Tuesday, November 10, 2009

“CQ, this is W9GFO here. Come back?”

Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) in the movie Contact is ridiculed for her work in SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), backstabbed by her former graduate advisor, repeatedly marginalized or challenged, betrayed by her lover, and ultimately subjected to a public grilling in which her professional competence (and mental stability) are questioned. Yet she perseveres and repeatedly outsmarts the males who try to derail her professional aspirations.

Executive: “We must confess that your proposal seems less like science and more like science fiction.”

Ellie Arroway:
“Science fiction. Well you're right, it's crazy. In fact, it's even worse than that, nuts.”
[angrily slams down her briefcase and marches up to the desk]

Ellie Arroway: “You wanna hear something really nutty? I heard of a couple guys who wanna build something called an "airplane," you know you get people to go in, and fly around like birds, it's ridiculous, right? And what about breaking the sound barrier, or rockets to the moon, or atomic energy, or a mission to Mars? Science fiction, right? Look, all I'm asking, is for you to just have the tiniest bit of vision. You know, to just sit back for one minute and look at the big picture. To take a chance on something that just might end up being the most profoundly impactful moment for humanity, for the history... of history.”

She gets her funding.

The “lonely heroine” is our final stereotype of female scientists portrayed in the cinema. She is a modern woman who outclasses the men around her. She has taken on some of the characteristics of males (assertiveness), but her main trait is an unfailing belief in herself and in her scientific research. Typically, she is attractive and unrealistically young. In Contact, there is an attempt to explain the latter by mentioning her accelerated schooling and early graduation. According to Eva Flicker, who studies how women are portrayed in film, the “lonely heroine” embodies all the positive qualities of science: an insatiable curiosity, job as a calling, moral integrity, modesty, strong belief in her vision. She is not a male woman scientist (being very attractive) and not an old maid scientists (being sexually emancipated). However, she’s often shown as being alone personally (without parents, husband, lover, etc.) and professionally (lacks recognition by colleagues and by those in power). Her success is dependent upon several male mentors: her father, her graduate advisor (Drumlin, who ultimately takes credit for her scientific discovery), a rich benefactor (S. R. Haddon), and her lover (Palmer Joss).

Another example of the “lonely heroine” is the character Smilla Qaaviqaaq (Julia Ormond) in Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Smilla (the daughter of a Greenland Inuit mother and a Danish physician) has an intuitive understanding of the various aspects of snow and once worked as a scientist who specialized in ice studies. She is a loner who is apparently struggling with her mixed heritage. Smilla becomes embroiled in a murder of a child and embarks on an investigation to find out why. She ultimately uncovers a conspiracy involving a meteorite, ancient parasites, and evil scientists.

The "lonely heroine" is the most positive stereotype we've covered, but still conveys a negative message that the choice of science as a career is incompatible with being a (real) female. In the next post, I'll consider some of the more recent portrayals of women scientists and whether there is any suggestion that we're moving away from the stereotypes discussed in this series of posts.

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