Around the time I started “casually” walking by the home of a man who gave me my one and only skydiving lesson, I realized one of the factors that makes me find someone attractive: If I watch a man do something he’s good at and loves to do, it's likely I’ll develop a little crush on him. It’s not a sexual crush necessarily, nor is it a crush that I’d actually act on—in fact, much of the time the object of my crushdom is someone I know full well I’d have no interest in otherwise. Most of the time the crush doesn’t persist past the moment (the skydiving instructor was an outlier, because, I mean, the dude jumps out of planes on purpose). My minute-long crushes are usually an acknowledgement that watching someone at their best makes them attractive, regardless of their attractiveness overall.
So of course, midway through watching the premiere of the rebooted Cosmos, I’d developed a crush on its host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. His barely-contained eagerness to share the secrets of the universe, his slightly jumpy demeanor, the liquid pools of his warm brown eyes—if he hadn’t had me there, he’d have gotten me with his tear-jerker anecdote about being hosted for the day as a 17-year-old kid from the Bronx by his hero, Carl Sagan.
Now, I may understand the drive behind my own mini-crushes, but I also know that my predilection has led me to some highly unlikely crushes; I had a photo of Tom Brokaw hanging in my locker in seventh grade. But I’m used to those crushes being seen as sort of idiosyncratic—let others have their obvious Clooneys and Pattinsons, I’ll stick with the unexpected, thanks. So when I searched for what other viewers were saying about deGrasse Tyson, I didn’t think I’d find that just as we’re not alone in this universe, I wasn’t alone in my crush. Neil deGrasse Tyson, according to Twitter, is everything from a “science crush” to a “nerd crush” to a “celebrity crush.” He’s “superhot” and “handsome,” making us “hot and bothered,” what with his “sci-sexy” “sexy voice” and general “hotness.” In fact, he was once listed in People’s annual Sexiest Man Alive list as the Sexiest Astrophysicist, is routinely listed as a “nerd sex symbol” in headlines, and has been asked about his sex appeal to the point where he even has the crushworthiest response possible ready at hand: “When you tell people something that's intellectually delectable, they can feel sensually towards it. But I think at the end of the day, the object of their affection is the universe." (Swoon!) Point here is: My NDT crush isn’t idiosyncratic, offbeat, unexpected, or unlikely in the least. The man isn’t just a little crush of mine; he’s a bona fide sex symbol, regardless of whether it’s qualified by the word nerd.
I think it’s splendid that so many people are freely acknowledging what most of us already know from our own experience: Sex appeal isn’t strictly tied to conventional good looks, and average-looking people can become immensely attractive in our eyes if we find their other qualities appealing. I mean, Neil deGrasse Tyson is nice-looking enough, but I doubt he’d be seen as “handsome” or “superhot” were it not for his other gifts. (Sure, there’s an argument there about the dangers of labeling everything appealing as “sexy” and why a good astrophysicist can’t just be a good astrophysicist in peace—but really, it’s the quieter sort of sex appeal that has made us humans keep propagating the species, so I’m all for it.) I mean, who among us hasn’t experienced an unlikely flutter of the heart or loins in watching someone blossom before our eyes in a single moment? A headline proclaiming an utterly normal-looking man as a “sex symbol” of any sort means that we as a culture are eager to see beyond the surface when it comes to human appeal.
But when I tried to think of a woman who is widely seen in the same light, I came up short. Sure, there are plenty of well-known women who are seen as “nerd crushes” because they speak of their nerdy interests (like Mila Kunis) or are involved with nerd culture in the sense that they go to Comic Con. Then there are the women who have been christened as “the thinking man’s sex symbol,” like Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Susan Sarandon, and Rachel Weisz, all of whom may be excellent performers and writers, and all of whom are also pretty much exactly the definition of the beauty standard, even if they’re not as cheesecake-perfect as sex symbols who don’t usually garner the prefix of “thinking man’s.” Sarah Palin of all people is actually the closest I can think of, in that she's a well-known woman viewed as attractive in a field where you don't have to be a professional beauty to succeed—but besides the fact that her sex appeal became a tool of ridicule, she was literally a beauty queen, hardly landing her in the same camp as Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Also, she’s Sarah Palin, but whatevs.) Google turns up a few other women labeled “thinking man’s sex symbol” who aren’t entertainers—writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Sheryl Sandberg—which come closer to the spirit of the deGrasse Tyson phenomenon, but they’re acknowledged as sex symbols on a far smaller level. The point: Call her a nerd crush or the thinking man’s sex symbol—if she’s a woman, she’s still got to be pretty damned good-looking to get the title. I mean, when The Wonder Years child star Danica McKellar went on to be an advocate for girls in math, she was doing book promotion in lingerie.
Just as we’d be unwise to blame individual men for patriarchal beauty standards, we can’t say that the lack of widely acknowledged atypical female sex symbols is a reflection of men’s abilities to see beyond the physical. Men are just as capable as women of finding someone attractive for reasons that have little to do with visual attraction, and I’ve heard plenty of individual men share their crushes on somewhat unlikely targets: soccer player Abby Wambach, economics blogger Megan McArdle, Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, poet Nikki Giovanni, and tennis player Martina Hingis before the makeover. An ex once sheepishly told me he had just a wee little crush on Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, you know?
Still, collectively we’re slow to recognize the possibility of a female “sex symbol” who doesn’t possess the hallmarks of a traditional sex symbol. And to be clear, on its face this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, the flipside here is that anytime a prominent woman does anything nifty, she’s suddenly a “sex symbol.” Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi: the Hill’s sex symbol! Doesn’t Alice Munro look hot as a Nobel laureate? By no means am I arguing that we should sexualize women’s accomplishments just so we can have a female equivalent of a Neil deGrasse Tyson. But the thing is, we already do sexualize accomplished women, assuming she’s conventionally attractive. What’s missing is room for a wider public acknowledgment of the enormous swath of qualities that make accomplished women attractive. We give it to the gents, and on an individual level we give it to women too. But when it comes to our culture—or hell, just Twitter—christening an utterly average-looking woman a sex symbol of any sort, we shy away from the possibility.
Basically, this is a version of the same old song—I mean, news flash, women are expected to look conventionally pretty. It’s just interesting to me that we as a culture are willing to go to greater lengths to extend the definition of attractive to include skill and charisma when we’re talking about men, but not so willing when we’re talking about women. Or are we? I’m hoping I’ve got a major blind spot here. Are there famous women I’m overlooking who are widely known as “sex symbols” despite not matching the definition of conventional beauty? I’d like to learn that I’m mistaken.