Why the Internet Freaked Out About the Lady Nerd on This Month's Wired Cover


This is the cover for the current issue of Wired magazine. The woman on the cover isn’t just a model in the traditional sense: She’s Limor Fried of Adafruit Industries, and very possibly the first woman engineer to grace the cover of Wired. And she looks good on it. So, some people freaked out.

Why did they freak out? Well, here’s what Good magazine immediately screeched out:

Wired didn’t put Limor Fried on their new cover. What Fried actually looks like is below—she’s a normal young woman with a lip ring and an abnormally strong brain, and that’s worked wonders for her her entire life. What Wired put on its cover is an almost cartoonish Photoshop that caused one friend to look at these photos next to each other and ask, “That’s the same woman?”

Good’s photo of what Fried “actually looks like” is in fact “a 3+ year old photo of me in Japan, after a 20 hour flight and short hair,” Fried wrote in after Good’s original post. She adds:

The cover is stylized but that is really what I looked like. I was not ‘plasticized’ or ‘heavily photoshopped’. if I take off my glasses, have my hair done, and wear make-up its what I look like. [sic]

Okay, there’s a lot going in this little mess. First, as Good points out, and one of the major reasons they jumped to the conclusion that Fried was Photoshopped beyond recognition is that, well, the magazine industry does this a whole lot. Which is bad, for a lot of reasons—promoting unreasonable beauty standards, etc., which Jezebel explains at length here. (Fried notes the photographer merely “uses lighting and makeup to create a glossy look” that’s her trademark style; the photo is also referencing Rosie the Riveter, as tons of people have pointed out.)

But, more interesting is what it says about the ways ultra-smart woman are perceived. What’s implicit in Good’s outrage is the assumption that Fried, badass engineer and genius, couldn’t have possibly been as attractive as she appears on Wired‘s cover. The underlying message is that there has to be a distance between brains and beauty. Consider any article that marvels over the fact that Natalie Portman isn’t just an attractive celebrity, she’s like, smart. The general cultural narrative for attractive women who are recognizably intelligent is almost always one of surprise, one way or another—it’s shocking that an attractive woman is intelligent, or that an intelligent woman is attractive.

The writ-large cultural response to women who are into nerdy stuff—or are, well, nerds—tends to be two-fold, even—if not especially—amongst fellow nerds. Either something like the above, where the fact that a person is a woman and legitimately nerdy can’t be reconciled—how can they be both!—or toward complete sexualization (in which case, they can’t be nerds, or even real people). And in the latter, the response can be terribly ugly. (Or just read a given Reddit thread about Olivia Munn.)

Why even pay attention to the fact they’re women at all, then? Can’t we just not see gender? That would be dandy, except for the very real problem perfectly illustrated by the fact that Fried is possibly the first female engineer to ever appear on the cover of Wired. Which is, um, crazy since it’s 2011 and Wired‘s been published since March January 1993 (18 years!). Wired‘s EIC Chris Anderson bemoans in the comments of the aforelinked post that there are “not enough high-profile women in the tech industry who are recognizable to sell a cover.” (Related point: There’s a serious deficit of women writing for magazines.)

I’m not really offering a solution (unhelpful, I know!) beyond that we need more nerdy women and more exposure for them, but in a way that’s not misogynist or generally shitty. Oh, except to buy this month’s issue, so hopefully Chris Anderson won’t have that excuse for very much longer. [GOOD, Xeni Jardin, Thanks Anna Holmes]

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