Growing up, I was blessed to have so many intelligent girls and women to look up to, whether that was in real life or in the movies and TV shows that I watched – females who were unashamedly smart, found the determination to step up when it mattered or who weren’t afraid to be a little bit different. If you’ve ever been called a nerd, swot, geek or any other negative connotation associated with being smart, then you’ll know how important it is to have positive role models who value education and being academically minded.
Because it hasn’t always been this way. Not that long ago, the role of the ‘weaker’ sex was deemed to be in the home, focusing solely on marriage, children and how they looked, and not on having a brain or an opinion. The occasional female character who was portrayed as being smart was seen as odd, a social outcast, ugly or God forbid, a spinster. Fortunately, the depiction of the female race has come a long way since then but there is still far too much emphasis on defining young girls and women by how beautiful, cool and nice they are rather than their intelligence.
Luckily, for both me and other girls, there are plenty of female icons in both literature, film and television who can inspire us to not only work hard and persevere with our studies but who teach us to embrace our intellect and creativity. Not only that but to create a well-rounded life for ourselves, whether that’s balancing academics with sport, the arts, activism or any other pursuit we could wish to excel in.
So, here’s a list of the bright and brilliant heroines that I hope will motivate you this coming school year to both study and play hard. After all, a well-read woman is a dangerous creature!
Rory Gilmore (Gilmore Girls)
The show, Gilmore Girls, focuses on the relationship between single mother Lorelai Gilmore and her gifted daughter Rory and their lives in a sleepy Connecticut town. Both mother and daughter have dreamt of Rory attending Harvard University ever since she was three years old and at the start of the series, Rory is sent to Chilton, a prestigious school, to improve her chances of realising her lifelong dream.
Beloved by the entire Stars Hollow community, Rory forever has her head in a book or a newspaper (there are actual reading challenges dedicated to the number of books she gets through during the course of the show). Her studious nature means she ends up being in the top 3 per cent of her class and graduating from Chilton as valedictorian with a 4.2 GPA.
Despite being accepted to Harvard, she decides to go to Yale University instead, and majors in English, in the hope of becoming a foreign correspondent like CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. When Rory isn’t studying or in class, she is writing for the Yale Daily News and is later made editor of the paper. The series ends with Rory graduating with honours and being offered a job at an online magazine.
The most important thing that Rory can teach us though is her study routine – whether that’s by finding your own ‘study tree’ or combining your studies with copious amounts of junk food, coffee and bad movies!
Elle Woods (Legally Blonde)
Legally Blonde is a classic tale of never judging a book by its cover! At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Elle, a beautiful blonde Gemini vegetarian and sorority sister who lives at Delta Nu House at CULA and studies Fashion Merchandising. Her life is all about pools, parties and her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III, who she hopes will propose to her any day now. However, when he breaks up with her in the hope of finding a more ‘serious’ girlfriend and to attend Harvard Law School, Elle decides to follow him there in the hopes of proving herself and winning him back.
Underestimated by even her own parents, she shocks everyone when she manages to get into Harvard after gaining a near-perfect score on the LSATS. Her sunny Californian disposition is a stark contrast to her highbrow, intellectual classmates and she struggles to be taken seriously by both her professors and her peers. When Warner tells her not to waste her time applying for one of the coveted internships at the school because she isn’t ‘smart enough’, she decides to show him “just how valuable Elle Woods can be” and knuckles down with her studies and combines her brilliant legal mind with her fashion and beauty know-how to help win a case.
Elle eventually earns the respect of both her colleagues and lecturers and graduates from Harvard with the invitation to join a prestigious law firm. Elle’s unwavering determination and loyalty to both her friends and doing the right thing teaches us to always stay true to ourselves – and to leave a trail of pink glitter and positivity behind us wherever we may go!
Casey Carlyle (Ice Princess)
This Disney classic tells the story of high school teenager Casey, a talented science student, who is pursuing a scholarship so that she can attend Harvard University. As part of her scholarship application, she must submit a personal physics project and decides to focus on ice skating, a childhood hobby of hers. She comes up with the perfect algorithm for skating by studying ice skaters at her local ice risk but when she realises that her project is not ‘personal’ enough, she decides to apply the findings to her own skating and discovers a passion for the sport.
Throughout the course of the film, Casey struggles to balance her schoolwork, the project, her ice-skating lessons and her part-time job to pay for the training. Casey must decide whether to give up her promising academic future in favour of pursuing her newfound dream to become a professional figure skater, much to her mother’s disapproval.
Casey’s story teaches us that we can discover our passion in the most unlikely of places – and that by studying and working hard, we can apply the skills we learn at school to other areas of our lives.
McKeyla McAlister, Adrienne Attoms, Bryden Bandweth and Camryn Coyle (Project Mc²)
The Netflix series, Project Mc², follows the adventures of four best friends who work as undercover agents for a secret government organisation called NOV8, made up of super smart girls using their science and tech skills to save the world. McKeyla is the leader of the group and excels in forensics and criminology whilst Adrienne is a culinary chemist with a love for high heels! Bryden meanwhile is the tech wiz of the group, using her computer to hack into devices to help with spy missions and Camryn is a skilled engineer and inventor, with experience of creating complex contraptions.
The girls defy stereotypes by showing us that the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) are not just for boys – and that smart is definitely the new cool!
Jo March (Little Women)
The book Little Women, and its subsequent films, tells the story of the four March sisters growing up against the backdrop of the American Civil War in the 1860s.
Protagonist Jo is the second eldest sibling and a quintessential tomboy, who would much prefer to be climbing trees and running races than attending balls and thinking about marriage. She is the smartest and most creative one in her family and loves nothing more than reading books for hours and writing short stories and plays for her sisters to perform. She wishes to become a famous writer and later pursues a literary career in New York City.
Despite facing constant bewilderment and disapproval, Jo remains true to herself, refusing to give into the pressure to marry, produce children and live a conventional life, as she values her freedom and independence too much – something that most women had very little of during the 19th century.
One thing we can learn from Jo is the importance of having your own creative space. Jo’s favourite place is the attic in the March’s house, where she would often be found writing in her ‘scribbling suit’, surrounded by books, manuscripts and nibbled pens.
Beth Harmon (The Queen’s Gambit)
In this Netflix Original miniseries, we witness the rise of child prodigy Beth as she delves into the world of competitive chess in a bid to become a chess grandmaster. Set during the Cold War, Beth is sent to an orphanage at the age of eight after her mother dies in a car crash. She displays a proficiency in science, history and mathematics, and after horrifying her teacher with how quickly she can solve square root problems, she is sent down to the basement to clean blackboard erasers.
It’s here where she meets the orphanage’s janitor Mr Shaibel who teaches her how to play chess and she soon becomes a strong player. When she is later adopted, she is encouraged by her foster mother to compete in community chess matches and quickly rises through the ranks, until she is eventually taking on the top Soviet players.
Beth breaks gender norms by being the only girl competing in a typically all-male sport and not allowing her sex to define her abilities. She thrives as an introvert, spending hours studying the game alone and mastering it, and learns Russian so that she can secretly eavesdrop on the conversations of her fellow players without them realising. If this series doesn’t inspire you to get your chessboard out, then nothing will!
Katharine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan (Hidden Figures)
The 2016 film Hidden Figures is loosely based on the story of three pioneering African American women who played a vital role at NASA during the early years of the U.S space program. These inspirational women overcame both racial and gender barriers in the field of science to help launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit – one of the most important operations in NASA’s history.
Katherine Johnson, along with her colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, worked at the Langley Research Centre, NASA’s oldest field centre. Katherine’s skills in analytic geometry and orbital mechanics were critical in the first series of US crewed spaceflights, and she helped to pioneer the use of computers for performing tasks. Mary would eventually become NASA’s first Black female aerospace engineer and Dorothy was a mathematician who prepared for the introduction of computers in the early 1960s by teaching herself and her staff Fortran, a programming language.
Their story teaches us not just the often-overlooked contributions of women of colour in a predominantly white, male field but is also a lesson in persevering in the face of discrimination – after all, well-behaved women seldom make history!
Natalie Cook, Dylan Sanders and Alex Munday (Charlie’s Angels Film Franchise)
In Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003), three talented ‘Angels’ work as private investigators for the Charlie Townsend Detective Agency, kicking ass as they go. All of them are highly trained in martial arts but each one brings their own unique set of skills to the table too.
Natalie is a physicist and chemist with an impressive number of strings to her bow – she has a PhD from MIT, has worked as a research scientist at the Swedish National Academy and as a U.S Navy test pilot, and has a vast knowledge of veterinary medicine. She is also extremely athletic and has a passion for anything on wheels.
Dylan is the wild child of the group and is incredibly streetwise, working as a monster truck rally driver, female wrestler and rodeo entertainer before joining the agency. She is a master of disguise and speaks fluent Mongolian and Spanish.
Alex grew up as a child prodigy, excelling in gymnastics, chess, fencing, archery and equestrianism. She is an expert in electronics and explosives after spending her teenage years abroad, learning safe-cracking and bomb defusing with a Parisian double agent. She is also fluent in Finnish, German and Mongolian.
The greatest lesson that we can learn from the Angels is the importance of being a well-rounded individual – by honing our different skill sets in languages, the arts, science, tech and sport, we can become a versatile woman that’s not to be messed with!
Hermione Granger (The Harry Potter series)
Harry Potter may have been the ‘chosen one’ but he would have been nothing without his best friend Hermione by his side. An archetypal Virgo, Hermione was a perfectionist, overachiever and a ‘know-it-all’ but her encyclopaedic knowledge and brilliant logic played a key role in many of the pivotal plot lines throughout the series.
Although Hermione is a Gryffindor, she was nearly put into Ravenclaw by the Sorting Hat due to her academic prowess in nearly every subject. She is by far the best student in Harry’s year at Hogwarts and is the first to master any spell or charm and was even granted a Time-Turner from the Ministry of Magic in her third year so that she could study even more subjects.
Despite all the adventures that she got caught up in with Harry and Ron during her time at Hogwarts, she still managed to achieve ten O.W.L.s (nine Outstanding and one Exceeding Expectations) and would eventually become Minister for Magic.
Hermione teaches us that even if our ‘swottiness’ doesn’t make us exactly popular with others – such as her over enthusiasm to answer every question in class or making the library her second home – it doesn’t matter. Her true friends appreciate and love her for who she is, and she eventually earns the respect and credit that she duly deserves.
Lisa Simpson (The Simpsons)
No list would be complete without the OG of all smart girls, Lisa Simpson. The middle child and by far the most intelligent member of the Simpson family (and probably most of Springfield), Lisa is a highly gifted eight-year-old girl who far exceeds the academic standards of any other child her age. Since she was a baby, Lisa has been able to complete tasks far beyond her age range including changing her own nappy and solving mathematical equations, despite her family’s general lack of encouragement. Despite being unpopular at school due to her bookish nature and propensity for being a teacher’s pet, she is accepted into the Springfield chapter of Mensa after discovering that she has an IQ of 159.
She is also very passionate about her political causes and is an advocate for peace, equality and the environment. When she isn’t studying or involved in activism, she spends her spare time reading or playing the saxophone.
Lisa shows us that sometimes we must be our own advocate and have belief in ourselves and our abilities, especially when others around us show little interest in what we can do or the causes that are important to us. She also demonstrates the importance of sticking to our ideals and values, even if they don’t make us exactly popular with other people.
Who are your favourite fictional smart girls?