Saturday, January 22, 2011

Objective = Emotionless

I've been reviewing the female stereotypes in the movie, Avatar.  I made the point in previous posts that inclusion of token women who display superficial male characteristics (physically tough, abrasive, verbally offensive, knowledgeable of weaponry, etc.) does not address the lack of "strong female characters" in movies and are certainly not suitable role models for girls.  The fact that some of these characteristics were also assigned to the female scientist in Avatar is particularly disturbing, but not surprising given the track record of Hollywood.  I'd like to explore this point a bit further in this post.

I've previously described six female scientist stereotypes found in film: the old maid, the male woman, the naive expert, the evil plotter, the assistant or daughter, and the lonely heroine.  Dr. Grace Augustine is the scientist in Avatar who heads the research program on Pandora and who literally wrote the book on the native Na'vi.  She is a combination of several stereotypes, including the old maid, the male woman, and the lonely heroine.  Augustine has apparently been on Pandora for at least ten years, is unmarried and with no apparent emotional attachments, and has been given some typical "aggressive male attributes".  She has an abrasive personality and a confrontational (or patronizing) style of interaction with male characters who get in her way; she additionally smokes like a chimney, cusses, and uses derogatory name-calling when challenged:

Statements made to no one in particular:
Dr. Grace Augustine: [Emerging from her avatar pod] Where's my goddamn cigarette? What's wrong with this picture! 
Dr. Grace Augustine: They're pissing on us and not even giving us the courtesy of calling it rain.
Interactions with superiors and equivalents:
Dr. Grace Augustine: Parker. You know, I used to think it was benign neglect, but now I see that you are intentionally screwing me.
Selfridge: Grace, you know, I enjoy our little talks. 
Col. Quaritch: Shut your pie hole!
Dr. Grace Augustine: Or what, *Ranger Rick*? You gonna shoot me?
Interactions with subordinates:
Dr. Max Patel: Grace, this is Jake Sully.
Jake Sully: Madame.
Dr. Grace Augustine: Yeah, yeah, I know who you are and I don't need you. I need your brother. You know, the PhD who trained for 3 years for this mission.
Dr. Grace Augustine: Hey Marine!
Jake Sully: [Turns and sees Grace's Avatar] Damn. Grace?
Dr. Grace Augustine: Well who'd you expect, numbnuts?
Dr. Grace Augustine: Don't play with that. You'll go blind.
You get the picture.  The message is that to be a successful, strong female scientist in charge of a large research program, a woman must be unmarried (except to her work) and lonely (ten years on a distant moon in the Alpha Centauri system, four light years from Earth--that's about as remote as one can get!), have no friends or admirers, feared by her staff, and despised by her military and corporate associates.  An abrasive, disrespectful, and haughty manner are the characteristics that apparently led to both her success as a scientist and her dismal personal life.  
Classic portrayal of the female scientist stereotype:  Women can't be successful in a male profession unless they sacrifice personal happiness.
One of the scenes cut from the final film version of Avatar provides an interesting bit of insight into the decision-making process of the director, James Cameron, in the portrayal of Dr. Grace Augustine.  As I was double-checking some of the dialog (above), I stumbled across a video trailer that showed one of the scenes with her and Jake Sully that never made it to the final cut. The scene (see Extended Cut) is interesting because it provides a different, more sympathetic and complex view of Augustine and explains what happened to the Na'vi school that she established and ran for ten years (it was shut down after Na'vi students who vandalized company equipment were shot and killed).  Then she says something interesting:
"A scientist stays objective. We can't be ruled by emotion."
Ah ha.  There we have it. The confusion over scientific objectivity and the scientist's emotions. This assumption that a scientist's need for logic and objectivity in their work somehow requires an innate lack of emotion in all aspects of life is a common thread in Hollywood portrayals of scientists.

Scientific detachment and lack of emotion in cinema is epitomized by the Star Trek character Spock (see video below) and in later films by androids (Ash in Alien, Data in Star Trek Generations).

At the opposite extreme are the scientists who are emotionally out of control or downright nuts:  Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and my favorite, Dr. Strangelove with the brilliant Peter Sellers as the mad scientist.

Kubrick and Sellers poked fun at the mad scientist stereotype as well as male fantasies about women in the following clip from Dr. Strangelove:

These fears about evil geniuses go back to ancient times...shaman with their knowledge of magic and healing.  Later in history, women who were herbalists and midwives were often charged with witchcraft and executed.  In the 20th century, science and technology contributed to human advancement, but also introduced real or potential dangers: atomic bombs, pollution, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence.  It's scary to imagine that the same scientists who are changing the world with their inventions and discoveries might be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde clones or amoral androids.

Fiction and screen writers love these conflicted characters, which is another reason why they've persisted into modern times.  They make great antagonists and archenemies of the heroes in novels and cinema.

And, as long as we have filmmakers who can make $2 billion by catering to the adolescent male audience, I'm afraid we won't be seeing the "strong female" or the "mad scientist" stereotype disappear anytime soon.

Photo/video credits: still from Avatar (Twentieth Century Fox); video (ColbertPhilosopher on YouTube); clip from Dr. Strangelove (Hawk Films/Columbia Pictures)

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