For centuries, the pervasive power of the Madonna-whore complex has dictated society’s view of women, limiting them to the either the role of the nurturing virgin or seductive siren. In the past 100 years, this dichotomy has morphed into the geek-ditz complex.
The ditz is the stereotypical feminine woman, a voluptuous, dress wearing, shallow, shopaholic and too dumb or fragile to understand or care about anything involving critical thinking. If she achieves any sort of professional success it is only because she seduced her way into positions of power. Sometimes, this woman is also a mother, only concerned with her home, children and, of course, shopping.
To be valued for her brain (the geek), a woman must shed allegiance to outward presentations of femininity. She can’t wear too much pink, can’t have her heels too high, shouldn’t dress in trendy clothes, and should probably hold off on having kids lest that hinder her ability to focus on her work.
This duality permeates the scientific, tech and even journalistic spheres—not to mention general society. It’s the core of GamerGate. It’s behind the Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer debacle. It’s also why society only knows Hedy Lamarr as a great beauty, not a great inventor. Popular culture reinforces this idea at every turn supplying us with plenty of dumbed down female characters and gearing tech commercials to men and shopping commercials to women.
It is rare to find a female character that defies the geek-ditz complex. Should such a character exist, she is often given a makeover by a man and she astounds everyone with her ability to be both intelligent and feminine.
But in 2012, the CW television show Arrow, based on the comic book character Green Arrow, premiered and with it the character of Felicity Smoak, played by Emily Bett Rickards, awkwardly waltzed on screen. Felicity is a computer genius and the brains of Team Arrow. She also is never without bright pink lipstick and is an avid lover of dresses with peplums, jewelry, and heels. Probably the last place you would expect to find such a character is on the CW, a network known for female characters whose sole purpose is being torn between two lovers.
But of course, this isn’t just teen television. This is a comic book universe, and as any good geek will tell you, these universes love capable women. Felicity Smoak is not only the smartest person on the show; she’s also one of the smartest people in the DC universe. She is the role model your daughter (and you) are looking for. She is unapologetically a fully-realized human being.
When we first meet Felicity, she is awkward, a trait she keeps throughout the series. However, she is confident in one thing—her brain—and it is what earned her a place on the Arrow’s team. Felicity’s role is anything but that of a sidekick. She is the Arrow’s partner. There are many moments when only she has the knowledge to save the world. In the Season 1 finale, she alone knows how to dismantle a bomb that will kill thousands of people. In nearly every episode, Felicity helps the Arrow hack and track the villains of Starling City. In fact, this show could easily be titled Smoak, with the Arrow serving as merely “the muscle” to Felicity’s superpowered brain.
Yet, pop-culture doesn’t often grant someone with Felicity’s glamazonian outward appearance equal billing with a superhero. If a woman likes so-called girly clothing and has genius abilities, those abilities are fleeting. She shifts between the geek/genius mode and the ditzy feminine mode. Societal convention tells us that being both a genius and feminine at the same time is abnormal, so much so that when a woman blends both attributes (and becomes a whole person), every character must remark on how she defies the very laws of nature.
On Arrow, Felicity doesn’t defy any laws. The writers present her without ceremony. There is no commentary on how her looks are not consistent with what society expects of someone with her interests or intelligence. There are no remarks about how her intelligence makes her a special snowflake among women. Felicity is simply who she is and who she is, is normal.
This is what makes this show and this character a true gem. The writers have done something unique; they have normalized what it’s like to be a real woman. They embrace the reality that a woman is whoever she wants to be, not who society says she should be.
Unfortunately for Felicity’s real-life counterparts, their peers often expect them to flip between geek and ditz modes. We like to think of STEM industries as progressive, but even there women are viewed as sidekicks and asked to get coffee and expected to take meeting minutes. Developer Alice Carback commented on her experience in the tech industry, saying, “If someone wants me to take notes and fetch coffee, I start job hunting again. I’ve had, what I think, are a high number of jobs because of that.”
It’s not only men that subscribe to the geek-ditz complex. Women are just as culpable. In the March 2014 issue of Real Simple, entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran remarked that she doesn’t hire women wearing “too much makeup and jewelry or impractical shoes.” She goes on to say that she doesn’t believe these women are capable of a hard day’s work. It appears their intelligence and the reality of their work ethic are irrelevant.
The character of Felicity Smoak is a scathing commentary on this faulty logic. The writers of Arrow and its spin-off The Flash take every opportunity to deflate the geek-ditz complex. When she shows up to a coffee house trivia night on The Flash wearing a cocktail dress, she still wipes the floor with all of the other players. She didn’t take out her brain when she put on the dress. More importantly, she didn’t wear the dress to prove anything. She wore it because it’s how she chooses to express herself. It’s who she is.
She also doesn’t feel the need to play dumb to get the guy or to make other people feel better about themselves. Felicity never worries that someone will label her a know-it-all or call her a bitch for asserting her intelligence. The great thing is that no one ever does. Everyone respects that she is the smartest person in the room and they love her for it.
But our society teaches women to downgrade their intelligence in social situations. Nothing illustrates this point quite like last year’s viral outrage over the book Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer. The star of the book is Barbie, who is the ideal of the feminine stereotype. As such, even in a book titled I Can Be a Computer Engineer, she isn’t one. She is a game designer. Designing games is a skilled profession to be sure, but Barbie doesn’t approach her career from a place of empowerment. She says “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” Like many pop-culture ventures, the book teaches young girls to devalue their contributions to society and place men on a pedestal of higher intelligence and capability.
The geek-ditz complex is most certainly at play in the GamerGate controversy. The impetus of GamerGate is the claim that game developer Zoe Quinn slept her way to positive reviews of her game Depression Quest. After all, if a woman is lauded for anything in the tech industry, it must be because she seduced her way into someone’s good graces. Men retain, and sometimes gain, their intelligence when we see them as sexual creatures. The moment a woman has sex, society eviscerates her mind.
This is not so on Arrow. Felicity is a love interest for the Arrow. Her beauty most certainly plays into the attraction, but it’s obvious from the script and the way the actors play their scenes that Oliver loves Felicity for her intelligence and her confidence in that part of herself.
Of course, this is a teen show on the CW, so the predictable love triangle storyline has made an appearance this season. Unlike other shows, this doesn’t rob Felicity of her agency as a person or supersede her role as the brains of Team Arrow. Both men’s interest in Felicity is driven by her intelligence and her charisma. Her awkward beauty is secondary, if anything.
Our society hasn’t yet caught up with the Arrow in this regard. There’s a lot of lust, but not always a lot of respect for women in tech. CNET Senior Editor Ashley Esqueda says that being a girly girl in tech journalism comes with its hazards, “I’d get comments like ‘ur hot but stupid’ and ‘don’t wear slutty clothes for pageviews, you attention whore.’” Despite the obvious trollish nature of the remarks, it can still be a battle for journalists, like Esqueda, and other women in geek related fields to tune out the onslaught of emotionally charged words like “slut” and “whore” being thrown at you every day. But Esqueda goes on to say, “I am a human being who likes tech, fashion, video games, pop culture, makeup, science, and watching TV. I don’t have time for some coward telling me how I should dress or how I should act.”
Arrow and Felicity Smoak don’t have time for it either. The show’s writers don’t approach Felicity from the perspective of the geek-ditz complex or any other societal convention. They understand that there are no rules or specific attributes that define what it means to be a woman. We need to evolve into a society that views women the same way the DC Comic universe views Felicity Smoak. Whether it’s the geek-ditz complex or the Madonna-whore view, we need to stop fracturing women.