Countless films, books, TV programmes and the like have presented us with the supposedly enigmatic and elusive ‘smart’ girl character: the quirky outsider who couldn’t care less about her social position or perception. These girls commonly follow a disconcertingly similar pattern, often gothic and stand-offish (think Effy from Skins and Maeve from Sex Education) with a penchant for cigarettes, thick eyeliner and 19thcentury literature. A clearly emerging common denominator with these tropes is these characters’ marked ‘uniqueness’ from Other Girls.
Particularly considering Maeve (a character I grew to love from a series I immediately loved), her prevailing ‘going against the grain’ attribute is somewhat implied to be her apparently above-average cleverness, elevating her intellectually from her peers. Whilst I cannot fault the inclusion of an extremely intelligent and unapologetic female character, there is something about Maeve which feels slightly like a reincarnation of the typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG). Maeve is depicted as the idiosyncratic antithesis of the traditional ‘popular’ high school girl, which her classmate Ruby appears to embody. Whilst Maeve claims that ‘complex female characters’ are her ‘thing’, it is questionable whether she is one herself.
Further classic female archetypes can be observed in other Sex Education characters. The bitchy, malicious Ruby who, although we see more of her character and vulnerability in one episode, ultimately remains rather one-dimensional; and the ‘dumb blonde’ Aimee, who is kind and well-meaning but nonetheless presented as a ditzy airhead. Whilst there are arguably certain archetypes evident in the male characters (particularly concerning the representation of LGBT issues – which could be discussed in a whole other post), I would argue we see more complexity and layers in the non-principle male characters (characters who are less essential for driving the plot) than we do in some of the more primary female characters (for instance Maeve appears to be the only female character with arguable ‘complexity’ despite at least four developed male characters featuring). Maeve’s intelligence is undoubtedly a positive characteristic, but is it solely a means to separate her from ‘other girls’ thus insinuating intelligence in women is an unusual attribute and making her, to some extent, a kind of pseudo-MPDG?
My aim here is not to rip Sex Education to shreds: it is a wonderfully outrageous show which is crucially important for representing evolving attitudes towards sex and gender and was, to be fair, a right laugh. My intention was more to shed light on tropes such as these and how they serve as a metaphor and example of how women are often perceived in real life. The relationship between clever women and wider society is considerably turbulent.
Returning again to fictional examples, opinionated, intelligent female characters are often markedly unpopular and somewhat outcasted. Once again, Maeve serves as an example, as does one of my all-time-fave female characters: Kat Stratford from Ten Things I Hate About You. Common denominator? These well-read, smart girls are noticeably not well-liked, particularly by other women. We only see them both with one female friend, and this relationship is never developed as their relationships with male characters are. From this can we therefore assume that intelligent women are difficult and tricky, often abrasive and guilty of rubbing people up the wrong way? Fiction can be a useful tool to examine reality and provides essential insights into how we view clever and intelligent women as a society.
From talking to my friends about unashamedly and vocally presenting our opinions and demonstrating our knowledge, we discussed something that I have struggled with for a while. Often after delivering a point of view or interpretation of a subject (for instance, during a university seminar), I will incessantly worry and deconstruct everything I said for hours afterwards. If I used big words, did I sound pretentious? Was what I said blatantly obvious, a tired cliché which has been regurgitated countless times? Did I inadvertently patronise someone or dismiss their opinion? (Can I subvert mansplaining here and employ the term ‘girlsplain’? I think not – I’ll leave that term to men as one of the few male-specific pejoratives out there). Did I talk too much and bore or annoy people? Before long, I become paranoid about such worries and resolve to remain quieter for the rest of the seminar, only to reject this resolution within minutes after another interesting discussion arises. I am aware I am not unique in these stresses: even one of my lecturers, a highly successful and extremely intelligent woman, remarked that she has felt this way during certain points in her career. Why do we feel like this? Why should we be quiet and shut up when we have things to say and opinions on important and interesting issues? Can I possibly use any more rhetorical questions in this piece???
Although the insecurities mentioned above are personal neuroses and not a reflection of legal or de facto female subordination, the fact that so many of us have internalised feelings of insecurity surrounding unapologetically voicing our opinions and our intelligence suggests that something is slightly off-kilter regarding the value of clever women. As mentioned, certain fictional tropes of such female characters often resonate certain MPDG characteristics, with their intelligence merely separating them for men from the amorphous mass of Other Girls. Women feeling the need to suppress elements of their cleverness, thus taking up less ‘space’ in a discussion and restricting their potential, implies we have been somewhat conditioned to conceal our thoughts, not wanting to ‘rock the boat’ or appear too controversial or abrasive.
We could also consider how girls sometimes ‘play dumb’ for male attention (think Hayley from 2018 Love Island).I am not, and emphasise not, criticising such girls. I think the system is at fault here rather than them. Why should girls have to dumb themselves down for boys to like them? Why do some girls feel like they have to hide their full potential and appear less intelligent than they are? Presumably, there is a problem with how we value female intelligence in society.
Whilst smart characters such as Maeve, Kat and Effy are undeniably desirable and cool, their existence as anomalies and different from other girls suggests a flaw in society’s perception of women. Their desirability also presents a dichotomy from reality – are clever women really valued this way? This piece deliberately does not ponder what men find attractive in women. I did not want to consider this: the mere fact women can feel subordinated or intimidated intellectually implies not a problem with how individual men perceive women, but how the patriarchy perceives women. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to finish on a high. Girls reading this: please go forth and be as loud, unapologetic, abrasive and controversial as your heart desires, never restrict yourself due to insecurity or societal prejudice. Boys reading this: always, ALWAYS appreciate the clever women in your life, they exist anywhere and everywhere (oh, and please try not to mansplain anyone – it’s not cute).
Roisin Julia is 21 years old and has recently graduated from Manchester Met studying history. She’s interested in all things feminism/politics/current affairs!