicist.  The actual physicist does not don a bra-top and short-shorts and read the science concepts himself.  I wonder why not?  Maybe because he understands that it’s never a mark of status to appear publicly in a state of undress?  (In my period and field, for example, the only people portrayed as unclothed are enslaved people–and they’re almost never represented as wearing clothing at all, whereas 17th and 18th century portraits of white people are more portraits of clothing than of individuals.  Clothes make the man, indeed!)

Anyway, back to science.  Zuska writes:

Okay, let’s play what if. What if the Science Cheerleaders are responsible for making just one girl stick with her science & math classes – isn’t it all worthwhile then?

Let’s say the Science Cheerleaders do keep one girl in advanced science or math classes, but make three other girls feel like they have to pornulate themselves in order to be 21st Century Fembot Compliant While Doing Science, and make five d00ds feel like it is perfectly okay to hang up soft porn pictures of sexay hawt babes in the lab and harass some colleague because hawt science women WANT to be appreciated for being sexay and smart! – is it still worth it?

She then goes on to describe an effective outreach program she worked with to get more girls, especially girls who would be first-generation college students, into STEM fields.  GROW–Girls Researching Our World–sounds like a fantastic program, involving a summer camp program and other events scheduled through the school year.  Zuska explains that it’s not looking like a cheerleader that’s important to these girls–it’s whether or not women can be scientists and have a dog, have a house, wear jeans to work, work with cool gear, and be normal and fun and self-sufficient.  As one of them explained to a clueless Football camper, “GROW, as in grow up, get a good job, and make a lot of money!”

I did a presentation and Q and A session for some third- and fourth-graders a few years’ back about being a historian, and the kind of questions Zuska’s GROW students asked the women scientists sounded a lot like the questions I got asked, which were more about how being a historian fit into my whole life, and how my whole life was enabled by my work.  (They were particuluarly jazzed about the idea of travelling for work.  Believe it or not, research trips are what sounded super-cool to them!)

Aside:  I wonder if the key is getting to some of these kids before the pressures of adolescence and before girls in particular fall into worries about their looks and body image?  Middle school may be too late for some girls.

Zuska concludes:

There is, indeed, no reason why a woman can’t be both cute and smart. But that was hardly the issue facing the young girls I saw in Kansas. It was lack of knowledge, lack of access, teachers and guidance counselors who didn’t know what was necessary for sci/eng careers and didn’t think it was all that important anyway to steer young girls towards them, parents who were overwhelmed and didn’t know about these careers or how to take the first step to get their kids on the college prep pathway let alone to a sci/eng career, young girls who were just dying for adults to invest some time and energy in caring for them and their bright minds and what they were capable of doing.

Science Cheerleaders is, at the very best, an outreach program for already-privileged girls who are already interested in science/engineering but who are afraid it will make them look like fat lesbians.

Right on.  And, one might ask, what is a super-smart and talented fat lesbian kid supposed to do with a program like Science Cheerleader, anyway?  Is she not deserving of encouragement and support?

Thanks for the shout-out to Fembots, Zuska!  For those of you dames d’un certain age, you might appreciate this.  (Just in time for the Christmas shopping season!)

16 Comments »

16 Responses to ““Science Cheerleaders”: feminist FAIL”

  1. E. Goldman on 27 Nov 2010 at 10:57 am #

    Well said. As you pointed out, this kind of fluff both misses the point (i.e. what is actually keeping young women from pursuing science, which is not a lack of “brain makeovers”) and only speaks to a select group. And I especially agree with this question: “And, one might ask, what is a super-smart and talented fat lesbian kid supposed to do with a program like Science Cheerleader, anyway?” Indeed, when I was a young woman interested in science, I was also a young woman struggling with my understanding of what it meant to be female, struggling with my body image, struggling with how I wanted to present myself to the world; a program such as this would have been far more alienating (do I need rock-hard abs to be good at Physics?) than encouraging.

  2. Comrade PhysioProf on 27 Nov 2010 at 11:12 am #

    One of the interesting arguments defenders of Science Cheerleaders have been making is that hott sexxay bangable is a bug in the cheerleading program, that “perverted” d00ds leering at cheerleaders is an epiphenomenon, and if people just “open their minds” and “change their thinking”, then this bug can be rooted out. Obviously, hott sexxay bangable is not a bug in cheerleading; it’s a feature. In fact, it’s the killer app.

  3. Historiann on 27 Nov 2010 at 11:22 am #

    E. Goldman–thanks. To be clear, I’m mostly just amplifying Zuska’s analysis, so I can’t take credit for the really hard work! I just wanted to make it clear that the fat kids and/or the lesbian kids don’t need yet another aspect of their lives invaded with heteronormativity and/or gender compliance training.

    Comrade, I completely agree with you. We in the U.S. and modern Europe have an extremely long history of using clothing–or the lack thereof–as a means for demeaning people and putting them in their places. It’s a powerful context we moderns can’t escape entirely. I don’t buy the postfeminist lies of casting public near-nudity as “empowering” in any way, shape, or form.

  4. mandor on 27 Nov 2010 at 1:12 pm #

    I’m a little bit puzzled by the idea that they need to show how you can be both an athlete and a scientist. There’s a whole freaking wing of science devoted to jocks.

    Also not mentioned: professional cheerleaders get crap wages. No wonder the ones featured have solid jobs in science!

    S.C.: Do you have any advice for youngsters who might feel torn between following one dream associated with beauty or physique (like cheerleading) and pursuing a science and engineering career usually associated with, well, geeks?

    Nicole: My advice is to follow your heart and do what you love. Most people are impressed that girls/women can be smart and beautiful. It is a very good quality to be a well rounded person.

    Sigh.

  5. Historiann on 27 Nov 2010 at 1:33 pm #

    Too bad, I guess, for the unbeautiful smart girls among us!

    Nicole’s advice is straight out of a pre-1980s Disney Princess movie. Princesses are always beautiful–it’s a non-negotiable value.

  6. koshem Bos on 27 Nov 2010 at 1:58 pm #

    In my cave they taught us that smart, creative, sexy and beautiful are orthogonal traits equally distributed over the genders. I’ll go back into my cave where I understand what bothers people.

  7. Aurora on 27 Nov 2010 at 2:03 pm #

    I have nothing against these lovely women who are as beautiful as they are talented. But let us imagine for a moment a future where a woman can become a good scientist only if she can also sing and dance and look fabulous. The rest will be deemed mediocre because of their geekiness. It is bad enough that most of us have to be more talented than the man we work with for the same position and perks. Now we have to look better be be more athletic too? I vote for making geeky seem cool and that’s what I and dozens of scientists I know do everyday.

  8. Perpetua on 27 Nov 2010 at 2:07 pm #

    I love how “smart” and “beautiful” are the two characteristics that make a woman “well-rounded.” !!!! How about “smart” and “practical” or “smart” and “creative” or any number of multiple traits that go into making someone well-rounded for reals. Nope. Beautiful has to be there!

    @H: yeah, sucks to be the rest of us (who are also, not coincidentally, the majority – the unbeautiful).

  9. Historiann on 27 Nov 2010 at 2:25 pm #

    Aurora–my point exactly. As if it’s not difficult enough being a woman in science–now they have to get personal trainers and schedule brazillian waxes and time for highlights at a salon!

    Most of the kids they’re trying to get interested in science in programs like the one Zuska describes seem to have better values and a better grip. They just want a normal life and a measure of independence and creativity at work. They’re not thinking about the performance of womanhood.

    Perpetua, your comment makes me think about the ageism implicit in all of this reassurance that the beautiful can be smart too: even the beautiful will hit menopause someday. Time, the avenger, will take its toll. As I’ve said here before, just as we’re all only temporarily able-bodied, so some of us are only temporarily beautiful according to dominant cultural standards.

  10. mandor on 27 Nov 2010 at 4:32 pm #

    Inspiration for girls interested in urban planning: work hard and someday Esquire magazine will say this about you!

    At a ribbon cutting in Union Square, New York City’s Department of Transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, walks the politician walk, four steps and your arm is grabbed, five more and you are spun into a circle of pearls and L’Air du Temps. The commissioner has Anna Wintour hair, a tight face, and a tan, thin body that does not look fifty but mid-thirties, sexy. She wears wraps over sleeveless dresses and when they fall away during rousing handshakes there is a toned yoga shoulder exposed, brownish and unabashed.

    She smiles a lot, half like a lady and half like a man.

  11. Isis the Scientist on 27 Nov 2010 at 8:37 pm #

    I think the Science Cheerleaders may be more subtle than some of us are getting. Has anyone here heard of Radical Cheerleading?

  12. shaz on 28 Nov 2010 at 2:39 am #

    It’s totally not the point and of interest only to the colonial historian crowd: but aren’t the Native Amerians often portrayed as unclothed? And I keep seeing discussion of slaves in “negro clothes” — which just proves your point about the clothes making the man, but is different from not clothed. Though maybe you mean visual representation, and I”m talking about textual descriptions.

    Ok, carry on with the main point of the discussion now, all.

  13. Feminist Avatar on 28 Nov 2010 at 7:48 am #

    This reminded me of this article: http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2010/11/how_a_15-minute

    Which showed that women’s poor performances in physics class were caused by low-self esteem vis a vis science (ie they bought the BS that women weren’t as good at science as men)- and that women basically encouraged to rethink this, performed as well as men for the rest of the year.

  14. Historiann on 28 Nov 2010 at 9:35 am #

    Shaz–yes, I was writing about visual depictions of Africans and African Americans. Other than the stock engravings used in runaway ads, it’s really, really difficult to find a pre-1800 image black men, women, or children wearing clothing.

    I thought about including Indians in the above text, but they’re portrayed much more variously, especially once trading cloth/blankets/shirts are adopted by most Indian people. Even early European drawings and engravings (the John White watercolors, ca. 1585) show Indians as wearing deerskin aprons. They may have described the Indians verbally as “naked,” but even these Indians are wearing more clothing than Africans are typically shown wearing.

  15. Feminist Avatar on 28 Nov 2010 at 11:31 am #

    In 18thC UK portraiture, black servants (as they were termed as slavery was unfashionable and later illegal) wore clothing- but the clothing- usually that of retainers- very definitely marks their status as ‘servants’, ‘less than’ and ‘other’. See the painting: Johann Zoffany’s ‘The Third Duke of Richmond out Shooting with his Servant(c. 1765)’ where his black servant is in retinue for example. There is also a really amazing (and distressing) aristocratic family portrait- the name of which escapes me- which has a small black child dressed in retinue on one side, and on the other side of the painting is a small monkey dressed in identical clothing.

    Or occassionally, black people are dressed in ‘ethnic’ clothing (which is usually ‘oriental’ in style, sometimes with turbans)- such as Zoffany’s ‘The Family of Sir William Young’; or Joshua Reynold’s ‘Frederick, Count of Schaumburg Lippe: 1764-67′; ‘John Manners, Marquess of Granby: 1763-65′, and finally his ‘Lady Elizabeth Keppel: 1761′.

  16. Comrade PhysioProf on 28 Nov 2010 at 11:47 am #

    What’s the point of wasting time discussing all this 18th Century crapola? Don’t you people realize that’s all just meaningless past history? We are modern Americans, and we freely chose to do the things we do. The activities of a buncha fucken weirdos from hundreds of years ago is no more relevant to understanding us 21st Century Americans than those of green people on Mars.

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