She’s a Smart Girl, and it’s never been cooler to be one, to be proud of what you know and what you can achieve. So how has this archetype evolved, and what does it really mean to be a smart girl today?
Smart girls are all the rage these days — it’s never been cooler to flaunt your knowledge and ambition. So how has the Smart Girl trope evolved to mirror changing views of what it means to be smart, and the kind of brains we value in young women?
If we look at the Brainy Girl character type in movies and TV, we see some common patterns: She’s an academic whiz whose reputation for getting good grades precedes her.
Nick Andopolis: “You were in my English class last year right? You were that chick that got an A.” - Freaks and Geeks 1x1
She’s ambitious — often an overachiever and a career woman in the making. Because of her strong sense of self and pride in her high IQ, she can come off as uptight, haughty, or intolerant of people who aren’t as smart. Her scrutinizing nature sometimes makes her feel apart from others—
Daria Morgendorffer: ”I actively work to make people dislike me so I won’t feel bad when they do.” - Daria 4x8
— and for a while, she might try to flee her smart-girl persona in an attempt to fit in.
Mr. Rosso: “You’re our best mathlete.
Lindsay Weir: “Oh god. Please don’t say that.” - Freaks and Geeks 1x1
Sometimes she can be spotted wearing the ultimate brainy girl accessory: glasses — and there’s a symbolic significance to this stereotypical costume. The smart girl can see things
that others can’t. This is both a special gift and a burden. At her worst, she’s crippled by overanalyzing everything and bogged down in insecurity, but at her best, the smart girl is a confident visionary.
Shuri: “Just because something works doesn’t mean that it can not be improved.” - Black Panther
Here’s our take on the rise of the Smart Girl, what makes her tick, and why she’s far more complicated than you might think.
Don’t Overthink It: The Smart Girl’s Search for Self Confidence
If the mean girl is driven by rage and the cool girl is reflective of a male fantasy, the smart girl is distinguished by deep self-awareness.
Hermione Granger: “Actually I’m highly logical which allows me to look past extraneous detail and perceive clearly that which others overlook.” - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
This character’s’ curse is that she’s an over-thinker. The mind that’s always dissecting everything can plague the smart girl with insecurities and a lot of the behavior that strikes others as arrogant or superior stems from overcompensating for her fear that she can’t be “normal” and well-adjusted like the less intellectual people around her.
Molly: “I was so… scared of you. I felt like I had to prove that I was better than you.” - Booksmart
As we see also in her adult version, the Smart Woman being smart doesn’t actually help this character in her personal life, especially not in romance.
Rebecca Bunch: “On the entire SAT, I got two questions wrong, and in subsequent years, those questions were stricken for being misleading, but I know…nothing about life.” - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 1x4
Her overthinking tendencies can lead this highly intelligent person to make not-very-smart choices.
Rebecca Bunch: “I make AWFUL decisions! Like really, you know, really, really awful decisions.” - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 1x4
Her over-analytical nature is likewise a problem when it comes to socializing and friendships. Sensitive and constantly readjusting in response to her surroundings, the Smart Girl is hyper-aware when she doesn’t fit in —
Jo March: “And I just know I’ll never fit in anywhere.” - Little Women
— and feels a pressure to conform.
Even characters with firm convictions, like Mean Girls’ Cady Heron, can be easily swayed by the intoxicating promise of popularity.
Cady Heron: “You know I couldn’t invite you. I had to pretend to be Plastic.”
Janis Ian: “Hey, buddy, you’re not pretending anymore, you’re plastic!” - Mean Girls
Cady demonstrates the Smart Girl’s tendency to apply her trademark academic rigor to making friends. Cady scientifically observes her peers like she’s studying the animal kingdom. So part of why the Smart Girl tests out other personas or cliques that aren’t true to herself is due to her intellectual curiosity.
We see this anthropologist’s streak in Freaks & Geeks’ Lindsay Weir — a mathlete, like Cady who goes through a crisis of identity when she distances herself from her egghead friends and finds herself drawn to the “freaks” in her high school.
Lindsay finds the freaks’ slackerdom appealing and intriguing. Her immersive study of what it’s like to be one of them is a welcome escape from the “brainy” identity she finds limiting and suffocating. Still, even this deeply ambivalent brainiac can’t fully quit her scholarly, competitive side.
Lindsey Weir: “Look at least put me back on the team, I am the best person at math in this school.” Freaks and Geeks 1x1
Because the brainy girl can never shed her intellectual nature, pride in her smarts, and the determination to excel, are integral to who she is. For all her overthinking-induced insecurities, deep down the smart girl has a foundation of confidence that comes from knowing she’s brilliant. There’s nothing more empowering than having faith in your own mind and point of view — and this is why, when it comes down to it, this clever girl is tough, with a thick skin.
Harry Potter’s resident smart girl Hermione, who embodies the smart girl’s trademark mix of confidence and insecurity is, according to star Emma Watson, “never afraid to take control of a situation or be the brains behind anything.” She says what she thinks and doesn’t hold back.
So while she may temporarily pretend she can fit another mold, try on another identity for size, or worry she has to dumb herself down to get the guy, ultimately the brainy girl can’t stand letting her brainpower go to waste.
Cady Heron: “I pretended to be bad at math so that you’d help me, but the thing is, I’m not really bad at math. I’m actually really good at math. You’re kind of bad at math.” - Mean Girls
She speaks her mind and stands up for what she believes like it’s an inborn instinct.
Andrea Zuckerman: “Why should I be deprived of a good education just because I’m
geographically undesirable?” - Beverly Hills 90210
Thus the smart girl is distinguished by her strong sense of self above all. This character’s struggle is to get out of her own way — to transcend her hypersensitivity and overthinking, so she can make her vision for a better world a reality.
The Evolution of The Smart Girl
The Smart Girl is a reflection of her era — she reveals what her culture considers to be smart, and its attitude toward intelligence, especially in women. We can see early precursors to this character type in eras when women displayed fierce wit and brainpower on screen. In the 1930’s, screwball comedy’s witty, self-possessed heroines held their own against their leading men —
Susan Vance: “Stand still. Don’t be nervous.”
Dr. David Huxley: “Make him stand still!”
Susan Vance: “Don’t be silly David. You can’t make a leopard stand still.” - Bringing up Baby
— but in a sense, these characters had to act like men and mirror male characteristics to be seen as equals.
Walter: “You’re a newspaperman.”
Hildy: “That’s why I’m quitting. I want to go someplace where I can be a woman.”
Walter: “You mean be a traitor.” - His Girl Friday
The femme fatales in film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s used their feminine wiles and extreme intelligence to tempt men down a dark path — implying there was something dangerous about a woman being too smart.
Today’s Brainy Girl trope finds positive ancestors in young literary heroes such as clever and whip-smart girl detective Nancy Drew, starting in the ‘30s. Over the decades, Nancy was joined by more razor-sharp girl detectives and other protagonists whose intelligence was intrinsic to their personalities, like Harriet the Spy.
Harriet M. Welsch: “I want to remember everything. And I want to know everything.” - Harriet the Spy
Or Beverly Cleary’s Beezus Quimby. Despite this variety of precursors, the modern Smart Girl trope really rose to mainstream popularity in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Unabashedly bright young women, like Growing Pains’ Carol Seaver.
Carol Seavers: “It says here that as the universe expands all matter is slowly degenerating into a state of total disorganization.”
Maggie Seavers: “Thank god I thought it was just me.” Growing Pains 1x1
Saved by the Bell’s Jesse Spano —
Jessie Spano: “We are not only gonna get an A on this project but we’re also gonna win that science medal!” Saved by the Bell 1x1
Beverly Hills, 90210‘s Andrea Zuckerman —
Andrea Zuckerman: “This is the top-ranked high school paper in the country and I intend to keep it that way.” Steve Sanders: “Wow you are intense.” Beverly Hills, 90210 1x1
and Lisa Simpson owned their mental gifts and asserted their academic superiority
Lisa Simpson: “I pick up books like you pick up beers!”
Homer Simpson “Then you have a serious reading problem.” The Simpsons, 23 x 14
The empowered Brainy Girl of this era can be seen as a response to ‘80s teen movies, which had glorified the male nerd stereotype. Girls in those same films could be depicted as smart and put-together but weren’t explicitly valued for their academic prowess. After all, when The Breakfast Club dissected the high school class system, the girls were relegated to two categories: a princess, or a basket case. The brain character was a boy.
It wasn’t until 1989’s Say Anything that a teen movie featured a brainy girl—valedictorian Diane Court—who doubled as a beautiful, conventional romantic lead.
Corey Flood: “Diane Court doesn’t go out —- she’s a brain.”
D.C.: “Trapped in the body of a game show hostess.” - Say Anything
The ascension of the smart girl can also be explained by major societal shifts. In the ‘80s, women became a much more dominant force in the US workplace. So these new brainy girls had their hard-working moms as role models and knew that they too one day could be powerful working women.
Ben Seaver “How come you had to go back to work?”
Maggie Seaver: “I didn’t have to—I wanted to.” - Growing Pains 1x1
Thus career ambition is a key part of the Smart Girl from the ’80s on. This makes her inspirational, but it can also be exhausting. She frequently puts herself under so much pressure that she cracks. This overachiever is plagued by an obsessive pursuit of perfection and a competitive streak, as she’s driven to prove she’s the best.
Topanga Lawrence: “I have 699 A’s. I need one more. Give me the A, Feeny!” - Boy Meets World 5x24
Starting in 2000, Gilmore Girls gave us two contrasting examples of this ambitious smart girl.
Paris Geller: “What did you get?”
Rory Gilmore: “It’s personal.”
Paris Geller: “Why won’t you tell me?”
Rory Gilmore: “Because it’s none of your business.” Gilmore Girls 2x11
Sweet Rory’s identity is wrapped up in going to Harvard.
Rory Gilmore: “I can’t believe it —- I’m actually standing outside of Harvard.” Gilmore Girls 2x4
But Paris is a much more extreme type-A straight-A student, who will stop at nothing and step on anyone on her way to the top.
Paris Geller “She’s got a C average which means she’s either lazy or stupid. I can work with either.” - Gilmore Girls 7x1
Alexis Bledel who played Rory actually voiced that: “As the years went by on Gilmore Girls, I noticed that Rory was kind of like an idealized product of the show’s imagination because she was really perfect in a lot of ways, which started to annoy me a bit.”
So these comments back up the idea that ruthless, combative Paris is perhaps more true to the Smart Girl character type. To be fair, there’s a good reason why smart girls have long stressed about being flawless: they had to outperform males to be taken seriously.
Franklin Hart: “The company needs a man in this position. Clients would rather deal with men when it comes to figures.”
Violet Newstead: “I lose a promotion because of some idiot prejudice.”
Franklin Hart: “Spare me the women’s lib crap” - 9 to 5
Still, as she grows up, the Smart Girl benefits from learning to accept the occasional failure or slightly less than ideal result, in order to become a more self-assured, mature individual.
In the ‘90s, third-wave feminism begat riot grrrl a movement that encouraged teens and women to advocate for their bodies and their rights, and recognize the systems of oppression that didn’t work in their favor. As the ‘90s progressed, brainy girls were earnest and socially conscious, not afraid to question authority, rattle the status quo —
Lisa Simpson: “Isn’t that just pointless busywork?”
Miss Hoover: “Bull’s-eye. Get cracking.” - The Simpsons - 4x15
— or challenge the patriarchy. Even though this character is most identified with her bookishness if you think about it that old-school smart girl who’s merely academically driven is based on a narrow, traditionally male idea of intelligence. Over time, the Smart Girl character type has added more dimensions to her braininess — she might be creative instead of purely interested in logic and facts —
Lisa Simpson: “I’ll be unappreciated in my own country, but my gutsy blues stylings will electrify the French.” The Simpsons 3x18
— or may have found humane, empathetic outlets for her talents. The contemporary smart girl is empowered by her intelligence to leave the classroom and use her brains to impact the world.
Diane Nguyen: “But then I think about Sebastian St. Clair and going to work with him, helping people and making a difference and I feel like I have a reason to get out of bed.” Bojack Horseman 2x4
Perhaps what makes her so uniquely effective is that she’s used to being right, when others are wrong. At times this can make her an irritating know-it-all, as she’ll most definitely
tell you when you make a mistake, but it also means she’s used to trusting her instincts and her own far-seeing brain. She can envision the world’s future problems and solutions, and believe in her insights, even when others take a while to catch up.
So it’s no surprise that many of today’s renowned real-life smart girls are entrepreneurs or activists who enact the change they want to see in the world.
Beyond the Old School Smart Girl
Even if the Smart Girl was embraced from the ‘80s on, often her story still put her in the shadow of a Cool Girl. Narratives have long sent the message that, for women, having beauty or brains is an either-or. The false beauty vs brains dichotomy intentionally limits women to being just one thing and ignores that Smart Girls (like people in general) have complicated many-sided natures.
Increasingly in recent decades, his character has begun to escape her narrow, one-size-fits-all personality, and that’s made for more interesting and relatable movies and TV. Gone are the days when prominent smart girls were overwhelmingly white. Buzzfeed identified that in recent years we’ve seen a rise of the “black-girl nerd” onscreen.
Gone are the days when she wasn’t considered a viable romantic lead.
Dean Forester “I thought, ‘I have never seen anyone read so intensely before in my entire life. I have to meet that girl’.” - Gilmore Girls 1x1
Also gone are the days when the smart girl was automatically a social outcast. In 2019’s Booksmart, quintessential Smart Girl Molly — who’s superior about her college choice faltering in the romance department, and alienated from her peers — is confronted with the revelation that some of the popular kids she knows are also smart and headed to great colleges.
So Booksmart leaves us with the takeaway that our assumptions about smart kids and popular kids (many of which stem from pretty old movies) are outdated and wrong. No one Smart Girl is like another — and that’s how it should be.
Molly: “We are not one-dimensional. We are smart and fun!” - Booksmart