"I'm cute, not smart", an explanation [Intent versus Message, Part 2]

If you haven’t yet, go read the first part of this series.

So now for some context. I was contacted by a representative from Spielerz.com not so long ago about me writing a promotion post for their site in order to try to generate interest with a female audience. So I, not willing to promote something without first knowing if what I was promoting would be a good community for my readers, asked some questions.

As part of the response, the representative linked me to the T-shirt design from the previous post. She did this in the interest of full disclosure, and I’m glad she did. From there ensued a small discussion on the shirt and I found that I was interested in critiquing it, and moreover that I was presented with the rare opportunity to get an explanation from the designer, a friend of said representative.

So, I asked if the designer would write up her reasoning behind the design and here’s what she wrote:

So, the idea behind this shirt was inspired by my friend who is very cute and very smart. She says “I’m cute, not smart” whenever she has missed something obvious or made a mistake of some sort. This always gets a laugh because, well, it’s funny and anyone who knows her is well aware of her intelligence (she recently earned a full scholarship to law school and is working toward her goal of becoming a judge).
She is also a gamer – she plays RPGs – and in one notable Call of Cthulhu game, her character went insane and killed the entire party. So, using that idea I made the very cute character (who resembles my friend) quoting her saying after having presumably wiped out her fellow adventurers.

The intentions behind this shirt aren’t to degrade women in any way, or to perpetuate any negative stereotypes. For example, I chose not to give the character blonde hair, because the “dumb blonde” stereotype annoys me to no end and I did not want the shirt to be another blonde joke. It is more subtle than that. The fact is, some women (and men) are cute, but not smart, and some are both or neither – people shouldn’t be judged on gender or looks and I would love to live in a world where they weren’t. But reality is that humans classify, compare and judge others, and so there is a stereotype in our society that “pretty” girls lack intelligence. Some women play to this idea to get what they want, others fight it, others ignore it and some are it. I’ve found that smart women tend to like this shirt because it pokes fun at the stereotype – it says that the “cute” girl could be playing dumb so you won’t know that she’s a force to be reckoned with till it’s too late, or that the girl who’s “not smart” shouldn’t be written off.

So, now, fully armed with context, what do you think of the shirt? I’ll put it behind the cut for those who want to refresh their memories.

Cute Not Smart

Has your impression changed at all? How much of the designer’s intent came across to you?

Once I get some responses here, I’ll post the next (and most likely last) part of this series, which will talk directly about my impressions and feelings, as well as highlight responses from the readers.

Please be sensitive in the way that you phrase your analysis. Keep in mind that a real person designed this shirt and there is nothing gained by being insensitive to her feelings while giving your own opinion. On that note, I will also not be publishing any comments that are about the quality of the artwork, unless they are constructive criticism.

X-posted: Iris Forums.

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16 thoughts on “"I'm cute, not smart", an explanation [Intent versus Message, Part 2]

  1. The design is really confusing and only makes sense if you know the background story. I can see why it could be worn by the girl from which the quote originated, as an in-joke. But I don’t understand why it’s sold in their store with no explanation.

  2. So, basically, it’s an in-joke?

    There’s nothing wrong with in-jokes; pretty much every gaming group has them. And I’ve seen gamers wearing custom-made in-jokey shirts that they’ve had to explain to me. But the problem with selling shirts (as opposed to printing up a few for your friends) is that you lose control of the message.

    Reading through the comments, I think the other thing that crossed people up was the expectation that this was for a MMORPG. In a Call of Cthulhu game, going nuts and killing your comrades can be good roleplaying; in a multiplayer computer game it’s usually a sign of not knowing how to play the game. A lot of people seemed confused about that.

  3. Hmm. This makes me reflect on an icon I use that has the text “Fights like a girl” over a picture of Shiva, a (female) assassin. Those who recognize Shiva, canonically the world’s best fighter, would realize it was severely ironic, but I’m wondering if my icon fails as badly for those who don’t recognize Shiva as this shirt failed for me.

  4. Betty: If your icon shows Shiva actively (and competently) fighting, I think the meaning would be quite clear.

    I think the problem that most of the commenters have with this image, on the other hand, is that the play on expectations isn’t as clear. In Betty’s icon, “fights like a girl” (supposedly weak) is directly contradicted by Shiva being strong. In this image, we have three concepts: “cute,” “(not) smart,” and then whatever is conveyed by the character holding a bloody sword.

    Clearly the artist considers the bloody sword to signify competence/intelligence; however, as mentioned earlier, others read it as indicating physical skill, but also someone dumb/clumsy enough to kill their own party inadvertently. The result is that I didn’t know which concept was being debunked. My thought process went along these lines, “Okay, so it says ‘cute, not smart,’ but the joke of the image is that … she’s holding a sword? She killed her party? Does that make her cute and powerful, but still dumb? or a backstabber?”

    One suggestion I have is to abandon the in-joke (which makes sense when told, but isn’t easily or clearly communicated in a single image) and only deal with one (supposed) paradox: cute vs. smart or cute vs. powerful/deadly.

  5. Sort of weird–like I said in my previous post I totally appreciate the attempt to make the character look like a normal person and not some Lara Croft thing, but now the slogan doesn’t make sense if you don’t know the in-joke. However, my original interpretation (that the girl is pretending to be cute and dumb so that she can kill you later) still matches up to some degree with the artist’s explanation…so that said, bravo! I’m just not sure (based on the responses) that most people will get it at first glance.

    Also, I’d like to apologize for having said before that I felt the drawing was unprofessional-looking and lame–that was insensitive of me and besides, the more I look at it, the more I like it!

  6. I think the problem getting in the way of the translation from intent to message is that there’s no real clue to the viewer that the slogan is meant ironically. While the story is a great anecdote that provides a relatively feminist message, there aren’t any hints to that in the design itself, without the background story. It’s unfortunate, because the story is a great one for advertising a gaming community– it says, “Hey, look! We have smart gamers of both genders with a sense of humor and a willingness to roleplay our characters well!”– but it doesn’t come through at all clearly. Perhaps the design could be clarified somehow– then it would serve its intended purpose much more effectively.

  7. I had the feeling it was something you just had to have the full context to understand. The impressions I got were contradictory, and the in-joke explains it.

    Yeah. The text works for the in-joke, but doesn’t translate well to print.

  8. Irony is the key missing factor: Without prior explanation, this shirt doesn’t read as ironic. In order to convey irony, a visual signifier of indisputable intelligence is necessary.

  9. With the backstory, I think it’s funny. But without context, it’s impossible to tell that the phrase is used ironically after making a mistake. I thought maybe if there were some indication that the girl had unwittingly slaughtered her whole party–but it would still bother me without some reassurance that the girl isn’t actually intended to be an embodiment of the cute-not-smart stereotype. Perhaps if the girl were not actually so cute it would be easier to view the label as laughing with her rather than at her. If she were either beautiful but not in a way typically described as “cute,” or if she were not actually very pretty at all, the “cute but stupid” label would be ironic on both points rather than just one. Her indisputable cuteness lends credibility to the other half of the statement, so without evidence to the contrary I was inclined to take the assertion of her not-smart-ness at face value. So if the design is on a shirt, the lack of context will make a big difference.

  10. I agree with above commenters who basically say that there needs to be more of a direct link between the text and image for it to make sense. We need to know that this girl is really smart in order to “get it” the way the artist intended, otherwise it seems like this is a “Whoopsy!” moment from an idiot trying to endear herself after making a mistake (killing her party).

    After reading the artist’s description, I get the concept more, but the message I’m taking away isn’t at all what she intended. My sister is extremely fond of reminding me of my (high) ACT (standardized test for us goofy southerners) score, but she only does it when I’ve done something monumentally stupid. If I were to put “I got a __ on my ACT” on a t-shirt, it would just seem like extremely obnoxious bragging because it’s completely lost all context – no one reading the shirt knows it’s funny because I act like such a moron half the time. However, the message can be clarified – if I stick on an illustration of someone who’s doing something extremely dumb (posing for a photo with a jar of honey and a snarling bear, for a completely random example), then the joke becomes obvious. But the illustration on this shirt has done the opposite – there’s nothing to suggest the girl is actually smart, and in fact it can very easily be read as implying that she is so stupid she accidentally wiped her whole party. I don’t see it as remotely empowering that she may have some physical prowess. In other contexts, a stupid but ass-kicking girl can be fine (especially if she’s balanced out by more clever female characters), but as a shirt for a gaming site it’s not exactly a positive image and plays more like a stereotype.

    I also think the joke is lost without the context of what type of game she’s in, since I also presumed it was an MMORPG type setting where killing your party is not only a bad thing, but typically the sign of a n00b.

  11. The backstory makes it clear, but I was just bewildered by it before that. I thought maybe it was being ironic, but as a woman who grew up with ads made belittled women’s brainpower without irony, I wasn’t sure.

  12. Has your impression changed at all? How much of the designer’s intent came across to you?
    My impression has changed minimally. I get the in-joke, and in that context the shirt makes sense. However, I agree with Katealaurel (#7) that there is not a clear indicator of the ironic intent in the message. If I went to a con or a game meet where I were meeting a number of new faces, I would not wear this shirt because people who don’t already know me would need more time/interaction to take me seriously.

    I think the intent would be clearer if there were some explicit indicator of competency or irony: for example, a stat panel with player ranking, intelligence/wisdom stats, character reputation, or number of enemy kills. Or character class: warrior. Or even mention Call of Cthulhu (maybe a “Got Cthulhu?” to get around potential unlicensed usage/endorsement issues); that right there practically screams “warning: in joke!”

  13. The context of the story makes the shirt clearer for me, and it makes me wonder about the rest of the store- I haven’t looked yet (but I will in a moment), but perhaps the rest of the shirts they have for sale would make it clearer that the shirt was supposed to be ironic? Still, as a stand-alone, I’m still not sure it works for me, because that’s a lot of backstory to have to know and understand before the shirt makes sense.

  14. Although this is only reiterating what other people have said, you did ask for everyone who responded to the first part to also participate here. I’m agreeing with most of the people above; I get the in-joke, but I wouldn’t wear the shirt, because I wouldn’t expect anyone else to get it without direct explanation.

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