Thursday, November 5, 2009

The "Male Woman" Scientist

…is a stereotype sometimes encountered in science fiction films. She is “one of the boys”, so to speak. This female character is lacking in feminine charms and often exhibits male behavior (is assertive, curses frequently, drinks or smokes heavily). Her behavior is somewhat similar to how male scientists are characterized in film—intelligent and obsessed with their work, but odd by most standards.

An example would be microbiologist, Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), in “The Andromeda Strain”.  This particular character is also an older woman (post-menopausal), making her even less attractive (to male audiences). She has an undiscovered condition (latent epilepsy) that causes her to initially miss the fact that the science team is dealing with an alien species. As she is scanning multiple images for evidence of microbial growth, the repetitive flashing triggers a mild epileptic seizure causing her to blank out when the sample with the alien organism undergoes rapid expansion.

The character’s flaw is a different twist on the “weak woman” theme. Even though Leavitt is a successful scientist and is among an elite group of scientists selected to investigate the cause of the death of inhabitants of a town after a space probe lands there, her character is given a weakness that almost causes the team’s failure to find the cause of an infection that could wipe out all humanity on earth.

According to an analysis by Eva Flicker, there are six stereotypes of women scientists depicted in film. The male woman scientist perpetuates the stereotype that being female is incompatible with being a scientist. If a woman manages to become a successful scientist, it is at the expense of her femininity and attractiveness to men. As with the “old maid female scientist”, the message is that a woman must make a choice between a successful science career and an emotionally fulfilling life. Similar to the old maid scientist, the male woman scientist also seems to be less frequently depicted in film these days—I could not think of any recent examples.

The remaining four stereotypes are still with us, however.  For more on stereotyping, see the initial post in the series on female scientists in film.

Next is the naïve expert.

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