Perhaps wrong is a little harsh — truth of the matter is, I loved most of your speech at the recent Teen Choice Awards. I appreciated your call-out to hard work, and I resonated with your ending about how each of us needs to build a life. Bravo that you kept on talking during the squeals and screams of “we love you, Ashton!”

But you lost me on the “smart is sexy” thing. I know what you were trying to do there. You were trying to upgrade smart. You were trying to connect what you feel is underappreciated (smart) with, well, what makes young girls scream “we love you Ashton!”

But here’s the thing. To equate smart with sexy does a disservice to smart. And even with all your good intentions — it does a disservice to our young women (and men). Because it makes sexy look like the thing to want to be more than anything else — even if it is being smart that gets you there.

Don’t get me wrong — I like sexy. Big fan. Like most people, when I see sexy I am attracted to it. It makes me look. To be honest, I even hope I have a little sexy left in me.

But from an importance standpoint, from a gravity perspective, sexy is a bit of a lightweight. It is a shiny object glittering in the sun. If we are making a list of the things you want to be, as a person, as a partner, as a soul mate, sexy maybe makes the Top 10, but if so we are talking about just sneaking in.

Smart, on the other hand — now smart is a player. Smart is one of those Top 5 qualities, linking up with things like compassion and authenticity, like optimism and courage (and maybe a sense of humor). The things that really matter.

In the big picture, sexy attracts. But it is those forementioned Top 5 qualities — smart included — that get people to stick around.

In the end (and certainly over time), sexy becomes more and more trivial. Smart is the essence of depth and complexity. Sexy is, well, skin-deep.

Smart is working to cure cancer. Sexy is great teeth.

Smart is solving our climate-change crisis. Sexy is curves and muscle (which, I’m afraid, don’t always last).

Smart is trying to find some common ground between all the extremely differing viewpoints that have stopped trying to talk to one another. Sexy is a bare midriff and (for a very, very small segment of the population) a Speedo on the beach.

So, here’s the deal, Ashton: I have a 16-year-old daughter, Gracey.

I hope that my daughter grows into an adult who thinks she is sexy — and more important, I hope that the men or women who might love her tell her she is as well. (I mean, not in front of me. That would be just really awkward for both of us.)

But even more than that, I hope my daughter strives to be the kind of young woman who goes beyond the superficial and strives to be curious and empathetic, who works to be caring and a force in the world for good.

I hope Gracey is determined to create and innovate, and is hopeful and optimistic as she walks in a world that is often jaded and cruel.

I hope my daughter is courageous and chooses to be authentic and even vulnerable, and does so because she trusts who she is, and doesn’t feel a need to put countless amounts of time and energy into a personal “brand.”

And, I want to work for the kind of world — and actually I think you do as well, Ashton — where we won’t have to remind or convince people that these qualities are actually quite valuable. A world where being that kind of person will attract people to you and also make them want to stay around.

A world where having those qualities makes people squeal and shout “we love you, Gracey!”

You know why? Because that would mean we finally got smart.


David Hellstrom, of Minneapolis, works for Jessen Media and also teaches in the leadership minor at the University of Minnesota. He blogs at