Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture

May 29, 2008

I want to love this book. Really, I do. I have been pacing around my office listening to Marlene Dietrich and Amy Winehouse and wondering what to write that is generous to the project of Geek Chic, if not the execution. It is difficult to move edited collections through publishing houses, particularly those with a feminist inflection. I respect the editor and the writers, but something has gone wrong here. This "wrongness" captures a particular mode of media and cultural studies that was "right", or at least acceptable, ten years ago. But as semiotics dripped from our courses and terrorism and theories of difference flooded our curricula, the case studies and textual analyses of a particular programme did not seem big enough or sufficiently responsive to the scale of social changes confronting our colleagues, students and society.

The goal of the book is an important one. It explores the role and function of intelligent women in popular culture. This is an excellent project that can access deep histories of feminist struggles, civil rights, fashion, large-breasted digitised divas in the virtual world Second Life (many of whom are men), stomping disco and hands-in-the-air handbag house. Or so I thought. Instead of researching "popular culture", almost all of the chapters are located in the nest of television, and particularly American television. There are chapters on Gilmore Girls, Bewitched, The West Wing, L.A. Law and Boston Legal, but page after page is filled with plot and character descriptions from television. Popular cultural studies theories - from Henry Giroux's discussions of pop democracy to Henry Jenkins' participatory culture and Angela McRobbie's theorisation of postmodernity - are markedly absent. Stroppy, cutting feminist theory does not scar the pages.

Instead, there are endless presentations of binary oppositions: brainy versus blonde (Sherrie Inness's "Introduction"); geek versus girl (Karin Westman's "Beauty and the Geek"); lab coats and lipstick (Lorna Jowett's "Lab coats and lipstick"); glasses and makeovers (Cindy Conaway's "You can see things that other people can't"); pretty and smart (Rebecca Hains's "Pretty smart"); girlhood and intelligence (Michele Paule's "Super slacker girls'); brilliant versus pretty (Linda Baughman, Allison Burr-Miller and Linda Manning's "Back to the future"); career versus family (Leigh Edward's "Dangerous minds"); sex and the workplace (Sharon Sutherland and Sarah Swan's "Raising the bar" and Beth Berila's "Savvy women, old boys"); and witch and woman (Jeannie Banks Thomas's "Heckling Hillary").

Reading the book, chapter after chapter, sees the application of repetitive and simple binary oppositions to text after text. While textual analysis may have been appropriate in the early days of proliferating cultural studies publishing in the 1980s, Geek Chic is really a book without an audience. The range of material - American television - is too narrow to assign it as a textbook. The lack of complex theoretical and political discussion renders it too basic for an academic audience.

I believe that it is important to support edited collections at every opportunity. They are a rare publishing beast, particularly with a woman at the helm of the enterprise. But this book embodies the problems with the form. Short and fragmented analyses, with each chapter reinventing the wheel that was already rolling, stop the development of a scholarly agenda or goal. The argument - that intelligent women are aberrant, odd and frequently displaced in popular culture - is clear. The problem is that it is self-evident. The myriad case studies confirm a truth we already know. We know that aligning motherhood and the workplace is complex, smart women have been termed witches and bitches throughout history, and wearing glasses is probably one of the most effective contraceptives on the planet.

Inness states: "Brilliant women ... still appear less frequently than men, and when they do their intelligence is frequently toned down to make it more palatable to mainstream society." She is right. However, the question remains: what do we do with this textual knowledge? How we map, change and transform the binary oppositions to probe the ambivalent, the confusing and the difficult remains the task.

Perhaps a soundtrack for that journey is a mashed up Dietrich and Winehouse. Smart, unpredictable and dangerous, they remain women of popular culture who do not fit in the categories written for them. To rewrite Suzanne Vega's famous song, these are not women "on" the wall. They "graf" it.

Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture

Edited by Sherrie A. Inness
Palgrave Macmillan
£45.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9781403979025 and 979032
Published 9 April 2008

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