What's With The Makeovers?

You are a male physics professor, and you want to improve science education. What could possibly be a better idea than to team up with a bunch of professional cheerleaders and make a video of them shouting out science tidbits while they shake their pompoms? Science cheerleaders!

I know, right? You wish you'd thought of it first, don't you?

The only thing worse than this loathsome idea is the Chronicle of Higher Education reporting on it with the headline "Blonded By Science". Seriously.

I am not sure whether James Trefil, of George Mason University, seriously thinks that women students would be attracted to science in this manner, or whether he even bothered to think at all about the possibility that the students he ostensibly wants to recruit to science might, just possibly, include both women as well as men. And no, don't bother commenting to tell me how the former Sixer-cheerleader-turned-science-journalist collaborating with Mr. Trefil makes it all okay. Women are perfectly capable of being complicit in their own objectification.

These god-awful videos are akin to the long-standing practice of sexist science dudes including cheesecake photos in the middle of their science slide presentations for "comic relief" or to "entertain the audience". In fact, they are just an extension of that practice. "Look! Sexy babes 'n' science! Did I get your attention?"

This truly craptastic pedagogical experiment is no better than the current repugnant series of ads for T-Mobile "Mobile Makeover" ads with Catherine Zeta-Jones. You know the one where the "team of economists" go out to try and sell "average Americans" on a mobile makeover, only to be soundly repulsed. So they try a different approach - sex. The message of this ad (and another in the series, where a husband and wife listen to C Z-J's sales pitch, husband drooling at the mouth, wife clearly unhappy with husband) seems to be this: men are too stupid to purchase our product based on the clearly superior economic value. But we can sucker them into it if it is accompanied with a hot pair of tits. Women? Are we selling to women? Who knows what motivates them? (Interestingly, in the ad with the married couple, C Z-J actually speaks to the wife about the facts of the plan, but her dress and posture is designed to "speak" to the clearly besotted husband, thus sowing discord between the couple. Not a very good overall sales pitch.)

The unarticulated assumption underlying the ad series - and the Brain Makeover videos - is that the main target audience is comprised of heterosexual men who will respond favorably to having the product (science, cell phone plans) pitched to them by hot, hot babes. Women are the afterthought audience and the pitch to them, if there is one, is a confusing one. If women are encouraged to identify with the cheerleaders or C Z-J then they aren't really picturing themselves as scientists or consumers. If they attempt to place themselves in the target audience, then the sexy-babe-sells-you-science/product doesn't make sense to them, except perhaps for the lesbians. And one has to wonder how much the caricature of femininity designed to appeal to straight male fuck fantasies really turns on the majority of lesbians. I can't speak for that demographic, so I don't know.

Mobile Makeover or Brain Makeover, it's all the same crap. Just because one is gussied up as physics pedagogy doesn't make it any less puke-on-your-shoes worthy.

N.B. Mr. Trefil's website is here, but I was not able to get it to load. You can find plenty of the stupid videos on YouTube by searching on "brain makeover".

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I often think I should have studied economics. In the first place, I find it interesting. In the second, sex doesn't sell me on a product. I look for maximum value for my investment and if I pay any attention to the ads (unlikely) then trying to use sex to sell me on it is only going to bias me against the product for using such an idiotic and frankly offensive* ad campaign.

If they were to at least provide balance, and have male cheerleaders as well, then it might not be *as* awful. But it would still be awful.

Also, the search terms aren't required to get stupid videos on youtube ;)

*offensive both to the women who are objectified and the men whose intelligence is being insulted (though apparently justifiably considering they keep using the sexism and it appears to work on a lot of guys, which we should be embarrassed by).

... And on top of being totally misguided, stupid, sexist, and counter productive, the "factoids" the cheer leaders are shaking their pom poms to are innane and uncontextualized. Even if someone 'learned' something they would not be learning anything.

One saving grace is that the commenters at the Chronicle are so far unanimous in their disgust. Although it is only a matter of time before the "can't you take a joke" "harmless fun" crowd shows up.

Bananas, Bananas, Go Go Bananas
B A N A N A S!
Go Go Bananas!

Ok, I get it. Cheerleading helped my laydee brane lurn 2 spel. I can haz scienz 2? YAY! *herky*

It's just peachy how women have to be d00d-compliant and all cheery, supportive, RAH RAH! of the menz, to gain access to their fucking games. Well, to the sidelines.

Oh, for heaven's sake. Have you nothing better about which to complain?!

You are, of course, entitled to your own opinions. And, of course, it is your blog. Fair play to you.

Nevertheless, you seem unable to follow a link and uncover Darlene Cavalier's story. Had you done so, you might recognize that this isn't the "D00dz, you has to check out these hot lady parts on behalf of science!"-type story that you seem to think it is. Misguided though she may be (I, for one, am not well-versed in the most effective ways of communicating and popularizing science), her efforts seem to stem from a genuine desire to make a difference, using her previous experience as a cheerleader for the 76ers.

Ah, I see you already mentioned Darlene. Never mind. While I still don't agree with you entirely, I recognize and respect your objections.

Brian: (1) Yes, it is my blog. And I am certainly entitled to my own opinions. Yet I feel it necessary to point out to you that these are not just "my opinions". This blog post presents a comparison and analysis of Brain Makeovers and Mobile Makeovers based on feminist theory. I'm sure it may be difficult to comprehend that analyzing something using the perspective of feminist theory is not exactly the same thing as giving a purely personal opinion based on nothing other than one's own personal feelings and reactions to whatever one reads, but there is a difference. Example: your comment on my blog post is an opinion, to which you are entitled. It is not the same thing as an analysis of my blog post based on a theoretical stance.

(2) You seem to have breezed right by this part of my post: And no, don't bother commenting to tell me how the former Sixer-cheerleader-turned-science-journalist collaborating with Mr. Trefil makes it all okay. Women are perfectly capable of being complicit in their own objectification. Maybe you want to go back and read that again and think on it some more. It would have been especially nice if you had read and comprehended it before you spent all that time typing your comment to let me know how having a woman and former cheerleader involved in the project makes it all okay.

Brian, I see your second comment came in while I was posting my reply to your first. Nevertheless, it seems a bit disingenuous to say you "recognize and respect your objections" after saying "Oh, for heaven's sake. Have you nothing better about which to complain?!"

I can't even begin to tell you how sick to death I am of men coming on this blog and telling me how whatever the hell it is I am writing about is something that I ought not to be upset or concerned about, because it's either (a) not sexism or (b) not an important enough case of sexism to bother about or (c) is sexism, but I really ought to be concerned with something else, or....blah blah blah. If you all would just shut up for five minutes and think about what it is women are saying instead of rushing in to give your d00dly wisdom, that would be a far far better thing. I promise you, the world will not come to an end if you don't IMMEDIATELY give your important opinion about How Women Are All Wrong About Patriarchy the minute it pops into your head.

My official lesbian opinion is that the pom poms and the plasticine ladies are distracting me from the vaguely amusing science facts.

That's not what I think at all, honestly. I recognize that me being d00dly means that there are some subtleties that I can't hope to appreciate, but at the same time, I think it a bit dismissive for you to assume that my disagreement with you about this particular post stems from my inability to realize that "the world will not come to an end if you don't IMMEDIATELY give your important opinion about How Women Are All Wrong About Patriarchy the minute it pops into your head." Often, I find myself agreeing with you. This time just ain't one of 'em.

Sorry my first post came off a bit... heated.

Telling the author that she should concern herself with something more important than sexist, ineffective marketing that excludes women is just a little more than coming of a bit heated. It is arrogant and comes from a place of pure priviledge. And it is fucking anoying. Also you can not only hope, but actually learn the subtelties even as a d00d. A good starting point would be to shut up and listen.

Oh Brian ⦠âsubletiesâ? What about this is subtle? This âscience cheerleaderâ stuff is so over-the-top that Iâm not convinced it isnât some sort of joke. I noticed that Trefil doesnât seem to have a webpage at GMU â then again, heâs in his seventies. I wonder what the local (i.e., at GMU) reaction will be.

About the T-Mobile campaign â I tend to interpret that more along the lines of ads that poke fun at the whole âsex sellsâ bit, especially after the ad w/the couple and the one w/the teenage boy. But I can think of two better executed examples of this genre: one is for a hair product that uses a male biker with long, gorgeous locks; the other advertises seafood, with two traditionally sexy female stereotypes and one clearly less-than-sexy guy. Of course, I donât remember the products they were actually trying to sell meâ¦.

I guess it's not that important to target physics factlets to girls because they usually just choose to pursue other subjects anyway. And of course that choice is always based on their inherent interests, and has absolutely nothing to do with being bombarded by explicit and implicit messages telling them that physics is a boys club. Right?

Or perhaps there is a follow-up series of videos with hot dudes in the works. They could get Robert Pattinson in full vampire makeup and learning Newton's laws would become the cool thing to do.

It's not "make over", it's "may cover" - they may cover something remotely interesting, but probably not....


I know you said you couldn't find information about James Trefil, so I just wanted to provide some links for more information about him and his research and work. Here is his bio on the George Mason University web site:


And here are some articles about his work, including one on the cheerleader partnership:



Hope this helps.

By the reasoning that leads to the conclusion that âwomen are perfectly capable of being complicit in their own objectificationâ we may assume that women in the test sample for the national marketing campaign were also complicit in their response to this objectification.

The tested broad demographic that responded favorably to the advertising included women who identified with either the objectified woman, C Z-J, or with the proposition of males being reduced to drooling idiocy in her presence.

I think it is fair, to use that commercial make to a cultural indictment.

âA comparison and analysis of Brain Makeovers and Mobile Makeovers based on feminist theoryârenders that indictment rather thin.

There are certain aspects of the commercial that lend themselves to semiotics and those elements are revealed by semiotic analysis to be atrocious. They are bigotries that in the context of telling and retelling, that is the nature of advertising, rise to the sense of mythologies.

1. The correlative of the level of intellectual competence and attractiveness and or social competence.

2. The Objectified (stylized symbolic) woman as geisha/b-girl with the product being a form of lucre that buys her attention.

3. The degraded male whoâs intellect/morality/self preservation/reason is enthralled by sex drive.

As to the physics cheerleaders, the comparison is awkward because whereas they fulfill the second mythology (the product being an understanding of physics) they do so under the pretense of dispelling the first mythology (they donât of course but that is the rationale presented). The third mythology only operates as a presumption. It is there certainly, the unspoken premise is science is an insufficient end in and of itself requiring the mesmerism of secondary sex characteristics to make it palatable. physics=overpriced chicken wings

The comparable element in the two examples, although both are certainly parades of bigotry, is the expectation that the cliches, elevated to the point of mythology, will be found uniformly amusing to both men and women. They are all horrible and some sexist. But the issue is that their respective manufactures were correct in their appraisal of just how disgusting their audience is.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 05 Aug 2009 #permalink

I apologise if this is a stupid question, but have you (Zuska) written at all about the Skepchick calendars? I would be very interested in your opinion.

I haven't written specifically about the Skepchick calendars. But I have written in the past about other calendars. See Geek Gorgeous vs. Sexy Science, Feedback From the IT Screen Goddess Gals, and Let Them Eat Cake: Beef vs. Cheese, all from the earlier version of my blog. I know I wrote about one other similar calendar but can't recall the post or find the link right now. The three posts actually discuss two different calendars, both based on IT.