Archive for December, 2019

With autumn waning into winter, the days of #HotNerdFall are fading away. In recognition of this, I wanted to compile and expand upon the tweet threads I started back in September. This was a series I entitled: The Hot Nerd in the Popular Imagination

Search “hot nerd girl” on the internet and you will get countless images like this of women in workout pants and crop tops.

IMG_3859What is “nerdy” about such women? After all, normally there is tension between nerd and jock, between a life of the mind and attention to the bodily form. What makes this apparent gym goer ostensibly a nerd? Glasses. Glasses, it seems, are the universal signifier, and only visual constant, in all images of hot nerd girls. Indeed, clothes are not, and cannot be, the signifier, since even in porn, the category “nerd” will yield you a lot of naked women, but all have glasses on.

There are not, it seems, any actual activities that universally signify nerd-dom. Not being on a computer, or holding books, though these tropes do commonly appear. Hot nerdness, then, is not dependent on a particular behavior; many hot nerds on the internet are, in fact, doing nothing at all, unless you count gazing suggestively at the camera as an activity.


If, in fact, glasses make the nerd, what makes the nerd hot? Laying aside for now the prerequisites to hotness enforced by the culture (whiteness, thinness), it appears that hot nerds often wear glasses, but do not look through them.

The coy, indirect gaze is not hot nerd specific. It’s common across sexy pics of women of all genres, and has been seemingly forever–old timey women peep over the edge of a paper fan in engravings and drawings, never looking directly at a man. For the nerd, glasses are that prop.

The “looking over the glasses and biting on a pen” pose is a common one in depictions of the hot nerd girl. The irony, of course, lies in the kernel of truth in the nerd-glasses association. Nerds often do wear glasses, because they need them so desperately. Without mine, I cannot drive, or read, or even run, so altered is my depth perception.

If I were to gaze up at you over my glasses from the profundity of my myopia, you would be blurry edged, maybe doubled, unless I squinted like this:



If glasses are critical to nerdness, then why are the hot nerds so often looking over them at the camera? The hot nerd in such pics has been interrupted, her attention fractured. She looks up, pen in hand, or mouth, because she’s a nerd and she was working, thinking, writing, but now she’s looking at you, because you demanded her attention, much as Dan Bacon, Dating and Relationship Expert for Men, and author of the blog post “How to Talk to a Woman Wearing Headphones” advised (you’ll need to scroll down a bit to get to the how-to bit, but it is absolutely worth it).

The interruption of focus is pertinent to interacting with nerd girls, because, after all, the nerdness of the nerd comes from an intellectual pursuit of some kind. A mind trained on an idea, or a task. Nerds at work will often look something like this, not at all interested in or aware of the camera:



photo by Kristen Covino

Would a nerd dressed in a spiked skateboard helmet, a flower bandana, and a child sized yellow rain slicker who is scowling at a spring balance in the sun ever qualify as a #hotnerd? Maybe, but hot nerds are almost invariably looking at the camera. The exceptions to that rule are instructive.

What are the constraints on HotNerdGirl behavior? She can, presumably, do slightly more than bite a pen while looking over her glasses. Stock photos indicate that she can, for instance, look at a book. But what are the rules?


If she does intend to read a book, it appears she must be just coming back from, or just about to leave for, an aerobics class. She should be having some thermoregulation challenges that warrant, for example, a combination of a hoodie or sweater, boy shorts, and leg warmers.

She must indicate, through some combination of gestures, that she is nonetheless aware of being looked at and admired. In this example, note the pointing of the toes, which signals this awareness since no person alone and unselfconsciously reading a book would adopt this posture.

If a Nerd previously deemed Hot decides to read in a posture less self-consciously hot, and does so in a wool sweater several sizes too big and a pair of jeans not ever worn outside the house, does she forfeit her hot status? When does the HotNerdGirl become merely a Nerd? In other words, if a NerdGirl reads a book without a man or a camera around to determine her hotness, is she still hot? Is hotness something bestowed by the beholder? Is hotness a state of being, or an activity? If an activity, is it a passive or an active verb?

There is another exception to the rule of needing to gaze at the camera/man for hot nerd girls, and that is the HotNerd, Gamer Phenotype. HotGamerNerdGirls, unlike other HotNerdGirls, do not have to wear glasses. I’m wearing mine here because I genuinely can’t see without them.


Let’s search the image for familiar tropes. We see workout wear (crop top, leggings): the typical attire for any HotNerdGirl not in a plaid miniskirt and knee socks. Even a cursory internet search indicates that glasses are not actually required of this phenotype. Why this privilege granted to this particular type of HotNerd? I posit that, gaming does not require the myopic intellectualism of other nerd pursuits, while still demanding the flow state/focus/withdrawal from the world that defines the nerd.

This photo took many takes to properly imitate the originals. The combination of enough bodily display, while incorporating the controller into the frame, and making a facial expression that suggests concentration, but still a self-consciousness of sexily being on display was tough. If you look at the faces of people actually immersed in a video game, they do not look self-conscious. They look like this.

The stock photos of HotGamerGirls lack this quality of immersion, which is what defines the nerd, and the subjects in the photos look like maybe they aren’t playing video games at all–like maybe the controller isn’t even connected to anything. There’s a joke in these images, like, “would you believe a girl is gaming?!” Is the girl in on it, or is it like the line in Mad Men where Freddy refers to listening to Peggy think as, “Like watching a dog play the piano.” Clearly not done well, but the very idea is astonishing.

Regardless, we have now run into the fundamental tension in the phrase “Hot Nerd.” A nerd is inward facing, consumed and concentrated, in a flow state, heedless of the regard of others. Hotness seems to require acute awareness of another’s gaze, and an attentiveness to it. Perhaps that’s where the absurdity at the heart of HotNerdGirl stock photos comes from; the incompatibility of the two modifiers. So, is it actually impossible for ANY nerd to be hot? Can that needle be threaded? Can it be threaded by women?

If you search not “hot nerd girl,” but simply “hot nerd” you will get a gender mix but not much racial diversity. Megan Thee Stallion, who originated the hashtag #HotNerdFall appears for that reason, but the images are otherwise dominated by white folks. John Oliver features prominently, and so does Chris Hayes. Most of the non-famous, stock photo HotNerd guys are well muscled, in tight fitting oxford shirts and sweater vests, thick-framed glasses settled above their aggressively angled cheekbones. The silliness, and the tension here is in our perceptions of how nerds allocate their time. The conflict lies between how much effort and hours at the gym would be needed to sculpt such a body, and the intellectual rigor that defines the nerd. Of course, we should ask ourselves, why couldn’t the toned specimen on the treadmill next to yours who is one careless flex away from tearing every seam in his clothing be listening to a recording of Hadley Wickham’s “A Layered Grammar of Graphics” or an audiobook of de Tocqueville on those earbuds?

At least for men, there might be some room for a conception of the hot nerd as one with appetites both mental and physical. Scholar-athletes, philosophical warriors, virile poets; history holds such men in high regard. But what about women?

In her essay “Women, Race, and Memory,” Toni Morrison writes, “rigorous intellect, commonly thought of a male preserve, has never been confined to men, but it has always been regarded as a masculine trait.” This seems contradictory. Male, and masculine, but not seen only in men. Where then, outside of a man, can we find rigorous intellect? Women throughout history have possessed it, but in Morrison’s construct, these women have been definitionally excluded from traditional femininity. Once a woman demonstrates fierce intelligence, she is cast outside the pale. She is, to put it another way, “not like other girls,” and is, in fact, not like a girl at all. She is engaging in men’s work, and committing a transgression.

Nerd-dom, the state of immersion, the training of a formidable intellect on an object of complete focus is inward-oriented. It is a looking-away, a loss of awareness of the body. The stock photo HotNerdGirl looking into the camera, and at the presumptive man behind it, reflects the joke at the heart of it; she can’t be a nerd and be looking at you like that. The nerdness and the hotness cannot exist in the same place and time for a woman. The amplitude of the two waves are opposite and cancel each other.

I tried to make a photo of myself in a genuine state of nerdiness. I set my camera on a timer and set it beside me while I worked so I would forget it was there and see what I look like when I am not aware of being observed. I clothed myself in the layers of corduroy and wool and fleece that I choose when I am home alone in winter, heedless of the opinions of others. But still, there was a trace in each photo that I was conscious of the lens. There was the faintest trace of a smile in all of them, that classically female social signal. I know my face at rest, alone, focused. To most people it looks mad, bitchy. But that is my flow state, my immersed intellect. It is inherently anti-social, and, it would seem, not entirely compatible with being a woman.




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