Autostraddle March Madness 2024: “The Kids Are Alright” Round One — Brainiacs

Header: The 6th Annual Autostraddle March Madness 2024

Follow our March Madness content all tournament long and don’t forget to vote for your favs!

Every year, it feels like there’s a smattering of voices who call for the NCAA tournament to expand beyond its current 68 teams. There’s talk of it growing to up to 80 teams. I’ve even heard some make the case for 96 teams. Some are by fans urging expansion — particularly fans of mid-major schools who think their conferences get overlooked — but mostly capitalists looking for more ways to profit from March Madness.

Last night, the forces arguing for a bigger tournament field were dealt a big blow: two of the men’s tournament’s First Four games were played last night and they were absolutely dreadful. The Colorado State/Virginia game was one of the worst games I’ve seen all season. We’ll see if the men’s tournament can redeem itself tonight with the remaining First Four games or if the women’s tournament can salvage the case for expansion.

The Women’s First Four kicks off tonight with Sacred Heart vs Presbyterian, followed by Columbia vs. Vanderbilt. I’m looking forward to seeing Ny’ceara Pryor play for Sacred Heart; she is already cementing herself as one of the best players ever in the Northeast Conference and she’s only a sophomore. But I’m getting the popcorn for the Columbia/Vandy game! It is already spicy: after losing in the Ivy League championship, Lions’ head coach Megan Griffith had some choice words for the selection committee’s habit of selecting undeserving SEC teams… and now, she’s facing an SEC team in the First Four. I can’t wait to see how things shake out.

But while we’re waiting on those results, let’s get started creating some results of our own. It’s time for voting in the first region of Autostraddle March Madness: Brainiacs. This region features all the girls whose brilliance would’ve made our teenage selves swoon.

Your Brainiacs:

#1 seed Elena Alvarez vs. #16 seed Ashley Banks

#1. Elena Alvarez, One Day at a Time

It’s hard to pick just one anecdote that truly captures the nerdiness of Elena Alvarez. Her admission into Yale, perhaps? Maybe that time she and Syd cosplayed as Dr. Who and the TARDIS for their first date (to ComicCon, natch). Or that time she and Syd dressed up as Greta Thunberg and a melting iceberg on Halloween to teach people a valuable lesson about climate change. Or how her idea of an ideal weekend includes making an itinerary and going to the Overwatch League finals. Or how she and Syd spice up their relationship with by talking nerdy to each other (perigee syzygy!). There are just so many moments to choose from!

Elena’s ever-present nerdiness is why we love her. And her family’s unending support for her nerdiness — even if they don’t really understand it — is why we loved One Day at a Time.

#16. Ashley Banks, Bel-Air

Ashley’s middle school English teacher, Mrs. Hughes (played by the OG Ashley Banks, Tatyana Ali), sees something special in her… “that special spark.” The curriculum at Bel-Air Academy doesn’t grapple with race, sexuality, and American history in an honest way so Mrs. Hughes provides books to students open to learning more. Ashley jumps at the opportunity. She’s exposed to the work of James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, and Robyn Spencer. Ashley consumes each reading voraciously and returns each book, with a two-page paper for extra credit, eagerly awaiting the next.

#2 seed Kitty Covey vs. #15 seed Tess Pearson

#2. Katherine “Kitty” Song-Covey, XO, Kitty

Admittedly, including Kitty in this region — and ranked this high, no less — might seem like a mistake. After all, by semester’s end, she’s barely manages to maintain her academic standing at the Korean Independent School of Seoul. But I’m convinced that her grades are less a reflection of how smart Kitty is or isn’t and more about her inability to prioritize her studies over her latest crush or the opportunity to help someone else who needs it. Let that be a lesson to the kids: set your boundaries!

In XO, Kitty, a big part of the character’s arc is acknowledging, whether it comes to love, relationships, or education… Kitty doesn’t know everything. So instead of seeing the bright, uber-persuasive Kitty we saw in the To All The Boys film trilogy, we see a fish out of water in XO, Kitty‘s first season. That doesn’t change who we know her to be, though.

#15. Tess Pearson, This Is Us

By the time This is Us wrapped, I had two images of Tess Pearson in my head: first, as the young, surly teenager, with her first girlfriend, who bristled every time her mother — to borrow from Carmen — rammed “an Earnest Truck down a Highway of Parental Good Deeds.” And then there was future Tess, who became a social worker, creating new families as had been done for her father and sister. She was busy, but she still made time for her weekly dinner dates with her dad.

Those two versions of Tess are so indelible, it’s easy to forget who she was as a kid. Before she was a surly teen or an adult with a full time job, Tess was a quiet, sweet kid who loved to play chess. She stayed up nights, huddled around a chess board with her dying grandfather, absorbing as much about the game as he could teach her. It works too: she wins the first chess tournament she enters.

#3 seed Willow Rosenberg vs. #14 seed Fabiola Torres

#3. Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Before delving into the world of witch craft, Willow Rosenberg helped the Scooby Doo Gang vanquish demons and vampires using her superior computer skills. She “accidentally” decrypts the city council’s security system or hacks into Sunnydale High’s computer system to obtain private student records. She invades the coroner’s office’s online record to secure whatever autopsy reports the Gang needs. She taps into security networks She’s so adept at computers that when her computer teacher dies (RIP Miss Calendar), Willow steps in to cover the class. Her brilliance earns her admission into Oxford and job offers that she never even asked for but, ultimately, she opts to stay in Sunnydale and fight the good fight.

She is, as Principal Synder once called her, “the pinnacle of academic achievement at Sunnydale High.”

#14. Fabiola Torres, Never Have I Ever

The night of the big Homecoming dance, Fabiola Torres is in crisis. Not because she can’t find something incredible to wear or because she’s worried about not being crowned Cricket Queen, but because her beloved Gears Brosnan has been reprogrammed to be a creep. Because Fabiola had been so busy being the kind of gay she thought she was supposed to be, she left Gears in the hands of her fellow robotics team members. She works feverishly to restore his identity — “a fussy old queen like C3PO” — and, perhaps, hers too.

Later, she admits to Eve, “I’m not cool. I don’t know anything about pop culture, and I don’t know how to use hip phrases like ‘what’s the tea?’… And the only thing I love besides my family, friends, and you, are robots.”

#4 seed Josie Saltzman vs. #13 seed Abbi Singh

#4. Josie Saltzman, Legacies

Early in Legacies run, we learn that Josie Saltzman is a borderline genius. But, perhaps, we don’t learn the full extent of her brilliance until Kurutta, a samarai demon hunter, awakens in Mystic Falls. She spots him, with his sword raised, just outside the gates of the Salvatore School and greets him in Japanese. She finds out the demon hunter’s story — he’s searching for a supernatural creature that possesses people — and does so flawlessly, translating concepts that are hard to understand even in English.

Then Dorian speaks for us all when he, stunned by Josie’s ability, asks, “since when do you speak Japanese?”

That’s just what brilliant people do, I guess… learn whole new languages while their sister’s at her regular therapy appointment. What a flex.

#13. Abbi Singh, The Imperfects

Abbi’s parents wanted their daughter to follow in their footsteps but not in the conventional way. Her father didn’t want her to join him in practicing martial arts and her mother didn’t ask her to join in the kitchen, baking bread. While they didn’t ask Abbi to share their passion, they longed for their daughter to be passionate about something… and she was: Abbi was passionate about science. She had ambitions of studying biogenetics at Oxford.

But when an experiment performed on her, without her consent, leaves her with succubus-like powers, the asexual scientist has to go to work to try and undo the mess that someone else made.

#5 seed Amity Blight vs. #12 seed Angelica Porter-Kennard

#5. Amity Blight, The Owl House

For a while, Amity Blight’s only friend was Willow, a witch who couldn’t match Amity’s prodigious talents which, I guess, at Hexside School of Magic and Demonics. is the rhetorical equivalent to falling in with the “wrong crowd.” Amity’s ambitious parents interceded and blackmailed Amity into ending that friendship. Amity’s parents surrounded her with a more reputable crowd. The move makes Amity increasingly bitter but eventually, she’s propelled to be top student at Hexside.

“You’re a… star. Aw, it’s like mine,” Amity snarks to Willow, pointing to the badge affixed to her clothes. “But much smaller, and meaningless.”

#12. Angelica Porter-Kennard, The L Word: Generation Q

Is there anything in what we know about Angelica Porter-Kennard that suggests she’s “book smart?” Not necessarily. However, when her roommate, Bella, straightens Angie’s collar just ahead of her poetry reading, she tells her, “You’re the best person I know. You’re smart and kind and full of life and wisdom. He’s an idiot, and you’re a catch. It’s so obvious.” I trust Bella’s judgement.

But beyond that, the thing that cements a place among the brainiacs for APK is the kid’s emotional intelligence. Can you imagine how often she must’ve been left to fend for herself while Tina was off in Canada developing movies and Bette was prioritizing her own work? Somehow this young woman has survived the rollercoaster of having Bette Porter and Tina Kennard as her parents…. and turned out to be a well-adjusted, decent human being. It’s a miracle.

#6 seed Naomi Campbell vs. #11 seed Leighton Murray

#6. Naomi Campbell, Skins

Early in Naomi’s generation of Skins (UK), her professor asks the class to stand up, offer an introduction, and say one interesting fact about themselves. She says, “I’m Naomi. I hate injustice. People tell lies about me.” That’s two things… but since the second one is really about the lies Naomi tells herself, we’ll allow it.

But she’s right about the injustice bit, though. According to Emily, Naomi hardly shuts up about “equality, environmentalism, feminism” and politics. Naomi claims Emily’s wrong — she wants Emily to be wrong about all sorts of things — but she isn’t and Naomi files to run for school president.

#11. Leighton Murray, The Sex Lives Of College Girls

It is easy to get distracted by Leighton Murray. At the start of The Sex Lives of College Girls, she is still deep in the closet and, after keeping up appearances, she hits the apps looking for hook-ups. She takes her dalliances far away from campus, in hopes that the facets of her idenity will never actually meet. The results are vacuous but hot. Also, she looks like Reneé Rapp… so if you’ve forgotten that beneath that haughty exterior there lies an unapologetic nerd, you’re forgiven.

But make no mistake about it, Leighton Murray is a nerd. Her first class at Essex College is a junior-level Math course but she quickly dispatches with that — acing an assessment she derides as “stupid and easy” — and gets bumped up to a senior-level seminar.

“I’m smart, stylish and as it turns out, I’m really fucking good at math,” she proclaims.

#7 seed Jo MacKenzie vs. #10 seed Ola Nyman

#7. Joanna “Jo” MacKenzie, Bad Behaviour

“This is so fucked up,” I jotted down while watching Bad Behaviour, the Australian mini-series based on Rebecca Starford’s 2015 memoir of the same name. It’s a lesson Joanna “Jo” McKenzie learns firsthand when she arrives at Silver Creek boarding school. Her dorm’s hierarchy is firmly established by Jo’s arrival and she’s immediately targeted — for being on academic scholarship, for being nerdy and new, for befriending the camp’s outcast, Alice — by the dorm’s mean girls. But when Jo gains the attention of the dorm’s queen bee, Portia, she learns the unwritten rule of Silver Creek: bully or be bullied. Seduced by Portia and power, Jo aligns herself with her former bullies.

When Jo and Alice cross paths a decade after their stint at Silver Creek, Jo is forced to reckon with the pain she caused. She revisits her time at the boarding school and pens a piece about her experience.

#10. Ola Nyman, Sex Education

Ola’s academic success eases her transfer to Moordale Secondary. As one of the school’s gifted students, she’s invited to join the Aptitude Scheme class “for people who want to plan for their future and optimize their opportunities.” When Ola’s asked to imagine her life in ten years, she pictures a future in which she’s landed an Erasmus [Mundus] scholarship to NYU Film and Television School and use her skills to make investigative documentaries. She is smart, driven, and determined.

But Ola’s true brilliance may lie in her quick wit. According to Drew, she’s super quick in her verbal sparring with Otis and pranking him rather than any explicit statement of her intelligence.

#8 seed Clare Devlin vs. #9 seed Nasreen "Nas" Paracha

#8. Clare Devlin, Derry Girls

Early in Derry Girls‘ first season, the girls and James are all huddled together, cramming for their history exam. Few things matter more to Clare Devlin than academic achievement and keeping her permanent record in pristine condition. Clare would, Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee once posited, kill her own granny for a better grade.

As the gang prepares for their exam, Clare tosses back one energy drink after another, desperate to prepare sufficiently for her exam. How many has she had? Five, 23… who knows… but she jittery from the combination of sleep deprivation and over-caffeination. The morning comes sooner than expected and Claire shrieks: they’re not ready, they haven’t even made it to the famine. But, thankfully, they all get out of their examine by imagining that a statue of the Virgin Mary was crying and smirking at them. Clare’s record remains in tact!

#9. Nasreen “Nas” Paracha, Ackley Bridge

Here’s what I wrote about Nas Paracha back in 2019:

The odds were always against Nasreen Paracha: the lesbian daughter of Pakistani immigrants, raised by a single mother among the working poor in Yorkshire, England…the chances of her making it out of Ackley Bridge and to the ivoriest of ivory towers, Oxford University, were so infinitesimal, that only Nas could imagine it. And then, just as the dream comes into focus — not just for Nas, but for everyone in Ackley Bridge — she and her best friend, Missy, are hit by a car. Though Nas survives the accident, part of her dies along with Missy, including the part of her that believes that she deserves to go to Oxford.

But while Nas temporarily forgets that she deserves to be among the country’s elite, her mother never does…and she goes to Oxford and begs for Nasreen’s spot back. She gets it, returns back to Ackley and reminds her of all she’s done and all she has left to do.

You have 48 hours to cast your ballot in the Brainiacs Region! This year, you can vote four times over the voting period (or to be more precise once, every 12 hours). I’ll be back on Friday to introduce you to the competitors in the Jocks region and to share the winners from this opening round.

(Also? If you want to join our bracket competition, a friendly contest among Autostraddle readers to see who can guess the winners before any votes have even been tallied, there’s still time to get your predictions in at

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A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 410 articles for us.


  1. – Elena Alvarez, One Day at a Time
    – Katherine “Kitty” Song-Covey, XO, Kitty
    – Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    – Abbi Singh, The Imperfects (My favorite in the whole bracket)
    – Amity Blight, The Owl House
    – Leighton Murray, The Sex Lives Of College Girls
    – Ola Nyman, Sex Education
    – Clare Devlin, Derry Girls

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