The thing about women is that we are multifaceted people: we have our likes, dislikes, quirks, and hobbies. There isn’t anyone box we fill, as is the case with any human being. Despite this truth that we see play out in our own lives, we tend to see women portrayed very one-dimensional in popular media. Women are usually only allowed to be smart or pretty, and the idea that the two are mutually exclusive is insulting and harmful.
For one, the idea that women who are girly and conventionally attractive can’t also be intelligent is extremely common. The entire “dumb blonde” stereotype represented by characters like Karen Smith from Mean Girls or Shelley Darlingson from The House Bunny is most often seen in media, and they are usually portrayed as very naive. These characters are the comedic relief and props made to look pretty and say the wrong thing. This specific version of the trope is harmful because it portrays women as helpless and easily manipulated by men. It has real-world implications on how men view women, and it can negatively affect their treatment of women they think are “airheads.”
Along these same lines, there is also the “secret nerd” in the media, where the popular pretty girl has to pretend she doesn’t like school to appeal to the masses. Again, we see this in Mean Girls with Cady Heron, who decides against joining mathletes despite being great at it. Another example is Dylan Schoenfield from Geek Charming, who hides the fact that she wears glasses and gets good grades from everyone because she fears being considered nerdy. All this stereotype does is tell women that you can’t be well-liked if you’re smart, and ditzy women are the only ones who can be pretty. That message messes with a girl’s self-esteem so much as they grow up, and it can really harm their perspective of the other women around them as well.
The other side of this coin is the idea that “nerdy” women aren’t beautiful. We have seen the dreaded makeover scenes in movies like The Princess Diaries or She’s All That, where all they do is straighten a girl’s hair and take off her glasses and suddenly she’s gorgeous. If a girl has her quirks and niche interests, then she is portrayed as a dork who can’t possibly be attractive. Again, the issue with this idea is that it hurts a girl’s self-esteem and makes them think they have to choose between their “uncool” interests or beauty. It makes girls who don’t fit into conventional beauty standards think they are condemned to be ugly solely because they’re smart.
The idea that pretty and smart are antonyms weighs so heavy on a woman’s self-esteem, so it’s great to see this slowly start fading in movies and TV shows. A great example of this is Legally Blonde, which subverts the dumb blonde trope with Elle Woods. Once she decides to prove herself to those around her at Harvard, she also continues to embrace her girly personality and shows that she can, in fact, be both.
In general, we need to see women be more. There is no reason these characters, or any woman, should have to choose between looks versus brains. The entire idea is rooted in misogyny, and it leaves women feeling underappreciated. Overall, we need women in our media that remind us of the women we know in real life.