American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Girls Who (Don’t) Wear Glasses: The Performativity of Smart Girls on Teen Television

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/Popular Culture

First Advisor

Kristine Blair


This dissertation takes a feminist view of t television programs featuring smart girls, and considers the "wave" of feminism popular at the time of each program. Judith Butler's concept from Gender Trouble of "gender as a performance," which says that normative behavior for a given gender is reinforced by culture, helps to explain how girls learn to behave according to our culture's rules for appropriate girlhood. Television reinforces for intellectual girls that they must perform their gender appropriately, or suffer the consequences of being invisible and unpopular, and that they will win rewards for performing in more traditionally feminine ways.

1990-2006 featured a large number of hour-long television dramas and dramedies starring teenage characters, and aimed at a young audience, including Beverly Hills, 90210, My So-Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks, and Gilmore Girls. In most teen shows there is a designated smart girl who is not afraid to demonstrate her interest in math or science, or writing or reading. In lieu of ethnic or racial minority characters, she is often the "other" of the group because of her less conventionally attractive appearance, her interest in school, her strong sense of right and wrong, and her lack of experience with boys. She nearly always experiences a makeover to become more normative, and she leaves behind the life of the mind in order to become more popular, and loved by boys. New media may offer competing images of smart girls.