Tuesday, September 7, 2010
The Librarian Version of Angelina Jolie?
I read the above description of a colleague in an article written by a reporter for CNN. He was describing an interview with this colleague, who is at the forefront of research on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The article is accompanied by a photograph of my colleague on a ship during a research cruise to track the oil plume emanating from the Deepwater Horizon drill site.
Here we have a scientist who is doing important, interesting, relevant research on the worst environmental disaster in US history. She is chasing the underwater oil plume and questioning whether all the oil released by the damaged Deepwater Horizon rig has actually disappeared. She has testified before Congress in recent weeks about the oil spill. She is a scientist who also does research in the deep ocean and other extreme environments to learn, among other things, what it can tell us about alien life on other planets.
And this is not enough to get readers' attention and interest in reading about this scientist?
Here's the actual quote (you can Google it and find the original article): "Four months after the BP oil spill, the wiry 45-year-old -- who looks like the librarian version of Angelina Jolie -- has been thrust into the uncomfortable position of defending this battered ocean against the perception that the environmental disaster is over."
I understand what the reporter was trying to do with his celebrity analogy. He probably thought that readers (especially male readers) would perk up and read the rest of the article if they thought it was about a sexy female scientist who looks like a movie star, albeit a bookish version.
As I read this statement, I tried to imagine a similar article written about a male scientist, say, Jim Hansen, the well-known and outspoken climate scientist. I Googled the many online articles and reports on the internet--for one in which he is described as a nerdy version of an aging celebrity hunk (e.g., Bruce Willis, Russell Crowe, Clive Owen, Viggo Mortensen)--to no avail. The closest I could find was a comment on a blog along the lines of (I'm paraphrasing).."The eminent scientist James Hansen would likely be portrayed by Harrison Ford in a film entitled 'Cap and Trade: The Temple of Doom'".
Well, my point is that the need for such portrayals of scientists as nerdy versions of celebrities to boost interest in what these scientists are discovering about our world is...unsettling. The juxtaposition of scientists (who are making important contributions) and celebrities (who are not) sets up a subliminal comparison between the two in the readers' minds. I could understand if the article was not accompanied by a photograph of the scientist, that it might be of interest to describe what the scientist looks like....maybe. But that was not the case here. There was a prominent photo of my colleague as she looks when doing fieldwork. The reader can see for themselves what she looks like.
Instead, the reporter felt it necessary to "guide" the readers' impression. The article also contains a lot of other "fluff" that add further to the overall Hollywood tone of the piece.
A few of the reader comments to this article jumped at the chance to comment on her physical appearance:
InTheKnow9: "I really appreciate the important work that she's doing, but... can't she manage to put on a little makeup?"
taxfly: "That reporter is either blind, or has just insulted all librarians!"
Duckburner: "Librarian version of Angelina Jolie.......I don't think so. The southern end of a north bound moose - yes."
YYZinDFW: "The librarian version of... Gollum right? Not Angelina Jolie..."
However, a number of readers were not taken in...
Jester2you: "who looks like the librarian version of Angelina Jolie"....That's where I stopped."
jrm03063L: "Rather pathetic that someone with good science credentials gets a CNN write up like it came from "Hollywood Tonight" - and we wonder why science gets handled so badly by the media....:("
Thinks4self: "Do you think that the reporter talked about her appearance and all the bio BS maybe because there is no other story to tell here."
ApeHanger: "I see. Wearing makeup makes a woman more competent. Apparently she's more concerned with her work than with trying to impress shallow people who judge a woman on looks."
Unit34AHunt: "Where does CNN hire idiot reporters like this? "Looks like a librarian version of Angelina Jolie" ... yep, that's really material to the story. "Hopelessly nerdy and wiry as a tube worm." Oh yes, realy germane. "
ChePalle: "What a terribly-written article. And what's with that Angelina Jolie analogy?"
Seadancer: "It seems there a lot of people on here judging a person on looks. Everyone is not a reed thin drop dead gorgeous model. Take a look at the people around you. Everyone does not wear makeup in their jobs. Also, people do not get hired on how they look."
Maybe the media will eventually get the message that people who bother reading such articles are not impressed by shallow allusions to movie stars.