Thursday, October 29, 2009

The "Old Maid" Scientist

Myths and prejudices about science are strongly influenced by mass media depictions of scientists in fictional film and in reporting of scientific issues. Why is this important to us, women in science? Female scientists are less frequently depicted in important scientific roles in film and when they are, their roles differ substantially from those of their male counterparts. Those roles typically marginalize or sexualize the fictional woman scientist. Such fictional depictions are absorbed into the social consciousness where they influence reality. Mass media have a powerful influence, especially on young, impressionable viewers. The fictional characters seen by girls and young women can reinforce stereotypes (especially when there are no female role models in real life).

In the previous post, I described the cliché of the male scientist: hard-working, in charge, and dedicated, if somewhat absent-minded and a bit odd. For female scientists, there are six stereotypes that can be found in feature films (as identified and described by Eva Flicker, author of “Between Brains and Breasts—Women Scientists in Fiction Film: On the Marginalization and Sexualization of Scientific Competence”). See initial post on stereotyping of female scientists.

The first stereotype is the “Old Maid”, and an example would be the psychoanalyst, Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergmann) in the film “Spellbound”. Another example might be Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse), a psychiatrist and author in “House of Games”, a psychological thriller about a strong (but cold-blooded) woman who outwits a bunch of male grifters. This type of female scientist is professionally competent, but is obviously single and emotionally and socially stunted. Typically, a male character draws her into a love relationship, but she pays for her vulnerability with a loss (or threatened loss) of her professional status. An interesting twist on this theme occurs in “House of Games”. When Margaret seems on the verge of disaster, she recovers and even gets revenge after resuming her cold, emotionless behavior. Intelligent/competent and emotional/feminine are thus incompatible characteristics in a female scientist.

The “Old Maid” stereotype sends a chilling message about what happens to women who are rational, intelligent, and successful. Faced with the choice of professional success vs. an emotionally-fulfilling life, most women would choose the latter. Heck no, I don’t want to be a scientist if the price is to end up as a lonely, bitter old maid!

Fortunately, the old maid scientist seems to have faded from feature films and TV. However, other stereotypes of women scientists still persist. Next up, “the male woman” scientist.

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