Rise of the Female Nerds

In the midst of dour economic times, it shouldn't have really been a surprise that the new Fox show Glee charmed audiences. Glee has the same appeal that Susan Boyle, awkward celebrities on Dancing With The Stars, and contestants on American Idol posses -- the populist joy of watching the little guy get his due. Glee does this while also sweeping up more cynical viewers with a heavy dose of snark and camp. The show returns tonight and can expect an audience eager for more corny songs and campy plot twists, as well as howlers issued from the ever-funny Jane Lynch, who plays a character that is probably the best TV villain in recent history.

Glee has won awards for the diversity of its characters, but not without provoking criticism for wallowing in stereotypes. The sassy black girl, the fashion-loving gay kid, the scheming gold digger, the dumb jock with a heart of gold, and the neurotic but sweet guidance counselor are served up for laughs but are very rarely subverted.

One character, though, proved the exception. Rachel Berry, played by Lea Michele, initially seemed stamped in the mold of Tracy Flick, the classic amoral overachiever portrayed so memorably by Reese Witherspoon in the movie Election. Like Flick, Rachel seems composed of nothing but irritation and ambition. She puts gold stars by her name, works out while staring at pictures of her life goals, and always is the first in class with her hand in the air. Tracy Flick's ambition made her a villain, but Rachel Berry quickly turns into a sympathetic character and probably the purest hero on the show.

Amazingly, the writers mostly let Rachel occupy this heroic space without giving in to the temptation to downplay her dorkiness. If anything, the show seems to mention Rachel's annoying habits a little too often. Rachel's costuming has her stuck in elementary school, with knee socks and childish dresses. She envisions herself a diva but can't stop humiliating herself with social missteps. But despite all this, she's portrayed as someone with a heart and real talent who probably does have a great career as a performer ahead of her. You can't help but root for her.

Female nerds have traditionally had few options when seeking characters onscreen to relate to. Female nerds fade into the background of TV and movies, and when they do have speaking lines, they're not really characters at all -- they are stereotypes. Or they're on a trajectory that ends with whipping off the glasses and getting the guy. Even the 1980s-era classic Revenge of the Nerds portrayed female nerds as nothing but a booby prize, something to be shoved aside the second the male nerds proved themselves and were awarded the attentions of the hot girls.

But over the past few years, there's been a quiet feminist revolution on television. The female nerd has arrived, and she's not interested in a makeover. It started with Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a computer geek who bagged a musician boyfriend, without giving up computer hacking. Hollywood must have taken note of her popularity, because in the years since, the female nerd has taken off. Four major TV comedies have been built around relatable female characters whose intelligence is only matched by their social ineptitude: Ugly Betty, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and now Glee.

Each nerd is different, but they all share a few traits. Even if they're socially neurotic, they're professionally capable. (They toyed with making Leslie on Parks and Recreation incompetent but found over time the show was funnier if she was remarkably good at her job.) All are written as if they can't really dress themselves or refrain from annoying everyone around them. Even as the term Tracy Flick enters the American lexicon to suggest that the overeager, whip-smart woman equals a cold-hearted she-beast, these characters persist in having love and friendship in their lives.

Of course, because this is television, portrayals of female nerds are undercut by the smoking-hot-actress problem. With the exception of Ugly Betty, where the producers had the courage to bury America Ferrara under ugly glasses, hideous wigs, and braces, these shows find themselves in a bind -- characters have to constantly remind the audience that the female nerd is hard on the eyes, because we couldn't figure that out by looking at her. But no matter how often characters tell us otherwise, we're simply not going to believe that Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, or Lea Michele are ugly ducklings. Hollywood may be willing to experiment with female characters with unfeminine ambition and intellect, but they're not quite ready to move toward portraying women who reject the rigors of beauty maintenance.

Which is enough to make audiences wonder if the sympathetic female nerd will stay on our screens as a common type or if she will disappear. Glee, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock all seem to satisfy ratings demands. But the fate of Ugly Betty should be a source of concern. You can blame the show's declining ratings on unimaginative storytelling, but last-ditch efforts to save the show included making Betty less ugly, implying that the network blamed the character and not the writing. And the dreaded word "makeover" has already been uttered at Rachel on Glee. Granted, nothing came of it, but the word alone sent fearful shivers down the spines of fans everywhere.

If you want an indication of how much Hollywood fears female characters that step (even slightly) outside of gender norms, look at the dearth of female nerds on the big screen. The only major female nerd of note is Hermione of the Harry Potter series, and she only exists because of the books. We can hope that Hollywood will get over this skittishness. Female audiences fill seats and spend money, and they're hungry to see more female characters who display ambition and humor and who don't just stand around looking pretty.

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