Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Fictional Female Scientists

On my science fiction blog, I recently posted about the benefits of reading fiction. It's not just that storybooks and novels are a fun way to develop the reading skills that are essential for learning pretty much every other subject. Fiction about science can inspire kids to learn more about real science, and, despite the way scientists are often depicted, to become scientists themselves.

Just think how many more kids would consider becoming scientists if they were more positively portrayed in popular culture - not just in books, but in movies and on TV. The standard stereotype is that scientists are socially inept and/or oblivious to potential consequences of their research. The upcoming comedy series on CBS, "The Big Bang Theory," seems to fit that profile. It features several geeky male scientists who try to impress their beautiful but not so bright female neighbor. Zuska doesn't mince words:

This is just a new form of unattractiveness: scientific expertise as an impediment to sexiness. Over on Grey's Anatomy, the surgeons can be as competent as they wanna be and still get it on in the on call room. But a top-notch physicist; nosiree, he doesn't know how to tie his own shoes. Especially if he's from India. No sex at the linear accelerator! And please, don't even get me started on the theorists; definitely no sex for the paper-and-pencil guys.
In response to the commenters who argue that stereotyped characters are just the nature of sitcoms, Zuska makes a great point:
I'd like you to consider this proposition: Humor that is based on stereotypes is only "humorous" if you believe in the underlying stereotype. I do not believe in the myth of the socially awkward scientist. I know many scientists who are all warm wonderful people with lots of interests who happen to do science for a living. I know a few who are intensely narrowly focused on science and a little less well-rounded. I know people like that in fields other than science, too. Scientists are human beings, and they come in all sorts of varieties. They aren't even all the same kind of scientist. Can you seriously contend that oceanographers, physicists, biologists, mathematicians, geographers, electrical engineers, pharmacists, are all the same "kind" of scientist? How can you say all the people who do all those varied careers are exactly the same kind of people?
It's a vicious circle: the stereotypes are considered funny because people think they are essentially true, and people think they are essentially true because they keep seeing the same stereotypical characters. Most people don't personally know any scientists, so how would they know otherwise? On top of the negative scientist stereotypes, fictional female scientists are often turn out to be the lone woman in an otherwise completely male workplace. I sometimes get the feeling that the male to female to ratio is worse in many fictional research facilities than in real life.

Fortunately there are a number of books in which female scientists play a significant role. Some places to start:
On the Feminist SF Blog lquilter suggests the next WisCon specifically have a panel on women scientists, including:
women scientists you’ve never heard of (* who may win the nobel prize some day … * who have already won the nobel prize … * who should have won the nobel prize … * who have no relationship to the nobel prize (and what’s wrong with the nobel prize anyway))
That would be a step in the right direction. If only there was some way to get the TV network people to attend . . .

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