Friday, November 13, 2009

A Shot in the Arm: Challenging Hollywood’s Portrayal of Women in Science

The previous posts have described the six stereotypes of women scientists in popular film: the old maid, the male woman, the na├»ve woman, the evil plotter, the daughter/assistant, and the lonely heroine (Flicker 2003). By studying the images of female scientists in the mass media (particularly popular films), we can gain a better insight into how these images influence adolescent girls’ perceptions of women in science and potential careers in science (Steinke 2005). Girls report a loss of interest in science in middle school (12 years of age) (AAUW 2000), which coincides with the age girls become aware of gender roles. An important source of information about feminine roles for girls at this age is popular film. Adolescent girls (and younger) are absorbing images of women portrayed in the movies and on TV and what is acceptable in our culture in terms of feminine behavior and career choices.

However, I think that girls must develop a strong interest in science before they reach the age when they become sensitive to how they are perceived by society (i.e., by boys). I recall that my interest in science began very early—at age 8 or 9 years. By the time I was 12, I had decided to become a scientist and even had my own little laboratory set up in my room and had conducted experiments with spiders and snakes (which unfortunately escaped in the house and terrorized my mother, but that’s another story). I clearly envisioned myself in a laboratory and understood that success in such a career required good grades, dedication, and even sacrifice. This was the time I began to be actively ridiculed by others for my science aspirations (this was the late 50s/early 60s). It was discouraging to see boys being counseled to go into science, while I was steered toward nursing and teaching. But I was already “immunized” against social pressure to conform to feminine roles. I loved biology and the idea of being a research biologist. Nothing was going to deter me. So I simply learned to stop talking about science around people who were critical. When I was 14, I saw a film on oceans and decided I wanted to be a marine biologist. When I began college, I was free to select my major (zoology) and thus embarked on the road to becoming what I had always dreamed of—a scientist.

What if I had not been so determined? I had few role models. I did have a glimpse of what a future world might be in the TV series, Star Trek (yes, I saw the original series from age 16 to 19). Uhura and the other women on the Enterprise were working alongside men, albeit in more subordinate positions. This show had a tremendous effect on me, along with science fiction books in which women enjoyed much more freedom in their career choices. By the time Star Trek came along, though, I had already decided to pursue a science career.

Today, women scientists appear in popular films and on TV, sometimes in equal numbers to male scientists, but the images often are stereotypical and convey conflicting messages about femininity and science. The previous posts have highlighted some of the most common stereotypes of women scientists in popular film. Although it’s interesting and even amusing to identify and analyze these stereotypes, this exercise is an important first step in changing cultural perceptions of science and scientists. By identifying and understanding stereotypical representations of women scientists in film, we can better develop strategies to counter bad stereotypes and to encourage interest in science by girls (and other minorities). We are not only facing a critical shortage of scientists (as Baby Boomers retire), but the representation of women in science fields still lags behind that of men, especially at higher career levels. A diverse workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields will enhance our ability to solve the complex problems facing society in the 21st century. Consequently, anything we can do to attract women and minorities to the sciences will improve this capability.

Changing how women scientists are portrayed in the mass media by challenging the stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood might serve as a “shot in the arm”—a way to immunize girls and young women against social pressures that turn them away from a career in science.
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American Association of University Women. 1998. Gender gaps: Where schools still fail our children. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women.

Flicker, E. 2003. Between brains and breasts--Women scientists in fiction film: On the marginalization and sexualization of scientific competence. Public Understanding of Science 12 (4): 307-318.

Steinke, J. 2005. Cultural representations of gender and science--portrayals of female scientists and engineers in popular films. Science Communication 27 (1): 27-63.

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