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Nerd Alert: The Rise Of The Female Nerd

From Lisa Simpson to Issa Dee, there’s never been a better time on TV for women who are geeks

“Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses.” —Dorothy Parker, 1925

In the new superhero sitcom Powerless (NBC), Vanessa Hudgens stars as a variation on a woman we’ve met before: a cheerful, irrepressible go-getter who may be a little green but is clearly used to success. On her first day as Director of R&D at Bruce Wayne’s security company (though her branch is run by Batman’s sleazy cousin Van), Hudgens’s Emily brims with memorized quotes from her personal bible: Bruce Wayne’s guide to business, titled “Wayne or Lose.” No one on Emily’s team is impressed by her B-school nerdery, but they should be. This Muggle represents one of the most crucial yet underappreciated cultural shifts of the last two decades.

With the premiere of the otherwise unexceptional Powerless, Emily joins a sisterhood of nerdy females who dot the TV landscape — a sorority of women who’d never pledge a sorority. Their numbers have increased so gradually that their rise hasn’t garnered much attention, even though the recent narrative about the (mostly male) geeks inheriting the Earth has become a guiding principle in film development and TV programming. But the mainstreaming of female nerds in television — a process that began in the ‘90s — is a phenomenon worth exploring, as it marks a change in how we regard women’s intelligence, independence, and ambition.

Lisa Simpson was arguably the definitive nerdy girl during the Clinton years, and is largely the model for smart female characters today: an overachieving, socially awkward outsider uneasy with traditional femininity and tenacious in her idiosyncrasies. Alternatively dreamy and sharp-eyed, she was often the most sympathetic member of her family on The Simpsons. But Lisa could also be a preening, self-righteous know-it-all, and was understood to be a perpetual loser: friendless, tribeless, romance-less. She’s Milhouse, with dignity. These contradictions make Lisa a delightfully deep character — and also reflect the anxieties about female bookishness in a less progressive time, before girls outpacing boys in school became a given.

The combination of a girl’s intelligence with her determination made for some of the most memorably repulsed (or at best, grudgingly admiring) portrayals of female nerd-dom in the '90s. Election’s maniacally dogged Tracy Flick is perhaps the purest expression of that shuddering revulsion some have toward a straight-A female student who wants more than what she’s been handed by life. (I’d love to hear her “I Want” song.) Less am-bitch-ous, but still endlessly mocked, is Saved by the Bell’s Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley), now remembered mostly as an extracurriculars-laden Type A whose self-destructive perfectionism pushed her into drug addiction. (Caffeine, but still.) Then there’s Berkley’s occasional Bell co-star, Tori Spelling, whose snorting, pigtailed Violet took the nerdy girl down several rungs further: a suitably four-eyed and otherwise personality-free mate for some boy geek.

But the '90s was also the decade that gave us some of the most beloved female nerds of any modern era: Daria, Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, Freaks and Geeks’s Lindsay Weir, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow Rosenberg, and The X-Files’s Dana Scully — all characterized by a Gen X–friendly alienation from society. Nerdy girls became the center or the co-leads of their stories. But it was still mostly the under-18 set whom we admired for their love of knowledge. And viewers looking for female nerds outside of the boxes of whiteness and straightness would mostly have to wait a while longer.

Living well is the best revenge, the poet George Herbert wrote — and by that metric, nerdy girls and women should star in their own Tarantino flick. Theirs has been a quiet but steady vengeance, as smart female protagonists and fan favorites have vanquished their previous invisibility or two-dimensionality to claim their place in pop culture, though mostly on TV. The gradual fusion between the nerdy and the normal has heralded a greater acceptance of women who tend to prize their own bright minds as people worth humanizing and getting to know. (It’s an event that Stranger Things, in its salivating adulation for the ‘80s, completely missed about Barb, whom it treated as mere fodder. Fans’ outsize interest in the granny-glassed nerd showed how much time has changed and who we instinctively relate to now.) Thus we see today's female characters contending with the issues of being a well-rounded teen or adult, ones that 8-year-old Lisa Simpson has never had to deal with, like sex, tech, and work.

Being allowed to grow up is a primary reason why nerdy girls and women still feel so revolutionary. There aren’t many close analogues to Tina Belcher of Bob’s Burgers, Donna and Cam of Halt and Catch Fire, or Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation. The strongest protests that a female nerd can also have a functional vagina still revolve around teenage girls like Tina, My Mad Fat Diary’s music-obsessive Rae, and One Day at a Time’s Cuban-American budding lesbian Elena. Sure, there are also the Hot Nerds cobbled together by capitalistic cynicism and the lusty male gaze — but you need more than a pair of glasses and a mouthful of jargon to make a convincing female nerd. Thankfully, though, the idea that novel-loving women aren’t applying their primed imaginations to their libidos is an antiquated one.

So is the concept that nerds always have their noses buried in a book. Halt and Catch Fire’s engineer Donna and programmer Cam, who found a tech start-up in the early days of the personal computer and follow its entrepreneurial potential to Silicon Valley, are just two of the female nerds toiling (and mostly thriving) in the STEM fields. Other science- and tech-minded women who’ve connected with audiences include The Big Bang Theory’s Amy Farrah Fowler, Arrow’s Felicity Smoak, Orphan Black’s Cosima Niehaus, and NCIS’s Abby Sciuto. Flipping through channels — or, more likely in 2017, scrolling through Google image search results — girls can now imagine themselves in a rainbow of nerd types.

But it’s arguably a nerdy female’s career — specifically when she uses her education, resolve, and autonomy to create or to do good — that best exemplifies how much progress we’ve made in celebrating a woman’s right to self-determination. To be a nerd is a feminist act, no matter the political leanings of the woman. Leslie Knope and Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Amy Santiago use their nerdiness in the service of peace and order, while 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon and Mad Men’s Peggy Olson turn the parts of themselves that don’t fit into the usual niches for women into career success. Even Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca Bunch, who implicitly challenges our general fondness for nerdy women by testing the limits of female “likability,” uses her years of neurotic book-learning to fight for her clients and help out her friend Paula. She’ll correct your grammar, but she’s so earnest about it that you almost won’t mind.

It’s crucial to note that we should be able to see more female nerds of color and from sexual/gender minorities. Other than Jane the Virgin and Ugly Betty’s titular characters and their nerdy women mentioned above, TV’s smart, awkward women, like The Mindy Project’s Mindy Lahiri, Insecure's Issa Dee, and Chewing Gum’s Tracey Gordon, occupy the margins of nerd-dom. Perhaps the most prominent female blerd in pop culture right now is the Afro-British Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, whom only London theatergoers have had the chance to experience. We’ve come this far in admiring female intelligence in its infinite permutations. We can go further.