When I was growing up the single most important thing was to be smart. Bright. Intelligent. There was some vague distinction between knowing things, and being able to know things. The most telling insult in my family was "you are stupid". Even now when I get angry at someone or something, that's the word I go to in my head. "Don't be so stupid" implied that one could choose to be smart or stupid.
That is part of the problem I have with much of popular science fiction. One's fate is set at the outside, by genes, by birth, by how you look. My biggest issue with LOTR, which I go to when I need encouragement (the scene where the elves show up at Helm's Deep, with the military version of the Elf Leitmotif in the background makes me love my friends all the more), is that Evil has bad hair, bad skin, bad teeth, whereas Good is damn fine looking. Star Wars: either the force is strong in you or not. Talk about hereditary leadership.
TOS Star Trek was a bit better, there was, for the time, for the time, a message of inclusiveness, and trainees who could learn, in addition to all the boobs and scanty-clad women. But for me, at the time, when I was in junior high, it was a good send: Real Live Scientists! As heroes!
It was hard, back then, in the dark ages to find inspirational Stuff For Girls. Compared to the messages that came to me through most sources ("do not have sex or your life is over") or cartoons of my childhood (boys have fun, girls care about, what? Hair & music?) (except for Moose and Squirrel. <insert heavy Russian accent> Get moose & squirrel), there was little for me to hang my hat on. But it was still Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman.
Smart instead of pretty can be a strong message. To me, it was. Smart was something I could control. Something I could work towards, something I could cultivate, instead of the looks I got in the genetic lottery.
My views of this have changed over the years. I used to worry about being the smartest. Hahaha. Grad school will kick that stuffing out of you. No way. There is always someone smarter. And someone who works harder. And wants it more than you. I absorbed that message maybe not easily, but quickly: I wasn't ever going to be the smartest or even the hardest working. But it became ok. Underneath all of these concerns was an underlying love of the natural world and science and doing research, the things that pushed me in this direction in the first place.
Now when I worry, waking up at 2am, it's usually about the Supreme Court, my friends of color who have young sons, my married gay friends, and my transgender friends who get outed easily (when you apply for a new job, you have to usually supply all of your past legal names. Having been "Barbara" and now being "Jacob" is a pretty strong signal). It's about the young trainees who are struggling to find a job, and my friends who don't really have enough money to retire, but are too tired to keep working (think 2nd grade teachers or waitresses).
Yes, there is lots of room for me to get pissed off about popular culture, a culture that still promotes beauty over brains, that makes young people believe that they could be running the world if only they were... whatever more than they are right now. I don't have to worry about not being the smartest any more. And while the world isn't perfect, there are a lot more role models for young females, and enough people who really don't care about how you look. I can stop worrying about that, and work on something more important.