In the opening months of 2000, NBC Universal launched Oxygen, a new cable channel aimed at women. At the time, it aired a lot of syndicated reruns of television shows with female leads, such as Kate & Allie and Cybill, but also a lot of original programming.
Robin Epstein, a New York based writer, got a job as the head writer of one of those original shows. It was a quiz show called Clued In, in which the contestants were school going teenage girls.
She loved the idea of young women demonstrating to the world that they were knowledgeable, intelligent people, defying the stereotype of the ditzy teen girl. Part of her job was to write the questions the contestants would have to answer.
Epstein had heard about research suggesting that until the age of about eleven, girls and boys exhibit about the same inclination to raise their hands in class and answer the teacher’s questions. At age twelve or thirteen, girls tend to show a dramatic decrease in classroom studiousness. There was nothing to indicate that girls were less intelligent than boys, but it almost seems as if girls, at pre-teen age, begin to focus on not appearing smart or keen.
It was controversial view, and Epstein wanted to prove it wrong on national television.
That is not what happened. When the show aired, the questions weren't particularly difficult for their grade levels, but the girls were getting very few of them right. This was very discouraging to Epstein — she felt that not only was she failing to show that these girls were as smart as anyone, but she was making them look dumb.
More of this story, and clips of the show itself, can be heard here on the long-running radio show This American Life. Host Ira Glass asks what she did when she realized the girls couldn't answer most of the questions.
“You dumb down the questions,” Epstein said. “You give them things that anyone — anyone of any age, any mental capacity — could possibly answer.”
As the show moved through the first episodes, instead of basic questions about American history and science, the host began to ask who could spell their own name backwards, or who could be the first contestant to run out into the audience and get a cute boy to autograph her arm.
Epstein had tried to make teenage girls appear as role models for other teenage girls, and — at least in the limited context of this particular show — found she was not able to do that. A cable quiz show is probably not the best medium for heralding the astuteness of teenagers, but it seems unlikely to me that there isn't a bigger cultural force behind the dismal performances on Clued In.
The biggest influences in my adult life, at least on the level of one-to-one human interaction, have been women. For whatever reason, I learn more about myself from my relationships with women than with men. I’m aware how broadly I’m generalizing here, but in my experience they seem to be better listeners, and wiser people all around. But this may have more to do with the individuals I've known than differences between the sexes.
I always love This American Life, but I was particularly affected by this segment. If there is a cultural trend (at least in America’s schools) that encourages young women to avoid appearing smart, I was never aware of it, although the vapid tone of the girls in clips of the show sounds exactly like what I remember from high school. There seemed to be a competition among the girls to demonstrate who was more above it all, who cared the least about what they were supposed to care about. I don’t remember the boys putting on this affectation, but I hung out with the geeks and avoided the popular kids, so maybe my experience was atypical.
At all ages of my development I remember geeking out with other boys over anything that was at all neato, no matter what kind of dork-stigma was attached: bugs, computers, rock formations, historical figures, even math tricks. Seriously, math tricks.
In the podcast they don’t speculate much about the possible reasons behind why the show backfired. But Epstein says that it seems that the girls seemed much more preoccupied with how they presented themselves than with what they actually did. Pressures related to appearance and body image among young women are well-documented and much-discussed, but this was the first time it was suggested to me that deliberately appearing not so smart (or at least not so interested) might be part of that.
Being a white, middle-class, anglophone male I have probably have the worst possible angle for seeing how mainstream cultural pressures negatively affect certain demographic groups. I’m also 32 years old, and I don’t know any teenage girls — and now that I think about it, I don’t think I really did when I was a teenage boy either. So I have no idea.
My question for female readers: Did you ever feel pressure, from friends or others, not to appear too smart, or at least to avoid appearing to have geek-level interests? Or is this game show a misleading anomaly?
One of my geek-level interests is in individuals who defy mainstream cultural pressures in order to do what they want with their lives, but it’s hard to know quite which pressures other people face if you don’t experience them yourself. Tell me your experiences.
Listen to the podcast when you get a chance. I can’t put my finger on exactly why it disturbed me so much. I guess it was the thought that women are still being steered away from intellectual pursuits. Say it ain't so...