In my last post, I threw out the fact that I didn’t feel the word ‘geek’ was necessarily going to encourage young girls to see science/engineering as a career for them, a point that was picked up both by my fellow OT blogger Sylvia McLain over at Girl Interrupting, and also by some (female) commenters on Twitter. My previous post was written around Easter-time for Fabiana, so well before publication of the Geek Manifesto put the term Geek into even more prominence. Like Sylvia, and as I discussed in an earlier post with a rather different emphasis, I remain nervous about how the word is being used and diffused, although not specifically because of its origin as a (circus) freak. It is, as Alice Roberts has said, divisive, splitting ‘us’ off from ‘them’, which is particularly dangerous when trying to convince the teenage girl that she wants to be both normal/conformist and a scientist. We should do nothing to make her think she has to make a choice between the two. I may be wrong, but I think the connotation for adolescent males is nothing like as prone to raise internal conflict as it is for females. I also think this is why all those who I’ve spotted currently expressing anxiety about the use of the word are women.
Mark Henderson used the term, in the title of his book, as a badge of pride to include both scientists and non-scientists who care about the scientific method and applying this method to evidence-based policy. In that approach he uses it as a call to arms for those of us already well within the fold, who, broadly speaking, are beyond the stage of trying to work out who we are and what motivates and interests us. That association seems to me legitimate and, although I would not go out of my way to label myself as a geek, if others want to it’s not going to cause me any problems.
However, for individuals – male or female – who are at that critical stage at school of trying to work out subject choices and career aspirations, if they raise their heads and consider what labels go with different options and how they feel about these labels, the word geek may set off alarm bells. If I turn to the Daily Mail as a typical bellwether of public mood, what stories hold the word geek in their headlines in the past few weeks? Here are a handful:
- Geek chic: Bill Gates’ 1979 Porsche Turbo to be auctioned off at starting bid of $21,000 (May 23rd)
Little in that to appeal to adolescent girls
- One small step for geeks: Nike trainers made with space-age materials used by NASA (May 18th): Geeks are not generally known for the quality of their sneakers…..
Nope, I don’t see that as a great attraction either. So how about:
- The ‘geek’ who is learning how to party with his Facebook billions: Eduardo Saverin was portrayed as the nerd double-crossed by his scheming room-mate… but now HE’S the one living the Hollywood lifestyle (May 29th)
Leaving aside the recent downturn in the fortunes of Facebook, Saverin is not an obvious role model or someone who is likely to appeal to girls (unless we are going to create a generation of Geek’s Wives to accompany WAGS).
Perhaps worst of all is the following story about the star of America’s Next Top Model – which probably many teenage girls watch, although maybe in one of its other national manifestations – Tyra Banks (March 23rd)
- Making geek chic: Supermodel Tyra Banks is unrecognisable as bespectacled librarian in kids’ show Shake It Up
As a supermodel and chat show host, we’re used to seeing Tyra Banks looking stunning in glamorous outfits. But in a new acting cameo in hit Disney show Shake It Up, the 38-year-old is unrecognisable as geeky librarian Ms Burke. With her hair held together with pencils, oversized glasses, ill-advised eye shadow all over her lids and eyebrows, Tyra looks a far cry from her usual self.
I fear this sort of story is going to say that ‘geek’ is dowdy and a way of transforming an empowered (as well as rich and glam) woman into a loser. Again, not a message that will inspire the average adolescent girl this is an adjective she wants to get her hands on.
Moving on from the Daily Mail, I came across this random blog which begins The “geek” image is based on a lack of fashion sense…..another negative message. This write-up finishes with a final sentence saying
The main idea with the geek chic look is to be an individual and wear what no one else does, just make sure you’re comfortable and happy with your style yourself.
Which for the self-confident young (or not so young) adult may be a positive message, but for the unconfident, not-sure-who-you-are-or-what-your-fashion-sense-is-just-want-to-conform adolescent, is about as terrifying a statement about fashion as one could find.
So, for those like Mark Henderson with his book, and those like Gia Milkovich, Brian Cox, Evan Harris and Simon Singh who featured in the Geek Calendar and who want to wear their geek badge triumphantly – go for it. I don’t mind implicitly belonging to their band (and have pledged my contribution towards a copy of the Geek Manifesto for every MP). But please let’s be wary about extending that label as a convenient catch-all for scientists and science-lovers. The wider populace has not caught up with the positive spin the self-proclaimed geeks speak to, but still see geek as a term more of derision than delight. As the first web-based dictionary I found upon Googling, defined the word
1. a computer expert or enthusiast (a term of pride as self-reference, but often considered offensive when used by outsiders.)
2.a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, especially one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.
3.a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, as biting off the head of a live chicken.
This is not going to appeal to many pubescent girls just shedding their Barbie obsessions, or battling confusion over their (lack of) career advice. I am much less sure how testosterone-fuelled teenage boys will react to the word, but I do feel we ourselves will be guility of turning off a further group of girls from pursuing science by our own actions, beyond that due to the marketing strategies of Disney, Lego or T-shirt manufacturers and their like. Please can we be more aware of the potential dangers of using the word geek for outwards-facing communication, as opposed to simply among consenting adults.