female scientists are depicted by the media) as having had a positive effect on young people’s views of forensic science—leading to more students interested in pursuing forensics as a career.
I first became aware of the popularity of CSI while on an international flight. As I was waiting for a restroom at the rear of the plane, I looked forward across the rows of seats and noticed something very surprising (to me, at least). Each seat had its own TV screen, and I could see what people were watching. Although there were several popular movies available for free, I estimated that 60% of the screens were tuned to CSI (and it seemed that the younger the viewer, the more likely they were watching this program). My curiosity peaked, I later checked out CSI and got hooked. I was initially impressed with the representation of female characters in non-traditional roles as investigators and senior managers. Gil Grissom (the lead male scientist) had been given some of the “mad scientist” characteristics: loner, odd hobbies (insect collecting), socially-awkward. However, the female investigators (and younger males) were more grounded, socially-adept, attractive, well-dressed, and lacking in “odd” personalities (although not without flaws). As I watched more episodes, I felt more uncomfortable with the portrayal of female characters (more about this below).
The representation of women in non-traditional roles (in equal numbers to males) such as forensic scientists undoubtedly has increased on TV, and shows like CSI have influenced younger viewers’ perceptions about science career choices. One study that reviewed the topic (Gender stereotypes of scientist characters in television programs popular among middle school-aged children) specifically focused on how recent TV shows like CSI have influenced how scientists are perceived in general, and female scientists specifically. Steinke et al. examined several TV shows such as Bill Nye the Science Guy, Mythbusters, and CSI. The authors concluded that progress has been made in equalizing the representation of male and female scientists in TV shows. This finding differed among types of shows, however. For example, cartoons and dramas tended to have more male than female scientist characters, while other shows, particularly educational programs (funded by NSF) had equal or more female characters in science positions. They also found that in contrast to earlier studies, female scientist characters were just as likely to be found in high-status positions as males. On CSI for example, Catherine Willows (pictured above) is a lead forensic investigator and manages a team of male and female scientists. Other female characters (Sara Sidle and various lab techs and visiting forensic investigators) are depicted as capable and independent women working alongside male colleagues who appear to respect them.
However, do the metrics used in such studies really tell the whole story? Steinke et al. acknowledge the limitations of using only a few indices (six) to assess gender stereotyping. Another critique by Ami Kleminski delves more deeply into the female characters of CSI and comes to a different conclusion. Kleminski’s analysis of the female scientists in CSI is very interesting and articulates my gut feelings about the show's depiction of women.
In spite of improved gender equality in numbers, CSI is flawed in its portrayal of women. In particular, the female cast members are dressed provocatively and inappropriately for such a serious profession. This presentation of female characters has been described as being “objectified by the male gaze”. This effect can be achieved in three ways: voyeuristic camera position/angle, actual gaze of male characters, and gaze of the audience.
The objectification of CSI females extends beyond the obvious low necklines and tight uniforms. The senior female investigator (Catherine Willows) was once a stripper, information that causes the audience to imagine her undressed (rather than be impressed with her working class to professional transformation). Why not make her a former waitress or store clerk? She is also divorced and a single mother (i.e., alone/lonely). Her work as supervisor is criticized by male colleagues and superiors and by female subordinates. So her personal and professional roles both put her into the stereotype of "lonely heroine".
Another character, Sara Sidle, is a young (30s) loner who is clearly suffering from depression and job burnout. Sidle's role is a blend of the “old maid” and “daughter/assistant” stereotypes. The “old maid” is single, emotionally stunted, and not likely to have a family and live happily ever after. The “daughter/ assistant” is young and/or fills a sexual role—typically to satisfy the needs of a male scientist character. Sidle becomes the lover of the lead male scientist, Grissom, and also is his much younger subordinate/assistant.
Both CSI women are presented as being successful professionally and equal to their male counterparts, but failures in their personal lives. A twist in CSI is that the female characters also fulfill the sexual needs of the audience by wearing revealing clothing or stimulating male fantasies (stripper/divorcee). And then there is the parade of female murder victims whose bodies are lasciviously scrutinized by the camera and whose lives are dissected by the investigators. Talk about objectifying women….
So some progress has been made with respect to equal representation of female scientists in popular TV shows, but this progress is undermined by the subtle (and not so subtle) stereotyping reminiscent of older films. In the next and final post on this topic, I’ll try to pull together some thoughts about how female scientists are depicted in popular film and TV and why we should care.