Thursday, October 23, 2008

Geniuses, Eccentrics and other Scientist Stereotypes

Astraea's Scales has an interesting post about the plethora of television shows that revolve around an eccentric genius who is almost inevitably male:

Shows that star women who are brilliant at what they do rarely portray them as the eccentric genius in a similar way. For example, compare the men above with Allison Dubois of Medium. Allison is easy to relate to, portrayed as "everywoman" who just happens to have a strange ability. Her talent and success aren't the result of genius, but of supernatural talent and stubbornness.

I don't know any other shows that are still running that feature a woman in a role similar to the shows above. I'm sure there must be others that I don't watch. But even going back to older shows, I can't think of any I've ever watched with a woman as the eccentric genius on par with the male characters.

[. . . ] The closest character I can think of is Jordan Cavanaugh of Crossing Jordan. Her impact, however, is dulled by the cast made up almost entirely of eccentrics, whereas the men are surrounded by smart but ordinary folks who have to deal with his strange brand of smarts. Women in those shows are sensible foils, or loyal supporters of the male genius.
An extreme example of what Astraea is talking about is Monk, in which brilliant detective Adrian Monk can barely take care of himself because of his obsessive-compulsive disorder and many phobias. He always has a female assistant who not only helps him solve crimes, but also drives him around, has hand wipes at the ready, and all the other things that Monk can't do for himself to make it through the day. It's hard to imagine the series with the gender roles reversed.

And the dramatic setup where the lead male character is an oddball genius and the lead female character is the sensible and responsible ones extends to dramas where the two characters are partners, rather than a boss and his assistant. A few examples:
  • X-Files: Special Agent Fox Mulder is the oddball who believes in UFOs and supernatural phenomena. Special Agent Dana Scully is a rationalist, who tries to find a scientific explanation.
  • Law & Order Criminal Intent: Detective Robert Goren is an intellectual who uses sometimes bizarre methods to get information and interrogate suspects. Detective Alexandra Eames is practical and usually does police work "by the book".
  • Fringe: Dr. Walter Bishop is the very eccentric and brilliant scientist. Special Agent Olivia Dunham is his minder and protector.
  • Eleventh Hour: Dr. Jacob Hood is the passionate genius science advisor. Special Agent Rachel Young is his protector.
While it's a good thing that women are often portrayed as competent and kick-ass law enforcement types, it would be nice if they could be eccentric geniuses too.

What does that have to do with women in science? Well, for one, such programs reinforce the stereotype of the lone male genius scientist. The perception in Western countries that scientists are male and white starts fairly young. For example, Sciencebase reports on a recent study of more than 4,000 children in Britain and Australia:
Most children’s sketches of scientists endowed them with a white, male face and the usual eccentric hair. Boys, Jarvis says, never drew women, and girls did so only very occasionally. While there may well be a minority of scientists who fit the category, it indicates a very narrow view of scientists, one that is so very often reinforced through TV programs and cartoons, comic books, and comments from nonscientist parents and other adults. We then wonder why so many girls and non-white children find it very difficult to envision themselves as future scientists.
The widely-used "Draw a Scientist Test" has been used for several decades to assess children's perceptions of scientists. In a study published by David Wade Chambers in 1983, only 28 of 4,807 drawings were of female scientists. I assume that the "occasional" drawings of women as scientists in the recent study were more frequent than that.

Do characters on television actually affect kids' perceptions of scientists? At least one small study suggests that exposure to women scientists on the crime forensics show CSI seemed to increase the likelihood that girls would depict female scientists. But even on CSI the head of the crime lab is (yes, you guessed it) an eccentric male.

So why do I think it matters? I think that TV roles reinforce the idea that while women can be competent scientists, they aren't likely to be creative geniuses. Of course that's not a stereotype unique to science; top artists, chefs, novelists, private detectives and historians are usually depicted as male as well. No one expects them to be nurturing or follow the rules.

I would love to see more female TV characters who are brilliant scientists with eccentric personalities and have male assistants, partners or spouses to take care of their mundane needs and responsibilities. And not just characters like Bones' Temperance Brennan, who is a genius with very poor social skills ("almost has Asperger's Syndrome" according to the creator), a point that's reinforced pretty much every episode I've seen. I want to see characters that are like NCIS's Abby (image above), who is unapologetically geeky and smart, has her own quirky style, and an interesting social life. All she needs is a lab - and a show - of her own.

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Marimoy said...

It is a shame that this "role' was given to us. We do need more female mad scientists.... our time will come, I hope.

Anonymous said...

There was a time while I was young where if you'd asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you a Mad Scientist. I think I thought that was an actual field of science that would be open to me.

Of course, my mom was particularly down on my watching TV so I'm not sure where that came from. But, even though I wound up going into computers, I still think that would be kind of neat.

In the meantime, I suppose I'll just have to live vicariously through that other Abby... ;-)

Martin said...

Go over to Girl Genius at:

It's a former comic book gone web comic which centers around a female mad scientist who has all sorts of adventures.