Brilliant, Beautiful & (Hardly Ever) Seen on TV
The Dumbing Down of Pretty Young Female Leads & How an 80s Sitcom Went Against the Grain
Where are all the smart, pretty female lead characters on television sitcoms? As a woman, and as a woman of colour, and as an intelligent woman of colour, that’s something I always wanted to know. I begin this with a disclaimer, I’ve not watched everything on television (I mean, I did have a life). All I know I know is what I’ve seen and what I grew up with. And I know I didn’t like it.
Why? Let me tell you. I didn’t see me. I saw the hot girls, the pretty girls. They weren’t me. Not even close. I saw the smart kids, the nerds, the geeks. Also not me.
The dumbing down of pretty girls is as old as time itself. Or at least as long as the time I can measure. I grew up in the 70s and 80s and I watched shows that reflected that time. Young women were either pretty and popular, or smart. Don’t believe me, let’s look deeper. I challenge you, name one, just one young female lead character back then that was stunningly beautiful and unabashedly brilliant.
You can name some that maybe were what I call “sneaky smart,” Genie was smarter than Major Nelson, but she had to use her “feminine mystique” to make that point. She didn’t just wear her brains and her beauty, side by side on her sleeve, did she? Nope.
Edith was smarter than Archie, Wheezie and Florence were smarter than George, but their brains were disguised in clever wisecracks or tortured storylines that fit the prevailing cultural narrative — you can be smarter than the man, just don’t let him know it. In any case, these characters weren’t exactly young.
How about Family Ties? No, Alex was the smart and adorable one. Mallory was pretty, but she wasn’t winning any prizes in the brains department. Growing Pains had Carol who was brilliant but awkward, neurotic and socially on the outs. The Fresh Prince had Hilary, beautiful, self-centred and let’s be honest, dim-witted.
Even the Cosby Show disappointed me. Bill, you were supposed to be such a champion of education, but even you danced to the old tune. The brilliant and beautiful Sondra (and it’s a stretch to call her a female lead character) gave up her dreams of attending law school, dropping out (briefly)to follow her man into opening a cockamamie wilderness shop. And what about the lovely Denise? Stunning girl, too bad you had to make her a flake. You had an opportunity, sir, you could have shown a Black family raising an intelligent, beautiful girlchild who was nurtured and secure in both. You blew it. You blew it big time!
What message does all this send to beautiful, bright little girls? It tells them they can’t be both. It tells them they can’t be stunning and smart. It tells them that if they have both, they have to downplay one, usually, intelligence, to make them not just desirable, but acceptable. It’s team beauty or team brains, do choose carefully or you’ll lose out. Hell, my own mother told me not to go to law school because “no man wants to be married to a woman smarter than him.” Somehow, we’ve been taught to believe that the life of a girl is either picture perfect and popular or bashful, brainy and behind the scenes.
To force young girls into believing they have to make this choice is not only ludicrous it’s incredibly damaging. It’s also complete bullshit and it needs to stop.
That’s why Head of the Class, a modestly successful sitcom that ran from 1986–1991 kicked serious ass.
It starred Howard Hessman (an actor who is hugely underrated in my mind, but that's another story) as Charlie Moore, a teacher for gifted students in a fictional New York City high school. And this little gem gave me something nothing else did at exactly the time I needed it. It gave me a place I could see myself, or at least what I saw myself as or what I wanted, or somehow believed that self to be.
For 22 minutes each week, I saw smart people in a school setting, from all different races, creeds and colours. I saw smart kids that were Black, White, Jewish, Indian, fat, thin, rich, poor, typical and atypical.
Even better, there were smart girls, beautiful smart girls. Robin Given’s character, Darlene, was stunning, brilliant and all too aware of all of it. She wore it all loud and proud without apology. Simone, played by Khrystine Haje, was a gorgeous genius with the soul of a poet. She had a razor-sharp mind and a soft, squishy heart. These were my people.
I was somewhere in the middle of the 2. I wasn’t beautiful, at least to my mind. But I was cute enough to feel the pressure to dumb myself down to fit in. I was smart enough to both hide my mind and secretly cling to it. And I was sensitive enough to let it eat me up.
I played dumb all day while making straight A’s. When asked what I got on a test, I tossed my paper in a ball and said, “you don’t want to know.” They didn’t want to know. I didn’t want them to know. I was ashamed of my mind. Let that sink in for just a second. I. WAS. ASHAMED. OF. BEING. SMART.
Head of the Class was a literal oasis in the desert for me. It was the tiny glimmer of hope I needed, fictional as it was, that I wasn’t wrong, or bad or too full of myself. It showed me what was possible. It showed me I was possible.
I haven’t seen anything that resonated with me quite like it since. In fact, what I’ve seen in recent popular sitcoms disappoints the hell out of me. Even worse, what I’ve seen shows me how far we haven’t come.
Look at The Big Bang Theory as an example. Check out the smart girls. Bernadette, who is cute in the right light and Amy Farrah Fowler, a veritable sad, sad, stereotype of the smart girl. Then there’s Penny, the so-called hot one. First, they cast her as rock-dumb, and the butt of Sheldon’s jokes. Then they did what Hollywood loves to do, they made her “sneaky smart,” only smart for the punchlines, but generally little more than eye candy? Why not make Penny a brainy babe? Why not showcase her mind as much as they showcased her ass?
I’ve been on this planet for 50 years, and I’m still harping about a show from the 80s. One show, count it, one. That should tell you something. It should tell you that we need to do better for our girls. We need to do better, especially for our girls of colour. We need to stop painting intelligence in young ladies as some sort of pejorative trait that must be sacrificed to the holy grail of beauty and desirability. We need to stop feeding them the false narrative that they’re unlikeable and unacceptable if they dare to own both their intellectual and visual power.
There’s nothing more powerful than a woman who knows her worth, her beauty, her intelligence, her wisdom and her empathy. Let’s finally encourage our girls to embrace and celebrate ALL their gifts so they can grow up to be that woman! Let them see that beauty and brains can and do exist in the same package. And let's see more shows like Head of the Class that show them exactly that.