Monday, November 9, 2009

In the Jungle, a Female Assistant Is More Trouble than a Gas Chromatograph

Conducting research in the jungle can be challenging, especially if you are a male chauvinist and are sent a female assistant. In the 1992 movie “Medicine Man”, Dr. Robert Campbell (Sean Connery) is a biochemist sent to the Amazonian rainforest by a pharmaceutical company. Campbell displays all the characteristics of the “mad scientist”—the stereotype of the male scientist. He’s isolated himself in a remote jungle setting and become obsessed with his work, causing his wife and research partner to desert him. However, he’s discovered the cure for cancer. The only problem is that he somehow failed to write down the formula for the serum and now cannot recreate it (the absent-minded professor syndrome).

Campbell sends for a gas chromatograph and a research assistant to help him identify the chemical compound he’s isolated from a particular plant species that holds the key to the cancer cure. He’s dismayed to see that they’ve sent a female biochemist, Dr. Rae Crane (Lorraine Bracco), and tries to send her away. She’s actually been sent to determine if the company should continue funding Campbell’s research and refuses to leave. Various silly episodes ensue, but in the end Campbell and Crane develop a romantic connection. Crane then agrees to approve his request for new equipment and the original assistant in exchange for co-credit for the cancer cure discovery.

You go, girl.

The character of Dr. Rae Crane represents the stereotype of the “daughter/ assistant” scientist, one of six types described by Eva Flicker who studied how women scientists are portrayed in film. Another example is Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) in Jurassic Park, described in a previous post about female scientist stereotypes, who is assistant to her lover and famous dinosaur expert, Dr. Allan Grant (Sam Neill). This female type is always shown as being in a subordinate relationship with a male scientist. She is sometimes given a weak personality with “typical” female attributes. In Medicine Man, Crane is an assistant, but is also young enough to be Campbell’s daughter—therefore, doubly fits the stereotype.

The "daughter/assistant" female scientist sometimes is more competent socially or more rational than the male scientist (and consequently helps offset the mad scientist role played by men). This social competence is illustrated by Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park (she chides Dr. Grant about his view of children):

John Hammond: "There is no doubt that our attractions will drive kids out of their minds."

Dr. Alan Grant: "What are those?"

Dr. Ellie Sattler: "Small versions of adults, honey."

In some cases, the female assistant’s task is to provide sexual satisfaction for the successful male scientist—that’s the main role of the character in the film and sends the message that this is the only reason she's been successful in science. In Medicine Man, Crane acts as the movie’s conscience and connection to society, but also ultimately fulfills the sexual role of the female assistant.  And only then does the male scientist "accept" her as a professional.  Sattler, in Jurassic Park, is already the consort of the male scientist, Grant, and her association with him has helped promote her career (she clearly occupies a high position on his well-funded research team).

In a twist on this theme, Ian Malcolm, the brilliant (we are told) mathematician in Jurassic Park, tries to lure Sattler away from Grant (who is clearly annoyed at Malcolm's flirting with Sattler):

Dr. Alan Grant: "You married?"

Dr. Ian Malcolm: "Occasionally."

Dr. Ian Malcolm: "I'm always on the lookout for the future ex-Mrs. Malcolm."

In a very clever dialogue, however, the movie makes it clear who's the alpha male of the two. See the clip here.

So, the female assistant type displayed in films is moving the image of women scientists in the right direction: successful, driven, and often smarter (and definitely more socially intelligent) than her male counterparts. She is still flawed, however, in being portrayed as second-fiddle to the male scientist or in need of his help to be successful as a scientist. The message is that her professional success would not occur unless she exchanges sexual favors for it.

The next and final stereotype we'll consider is the “lonely heroine”.

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