Clever, yes, but still waiting for Prince Charming

Calling all clever girls! Have you ever worried that the fact you’re so clever will mean that boys don’t fancy you? Do you lie awake at night fretting over the complete works of Nietzsche, string theory AND whether or not your mammoth intellect will lead you to die alone, a barren, lonely spinster with only your trusty cat, Higgs Boson, for company? Do you feel your IQ is in inverse proportion to your Erotic Capital? Then worry no more! Recent news reports show that being a female Einstein — an Einsteinette, one might say — is not incompatible with fulfilling your true destiny as a woman. Rejoice! Now all you have to do is make sure you’re not a total minger (minging does of course remain incompatible with successful womanhood. Sorry, mingers, but that rule ain’t never gonna change).

This evening I read a Telegraph piece on a schoolgirl who is incredibly bright and has the potential to do amazing things. Her IQ is higher even than the IQs of Einstein, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking. I don’t know, precisely, how much to read into IQ tests (my IQ may be too low for that) but I get the impression Lauren Marbe is really special. The most important thing to note, however, isn’t that she’s intelligent but that she’s going to a massive debutante ball in Paris. She might be clever but by god, she is a girl after all!

To be fair, Marbe only got invited to this ball because she’s so clever. The unoriginally titled le Bal “brings together high-achieving girls from some of society’s most notable families” (other guests include “Tallulah Willis (daughter of Bruce), Barbara Berlusconi (daughter of the former Italian prime minister) and the Ecclestone sisters”). Although Marbe doesn’t come from a similarly privileged background her IQ test prompted the organisers to send her an invitation, too. I bet her sixth form prom now seems totally crap by comparison.

As one of the perks of being clever, getting invited to a debutante ball does seem slightly odd. Scholarships, research grants, the respect of Stephen Fry and Victoria Coren, yes. An invitation to a patriarchal throwback posh do, no. That’s not to say it doesn’t sound fun:

On November 30, the girl with the IQ in the top one per cent of the world will swap her drab black-and-white school uniform for a dreamlike dress by the French designer Anne Valérie Hash and towering heels by Christian Louboutin.

Way-hey! That, to me, sounds fun (if a little painful – wasn’t it Louboutin who said “high heels are pleasure with pain”?). It sounds fun but it also sounds completely unlike anything you’d write about a boy with an IQ in the top one per cent of the world. She’s clever, yes, but get a load of her fluffy, self-indulgent, Grazia magazine-tastic side! The word order leads you to lump together her IQ with her school uniform when considering what’s being swapped. Deep down, beneath that hyper-intelligent exterior, beats the heart of a girl who really wants nothing more than “dreamlike” dresses (there’s nothing wrong with said dresses — assuming you have pleasant dreams — but the emphasis is disconcerting. Be bold and bright, girlies, for one day it may earn you the right to be passive and decorative in more posh surroundings!).

The Telegraph piece reminds me of this week’s Times article on Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize win (brilliantly deconstructed by Joanne Harris), which mentioned Catton’s blonde hair and “pretty, user-friendly Glee-like nerdiness”. There seems to be a conscious effort to reassert the idea of women as decorative objects of the male gaze in response to clear evidence of female independence and potential. The last paragraph of the Telegraph piece is particularly jarring:

But it is [real]: a real-life Cinderella moment for the Essex girl who nearly didn’t do the IQ test that propelled her to stardom. She doesn’t speak much French, but is hoping that her 20-year-old cavalier at the débutantes’ ball, Theodore Rousseau, will understand. “I haven’t seen a photo of him yet, but he sounds nice. And maybe,” she giggles, “it’ll be like a fairytale – and he’ll sweep me off my feet.”

So she’s hoping she meets someone nice. So far, so unexpected. But why end on this emphasis? If this is where the story concludes — on Marbe’s hopes to meet her Prince Charming, not the breadth of unique possibilities before her — what does tell us about how the media see young women?

Is the best you can aspire to be a fairy tale princess in waiting? Is cleverness nothing more than a sought-after accessory to temper the power of in-your-face sexuality (the Times approvingly mentions how Catton’s beauty appeals to “clever teenage girls who don’t aspire to be Katie Price”)? Why can’t women’s achievements speak for themselves? Why does every victory need to be hollowed out until we’re back with the same message we had at the start? It’s like Legally Blonde in reverse. Who’d worry about being seen as just a pretty face? Stripped back to basics, isn’t that still the only thing that counts?


8 thoughts on “Clever, yes, but still waiting for Prince Charming

  1. What a disgusting article. Thank you for the excellent take-down.

    Btw, please yell at me if it’s not ok to post links to my own stuff (I am in the ‘new blog bore’ phase), but I have just written about the way clever women get shot down with comments on their looks *exactly* the same way now as they did centuries ago. It’s here:

    1. Thank you for the link – that’s a great piece. So depressing, though. You’re so right about the “praising one woman at the expense of all others” routine.
      Also loved what you say about time travel etc. – interesting that when men take on “childish” subjects it’s seen as self-consciously naive and hence deeply philosophical yet when women do it, it’s just childish …

      1. Oh, good point, ‘self-consciously naive and deeply philosophical’ – I can almost imagine that in the mouth of some prat like Gilmour of Naipaul.

  2. What I can’t understand is that her mother is a vice head of a school but didn’t understand what Mensa was? Hello? Also Marbe was described as a ‘brainy Barbie’. I don’t think Mattel will be throwing out designs of these dolls in future. Please. That’s a request. “Brainy Barbie – because you shall, one day, go to the ball.”

  3. great article. it’s funny how society decries women wanting to follow the ‘Katie Price’ path and yet insists of sexualising the shit out of women who choose a decidedly non-katie price trajectory.

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