NB: Instead of focusing on a particular book or author, Guest Ranter Emerentia wants to discuss the trope of academic, brainy heroines! Also, feel free to recommending so good academic heroines in the comments.
Emerentia spent her teenage years ignoring the protest “but you’re a girl!” every time she mentioned her interest in physics, and went on to become an astrophysicist anyway. When she doesn’t study black holes, she is passionate about diversity and inclusivity in the science community, and can also frequently be found reading (and nitpicking) romance and science fiction novels.
Dear Romance Author Who Writes About Academics,
I have a bone to pick with you. I like your books. They’re generally fun, witty and entertaining. They make me laugh or swoon and sometimes both. They give me an entertaining few hours.
But then you decide to make your heroine a scientist. By scientist, I mean “walking and talking collection of horrible cliches,” and suddenly I want to throw your book at the nearest wall.
Do I need utter realism in my romance novels? No. But I need to be able to empathize with the characters, and they need to be at least somewhat believable. The caricatures of women in academia I see described in your book embody exactly the stereotypes that, as a female physicist, I fight against every day in my real life. When I see the same stereotypes woefully exaggerated and glorified in books, it makes me feel so unbearably angry and sad and helpless that I can’t keep reading.
Representation in books matters. Books have the ability to shape our thinking and our ability to empathize with others. So here are a bunch of tropes that I can’t stand in a heroine who is also an academic. I’m not saying that none of them exist in real life, or that any of them are intrinsically bad, but the fact that all female academics I’ve seen described in romance novels so far basically exhibited the majority of these characteristics (and others) makes me think there’s something seriously wrong with how society views women in science.
1.) The heroine has four PhDs before she’s 25, and is clearly a “prodigy” or “brainiac.”
First of all, really? It’s either “Oh, I’ve never been good at maths, haha” (that pisses me off, too, but that’s a rant for another day) or “I’m so smart I did four PhDs and didn’t think of anything else, ever.” Nothing in between? Nobody who maybe started out struggling in school, but then ended up discovering a love for, say, chemistry, and persevered?
Here’s something that anyone with a PhD will tell you: intelligence alone is not a great predictor of success in academia. The main ingredients of a PhD are: (1) time, (2) perseverance. This is the thing that gets me with the four-PhDs-before-25 scenario: even in the best-case scenario, in science, a PhD will take between three and seven years (YMMV depending on subject). That’s a long time. And a lot of that can’t be cut short, because experiments take time, field work takes time, data analysis takes time, and writing papers takes time. Most of which is out of the PhD student’s control. Do we really have to settle for the lazy “she’s so super smart she could do it with her eyes closed with a snap of her fingers” method of heroine development?
2.) The heroine has “no time for anything outside of research” because she’s such a prodigy and brainiac that it never occurred to her to do anything else, ever.
Are most academics driven and often work long hours? Sure. “Publish or perish” is real. But the academics I know who are interested in a topic long enough to complete a PhD on it are generally also interested in other subjects – otherwise you wouldn’t see me writing rants about scientists in books! And if you make your character all about her research, how does that ever make for anything more than a one-dimensional stick figure? How can you ever actually add depth to a character when her defining characteristic is “does work”? How about also making a heroine an activist, or someone passionate about rock climbing, or running a cooking club for her friends? Literally anything that would show us she has a life outside of work and adds some dimensions to her character.
3.) The heroine is a virgin, because of course she is.
I have no issues with virgins, but somewhere on a blog, I read this comment about a heroine: ‘She has four PhDs, she has no time for anything outside work, let alone sex’. And that just made me sad. See also my point about “interests outside the lab” above, and yes, one of them could (and maybe should) be sex. I know there’s this idea that academics are all brainiacs who don’t think of anything other than science all day and all night, but seriously, we went through college just like everyone else. And not all of us knew at age four that we were going to cure cancer and henceforth did nothing but study microbiology all day and all night. It won’t diminish your heroine’s love for research or dedication to her work if she goes out on a date once in awhile. Many of my female friends in academia tell me they find dating quite frustrating, because apparently many men find women with PhDs somewhat intimidating. How about including that in a book for a change?
4.) The heroine approaches everything in life, including relationships and sexuality, as an experiment.
There actually is a tendency in particular among physicists to think that because they’re good at problem solving in one area, they’re good at solving problems in others (whether they actually solve problems in those areas or create more is a different question). This largely does not apply to daily life. I don’t approach cooking the way I do data analysis, nor do I set up experiments and control groups to figure out how the washing machine works. Honestly, it’s not nature, so doing experiments is stupid if you can just as easily read the manual or recipe or find a YouTube tutorial online. Your heroine, being super clever and all that, should probably know this.
I’m still waiting for the romance novel where the inevitable brainiac scientist virgin heroine has sex, hates it, and goes “Well, N=1 is not a statistically sound sample, and I’ll have to control for confounding variables, too,” so she goes out and has multiple sex orgies with a hundred different people in different positions. Then, of course, she performs multi-variate regression to figure out if she actually likes sex or not.
5.) The heroine is socially awkward.
The real trope here is “I study the universe/mathematical equations/bacteria/X so I don’t understand people.” There certainly are socially awkward scientists. I don’t at all pretend to be the most suave person on the planet. But that doesn’t mean we’re all incapable of finishing a whole sentence without stammering, or generally act like a grown-ass human being in the company of others. I suppose it’s difficult to write an interesting conversation if “intelligent” and “science!” are the heroine’s only characteristics and interests, so it makes sense in that case to describe her as socially awkward. But let’s call it what it is: a cop-out.
6.) The heroine dresses like a nun, has the worst haircut ever, and never wears make-up.
That’s one I have mixed feelings about. Because there’s a kernel of truth in some of that, but not for the reasons authors seem to think. In books, the heroine is usually too busy thinking about her world-changing science, so she doesn’t have time to think about trivial things like clothes or hair or make-up. I guess that makes for a good Cinderella-type story, and that’s a trope that seems to be universally popular (because women are only worth their looks, <insert eye roll here>). I’m sure there are scientists like that, but I also know a scientist who runs a successful fashion blog aside from stuff like, you know, figuring out how black holes work. I have another scientist friend with whom I trade YouTube links for make-up tutorials.
The sad reality is: appearances matter, and they matter all the more for female academics. I’m a physicist. I have to work quite hard to be taken seriously by men at all, so I’m actually very conscious about all of my appearance in a work context, all the time. If I dress too casually, will my students take me seriously? If I wear a skirt at work, will the visiting professor think I’m the admin and ask me to bring him coffee? If I wear this blouse at a conference, will my expertise in the subject wrote my thesis in be challenged even more often than it usually is? I wish I could just not care and wear whatever I want, but I can’t, not if I want to keep having a career. I feel like there are probably interesting stories and topics to explore here, but that sadly never happens, because that wouldn’t fit into the whole make-over narrative.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of that trope is that on the one hand, it may seem modern and progressive to write a heroine who is smart and in a stereotypically male profession. But at the same time, any progress is negated by giving her a storyline that literally tells the reader the heroine’s worth depends solely on her looks and ability to attract a man. Yes, because that’s the real reason someone spends their entire twenties in higher education on abysmal pay.
I don’t want this to get any longer than it already is, so I’ll stop adding gripes here. My point is, there are lots of interesting topics and (romantic) conflicts to explore for a heroine who is in academia without making her a walking, taking assembly of tropes. Pop culture hasn’t been very good at this, so you have a real chance here to write something new and different. Please write a book with a heroine I can actually identify with, and who I don’t want to take aside, shake really hard and then spend some serious time mentoring. If you need advice on what academia is like, or what real scientists are like, please talk to us! I for one would be happy to help.
As I said above, representation matters. Representing female academics in this one-dimensional way, as hapless brainiacs with no life experience and no character traits outside of “does research” perpetuates harmful stereotypes, and those of us in academia spend a great deal of time and energy fighting exactly those cliches every day. While I don’t think a romance novel will be the deciding factor in a woman’s decision not to go into academia, it’s yet another piece in the larger puzzle of societal expectations about what professions women choose and how they conduct themselves in these professions. Please allow us to be real human beings in your books, so that for a change, I can enthusiastically recommend them to all my scientist friends!