Strings on Sunset

So I heard something on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip just now. (This is the new show written by Aaron Sorkin that I instinctively started to watch a couple of weeks ago because I like his writing, and it is actually a drama about the process of writing, so what’s not to like? -Ok, I’m a bit bothered by the overall annoyingness of the lead actress’ performance, but I imagine she’ll get better.)

I caught a line that went something like “we’re not looking for a girl with a phd in… string theory or anything, ok? There’ll be at least half a dozen women there who’ve been on the cover of FHM…” This was one character offering help to another in finding female company, to give you the context, in case you thought maybe they were needing someone to help solve a difficult integral or something.

I was not really watching the episode, but had forgotten and left the television on for a bit since I’d set it to record the show so that I can watch it later in the week. So I don’t know any more than the above snippet, but am I right in thinking that somehow Sorkin was trying to drive home the tired and misguided (and misguiding) idea that the two categories are mutually exculsive? And that the latter category was somehow more desirable? Or did I miss a subtlety from the great writer this time? I need help here – I’m really trying to give him (or, to be charitable, the character) the benefit of the doubt.

Hmmm, I see that by coincidence this is really an accompanying post to the one I did earlier on the Yankovic video. Same dismay. Same reasons.


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45 Responses to Strings on Sunset

  1. Scott H. says:

    Hi Clifford — I’m afraid the context was just what you thought it was. JoshDanny was talking about setting up ChandlerMatt with a rebound girl to get over whatshername. The idea was that ChandlerMatt was obsessed with the smart funny whatshername and just needed some kind of a bimbo to get over her.

    Or something. At least when the West Wing was self infatuated and gratuitously over the top, I could say “Well, they’re talking about the fate of the world, I can forgive them.” Now I keep finding myself thinking “It’s a freaking Saturday Night Live clone, Sorkin, get a grip.”

  2. Supernova says:

    Hmm, I must have missed that part. I did manage to catch Sting playing the lute, however. Sweet. 🙂

  3. anon says:

    I had a very different interpretation to the line in Studio 60. I think Danny used the “Ph.D in string theory” as a metaphor for the perfect woman (for Matt). He was saying, OK so the perfect woman won’t be there, but there will be a whole bunch of women who’ll do (i.e. are *merely* very attractive). I thought this was a really nice turn around of the stereotype.

  4. Scott H. says:

    I like anon’s interpretation, and wish I could see it this way! I’m finding myself viewing the show through the filter of my irritation with its overall tone. Ah well.

  5. Clifford says:

    I’d love to run with anon’s interpretation too. I like Sorkin’s writing, artifice and all, and want to give him the benefit of the doubt… But…


  6. spyder says:

    I think one of the questions that needs to be asked is how far do you take critiques such as this. Do you begin to deconstruct each and every referent throughout the show (a show that is quite filled with them including the ongoing science/religion game show)?? Does one catalog sets of criteria by which one, and others, can facilitate a legitimate claim of prejudicial bias or dysphemic stereotyping? Because eventually this sort of critique breaks down to “i don’t like that line because it casts xyz in a negative way,” thus reducing all criticism to personal views that become arbitrary for the sake of argument, as well as merely relative within the constructs of discoursing on the medium and its messages.

    Can you take that section of script and hold it alone from the storyline history that has been established over the previous four episodes? I too am an avid watcher of the show, and find the Schlamme/Sorkin/Wells production efforts, in the past and present, to be some of the highest quality TV made available. I have followed this show, watched each episode, and felt both admiration and despair as it has been manifested. I do however understand what point Sorkin et al were making, in the context of this episode (and the story line history being presented to the Christine Latti character of the efforts by Matt to recapture his relationship with Harriet). Does it matter that i understand and accept it, versus someone else choosing to find the referent inappropriate?? No, not one bit.

    There are so many things going on in this show, all of which lend themselves to the connotive discourse regarding each and every nuanced scene. The title itself harkens back to one of the worst stereotyped shows of the 50’s: 77 Sunset Strip. A show so replete with examples of patriarchal fascination with fast cars, loose women, cigarettes, and lots of alcohol, that Sorkin could, if given the time, just focus his satiric arrows at that show alone. Criminy, it even produced a hit record about one of the stars use of a comb in his hair. And then of course there is the NBS network, reflecting the UBS Paddy Chayefsky’s Network and Max Headroom’s network 23 (one of the truly great failed ABC risks, still all too relevant and poignant today–along with the equally shortlived Freedom series).

  7. anon says:

    I thought the show was worth the price of admission this week just for the scathing portrait of Mark Burnett (creator of Survivor) pitching the world’s nastiest reality show. i have been surprised and pleased with what this show has been able to get away with so far commenting on the state of television, the major networks etc etc.

  8. Clifford says:

    Yes, I agree with both of you. I think it is an excellent show indeed. Reminds me also a bit of Sportsnight, his short-lived show from a while back that was also brilliantly written and way ahead of other shows in writing quality. So I very much like the show, but that does not stop me from bringing up interesting points of critique now and again.


  9. Elliot says:

    I actually am disappointed in the show. But Heroes right before it is very compelling.

    I’ll stick with my two faves Boston Legal and 24 (next years)


  10. Rob Knop says:

    To further anon’s interpretation, I suggest that we hack the production company and rewrite the dialog as:

    we’re not looking for a girl with a phd in… string theory or anything, ok? I mean, we’ll settle for an observational astronomer, or somebody stupid like that.

    -Rob the Observational Astronomer

    (yeah, Observational Astronomers aren’t stupid, unless you set string theorists at the top of your scale and then make it a linear instead of a log scale, in which case most of us are lurking down in the same pixel as the X-axis.)

  11. DancingBear says:

    I would submit that, indeed, the categories of “girls with PhDs in string theory” and “women who’ve been on the cover of FHM” are almost orthogonal. This is verifiable as an empirical fact, and the reason of course is not that beauty (of the FHM kind) does not go with intelligence, but that both endeavors end up requiring essentially all available waking hours.

    Although my experience with FHM is limited to bored browsings at airport newsstands, I am sure it takes a lot of time, energy, and (yes) talent to become and stay FHM-qualified. Studio 60’s writers went on to say that it would be much easier to find FHM-worthy women that string-theory PhDs. This may reflect misguided priorities in our youth, but it is also very probably true, especially in Hollywood.

    An analogous statement would be that there are almost no professors of theoretical physics who are also olympians. Professional athletes who have read the Feynman lectures? Sure. Theoretical physicists who do triathlon challenges? Sure. But excellence in both? Nah.

    Let’s not be over-PC…

  12. Clifford says:

    PC-ness has nothing to do with this., It is astonishing how quickly people reach for that phrase – it is a bit lazy, if the truth be told. (I don’t mean to offend.)

    Let’s think it through a bit.

    It is a matter of degree here. Yes, if you become a succesful fashion model you are less likely to be a successful physicist as well, but that is a ridiculous extreme. The middle-of-the-road situation is as follows… The tendency to think of these things as orthogonal is at the heart of the common situation where a woman who is perceived as beautiful by her male colleagues often gets taken less seriously as an intellectual equal. That’s what I am talking about. This is nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with the common situations we find in the workplace that contribute to the scarcity of women in the field.

    I could go on here and talk further about your athleticism analogy and arrive at the same conclusion with regards the expectations about people who are perceived to be “naturally athletic”…. but I think you can probably complete the steps.



  13. nc says:

    ‘…woman who is perceived as beautiful by her male colleagues often gets taken less seriously as an intellectual equal.’ – Clifford

    Pretty girls are generally not the ones who are hard done by in life. They don’t need defence (or ‘defense’ if you are an American speller).

    The fairy tales about poor beautiful girls being losers in life due to horrible males makes me throw up.

    Those girls get the job offers at interviews in preference to better able men 🙁 , they attract partners just like a dead horse attracts flies, and they are the centre of attention. (Anybody says anything true to them, and they have five hundred passers by step in to sort him out.) Please delete this comment if you don’t like the truth.

  14. nc says:

    Those girls also are in my experience very rude and obnoxious – at least I’ve not found one single nice one.

  15. nc says:

    By ‘single’ I mean unattached.

  16. Clifford says:

    No, nc, I won’t delete it, I’ll leave it right there as an example of what I’m talking about.



  17. DancingBear says:

    Well, Clifford, if you put it that way, you sound convincing, as always. But…

    …I’m not sure the original Studio 60 context warrants your generalization.

    …and I think there’s a strong biological bias to pay MORE attention and give MORE intellectual consideration to the beautiful and the athletic. (Google the ample research about symmetrical and tall people having more success in life by objective measures.) Perhaps there’s a strong cultural bias in the other direction, as you say, furthered by Hollywood and many other agents. But I’ve never observed it in professional milieus! Now, high school may be different.

    (Ehem, nc is certainly a tad bitter and ungraceful, but that does not mean that all of his empirical observations are false.)

  18. Clifford says:


    You said:- “I’m not sure the original Studio 60 context warrants your generalization”

    Are you saying that’s my only data point? That’s wrong. Or are you sayinfg that it was inappropriate for me to use that remark as an example and basis for discussion? I presume you mean the latter. Why can’t we discuss these issues in any context we choose? I would say a popular tv show is a jolly good place to pick up on some of our conscious or unconscious tendencies toward reinforcing stereotypes that result in unfair treatment. If not that context, of all places, then where?

    You also said:- “and I think there’s a strong biological bias to pay MORE attention and give MORE intellectual consideration to the beautiful and the athletic.”

    And nc said things in support of this, which you in turn agreed with.

    Let’s say that that what you and nc say is true….Would that not mean that there’d be more “beautiful” and “athletic” people in pursuits that engage one’s intellect, such as science? Let’s say physics…… So where are these people in such increased numbers? Your “strong biological basis” seems to lack data. Or if it is true…. then you’ve got precisely the wrong sign for your claim, and you need another effect to cancel out your effect…which leads me to my central point made earlier about such people being taken less seriously in this context due to cultural stereotypes.


  19. On the PC matter…I don’t see that it’sparticularly relelvant to the discussion, and further to Cliff’s point about it, I think it’s more damaging than merely lazy. Unfortunately, it is too often used as a throwaway line by people who want to discount points about equal opportunities. I’m not saying everyone who talks about PC-ness is anti-equal opps, just that it tends to get used that way, so it’s effect on a conversation is to brush off equal opps concerns, which may or may not be valid in a given context, but their validity is not dependent on PC-ness or lack thereof.

    \end{tagential rant}

    Ok, so I’ve not watched this programme, but regardless of the actual line, there do seem to be some points to be made about the supposed “smart girl vs pretty girl” dichotomy.

    Lines like “a woman who’s been on the cover of FHM” doesn’t usually literally mean “a woman who has actually been on the actual over of FHM” — it usually means something more along the lines of “a woman who fits society’s image of the archetypal male fantasy.” So I think Clifford an others are right to point out that the perceived orthogonality is not a practical scheduling issue, but a stereotypes issue.

    The fact is that the stereotypes of women scientists is the “plain” or unattractive brainy girl. She’s not sexy or attractive or feminine enough. Because she’s intelligent and has her own goals. But the stereotype of the girl on FHM is the girl with the “perfect” body (underweight, big breasts, blonde) little or nothing in her head, and wants to have lots of sex. Because she’s attractive and everyone knows sexy women are stupid women.

    Consequently, as Clifford said, the attractive woman or the woman who cares how she looks is taken less seriously by classmates/colleagues. And the FHM cover girl is assumed to be a ditz.

    If Dancing Bear is right that the lines is making point about the relative rarity of women physics PhDs as compared to cover girls….that’s another issue. Is it rarity of women physics PhD,s or rarity of women PhDs who are interested in a relationship, that is being discussed? Is it assumed that models are more interested in sex than women scientists? Or is it that models are just more visible than women scientists, so the population thinks there are more of them>

    “Because eventually this sort of critique breaks down to “i don’t like that line because it casts xyz in a negative way,” thus reducing all criticism to personal views that become arbitrary for the sake of argument, as well as merely relative within the constructs of discoursing on the medium and its messages.”

    Is your point that one shouldn’t analyse mainstream popular media for social (in)justice referrences, or are you quibbling with *this particular* example of (or analysis of example of) possible sexism?

    Anyway, there are some interesting points in this thread, whether the original scene is intended to play on stereotypes or not.


  20. spyder says:

    Clifford, you should try to find a connection to Sorkin and suggest some of these stereotype critiques into the storyline (he might even be heading in that direction?). The fact that LA is one of the four mecca of plastic surgery in the world, needs to be considered as well. Parents are purchasing high school graduation surgeries, rather than cars, for their children’s sense of self esteem. This is sad in so many ways, but then all those doctors chose their path through science (and probable nerdy high school lives) to make incredible sums of money doing that work.

    As for this:
    there are almost no professors of theoretical physics who are also olympians

    Well one of my acquaintences from the wayback machine days, was a graduate of CaseWestern who then got his Ph.D. at CalTech, while simultaneously training for the US Olympic Decathlon team (he was an alternate) with a friend of mine from UCLA Rick Sloan (who has been head coach at WSU for years). I am sure i could locate and find a number of other examples of this as well. There will always be cross-over examples (and in far greater number than one would imagine) and such generalizations, as “almost no,” tend to further stereotyping rather than opening the world to greater diversity of awareness. Our children need to know that the world can be an inclusive place for those who have skills that cross the boundaries of adolescent cliqueishness and simplistic wrath.

  21. While not directly relevant to models or athletes, i think something in the order of 50% of lap dancers and strippers in Edinburgh are also students. An interesting intersection in two more occupations that are suppose to be orthogonal according to stereotypes of “pretty girls” vs “brainy girls”.


  22. DancingBear says:


    of course the Studio 60 remark is not your only data point, and of course you can discuss cultural stereotypes in any context you like. I was just saying that the Studio 60 line was a very benign instantiation of the stereotype, if it was one at all (I tend to agree with anon, here, in that it was a sort of anti-stereotype, implying that PhDs are rarer and more precious than FHM models).

    But I must persist on the “biological bias to pay MORE attention and give MORE intellectual consideration to the beautiful and the athletic.” You are both attractive and athletic, Clifford: are you telling me that, on the average, this played to your disadvantage in your professional career, and that it led to your not being taken seriously? If so, I’m sorry: being only moderately attractive has certainly helped me in mine, compared to colleagues of comparable talent.

    What I am saying is that, if you are ALREADY in a professional field, it HELPS to be attractive/beautiful/tall, etc. This has nothing to do with the number of people with such attributes that engage in that field. It may be that those attributes open for them other possibilities that are (wrongly) considered by society to be more desirable. It may be that they do not wish to get into a field that they perceive (mistakenly) to be full of nonattractive or unpleasant people. It may even be that they think (as you do) that their attractiveness would play against them. THESE are the prevailing stereotypes that we must fight. You have all my support there.

    But you will not be taken less seriously for being beautiful or attractive. I’m sure that spyder’s exceptional acquaintance had the admiration of his peers (both academic and athletic) for his dual endeavor. I (and most of the people with whom I come into professional contact) certainly would have taken him seriously.

  23. Clifford says:

    To directly answer your second paragraph:- Actually, I can safely say that I managed to make a successful academic career *despite* people’s preconceived notions about what I was *supposed* to be good at (athleticism being one of them) as opposed to what I was actually interested in demonstrating that I was good at, in the context of the subject in question. I’ve spent enormous amounts of energy (emotional and otherwise) counteracting those stereotypes. Running faster and jumping higher to get to places that others get to more easily by not having to deal with preconceptions. (Still do, sometimes.) Consider then, the following:

    (1) How much more could I have achieved had I not been distracted by that?

    (2) How many like me were not as lucky as I was to manage to fight through? What contributions could they have made?

    As to your last two paragrpahs… I think that IrrationalPoint in the first comment of theirs above, explained rather well already what is missing from the core of those views.



  24. Clifford says:


    You also said:- “You are both attractive and athletic, Clifford”

    We can argue about the first, but… how do you *know* I am athletic? Or more so than average? Aren’t you making an assumption here?


  25. Scott H. says:

    We can argue about the first, but… how do you *know* I am athletic? Or more so than average?

    Not that I’m particualrly in agreement with Dancing Bear’s arguments, but on this point, it’s worth bearing in mind that you have posted quite a bit about your passion for bicycling as a means of commuting. You may not regard that as making you athletic (I bike a fair amount in the Boston area, and know how much better my physical condition could be despite this), but it puts you a notch above many others.

  26. Um… expectations based on attractiveness are rather different fror men and for women. I’ve yet to hear men complain that they’re not taken seriously because people find them attractive. I hear it from plenty of women though. While sexism affects both men and women, it doesn’t necessarily affect them in the same ways.


  27. Clifford says:

    Hi Scott H., I really don’t think my mentioning my cycling as a means of commuting makes me athletic by the standards we were talking about. By that standard, the woman in this picture (from this post) is athletic too….

    woman on trike

    (click for larger)

    …and countless other people of all shapes and sizes and ages who just use it as a means to get around.

    But anyway, that’s beside the point.


  28. Clifford says:

    IrrationalPoint:- That’s actually a very good point indeed.


  29. DancingBear says:

    You’re right, Clifford, I was just guessing that you are athletic, based on the fact that you look lean and healthy, and that you speak so enthusiastically of cycling. But it sounds like I guessed right! Still, I’m sorry to hear that you had to suffer from a presumption that athleticism would be your thing.

    You may all be interested in the classic research paper about beauty and success,

    The tone of this paper may be a bit cruel, and it defines success somewhat narrowly, but it’s based on hard data, and starts with a very pregnant Aristotle citation (via Diogenes Laertius):

    >> He [Aristotle] used to say that personal beauty was a better introduction than any letter.

  30. Clifford says:

    Ok, let’s veer away from my own attributes, presumed or real. I refer you again to IrrationalPoint’s remark, which essentially says (and I agree) that the rules are different for women… Thanks for the reference.



  31. Elliot says:

    It appears from what I have read that studio 60 is a ratings bust. That was my feeling 15 minutes into the show (which I no longer watch) I sat through 2 episodes. This show just doesn’t work. Maybe it’s the fact that although it about a comedy show, it’s really not very funny at all. I loved the West Wing but this comes up way short in my book.


  32. DancingBear says:

    IrrationalPoint is quite probably right; in the light of that, and of your testimony, I must concede the argument. The fact that I never saw much evidence of stereotyping around me must be due to my tone deafness to such issues; or maybe I’ve just been lucky in the places where I’ve worked.

    By the way, the link to Hamermesh et al. (the classic paper I was mentioning) is actually . What I gave above is a link to a more recent related paper.

    Thanks to all for the instructing chat.

  33. Clifford says:

    DancingBear:- Luck, yes, or maybe you have had enlightened colleagues, etc, over your career….. or a mixture of both. I think things are getting better, fewer people are seeing some of the things that wre around not so long ago… I hate to bring them up, but they must not be forgotten until such time as such things are completely eradicated, at least effectively.

    I really appreciate having the discussion.

    Bye… Don’t be a stranger. Come back and stay awhile again at Asymptotia.



  34. Elliot says:


    Re: Athletic??….I think you are on record as playing in a basketball game…;)


  35. Clifford says:

    I know lots of people who have played in basketball games (more frequently than the once a year or fewer than I typically do) who would not be called athletic by any stretch of the imagination…. But let’s move on, since this is really missing the point.

    But anyway, I’d like to comment on your comment above. Studio 60 is *not* a comedy show even though it is about making one. That’s the great thing about it (or one of the many) it is a serious show about writing, and about the quality of writing in television, standards, and just the behind the scences matters. But it is not about being the show that it is about. This was the genuius of “Sportsnight”, his pre-West wing show that nobody seems to recall. I would never watch an hour long weekly show about Sports. Hell no. But this show, although about the behind the scenes of making a sports show… was not about sports. I htink this is a point that a lot of people just don’t get, and that puzzles me.

    I don’t mind if it gets scrapped. I’m expecting it to. Network TV just does not really understand non-super-formulaic material (with occasional exceptions). This would easily fly on somewhere like HBO. But -for all the reasons that are in the show’s script itself, ironically, abotu what is happeneing too network television…. it needs to be tried, jsut in case… just in case people get it.. and ask for more of the same… demeonstrating that they want to start using their brains again when watching tv.

    If it gets cut then so be it. Actually, I think that shows in the US (no matter how good) do have the problem tht they go on for too long anyway. One or two brilliant seasons and then quit while you’re ahead, as in the mode common UK model.



  36. Clifford says:

    I saw the episode. I’m glad to learn that -in context- I think that the interpretation of anon above is rather close to the mark. Sorkin knew what he was doing. Whether the bulk of the viewers got it is another thing… I do wish he could have stayed away from comparing superficial beauty to science prowess as opposites, even if it was to imply that the latter was of more value, as he seemed to be. It is still a mistake to cast them as opposites, in the larger scheme of things.


  37. Elliot says:


    The problem with Studio 60 is very clear to me. There are no characters to identify or sympathize with. They are cardboard cutouts. The Bradley Whitford character is the same as Josh Lyman. Maybe its an acting limitation not a writing issue but it is a replay.

    I think the issue about the comedy is critical. There is an unstated assumption that the skits these people are doing are funny. But they aren’t. He doesn’t get a free pass here.

    The premise for the show is ripe for a lot of bizarre plot twists. I didn’t see any.

    I love Sorkin’s writing too but I think he just blew it this time. (no pun intended …)

  38. Clifford says:

    I’m not sure I entirely agree, but fair enough. I admit that I get carried away with the way he writes dialogue, and maybe I can listen with pleasure to that a lot without always caring about the big arc….



  39. Elliot says:

    Sorkin does dialog very very well. And as you know (from your own writing experience) Dialog is very hard. (at least it is for me.)



  40. John Branch says:

    Somehow I didn’t expect Clifford’s post to generate so many comments, even though I know the beauty-brains subject often stirs up talk. (By the way, in a somewhat cursory scan I didn’t notice anyone jumping back to the Larry Summers question. Which is just as well.)

    I don’t feel I need to add anything except this: I’d be glad to see Lisa Randall on the cover of FHM. And there are probably others too–other smart women who are attractive and who would, partly by virtue of the surprise and partly by virtue of the sexiness of their brains, go a long way toward selling me on the magazine.

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  42. Elliot says:

    Breaking News:

    (this seemed the most appropriate thread)

    On Numbers tonight, a direct reference to a string symposium at USC.

    Characters were sitting at the “fictional” Cal-Sci (actually at the pond outside Millikan Library at CalTech.)

    Art imitating life…

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