Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Dinosaurs Eat Man….Woman Inherits Earth"

The title of this blog is a quote by a female character in Jurassic Park: Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and is her clever reply to the annoyingly brilliant Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) who states, “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.”

Another great quote from Dr. Sattler is when John Hammond (the wealthy creator of Jurassic Park) objects to Sattler’s volunteering to do something dangerous: “Look, we can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back…”

And there’s even a budding female scientist (Lex) who helps save the group from the velociraptors by using her knowledge of computers. See clip here.

Where do most people get their impressions of scientists and what scientists do? From the movies and TV, of course. Few people meet, much less get to know a scientist. Consequently, the public understanding (or skepticism) of science is strongly influenced by how its practitioners are portrayed by the media. Film can depict the realities of careers in science and technology while telling a story about the characters who are scientists. Conversely, film is important in influencing the public’s image of scientists and even in developing and perpetuating society’s perceptions (myths) of scientists. Public perceptions of other careers (police, doctors, lawyers, firefighters) are colored by film depictions also, but not to the same extent because more people come into contact with these professions than with scientists who tend to stay in their ivory towers.

An example of the way movies or TV fiction can influence people's interest in science (as a career) is CSI. The huge popularity of the show has prompted more students to consider forensic science as a career. Of course, CSI is highly dramatized and does not reflect the reality of forensics. But it has clearly shaped the public's perception of the field and the people who are in this career.

I think the reason film and cinema are so effective in this regard is the moving pictures used to tell the story. We are sucked into the story and vicariously experience what the characters are going through. We become more emotionally involved than if we are just told the story or read it in a book. The emotional impact fixes the images and impressions in memory. Think of your favorite movies. You can see in your mind’s eye particular scenes that you will always remember in surprising detail.

What is the classic clichéd image of the male scientist? Generally, he is hard working, but absent-minded and often odd—sometimes to the point of madness. Some scientists are so obsessed with their research that they experiment on themselves (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) or ignore ethical considerations (Frankenstein).

What about female scientists? I came across a paper that summarizes the different “roles” women play as scientists in film. This article is entitled “Between Brains and Breasts—Women Scientists in Fiction Film: On the Marginalization and Sexualization of Scientific Competence”. The author, Eva Flicker, lists the following female scientist types and give examples from films:

1. The old maid: Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergmann) in Spellbound
2. The male woman: Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid) in The Andromeda Strain
3. The naïve expert: Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) in The Lost World-Jurassic Park
4. The evil plotter: Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) in Indiana Jones—The Last Crusade)
5. The daughter or assistant: Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) in Jurassic Park
6. The lonely heroine: Dr. Eleanore Arroway (Jodie Foster) in Contact

Can you think of other examples of these types or any additional types? In the coming posts, I’ll talk about the characteristics of these types and how this contributes to the public perception of women scientists.

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