Geekspiration of the fictional kind

Here’s an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers (questions still being taken):

Reading Rudy Simone’s Aspergirls prompted me to crystallise this question: where are the female role models for young geek women?

I’m thinking of characters who have genius-level IQs, coupled with a lack of social skills and, for whatever reason, an absence of Significant Other. There are plenty of characters like this: Sherlock Holmes, Rodney McKay, Greg House, Spock … but where are the women?

Where are the isolated geniuses who are married to their work? Where are the women whose ‘problem personalities’ are forgiven because of their talents / gifts / abilities / focus? Where are the women who are single and don’t give a damn because they have better things to do?

I’m probably missing some obvious examples: I’m not a big media consumer. Remind me, enlighten me! TV, movies, comics, novels all welcome.

A few possibilities, from a fellow consumer of not very much media:

  • Dr Susan Calvin, in various short stories by Isaac Asimov. She’s the leading research roboticist on fictional near-future Earth, and a key employee of US Robots.

    Unfortunately Calvin is one of those fictional characters who is a little better than her writer: Asimov lumps her with some unfortunate embarrassing romantic and maternal feelings occasionally, and the song and dance other characters make about their immense forbearance in forgiving her ‘problem personality’ gets a bit wearing. But nevertheless she’s a key fictional influence on the development of robotics, and the main character in any number of the stories.

    The character Dr Susan Calvin that appears in the 2004 film I, Robot is young, movie-pretty, sarcastic and really resembles Asimov’s character very little, but I quite like her also and still think she’s a fictional geek role model if you accept that she’s very loosely based on the Asimov character: she’s abrupt, literal-minded, a high ranking research scientist and, something I really liked, she’s not shown as having any sexual or romantic interest in the lead character at all. (Shame she isn’t the lead character.)

  • Dr Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan in the Bones television series; if, crucially, you can ignore or don’t mind (or like!) the multi-season plot arc about her mutual attraction with Seeley Booth.

    Bones is a forensic anthropologist prone to social mistakes or at least idiosyncrasies, but key to criminal investigations due to her unparalleled anthropological skills. The writers apparently think of her as having Aspergers, but haven’t said it in the script because you can’t have Aspergers on Fox, or something like that.

    I’m actually not an enormous fan of this show for reasons that are irrelevant to this entry, so I’ll point you to Karen Healey’s guide, since she is an enormous fan and that’s only fair if you want to try it and see.

Who would you recommend?

58 thoughts on “Geekspiration of the fictional kind

  1. Burn

    Most recently, Lisbeth Salander (from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, and the movies Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) fits this profile nearly to a T. (I particularly liked that they did not shy away from portraying her accurately in the movies. Unforgivingly geeky and asocial. Some people do not like her personality, others do, but she’s portrayed as a heroine. She is far from asexual, but does not exactly have classic romances and is one of the most unromantic characters I’ve encountered, which is very refreshing. The books themselves have a lot of flaws, and are very graphic, but I really enjoyed this character.

    One of my fictional heroines when I was a teenager was Ann Claybourne from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books. I think by the end of the third book, she does have a romance, but most of her plot revolves around science and environmentalism. She reminds me of some field geologists I know. It’s been a few years since I read the books, so I’m probably forgetting something huge, but still. She is on my list.

    I think someone on this blog tipped me off to Rosemary Kirstein’s books, which I read and enjoyed earlier this summer. Rowan and, to some extent Bel, fit into this mold.

    1. SusanPG

      +1 on Lisbeth Salander.

      It makes me laugh to think of Salander as a role model, because she is super-crazy-violent and extremely odd. But she’s a visible, and very rare, women-in-tech figure in popular culture. I know that because I am a woman in tech, and although I am neither violent nor remarkably odd, people sometimes compare me to her :-)

  2. Eivind

    (…) where are the female role models for young geek women? I’m thinking of characters who have genius-level IQs, coupled with a lack of social skills and, (…)

    I don’t quite get why it’s desirable, or even nessecary to have a “lack of social skills” to be a role-model for smart geeky girls (or boys). To the contrary, I feel that this is a cliche that for too long has been used to attack those who dare have interests that go deeper than the latest Paris Hilton rumour or who scored in yesterdays big game.

    I don’t think that the cliche is true for male geeks, and so I don’t entirely get the point of bemoaning a lack of similar cliche for girls.

    Furthermore, a big part of the cliche, is that geek boys don’t have a clue about females, largely as a result of inhabiting a world where there are very few women. It’s logical, that women who -do- take part in this world, don’t suffer from the same problem. Infact, they’re more likely to suffer from the opposite problem, being more-or-less alone in a male-dominated world.

    Women who live large parts of their lives in worlds where there are very few men, might in principle suffer some of the same problems. I’m not quite sure what these worlds would be though, or if that happens in practice.

    1. Mary Post author

      I am not entirely clear on to what extent the questioner is asking for geek role models in general versus asexual/aromantic role models with personality traits that people on the autism spectrum will identify with in particular. I too was not completely on board with the questioner seeming to conflate “geek role model” with “apparently asexual/apparently aromantic/apparently ASD or socially atypical”, since I identify as a geek women while being none of those things (except socially atyical).

      But a few things made me decide not to make that the point of my response:

      1. even though I don’t identify as any of those, Susan Calvin was a genuine fictional heroine of mine as a young person.

      2. geek women do often have formative experiences with social criticism. Some geek women do genuinely feel that they are socially less capable, and at the other end of possibilities others have had to deal with being just fine with their socialisation thank you so very much, but it isn’t acceptable to onlookers for some reason. I probably wouldn’t have used the phrase “lack of social skills” myself, because of the range of possibilities, and the fact that it isn’t always considered a problem by the person concerned except for all the commentary. But that doesn’t mean that seeing a role model who faces such criticism, or feels such a lack in themselves but is stunningly successful anyway isn’t a useful thing.

      And in fact you are missing something fairly crucial here, which is that geek women often have especial trouble, or especially notice, that they have difficulty interacting with women, that they don’t have women friends, that they don’t understand the interests of the women in their lives (I’m thinking mostly of acquaintances and relatives here, but perhaps partners and lovers too).

      So it’s not about feeding a cliche, it’s about having a role model who experiences similar challenges while being successful in their personal goals.

    2. Restructure!

      Geeks don’t necessarily lack social skills, but people who lack social skills often become geeks because there is nothing else to do on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, etc.

      Anyway, I think the point of the question is that there is a gendered double standard. Mainstream culture allows men to lack social skills as long as they compensate with their intellect. Mainstream culture does not allow women to lack social skills even if we compensate with our intellect, because (i) society does not value women’s intellect; and (ii) society expects women to fulfill an emotional support role (supporting men, children, and other women). This ties back to Meg’s comment. Society punishes girls more than boys for being non-social, so naturally non-social girls are forced to learn social skills as a matter of survival. More boys than girls lack social skills because they are allowed to lack social skills. Despite all that, some naturally extreme-non-social girls become non-social anyway because they may not even see the connection between the punishment and their behaviour (even at the stimulus-response level).

  3. Axiomatic

    Agatha Heterodyne, from the webcomic Girl Genius.

    Kimiko Ross, from the webcomic Dresden Codak. She’s not only a genius, she’s also a complete geek and a transhumanist.

    Incidentially, both comics feature their protagonists exclaiming “SCIENCE!!!”. So I guess they’re both kinda Mad Scientist type characters, but they’re Mad Scientist protagonists, which is a very important distinction. Also, Girl Genius is a more steampunk setting, with Agatha doing science with gears and wrenches, whereas Dresden Codak is, well, like I said, Kimiko Ross is a transhumanist.

  4. presaged bourbons

    Lisbeth Salander occurred to me immediately. But I also wondered about the leading character (whose name I can’t remember) in Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet’ series of mystery novels.

    (Ah yes: Kinsey Milhone)

    Also: I wouldn’t characterise her as exactly ‘lacking in social skills’; but – what about Siobhan Clarke in Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels? Single-minded about her job, no relationship, better things to do (or that’s how I read her).

  5. WingedBeast

    Since Sam Carter and Bones are already taken, I’ll throw in Gadget, from Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers. She’s very much an engineer of the Disney-science (meaning science is whatever’s necessary for the hastily written show at the time), but she was very much an early role-model expressing the ability of girls to be girls and scientists at the same time.

  6. Elizabeth

    Starbuck from BSG comes to mind. She holds no advanced degrees, but she does a job that we would traditionally consider a man’s job and commands a lot of respect from those around her. I may be wrong, but I can’t think of one instance where Starbuck is “treated like a woman” and not an officer in the military.

    I also loved Veronica Mars. For a high schooler she’s smart and quick and the way the show deals with her rape is better than most.

    Neither of these could be “women in tech” but I like them.

  7. jadelennox

    Barbara Gordon as Oracle. She is surrounded by men who think they are totally the shit and they all rely on her because she is the only person who can wrangle information. Sometimes they like to treat her like Poor Pitiful Disabled Babs, and then she breaks out her awesome brain (or her mad martial art skills) and proves them wrong.

  8. Kim

    Lyta Alexander from Babylon 5 would be by favorite example :) Actually a lot of women in B5 are single due to work stresses – Ivonova and Talia, for instance.

    1. nobody

      I love the B5 women, but I wouldn’t call any of them geeks. Sure, they’re highly skilled workaholics, but we’ve been asked for genius IQs, lack of social skills, and problem personalities. B5 is short on problem personalities.

      1. Kim

        But Lyta is totally like this – she spends most of the time borderline insane, she’s an utter savant by the end and seems constantly hunted by her ghosts. The others, not so much maybe but Lyta is one of the cleverest people in it, I thought.

    2. Fay

      …er, Ivanova and Talia are kind of the worst example, given their mutual lesbian romance? But other than that, B5’s not bad.

      Dave Week’s ‘Night Angel’ trilogy features a brilliant assassin who does NOT fit this profile, as she falls in love with the protagonist, and is damaged rather than neurologically atypical – however, it does also feature a fantastic older woman who’s a nun, and absolutely (albeit not entirely appreciatedly) brilliant, and completely married to her work. She’s an academic with the tact of a tactless thing, and she’s very much a hero in her own right – albeit an unglamorous one.

      I seem to recall CJ Cherryh writing a lot of female heroes who were very capable and unromantic?

  9. Jayn

    Mac Connor from the Species Imperative trilogy (Julie E. Czerneda). She does wind up with a love interest, but it’s a pretty minor part of the story–barely even qualifies as a sub-plot.

    1. Betsy

      Seconding this! I liked that the series presented Mac’s *work,* and her best friend, as the things most important to her.

  10. Shauna

    Ellie Arroway from Contact (the book, not the movie) sort of fits this – she’s shown, at least, to have a temper and be unable to shmooze and network like others in her field do. Before contact with aliens is made, she’s dismissed as a quack, but afterwards is respected due to the sheer force of her persistence, brilliance, and foresight. One of her big breaks comes when, after trying to gain funding for her project from dozens of agencies and being rejected, she starts lecturing them about how short-sighted they’re being. She does have romances with a couple of characters, however they’re background noise (not sweeping plot arcs like in the movie).

  11. nobody

    If you waive the significant other requirement, you do better. There are a fair number of geeky women who stay single for a while who eventually get into a relationship if the series goes on long enough. Besides, I’m not convinced there wasn’t something between Holmes and Watson.

    Just looking at the story telling niche of the ubergeek who is really good with books or computers and therefore gets to deliver all the exposition gives you a bit to go on. Jadelennox has already mentioned Oracle. There’s Willow Rosenberg from Buffy; she was supposed to be more socially inept but the network intervened after the first episode. There’s Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series. There’s Chloe Sullivan from Smallville. There’s Dax in deep space 9.

    If you want main character solitary geniuses like Holmes or House, I think that’s harder to come by. The geek is, unsurprisingly, not widely regarded as the most marketable character. I’m having trouble thinking of any other situations with geek protagonists of either gender.

    1. jadelennox

      It really depends on how strict you are about the significant other requirement. There is an entirely separate conversation (quite possibly not on topic for this blog) about the lack of asexuality in admirable characters in media, and about the general representation of not just heteronormativity but romance-normativity. Of the characters listed in the original post, only Sherlock Holmes is entirely lacking in significant others (and that depends on how you read both Watson and Irene, but I think most people read him as a solitary).

      But Rodney, House, and even Spock all have romance plot lines. (Spock’s few romantic moments are spotty and episodic, but that goes for most people in ST:TOS, and I think is less a reading of his character than of the norms of that show.)

      So Oracle has sexuality and even romantic interludes with other heroes, but basically she’s a solitary geek in a clock tower. Brennan has both a dating relationship with one character at a constant David/Maddy-style sexual tension going with another character, but she stands is basically a solitary person. Hermione Granger similarly has occasional dating relationships and some romantic tension, but until book 7 that’s not her focus. I don’t think that these characters are that distinct from a Rodney McKay or Greg House in their level of romantic interaction.

    2. Meg

      Actually, having a male nerd as the protagonist is practically it’s whole own sub-genre of every other genre. Chuck, Dexter, Lie To Me, House, Farscape, Stargate: Universe, Arrested Development, Freaks & Geeks, every single Judd Apatow movie ever, Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, Real Genius, Better Off Ted. In most of the TV shows there seems to be a male nerd of some kind who can run the computers and look awkward any time a woman is in the room. Even Home Improvement’s Tim is a socially-awkward, technology-minded hacker. Actually, a lot of sitcom comedies are based around how socially-awkward an unattractive man is.

      Just look at how recognizable Albert Einstein’s photo is, or Bill Gates. Society practically glorifies geeky men these days, and it seems to be assumed by tv writers that a young, white male nerd is a reasonable everyman character for the audience to follow in novel, complex situations. That way they can pick up on things quickly, while still being a duck-out-of-water.

      I did forget about Killie in Firefly earlier, and Winifred Burkle. For everything else he does (like make them attractive and have men around to drool over them), Wheaton doesn’t shy away from socially awkward women :-)

      1. Fay

        psst – not to be a dick, but it’s ‘Whedon’, and ‘Kaylee’.

        That said, I agree that while he might have his issues, he does give us some good girl geeks. Kaylee is a brilliant engineer, but she’s also coded as being very much the heart of the team, and very girly; she has her moment of social awkwardness in the hideously inappropriate flouncy dress at the ball in ‘Shindig’, but that’s about class rather than being a geek.

        So – Kaylee’s definitely a positive girl geek inspiration, but not in the Sherlock/Bones Brennan mode. River Tam, on the other hand, is profoundly socially awkward and terrifyingly brilliant – she’s more in that Sherlock/Bones style, actually.

        River is a hero, and a genius, and profoundly socially awkward – but she’s also damaged goods, and a victim, and her empowerment has been as a result of outside interference from men; Whedon is rather fond of this particular trope, and it’s a trifle disturbing.

    3. John

      Agreed — and it might be hard for many readers to relate to a protagonist in whom sexuality is simply absent. Having some sexual feeling detectable doesn’t mean making it a romantic novel. I’m in the late stages of writing a novel with a female geek genius protagonist, and I’ve dealt with the issue by making her a technomad, and having a couple of her ex-boyfriends (from before she became nomadic) come into the story (fairly tangentially) — that way, I didn’t have to write her as sexless, but didn’t have to involve sex or non-independence.

      As I’m getting ready for final tidying of the story, I’ve realized the strength of the backlash against successful intelligent women, and that’s something that fiction often seems to leave out (but I’m going to put in). Things like this article, and the article answered so well here. (I think the author of the latter is a more heroic role model than most fictional ones, too!)

  12. Kaethe

    I only know books, but here’s a few:

    Well, for the young we have Franny K. Stein, mad scientist by Jim Benton, and Tip of The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex; Isadora in The Doom Machine. For adults there’s Mallory from the series by Carol O’Connell; Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis; Mendoza in the series by Kage Baker is a geeky botanist who is hard to get along with, although she does have a romantic life, too; Kay Scarpetta in Patricia Cornwall’s books is quite the geek; young Flavia de Luce from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a gifted chemist.

    1. jadelennox

      Tip will *never* not be my hero. She’s not geeky in the tech sense, but she’s so incredibly competent, calm, and motivated. I love her madly.

  13. Meg

    Definitely second Susan Calvin. I think part of the problem in looking for “nerdy” women is that part of the definition of “nerd” is “stereotypically masculine”, including the social skills thing. Women are less likely than men to be able to make it out of childhood without social skills, even in cases where neurology makes it very difficult. This is why little girls with ADHD are so under-diagnosed; it most often presents as anxiety, depression and self-loathing instead of acting out or misbehaving. I have ADHD, but instead of being impulsive I never got anything done because I carefully controlled my impulses and then couldn’t remember them 30 seconds later. I am incredibly socially awkward, but you’d never know it to meet me. Over the years, through hundreds of painful interactions, explicit instructions and harsh punishments and shunning for inappropriate behavior, I learned. Becoming socially apt was, quite literally, a matter of life or death; I spent most of high school suicidal from stress and seclusion.

    Smart men are allowed to be nerds; women don’t often get that luxury. Combine that with books and media being shaped by the male gaze (men don’t like watching socially-awkward women, since they don’t want to sleep with them), and the dearth of socially-awkward, smart female characters starts making sense. What we do see, though, are smart women who have clearly gone through this conscious socialization process and become just typical enough to get by, and thus make it into popular culture.

    The *only* exception to this I can think of is also the only character I’ve seen on TV who specifically seems to tell the male gaze to go stuff itself: Calamity Jane, on Deadwood. I can’t even think of a single other female character who isn’t conventionally attractive outside of misogynistic comedies where the women aren’t characters, just objects for mockery. I certainly can’t think of any protagonists in film or tv who aren’t conventionally attractive.

    In other words; popular culture doesn’t think we exist, and reality punishes us harshly enough when we do exist that we end up obliging them.

    That said, I spent a lot of my childhood looking for characters to identify with, so most of my recommendations are people I encountered before I was 12; today it would definitely be a different dynamic. In general, I also benefited greatly from PBS’s push in the 1980’s to portray an egalitarian world, listening to Free To Be You and Me and watching Sesame Street and such. So when I talk about some of this, it’s the version in the 80’s and might not be what’s there today.

    What I wanted to be when I grew up first was a librarian, because of Linda Bove on Sesame Street. She was the only woman on the show at the time I was watching who wasn’t married. She wasn’t lonely, or a spinster, and it was kind of implied that if she needed a 10 pm booty call Bob probably showed up; she lived a complete, happy life that wasn’t defined by anyone but herself. The “science” part was little kids stuff, but she did lots of segments illustrating problem solving (“no, that can’t be full of books; it’s too light!”) and how libraries work and some of the very basics of research. If I could meet one celebrity it would still probably be her.

    I loved the Telzey and Trigger series. They may be a little too perfect, but they were also super-competent teenagers in a world that wanted to protect them from ever having to be competent. Not boy-obsessed, they started teaching me about the social construction of appropriate behavior. Plus Telzey had a giant invisible telepathic cat; I want a giant invisible telepathic cat!

    Sabrielle. Not so much a scientist as a magician, though I now read charter magic as a metaphor for code. She is all about using the tools at hand to figure things out and solve problems. Yeah she ends up married to the prince she rescues, but it seemed partially because he loved all her quirks and anger and personality so I think it’s a good role-model for not having to choose between genius and romance if you like that sort of thing.

    Menolly in the Pern books, and some of the other dragon riders who must not have been so inspiring since I can’t remember their names. She might be a musician instead of a scientist, but the attitude of “that’s nice dear; now can you get back to the important stuff?” rang true, and later on the “you’re a genius in a community of geniuses, who still think you’re a girl and not like them” was also validating to read.

    Jane Goodall and Dr. ‘Penny’ Patterson, who were female scientists on TV talking about science like it mattered and how amazing and intelligent the creatures they studied were and how other people had missed things because they didn’t try to look. Their personal lives weren’t ever mentioned that I remember; just their work. The little kid’s picture book I had about KoKo taught me a lot about questioning everything.

    About half the people on The Voyage of the Mimi. I only got to watch the series once as a kid, but the women in it stuck with me and I kept talking about it long after my parents had forgotten it existed. It took the internet and some creative Googling to find it again. It has several female scientists I wished were my big sisters, and lots of actual science and showed how experiments were conducted.

    In more grown-up stuff:
    Claudia Donovan on Warehouse 13 is pretty cool, though the actress isn’t great at portraying socially-awkward and she is, of course, super-pretty to make up for being smart and anxious. Nevertheless, hey! Techy, slightly-awkward girl!
    Kara Thrace, from BS:G. Yeah, she had a romantic relationship, but in a super-stereotypically male way, and her primary plots are about her being a f’k-up and being incredibly good at her job.
    There is always a soft spot in my heart for Miss Marple (she was never married, knits and one gets the impression she only looks stereotypical because it would take more effort not to.) Jessica Fletcher, in a similar vein, and of course Mma Precious Ramotswe, who is brilliant.
    Jenny Casey, from Elizabeth Bear’s Hammered series. She’s a bitter war vet with a cat.

    Word of Warning: don’t let little girls read Podkayne of Mars. I identified deeply with the character, and then she gets refrigeratored and killed mostly because she’s not really as competent as she thinks (with the implication of “unlike all the men around her” who were) and she actually cares about people other than herself, also like all the men in the book. I internalized the messages of that one far too well and despised myself for several months afterwards.

    In a similar vein, Meg Murry starts off okay (though she’s the every-man in a world of scientists), but after Many Waters becomes the opposite. In a wee bit of Mary Sue-ing she ends up married to the football star, and then after that it’s all downhill as she gives up his career (though she occasionally helps him with his), has a bunch of children who become the center of her world and why she doesn’t go back to school or have a career of her own (not that motherhood is bad, I just hate it when it is portrayed as what smart women who want to be happy do instead of science.) It is said she “could get a doctorate with both hands tied behind her back, but she just laughs and says she can’t be bothered.” She appears to spend the rest of her life prioritizing everyone but herself. My mother loved these books, since that was what she had done. They terrified me and convinced me I would never have kids lest I turn out happy pretending to be dumber than I was.

    1. Fay

      Hi – we don’t know each other, but after reading this I really want to buy you coffee. EXCELLENT post, and a massive word to the description of growing up undiagnosed with the ADHD, and how that shapes you.

    2. Kim Curry

      I loved Menolly too! The early Pern books (Dragonrider especially) had some not-so-great moments (Lessa afraid that F’lar will shake her), but evolve to have quite a few strong female characters, Lessa included. She actually does one truly “geek girl” character, (eventually) Smithmaster Jancis. Too bad she’s mostly got “bit parts” as Piemur’s sidekick.

      Two other authors I recommend for fantasy novels are Mercedes Lackey and Tamora Pierce. In the Lackey’s Mage Storms series, Natoli is an artisan and something of an early engineer. In Tamora Pierce’s Circle series, Tris is socially awkward, very bookish, and quite intelligent.

      Anyone mention Hermione Granger yet, from the Harry Potter series?

      1. zilla

        Pern is full of distressing female role models. There is Kylara, who seems to be purely there to show that kinky sluts are selfish and delusional, and just in case the reader missed that the first time around Kylara is reincarnated as Thella to drive home the point. Then there’s her polar opposite, Brekke, who illustrates just how much women can and should suffer and pay, in the service of other people. And Mirrim, who is there as an illustration of how unpleasant it is when women try to manage others. And Dunca, who is there to show that having a crush on someone more attractive and talented than yourself is a moral defect that will make you evil.

        In the Pern universe, it’s OK for women to do guy things, if they’re truly special enough, but only evil girls presume or put themselves forward in any way. Good girls quietly work hard and passively wait for a man to discover their specialness, and act all shy when discovered and put forward. And if they’re not special enough, they should stay within the feminine sphere. No matter how special they are, they should only ever exert power in sneaky ways, because any woman who visibly attempts to exert power just hurts everyone.

        I read and loved those books as a young and impressionable teenager, and then reread them later and was horrified.

  14. Heidi

    Try looking up Tinker (written by Wen Spencer) and Mercedes Thompson (written by Patricia Briggs). They’re more mechanics than scientists, and Tinker gets married right off, but you might find them to be satisfying characters.

  15. Kim Curry

    Another vote for Willow Rosenberg from the Buffy series. There’s also Winifred “Fred” Burkle on Angel, and Kaylee Frye on Serenity. Joss Whedon’s mom was a feminist, and it shows in many of his products. I think Kaylee is my favorite of all. Oops, I see Meg already mentioned those :)

    Outside the Joss-verses, I like B’Elanna Torres, the Chief Engineer on Star Trek: Voyager. There are other female engineers on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but mostly in limited roles.

    Don’t forget Jadzia Dax on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

  16. Cendri

    I was ridiculously inspired by Ellie Arroway as a girl, so I’m happy to see her around! I was also pretty inspired by Beverly Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who not only had to deal with the ship’s shenanigans, also was raising a kid genius. And later Captain Janeway was pretty cool, even if her show was more fun on holodeck episodes, though I wouldn’t say she’s a nerd as much as badass.

    And I’m really starting to love Claudia Donovan on Warehouse 13, because she’s more a nerd like how I was at that age; a blend of punk and geekery, really. I was big into cyberpunk through my teenage years, and I would have LOVED a female hacker who wasn’t automatically killed off or treated like a sex object.

    Actually, I’m still that kind of nerd, who am I kidding?

    1. Carla Schroder

      Off-topic here– why would anyone ever leave the holodeck?

      Capt. Janeway was cool, but she wore high heels. Very impractical.

      Seven of Nine was wicked cool nerd, but again the silly clothes- skin-tight and high heels.

  17. Torvaun

    Criminal Minds is not a great show, but it does provide Penelope Garcia, who isn’t the resident genius, but only because she doesn’t have the stereotypical lack of social skills and eidetic memory. She’s the teams computer expert, and is an integral member of the team.

  18. Yatima

    A few I’ve run across lately:

    Forensic pathologist Madeline Frost from the online-collaborative novel-TV-series-fanfic-thingy Shadow Unit is, to me, one of the most interesting characters. She reads as high-functioning autistic, but there are some hints that she’s actually possessed or infected by the Macguffin, which makes people superpowered psychotic killers, so, you know, trigger warning. Also several of the Shadow Unit writers were among those who did not cover themselves in glory during Racefail ’09. So again: handle with care. (I keep meaning to stop reading it, but several characters have LiveJournals, which is such a cute and clever and well-executed gimmick that I keep coming back :)

    Speaking of high-functioning autistic, the usual recommendation is Temple Grandin, but as GeekFeminism’s own Liz points out, her latest book is pretty annoyingly essentialist. Songs of the Gorilla Nation, recommended in the comments there, is another perspective on the experience of high-functioning autism. Interestingly it has a lot of overlap with the work of Jane Goodall, mentioned about.

    Another real-life heroine is the fantastic Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper.

  19. Kela

    Possibly Dr. Maura Isles from Rizzoli & Isles, although it may be too early to tell. I don’t think they’ve decided on a character concept yet. Also, she’s not uninterested in romantic relationships, she just can’t seem to make them work.

  20. Allison

    Mac ( a strong supporting character) from Veronica Mars. VM herself is very strong, but has relationships.

    When I was a blonde-haired, pig-tailed little girl, I always wanted to be Penny from Inspector Gadget. She, with her trusted beagle and almost magical computer book (considering it was the 1980s) saved her uncle in every episode. She never really gets credit for her work, but she was the star of the show.

  21. MadGastronomer

    Penelope Garcia on Criminal Minds. She’s massively geeky, a hardcore hacker, hot but in a nonstandard way (she’s fat). You mostly see her interacting with the team, with whom she has an excellent working relationship and so is no longer awkward with often, but in flashbacks you see her being very shy and awkward when she first takes the job, and she’s very awkward when a guy she meets in a coffeeshop asks her out, and often awkward with team members when she steps outside her usual role (like calling somebody on an inappropriate relationship with a relative of a victim). She wasn’t in a relationship for the first two or three seasons, but is now (and the actor who plays her BF is the same guy who played Xander on Buffy, for Geek Points). Her BF fell for her when she was in the hospital and he took over for her as technical analyst for the Behavioral Analysis Unit; he got the hots for her systems first.

  22. TRP

    Reading this and all the comments really reminds me of Star Trek Voyager. Growing up without cable as a kid I remember watching it every week. It had a lot of strong workaholic female characters. Janeway was the serious, take-no-prisoners Captain. She always had a sort of half-romantic thing going on with her second-in-command, but I don’t remember it every really getting off the ground, mostly because of her work. Torres was the workaholic, half-Klingon chief engineer. She did have a pretty permanent relationship with Tom Paris by the end of the series, but they fought quite a bit and I think it was clear who the dominant personality was. Seven-of-nine would fit well into this list too were it not for the fact that a large part of her role on the show was for…fan service. I mean, they poured her into that jumpsuit every week. Other than that, she was the definition of socially-awkward and work driven.


  23. lala

    Tosh from Torchwood is the best I can come up with, but I think she is a fair example even though the science is very much soft science fiction. I really wish The Doctor would take on a geeky woman as a companion.

    1. Shauna

      I considered mentioning Tosh, but didn’t, since she has two episode-long romances on the show and spends her whole time pining after another character. Classic Dr. Who had several geeky women companions – Dr. Liz Shaw comes to mind most prominently, but there’s also Zoe Herriot, Romana, Nyssa of Traken, all accomplished scientists/flat-out geniuses. None of them seemed to be socially awkward, though.

  24. Jeraliey

    There’s a tragically obscure YA writer by the name of Pamela F. Service, whose female characters (and stories) are Just Wonderful. A good amount of my female role-model characters were actually realistically-geeky girls my age or just a little older than me, from unbelievably fun stories like “Being of Two Minds” and “Weirdos of the Universe Unite” and “The Reluctant God” and “Stinker from Space” (my first exposure to science fiction literature, interestingly enough). Man, I LOVED those books! And the geeky girls were definitely the heroes.

    TV-wise, my role model was totally Jadzia Dax. But there were actually some really strong female characters on a short-lived show called Earth 2 (first female commander in a TV show, anyone?). But with that show, the men were poorly written to a laughable extent. I guess you couldn’t really ask to have it all, could you?

    I thought Martha Jones was a pretty great character. But I’m a doctor too, so I’m biased. At least she had the balls to recognize and walk away from a malignant relationship.

    1. Ren

      Everyone has already mentioned the characters I’d managed to come up with, but I had to chime in – I /loved/ “Weirdos of the Universe Unite” as a kid – for one thing, up until the point where I discovered Tamora Pierce, I think it was one of the only YA books I’d read with a female protagonist. It’s such a shame that it appears to be out of print up here, because I’d snap up a copy in an instant.

  25. Elizabeth G.

    Astrid Farnsworth on Fringe. I really want to see more of her. She isn’t really socially awkward (but who could appear that way next to Walter Bishop?) She is super techy and not at all about romance (although that may just be because she hasn’t had a lot of development yet.

  26. trix

    While there are some excellent suggestions here – and yes, I really glommed onto McCaffrey’s Menolly character myself – I confess myself to be tired of the conflation of geekiness with introversion and/or lacking social skills.

    I certainly value the question about geek women who are not being defined by their relationships, or being sexualised, but the apparent equivalence of dedication to one’s metier with social awkwardness is irritating. And not to start up war of the sexes, but reminds me of geek male stereotyping.

    Of course, I do say this as someone who is a raging introvert with a mild dose of social anxiety and a dollop of social awkwardness. But I think this meme of “intellectual pursuits” = “introversion” has gone on way too long in an unexamined kind of way. I can’t tell whether I’m an introvert because I just AM, or because I was teased way too much about my reading as a child. I personally happen to know plenty of extrovert geeks; they’re often younger than me, but not always. Look at Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs or even Tony Stark in Iron Man.

    A more interesting question – IMO – might be, where are the extrovert geek women in the media? Are we being told that such a thing isn’t possible?

    1. trix

      And I should add to the above: where are the extrovert geek women in the media, who also aren’t being defined by their relationships or overly sexualised.

    2. Kim Curry

      I’m curious too, now that you mention it. I took the Meyers-Briggs several times. In middle school, early high school, and even the beginning of college, I tested very introverted.

      Then I got busy with college, found a gaming group, a supportive religious community… and three or four years later I was asked to take the Meyers-Briggs test again. I thought I knew what I was… but this time I tested almost the complete opposite. Certainly extraverted.

      I would say the Geek and Gamer Girls anthem that just came out may be a good start on extraverted girls in the media. But I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the visuals, from a feminist perspective.

  27. Devon

    How about the title character in the Honor Harrington book series? She’s brilliant, a loner, and definitely married to her work (except for one brief and ill-fated romance).

  28. Alice

    I have a big soft spot for Abby Sciuto from NCIS. It’s dreadful TV, from the writing to the acting, to the production values, and she’s a big ball of stereotypes (, for example), but she is:
    – a scientist
    – a bit of a recluse
    – not conventionally attractive… at least, as unconventionally so as trashy TV will let her be
    – not at all concerned about having or not having a parter.
    The show occasionally touches on her personal life, but for the most part, she just is who she is; in fact, it spends more time on the personal life of her (male) boss.

  29. Margaret

    Ok, though some have been mentioned and some may not totally fit the bill, here goes:

    – Dr. Possible – Kim Possible’s mother and brain surgeon. :)
    – Abby Sciuto from NCIS
    – Samantha Carter – Stargate SG-1 – O’Neill was always telling Carter to speak non-tech English
    – Dr. Helen Magnus – Sanctuary
    – Hermione Granger – Harry Potter series – she is the brains of the outfit and everyone admits it. :)
    – Lt. B’Elanna Torres – Star Trek: Voyager – Engine geek
    – Kaylee Frye – Firefly & Serenity – another engine geek
    – Dr. Maura Isles – Rizzoli & Isles
    – Myka Bering – Warehouse 13 – she has a lot of book smarts
    – Claudia Donovan – THE ultimate computer geek
    – Dr. Allison Blake & Almost Every Woman on Eureka – Eureka is about a town of geniuses and the women all get to be geniuses too. :)

    I’m sure there are many more that I will think of the minute I submit this but here is a nice start. :)

  30. Azz

    Ariane Emory (I perhaps more than II) from C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen and Regenesis.

    They (plural) are incredibly intelligent, certified as national treasures with the government. Ari I is also capable of doing enormously cruel things in the name of science, and has incredible difficulty forming bonds with anyone. Her only true friends are a pair of genetically engineered and mentally programmed bodyguards who are incapable of betraying her.

    Ari II has a lot more compassion for other people, because she was raised with a lot more love in her life, but still has trouble relating to people who aren’t as smart as she is.

    They were responsible for my current journaling habit, because I would like someone to someday be able to build a psychological replicate of me, if (hubris) I’m valuable enough to the human race to be considered for replication.

    Nyota Uhura may be far more well-adjusted than the question asks for, but she was a geek role model for me in my youth as well. I did not have any particular interest in her until Memory Alpha described her up past her elbows rebuilding her communications console. After that, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to make out with her or be her.

    I did not notice her having l0ng-term relationships in the Original Series. I’m guessing that either the Starfleet of the reboot is enough of a non-military organization to not have rules about fraternization in the chain of command, or else she and Spock will have to make some tough choices.

  31. amberella

    Dr. Dana Scully! Barring the ridiculous romantic sub-plot that was inevitable by The X-Files’ final seasons, her relentless dedication to scientific work and endless wardrobe of sharp suits had more than a little impact on my formative years.

    1. pfctdayelise

      hmm, not sure about that. Unfortunately Mulder was always THE “isolated genius who [is] married to [his] work”. He definitely fits the Holmes & House mould. Scully was there to “balance” Mulder, give him someone to argue with before she was eventually and inevitably proven wrong. Every. Single. Episode.

      Sharp suits, yes. :) She was, as you say, dedicated to her work, and almost entirely S.O.-free. I just couldn’t in good conscience recommend her as a role model because of the way the show was structured.

  32. jadelennox

    You know, no one has mentioned the geek girl middle school hero, The Girl with Silver Eyes.

  33. Katherine

    From the world of comics, there’s Allison Mann (from Y: The Last Man.) She’s S.O.-free at the start of the series, (she has a few flings on the way), the world’s leading expert on genetics, and while she’s not totally lacking in social skills, she can be prickly/abrasive at times.

  34. Lukas

    I’m thinking of characters who have genius-level IQs, coupled with a lack of social skills and, for whatever reason, an absence of Significant Other.

    The main character of the movie Max Minsky & me (2007) pretty much fits that description. It’s about a young girl aspiring to become an astronomer. (It’s a German movie but the link points to YouTube trailer with English subtitles.)

    There are plenty of characters like this: Sherlock Holmes

    Well, the obvious female equivalent to Sherlock Holmes is Miss Marple, isn’t it? ;-)

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