Monday, February 18, 2013

The case against "too-brilliant-to-bathe"

My guest-post at The Beheld on "too brilliant to bathe" was far more controversial than I'd imagined it would be, which is to say I did not imagine it would be controversial in the least. The following issues have appeared in the comments. I've responded there as well, but because TBTB is one of the persistent motifs here at WWPD, I figured a roundup might be of interest.

 -What about race? Is TBTB just for white men? (One commenter asks, another, at the post's other location, assumes I assume this.) If I'd ignored race, it was because when one bases one's observations on anecdotal evidence, one tends to focus on what has occurred in one's own experience, and in my experience, TBTB is definitively male but not definitively white. The examples I have in mind when I think of TBTB are not exclusively white. But there's a childhood version of this where a kid who's a mess at school is taken for a genius, and lo and behold the kid in question is, I suspect, probably most often a white boy. So, sure, race enters into it.

 -TBTB doesn't actually exist, because in the fields where genius clusters (French Studies is sadly not named), all that matters is your ideas. Here, I'd respond (and did respond) by saying that there's on the one hand a situation (a utopia?) in which appearance really doesn't matter, and on the other a reality of certain fields celebrating the shabby. While this doesn't necessarily exclude shabby-looking women (although there is pressure on them as women, if not as scientists/mathematicians/philosophers not to look shabby, so there's a problem stemming from this), it does exclude women on the whole, or girls, really, who will perceive 'field X encourages the wearing of rags' to mean 'field X discourages women.' It's one thing if being a successful genius female mathematician doesn't require tasteful pink nail polish, which is lovely and liberating for women who'd rather not be bothered, but another entirely if women who feel most comfortable wearing the stuff are not taken seriously if they do.

 -What about the unfairness of having to bathe for both sexes? My feeling is, if I may summarize, that we-as-a-society are too focused on the prettiness of women, but insufficiently focused on the prettiness of men. While beauty is subjective, hygiene and presentability are far less so. A bit of effort is a nice gesture. A requirement of 24/7 effort, oppressive.

Overall, though, the weakness of my TBTB hypothesis (allow me to argue against myself) does indeed come from the fact that beauty is subjective. If we see a bunch of self-styled shabby-genius men, not all of whom are wealthy, with women who just happen to be conventionally attractive and reasonably intelligent, who's to say these women aren't with these men for their looks? Just because wouldn't be drawn to the ogre look doesn't mean some young woman who's a dead-ringer for a young Brooke Shields is not. Maybe the problem is that men care about what others think re: their partners' looks, and would actually be attracted to TBTB women if only this were socially acceptable. Maybe this isn't at all about male entitlement, but is actually oppression of men. Who on earth knows. This is why, as long as TBTB rests on casual observation, it will never be an entirely convincing case.


Freddie said...

My problem with that piece is that your suggestion is that there's something chosen about all of this, as though TBTB is an affect people put on. That might be true for a small number of them. But generally, men who are this way are this way not because they think they are entitled to it but because they don't think about it at all. They really are so absent-minded or socially inept that they aren't aware of basic social cues. If you'd like, you can assign this some sort of developmental or cognitive or emotional disorder. Either way, I don't think it does much good to harangue them; if they were aware, they wouldn't act that way.

As far as different standards of who can get away with that, I get what you're saying. But the absent-minded professor stereotype exists because there are a lot of people out there who are so preoccupied with their inner lives that they lose track of social norms. My father wasn't a TBTB type; he was reliably well-groomed. But he was also famous for, for example, driving to school and starting to teach before realizing he was barefoot. He didn't want to forget. He just had so much else going on in his head.

Phoebe said...

I'm not sure what the ratio is between the genuinely oblivious and the intentionally so, but the existence of styles like grunge and hipster does suggest there could also be a 'filthy genius' look. One could also take a male-privilege approach and say that women never have the luxury of being oblivious to what they look like, as in, if they are, the penalties are quite severe. But just in terms of whether it is or is not intentional, I'm not prepared to say it only is in these incredibly rare cases. TBTB isn't all male shabbiness (again, not the worn-out sweatpants look), it's when it's in conjunction with being considered a genius.

Re: inner life being so great as to not leave room for social norms, this is not something I've seen. Aspergers, sure. Forgetfulness, sure. But someone who has so much going on that there simply isn't room to bother with what the other humans are worried about? Not really. I'd say that the popular belief that a certain amount of brilliance takes up so much space as not to allow for bathing is precisely where TBTB comes from. So what happens is, when someone *does* seem generally competent and/or well-groomed (traits that happen to be ones women are socialized to possess), it's assumed that such a person *does* have room for these worldly concerns on account of being, if not altogether vapid, less than brilliant.

Moebius Stripper said...

But generally, men who are this way are this way not because they think they are entitled to it but because they don't think about it at all. They really are so absent-minded or socially inept that they aren't aware of basic social cues.

Not in my experience: the male TBTB geeks I knew in university (mostly math and computer science students) thought quite a bit about grooming; they just didn't think about it as something that applied to them. Specifically, the (highly male dominated) Computer Science Club office smelled like a locker room, and even still the most common topic of conversation that took place inside it concerned the dearth of sufficiently attractive women in the faculty of mathematics. Believe me, these twenty-year-old men who were only casually acquainted with soap had very high standards for feminine grooming and attire. Somehow, it didn't occur to them that in a department with a 5:1 male:female ratio, they weren't the ones who could afford to be choosy.

Meanwhile, as a female math geek who in a slightly different universe might have been diagnosed with Asperger's, I don't spend much time on my appearance (though bathing proper has always been a part of my routine!), but neither I nor the other, similarly-minded female math nerds I knew ever felt entitled to date only male models.

Phoebe said...


I believe you've nailed it. The issue is not (as the more furious commenters would have it) that I want everyone, male and female alike, or just male, decked out at all times, or marginalized for failure to shower twice daily.

It's the entitlement angle - that 'looks shouldn't matter' idealism is something it's admirable to apply to male appearance, but women, well, that's different. And then this gets excused as being that women don't care what men look like, so it's not courtesy for men who expect X of women to do the equivalent themselves.

Freddie said...

I think you're both guilty of my biggest complaint with today's social liberalism: the convenient assumption that our social problems are the result of men choosing not to do the socially optimal thing. That's great if your interest is in assigning praise or blame. If you're interested in fixing things... I don't know. It would certainly be easier if our problems were problems of choice. But I don't think that they are, and I think that declaring that they are is a matter of people privileging the social currency of condemning others over the practical value of solving problems.

Phoebe said...


That's some strong language. Not guilty! (Unless I've misread your argument.)

As I mention, men (or any other group) can benefit from something without having outright made it so. I don't think TBTB is a conspiracy, although I do think there are men who are aware that genius is expected to look a certain way, and who embrace that with the same degree of choice as anyone. How we present ourselves is always some mix of personal quirks and subtle social cues re: how someone in our situation/our desired situation would look.

Practicality, problem-solving... when it comes to relationships, I'm not sure what one can advocate. I believe that straight women should feel more entitled than they do to being with men they're physically attracted to, and should not feel so obligated to give a 'nice guy' a chance. So I write blog posts and such to this effect, and if given the opportunity, make my view known. But I don't think this can or should be, like, legislated.

Moebius Stripper said...

Cripes, Freddie, I posted my observations about the social demographic Phoebe discusses her her post, which run counter to your hypothesis about that group. Nowhere was I claiming to be representing social liberalism, or even making a broader point about the cause and effect of any other member of the general category of "social problems". If that's what you got out of my comment, then next time I'm tempted to respond to you, I'll save myself the effort and just post a picture of an inkblot instead.

Phoebe said...

On a related note...