Saturday, January 20, 2007

Women Scientists in the Movies

Sidney Perkowitz is a physicist at Emory University who writes about science and scientists in the movies. Last July he had and interesting article in The Scientist: "Female scientists on the big screen". His search through the IMdB "identified 84 women scientists out of 382 films containing scientists" or 22% of films*. He notes that the stereotypical female scientist is portrayed differently than the stereotypical male scientist:

Surprisingly, women scientists are not particularly mad, evil, or nerdy. Indeed, Steinke notes in her survey that in 23 films, only two were mad and only three were absent-minded or antisocial. Moreover, in contrast to male scientists, women scientists do not work on "dubious" projects in secret laboratories, but remain solid "with their feet on the ground," Flicker reports. Female scientists also didn't contribute to "negative myths surrounding the image of science," she notes.

But it's with looks that the discrepancy becomes really obvious. The female film scientist tends to be gorgeous. In Flicker's words, she is "remarkably beautiful and, compared with her qualifications, unbelievably young. She has a model's body -- thin, athletic, perfect -- is dressed provocatively and is sometimes 'distorted' by wearing glasses."
He points to his favorite fictional female scientist: Elisabeth Shue's cold fusion-inventor Emma Russell in The Saint:
... Emma is the scientific center, and shows grit and moral courage. When she finds that Simon Templar (Val Kilmer) has romanced her only to steal her cold fusion secrets, she persuades him that the ethical thing is to give the secrets to the world. Emma emerges as having it all: her work, idealism, intelligence, femininity, sexuality, good looks -- and Kilmer.
Other female scientist characters who escape being mere sex objects in lab coat are Jodie Foster's Ellie Arroway in Contact, and Laura Dern's paleobotanist Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park. Hopefully, we'll see more scientists - both female and male - positively portrayed on the big screen in the future.

More reading (scholarly articles that require subscription or purchase):
*Confusingly Perkowitz goes on to discuss the numbers as if 22% of scientists in those movies were women. I suspect the number is lower in that, because movies with female scientists usually also have male scientists, while there are many movies with only male scientists. For example, in Contact, a good example of a female scientist in film, all of Jodie Foster's colleagues are male.

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