Sunday, December 27, 2009

Are All Female Scientists White, Skinny, and "Hot"?

In the previous post, I presented photos of fictional female scientists for readers to identify.  One commenter pointed out that all of the examples I used were women who were white,  skinny, and "hot".  Actually, female scientists depicted in popular film might appear to be attractive in a physical sense, but are typically portrayed in subordinate or other stereotypical roles that are less than flattering.  In fact, I would argue that how female scientists are portrayed by the media perpetuates negative myths about women's roles. 

I previously discussed the six main stereotypes of female scientists in the cinema: the old maid, the male woman, the naive expert, the evil plotter, the female assistant or daughter, and the lonely heroine.  None of these stereotypes could be characterized as being flattering, regardless of how "attractive" the actor happens to be.

Why should we care about how women scientists are portrayed in movies?  Mainly, the reason we should be concerned is that film is important in influencing the public's perception of scientists.  Most people never meet a scientist and so get their impressions about us from movies and TV.  Unfortunately, Hollywood has traditionally marginalized and sexualized women in science roles in the movies.  Although many of the fictional characters I selected were physically attractive, the roles they played sent negative messages about women who go into science.  These negative (and often conflicting) images are absorbed by adolescent girls and young women whose career choices are influenced by their perceptions of feminine roles.  How they will be perceived by society in the career they choose is very important to adolescents, especially girls.

In addition to identifying fictional female scientists, I also asked readers to identify a series of photographs depicting real female scientists.  I had a couple of objectives to these exercises.  One was to explore the fact that female scientists who have made major contributions are not well known.  A second objective was to relate the portrayal of female scientists in popular film to society's perceptions of women in science.

What set me off on this tangent was a comment by a student lamenting the fact that there are few female role models or mentors in science, which seems to be a common complaint among female science students.  Ironically, these same students often cannot name more than one or two famous female scientists, when in fact, there are dozens of notable women in science going back at least to the time of Aristotle.

When I was in undergraduate and graduate school, there were no female mentors for me.  So I searched out women in history who had accomplished remarkable things and read all I could about them.  A number of them wrote books or had biographies written about them, which provided a great deal of insight into how they overcame barriers and other useful information.  By reading books they wrote, I began to feel as if I knew them, even if they had died long before I was born.  Through their writing, I was privy to their innermost thoughts, dreams and aspirations. 

Of course, reading is not the same as having a live person to talk to or work with.  On the other hand, reading about how a variety of women navigated their way in different scientific fields provided a broader perspective for me than interacting with a single live person.  Not all of the heroines I studied were scientific researchers.  Some were naturalists, explorers, or inventors.  All, however, had something to teach me.  By reading about the enormous obstacles that some of them overcame, I was better prepared to deal with the more mundane problems I would eventually encounter during my career.  Some of my favorites were Mary Kingsley (Travels in West Africa), May Theilgaard Watts (Reading the Landscape of America), and Beryl Markham (West with the Night).

I also wanted to explore further the lack of public awareness of women (and men) in science, which I attribute in part to the general lack of information (and curiosity?) about the people behind major scientific accomplishments.  I wondered if fictional female scientists were more recognizable based on their broader exposure in popular film.  I conducted a very unscientific poll of my relatives to see if they could identify 12 real female scientists vs. 12 fictional female scientists.  As you might guess, they knew many of the fictional examples, but only one (or none) of the real examples.  The one they knew most about was Dian Fossey...based on the movie "Gorillas in the Mist".

I think that we could do a much better job of raising awareness of women's contributions to science and improving the public's perception of science as a viable career for women.  We can't depend on Hollywood or the news media to do it for us.  What we can do is tell our own stories.  The internet has opened up a door for us, making it easier to convey information about ourselves as scientists.  I think that female scientists through blogs, media interviews, and other means have an opportunity to convey more positive images of women in science and dispel some of the myths and stereotypes that have prevailed in the past.

As for what effect the media's portrayal of women has...see this video:

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