Before I met my partner, I went on a date with someone I had matched with on a dating app. The meeting was nothing out of the ordinary, nor earth shattering and I suspected early on that we were probably not a great fit.
This hunch was confirmed when the conversation turned to hobbies and I explained that reading was one of mine — pretty standard, right? Well, this fellow’s face fell quicker than a brick off a tall building as he repeated my words back to me, his voice dripping with disappointment.
“Oh, you like to read?,” he said as though I had just disclosed that I put tomato sauce on pizza. Then he asked, brimming with trepidation, “What kind of books?.”
He was apparently hoping I would respond with “magazines”, because when I replied “ones about social anthropology, history, civil rights, psychology and politics” he looked crestfallen to say the least. The way I imagine a child looks when they discover that Santa is not real and their parents still have sex.
It seems like such a small thing but sadly, women being made to feel like their intelligence is a drawback instead of a drawcard is nothing new.
I’ve been thinking about this as the current season of Married at First Sight has aired and as Brett Helling has made a number of negative comments about wife Booka Nile’s penchant for deep and meaningful conversation. It’s not just Brett, either. The Make Them Suffer singer has so far been given way less screentime by the show’s producers than any of the other participants who, whilst I am sure are very nice, don’t exactly exhibit a knack for intellectual chats. The message is clear — smart women are a downer on primetime television when Aussie audiences just want to escape on a sea of inanity.
This week, a crescendo was reached when Patrick and Belinda were tasked with providing “feedback” to Booka and Brett and basically raking her over the coals for being proud of her IQ (intelligence quotient). The psychology grad was then criticised for being offended by the comments, especially as they were not only parroted by her husband but obviously disseminated by him too.
While I acknowledge that we have come a long way in terms of recognising women’s achievements, there is still a pervasive attitude that women — especially the ones cast on reality TV — need to fall into certain categories to be likeable or desired. It’s not just reality television that is guilty of perpetuating this, either. Women on-screen are all too often portrayed as one of the following.
a. Gorgeous but dim-witted.
b. Deeply intelligent but either lovelorn or frumpy and in desperate need of a makeover — or both.
c. Allowed to be both intelligent and attractive but only if they fall into the “cool girl” trope (think of Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary or almost any of the roles Kate Hudson has played.)
Think of the other staple of the Australian reality television, The Bachelor and Bachelorette franchise. Since the show’s local inception, the series has featured astrophysicist Matt Agnew as the romantic lead — with his career being heralded as something to be celebrated and revered. Meanwhile, the franchise is yet to cast a woman with a similar academic background, instead, leaving the female leads to fall prey to the stereotype that they are worth little more than some discounted Botox and a social media sponsorship deal for flat tummy tea.
Back to MAFS, it seems that even Booka’s “cool girl” persona is not enough to allow her clemency when it comes to her intensity and honestly, it is frustrating to watch. Look, I know we are talking about a guilty pleasure reality show and not an episode of Girls here, but it speaks to an insidious problem.
As Melissa plods along being gaslit by husband Bryce and keeping her mouth firmly shut for fear of losing him, Booka’s seemingly once-solid relationship appears to crumble when she dares to stand up for herself in the face of her character being attacked. Neither is delivering a desirable message to young women as both carry the same underlying threat — speak up and you lose, dumb yourself down and your relationship will thrive.
In the current climate whereby it is imperative for a woman to speak up about so many things, surely it is time for our television screens to begin reflecting the truth of the matter: that being a smart woman is something to be celebrated. That women who stand up for themselves are not “difficult”, “psychotic” or “self-centred” and that women shouldn’t have to play in a rock band, drink beer or be gluten tolerant in order to mitigate the fact that they have a brain.
The future of Booka and Brett’s relationship seems fairly set in stone at this point, but I hope the future of how we treat intelligent women in entertainment can still find room to evolve.