Friday, January 28, 2011

The Accountability Regime

This post continues the discussion of the "accountability regime" or "audit society" that many of us find ourselves facing.  See previous post for background.

Just to give you an example of an accountability "rule" that affects me, let me describe what I must do to attend an international conference held on foreign soil.  First, I must get my name on a list well in advance of the date of the conference (months ahead) (and woe be unto you if you submit your name after the deadline for that quarter, for example, in cases where you are invited to speak in a special session only a month in advance by conference organizers).  Then, if more than five people from my agency plan to attend this conference, there must be a special memo requesting permission for our travel and that justifies our specific attendance at such a conference.  This is not just a formality, as we are often warned that "this time" the powers-that-be may deny the request--mainly because they question why scientists should be attending conferences held outside the country in the first place.  In the meantime, we must submit paperwork authorizing our travel in the event we are given permission.  This must be submitted at least 45 days prior to travel. Before I can set foot on foreign soil, I also must receive "country clearance", which is given by the US embassy in that country.  I can only travel with an official passport, which is held under lock and key at the "bureau international office" between trips.

All of these authorizations often do not arrive until the day or so before I'm scheduled to leave (in one case, I was sitting in the airport when the final approval came through--I would have had to cancel otherwise).  This all, as you might imagine, causes extreme stress, mentally and financially.  I must make air and lodging reservations in anticipation of travel--all of which must be canceled in the event my travel is disapproved.  The sums I've already spent on conference registration, lodging reservations, non-reimbursable airfare are lost.  I cannot just go on my personal time--this is not allowed.  Such hassle sort of makes you think twice about attending international conferences, doesn't it?

Why, you might ask, is all of this necessary just to travel to a conference?  The answer is government accountability. It can't appear to the public that government scientists are unnecessarily spending public funds. The paperwork we fill out not only includes an estimate of our travel expenses, but the portion of our salaries covering that time interval.  So a week-long trip might easily add up to $5,000 or more per person, depending on one's salary and the destination.  Ten people attending the same conference would thus incur an amount of $50,000.  Such a sum would sound outrageous to the average citizen, especially one who doesn't get to travel in their jobs.  Never mind that we have such travel budgeted in our grants, and that presenting papers at international conferences is expected of us.  In a few cases, I've had to provide increasingly detailed "justifications" for attendance at international conferences (just giving a paper is not sufficient).

The mind boggles at the money, time, and effort spent by government agencies and other organizations to develop and enforce an "accountability regime".  Why should anyone have to justify activities that are essential to developing or maintaining one's career in education and research--or, from a broader perspective, enhance the scientific credibility of the institution?  But that's what happens when accountability takes precedence over the mission of the organization.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Audit Society

This post is about a topic that affects us all, scientists and non-scientists.  Those of you who work in government agencies are already immersed in the "audit society", which has expanded in recent years.  The amount of time devoted to accountability has almost exceeded the amount we actually spend doing our jobs as scientists.  However, the "accountability regime" that is prevalent in government agencies is now becoming common in institutions of higher learning.

In her book, Wannabe University, Gaye Tuchman describes the "audit society" as one that "enables 'coercive accountability' carried out in the guise of transparency, trust, and public service....It entails both forced and voluntary surveillance, as individuals and organizations audit themselves and subject themselves to audit by others." She uses a hypothetical university to illustrate her main thesis about how institutions of higher learning have been transformed by being run like businesses, primarily to achieve the goal of being ranked among the top universities in the country (Wannabe University Syndrome).  She spent years observing a large state university, which is never named. Wannabe universities are run by administrators who model themselves after CEOs and hop from job to job in their quest for an ever more prestigious position/corporation to run. 

Seeking top ranking (and profit), university administrators market a product (a university education) and in the process undermine university faculties by instituting changes from the top down.  At first, the changes are subtle and don't cause too much direct trouble for the faculty (who may be unaware of what's happening).  Eventually, there is increasing emphasis on winning more and more grants and contracts, developing patents, and marketing (athletics, etc.).  Later, there is interference in the classroom (see previous posts: administrative dominance, violation of academic freedom, domesticated foxes and feral dogs).  If you are contributing to these corporate goals, you are rewarded; if not, look out.  You know you are working at a "wannabe university" when, for example, the university president has a stronger background in business than in academic achievement and who describes the university as on the "cusp of greatness" (even if it is currently ranked at #100 or lower), spends millions on new construction and hiring "rock star" faculty, develops a slick advertising campaign (describing itself as on the "cusp of greatness"), and talks about "flagship universities" as engines for supporting state economies.

Of course, university professors are difficult to control.  They have tenure (so far...that will be next to go) and tend to speak their minds.  The new corporate administrators of wannabe universities handle such a vocal workforce by implementing an "accountability regime", which leads to policies of surveillance and control (presented as ways to measure success and to improve the university's ranking). Tuchman argues that the corporatization of higher education negatively impacts students, faculty, and society as a whole.

Those of us working for government agencies are already very familiar with the "accountability regime".  However, the accountability aspect has recently become so intrusive that it is interfering with our ability to do science. I estimate that I now spend two workdays out of five mostly on non-science administrative tasks: filling out forms and justifications for travel (to do fieldwork, attend conferences, expense vouchers); taking required training courses (diversity, leadership, supervisory, records management, security, whistleblowing, EEO, etc.); writing and getting official approval for "study plans" to do research; getting internal reviews and official approval of all science products (including manuscripts to be submitted to journals and abstracts for meetings); doing official performance reviews of staff; and many other miscellaneous tasks, including filling out daily "time and attendance" forms, which documents the hours we work.  Virtually everything I do requires at least one or two signatures of superiors.

I don't know if this is just a US phenomenon or not.  It would be interesting to hear from professors and scientists working in other countries.

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)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"I See You"

This post is a continuation of an analysis of James Cameron’s portrayal of women in film and whether his movies celebrate the equality of women, or instead perpetuate the stereotypical view of women as subordinate to men.  In the previous post, I reviewed several of Cameron’s movies, including Terminator, Aliens, True Lies, The Abyss, and Titanic.  They mostly failed two litmus tests designed to assess whether a film (in which women appear) tells a story from a female point of view or depicts women as something other than secondary to a male. 
In this post, I now turn to Cameron’s latest blockbuster: Avatar.  I doubt there is anyone out there who hasn’t seen this movie or if not, plans to at this late date; but just in case, there will be many spoilers ahead.
Here goes.   
Oh. My. God. (or should I say: Eywa, help us?)  I hardly know where to begin to articulate how this movie sets new lows in terms of Hollywood stereotypes.  Many bloggers and reviewers have excoriated Avatar and J. Cameron for the multiple “isms” in this film:  racism, sexism, anthropocentrism…  But the ultimate insult is that Cameron and the film’s promoters pretend just the opposite…that the movie is sensitive to the plight of indigenous people (the Noble Savage who is one with nature), women as equals to men (who kick ass as well as the men), and the amazing flora and fauna of an alien world (which reveal how great nature is and how much we should appreciate it). 
Before we dive into the sexism aspects of Avatar, let’s briefly consider a few of the other “isms” because they reveal a broader picture of how duplicitous this movie is.
Racism:  the Avatar story is about a white male (Jake Sully….sully, mar, defile, get it?) who starts out in the role of the bad, conquering human who falls in love with a Na'vi female, sees the light (that the alien world is wonderful and should be saved), becomes the leader of the indigenous people, and shows them how to expel the human invaders.  The movie pretends to be sensitive to native people (of color…literally blue color) and admiring of their spiritual connectedness to nature.  What rubbish.  If this were really a story about indigenous people and their fight to save their land from invaders, it would be told from a very different viewpoint.….say, Neytiri, the female protagonist.  But noooo.  The story is told from the viewpoint of a white, male human who wins the heart of the most desirable female native, passes the test of manhood, is accepted in a matter of months into their alien society, becomes their leader in a single daring move (by figuring out how to capture and control the most dangerous and iconic animal on the planet—something none of the current crop of aliens has managed to do), overcomes his human nemesis (Colonel Quaritch), and finally sheds his crippled, human body for a better one.   
Sounds a lot like what someone with a large male ego would like to experience, even if vicariously, by making a movie of it.  Nothing wrong with that.  Just don’t claim that it’s about something else.
Anthropocentrism: The movie was also initially praised by animal rights groups for its depiction of wondrous flora and fauna and reverent treatment of all creatures, even those killed for food.  But was Avatar really showing sensitivity for the natural world and its creatures?  Several reviewers have pointed out that the “interconnectedness” between the Na’vi people and their domesticated animals was just an extension of the white, male domination fantasy that pervades the film.  This point is driven home in the scene in which Jake, in his avatar persona, takes the final test of “manhood” by overpowering, “breaking the spirit of”, and physically bonding with (by connecting genital-like appendages!!!!) a protesting creature—the dragon-like, flying banshee.  This essay does a brilliant job of dissecting this scene and illuminating the parallels between this male fantasy scene and rape.  When you look at this scene from the viewpoint of domination (dominion over all creatures, women, etc.), it makes the scenes in which Jake shows “reverence” toward other animals seem pretty shallow and unbelievable.   
Militarism/corporatism: One message of Avatar is supposed to be about denouncing the militaristic takeover of lands from indigenous people, in this case, to acquire a ridiculous mineral, "unobtanium",  which we are never told exactly what it's used for. The greedy CEO, Parker, and his attack dog, Colonel Quaritch, are set up as the villains for Jake to fight and defeat.  They are cardboard characters reminiscent of those in previous Cameron movies (Terminator 2, Aliens).  I actually had some respect for Quaritch's character who made no attempt to hide his motives or his racist tendencies and strove to do the job he was hired for.  He was brutal, but honest.  Contrast him with Jake who deceives his employer, his "adopted" native clan, and his Na'vi lover (who sulks for only a day or so, then forgives Jake once he's revealed as the "true" leader of the Omaticaya).  And in the end, Jake turns on his own people (humans), ousting them from Paradise, I mean Pandora, to return to their devastated and doomed Earth.  No one feels sorry for them?  Jake gets to stay on lush Pandora in his stolen avatar body (built at a cost of $millions to the company that hired him) live happily ever after.
I could go on about the innumerable other “isms” in this film: dualism, environmentalism, holism, idealism, immortalism, mysticism, naturalism, spiritualism, utopianism, and vitalism. 
But the one that I'm most interested in is sexism.  A number of movie reviewers, the movie’s advertisers, and especially J. Cameron himself seem to think that the movie aligns with feminist ideals and does a dandy job of it.  What is this belief based on? Primarily, it’s the inclusion of several so-called “strong women” characters in the film. There’s Neytiri, the Na'vi princess I’ve already mentioned, who is strong physically and mentally, brave, destined to lead her people (or was until Jake showed up), and, of course, also beautiful, sexy, and sensual.  Her mother, Mo’at, is the clan’s spiritual leader who has special knowledge/powers to tap into Pandora’s energy field.  The scientist leading the research team on Pandora is a woman, Dr. Grace Augustine, who takes on any and all (men) who try to interfere with her work.  Finally, there’s Trudy, the marine helicopter pilot who defies orders and can fly and shoot as well as the guys.  So based on the presence of these "strong female" characters, we are supposed to buy the claim that Avatar is sensitive to women's issues and breaks with the Hollywood portrayal of female stereotypes?
I don’t think so.  It miserably fails the two tests: the Bechdel test and the Feminist Film Test.  I was not surprised that the two strong human females (Grace, the scientist and Trudy, the pilot) who both defied male authority were killed off.  The two Na'vi females (Neytiri and Mo'at) who are needed to fulfill the male fantasy (Jake's love interest and his permanent transfer to the avatar body) both survive.  This view of women as important only because they serve the needs of the male protagonist is perfectly captured in a single scene about halfway through the movie.  This is the scene where Jake and Neytiri are walking together the evening after he has just passed his “manhood” test.   
Here is the dialog:
Neytiri: You are Omaticaya now. You may make your bow from the wood of Hometree. And you may choose a woman. We have many fine women. Ninat is the best singer.

Jake Sully: I don't want Ninat.

Neytiri: Peyral is a good hunter.

Jake Sully: Yes, she is a good hunter. But I've already chosen. But this woman must also choose me.

Neytiri: [smiles] She already has.
Whoa.  Back up.  “And you may choose a woman.” ???What???  The prize for passing the manhood test is a female mate?  The men get to choose?  Women have no say? Sounds suspiciously like a practice from our human past, not the imaginary Omaticaya, who in all other respects appeared to be pretty egalitarian.  And Jake goes on to give Neytiri a lesson in feminism: “but this woman must also choose me”.  Aarrgh.  What a patronizing statement.  But this conversation is exactly what a self-centered male would like to hear.  It’s unclear whether this statement was calculated (to appeal to the adolescent male audience) or simply reflects Cameron’s view of how things should be (or wishes things would be). 
A couple of other things to know about how Cameron developed the character of Neytiri:  He’s admitted in several interviews that from the beginning, he knew she had to have breasts (although he used a different, derogatory term) despite the obvious fact that the Na’vi are not mammals and have no need for mammary glands.  He also brought in experts to create the Na’vi morphotype so that they would be appealing to the audience, especially men.  Large, expressive eyes—a Disney trick.  Plus cool animal features—the cat-like nose and prehensile tail. 
Would Jake have fallen for Neytiri if she looked like the creature in District 9, instead of a sensual, blue, cat-like humanoid?  

Imagine the dialog with Neytiri as the creature depicted above right:
Neytiri: You are Omaticaya now. You may make your bow from the wood of Hometree. And you may choose a woman. We have many fine women. Ninat is the best singer.
Jake Sully:  Huh? What did you say?  A woman?
Neytiri: Peyral is a good hunter.
Jake Sully:  Uuhhh….well, is that required?  Taking a woman?
Neytiri:  It is part of the ritual of becoming one with the Omaticaya people....choosing a mate for life.
Jake Sully: [gulping] For life? 
Neytiri:  Yes.  You know, I am not yet taken.  You must choose soon [wiggling her mouth parts suggestively].
Jake Sully:  I think I hear Colonel Quaritch calling me.

So to summarize, Avatar is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a movie that aligns with feminist ideals or that projects a valid image of what a "strong female character" is. Tossing in a few token women who can fly a helicopter, shoot a gun, or cuss is not what we have in mind when we say that movies could use more strong female characters.  It seems that Hollywood writers, directors, and producers think that "strong female" literally means physically strong, abrasive, defiant, or some other one-dimensional characteristic....rather than what is really required:  a strong character [played by a female]. Instead of the simplistic definition of "strong" as being physically powerful or behaviorally aggressive, a strong character might be especially capable, authoritative, smart, complex, resilient, or moral.

As I noted in the first post in this series, Avatar has so far grossed over $2 billion and has been seen by millions.  This film and others like it are extremely popular with adolescents. What an opportunity to overturn some stereotypes! Too bad it didn't.

In the Na'vi culture, the greeting "I see you" means "I see into you and all you are--a complex being that deserves my respect".  In other words, "I see your real nature, beyond just the superficial, physical attributes".  Pretty ironic.

Photo Credits: Stills from Avatar (20th Century Fox) and District 9 (TriStar Pictures) 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

More Feminism and the Movies

We are discussing the movies of James Cameron and how they stack up in terms of positive portrayals of women.  See the previous post for background.
There are a couple of litmus tests one can apply to films to determine whether female characters are central to the story and are also portrayed as in control of their own destiny.  One is called the Bechdel Test, which requires the movie to have 1. Two women (who have names), 2. who talk to each other, 3. about something other than a man.  This site lists movies and how they rate according to the Bechdel Test. 
The second test is one I made up many years ago, called “The Feminist Film Test”.  Here’s how it works.  For the movie to pass the test, it must (1) have a female lead, (2) who survives or succeeds, (3) without the intervention of a man (saving her, dying so she can live, giving her a job, etc.).  
Let’s apply these two tests to Cameron’s films and see how they fare.
First, we have The Terminator with one strong female character, Sarah Connor.  It fails both tests.  There is a minor conversation between Sarah and her roommate, but it mostly revolves around men and dates and is superficial.  Sarah is ultimately saved from the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) by Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), so it fails The Feminist Film Test.  Terminator 2: Judgment Day also fails both tests.  Sarah and son John Connor are both saved by a second cyborg (Terminator 2) who sacrifices itself to save them.
Next is Aliens.  Now, don’t confuse Aliens with Alien, the first movie in the series and directed by Ridley Scott, not James Cameron.  Alien passes both tests (two women talk about something other than a man and Ripley saves herself without any help from a man).  Aliens does barely pass the Bechdel test because two females talk about something other than a man (but is minor to the film’s story).  It only partially passes my test because Ripley is helped at various critical junctures by a man (Hicks shows her how to use a weapon, saves her from the creature, and backs her up when she’s challenged; Bishop (male android) saves Ripley and Newt from the exploding processing facility by piloting a dropship to pick them up in the nick of time).
In the Abyss, we have a strong female scientist!  Unfortunately, this film fails both tests also. Dr. Lindsay Brigman has no meaningful conversation with the one other woman character and is saved by her ex-husband, who still loves her.
True Lies barely passes the Bechdel test (Helen Tasker does trade insults with the female villain), but fails my test (Arnold saves both Helen and Dana Tasker and then recruits Helen as his spy side-kick in the end).
Similarly, Titanic barely passes the Bechdel test (Rose and her mother have a few conversations about something other than men, although these do relate to men), but fails my test (Rose is, of course, saved by Jack, who ultimately sacrifices himself so she can live).
So far, Cameron’s films are not living up to the idea that his movies buck the Hollywood tradition of portraying women in stereotypical roles, typically subservient to a male character or exists only to enhance a male character.  
The problem is not that a few movies by Cameron fail to be about women or women’s issues or even that there are a few misogynists who conspire to prevent women from playing central roles in film.  The problem is with an entire industry that makes movies that mostly cater to or are about men, mainly white men (unless they are Will Smith or Denzel Washington).  I enjoy films that are told from a male’s point of view or are about a man’s life or accomplishments. What I take issue with is when someone makes a movie that is clearly told from a male (often puerile) viewpoint, but tries to dress it up as being modern-thinking, progressive or pro-feminist by throwing in a few female characters who can fight, cuss, do science, or whatever (like a man). Such superficial tokens may even do more harm than good.  
I’ll save my analysis of Avatar for the next post.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Feminism and the Movies

There was a lot of talk back in 2009 and 2010 about James Cameron being sympathetic to feminist ideals and that his blockbuster movie, Avatar, was Exhibit A in support of this characterization.  (Those of you who have been following this blog know that I like to analyze how women are portrayed in film and TV—especially female scientists.  As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, most people never meet a scientist and generally get their impressions of scientists and women in science from the movies and TV.) 

I’d like to revisit Avatar and Cameron’s supposedly “feminist” leanings.  Part of the reason is that I just saw the movie again (on cable), and as much as I tried to view it again as “an entertaining fantasy”, I could not help analyzing it from various standpoints:  the biology of Pandora, how scientists and women are portrayed, etc.  Next I stumbled across a pre-release review of Avatar called “Is Avatar’s James Cameron a Feminist Ally?”  That got me thinking again about Hollywood’s portrayal of women and whether Avatar breaks with tradition (as claimed) or is instead business as usual.
Why is this even worth thinking about?  It’s just a movie, right?  Well, when you consider the numbers of people who have seen it worldwide and the enormous amount of money it made, it seems possible that it has had an impact beyond the typical, run-of-the-mill film.  Since its release on December 18, 2009, it has grossed $2,781,835,502 in theatre sales and another $183,484,783 in DVD sales (US only).   Adjusted for inflation, these numbers make Avatar the fourth highest grossing film of 1977-2010 (after Star Wars Ep. IV, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Titanic (also a Cameron film)).  The numbers of people who’ve seen it are harder to come by (many have seen it more than once), but we can assume it’s a lot. 
The target audience was young and impressionable teens for the most part.  Did it have an effect on these viewers?  Apparently, it had a big impact on some viewers.  So much so that some young fans have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film (because their real worlds do not live up to the fantasy world of Pandora).  There is even a site for such suffering fans where they can get advice on coping with their depression.  Despite the fantastical premise, the movie and its CGI characters seemed to have created a very believable world for many movie-goers.  If people experienced such emotional and mental changes upon seeing this movie, it seems plausible that they also were influenced to some degree by the various depictions of corporate greed, indigenous societies, science, and women.   
So on to Cameron and his track record relative to portrayal of women.  Here’s a list of his major films (*wrote screenplay, ^directed):  The Terminator* (1984), Aliens*^ (1986), The Abyss*^ (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)*^, True Lies (1994)^, Titanic (1997)^*, and Avatar (2009)*^. 
You’ll recognize that most of these films featured “strong women”.  There’s Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from the Terminator movies.  Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) in Aliens.  Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastantonio) in The Abyss.  Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis), Juno (Tia Carrere), and Dana Tasker (Eliza Dushku) in True Lies.  Rose (Kate Winslet) in Titanic.  Cameron seems to have outdone himself with Avatar, including no less than four strong female characters:  Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez), and Mo’at (CCH Pounder). 
Does having strong female characters qualify these movies as being feminist, supportive of women’s issues, or simply good portrayals of women?  Of course not.  
There are a couple of litmus tests one can apply to films to determine whether female characters are central to the story or shown to be in control of their own destinies.  One is called the Bechdel Test, which requires the movie to have
1. Two women (who have names),
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something other than a man.  
This site lists movies and how they rate according to the Bechdel Test.
The second test is one I made up many years ago, called “The Feminist Film Test”.  Here’s how it works.  For the movie to pass the test, it must
1. Have a female lead,
2. Who survives or succeeds,
3. Without the intervention of a man (saving her, dying so she can live, etc.).  
Very few Hollywood films pass this test. 
In the next post, I’ll apply these two tests to Cameron’s films and see how they fare.  In the meantime, you can think about some of your favorite movies and see if they pass these tests.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What If She Had Kept a Journal?

I've been writing about Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.  She accomplished this feat disguised as a man for most of the two-year voyage.  Her story has been told by Glynis Ridley in her book, "The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe".  As I explained in previous posts, this tale was compiled based primarily on  journals kept by six men who also made the journey, including Philibert Commerson, the expedition's naturalist, who was Baret's lover and employer.

I finished the book last night.  I thought the story was an intriguing one and that the author did a thorough job of researching the details of the voyage as well as other information providing insights into Baret's experience.  But in the end, the reader is left unsatisfied because we never hear from Baret herself.  Her lover, Commerson, is circumspect in his journal descriptions of Baret, perhaps to avoid incriminating himself (it was against naval law for women to sail on ships).  He apparently pretended not to know that Baret was a woman and maintained this charade in his written record of the journey.  Ridley rightly expresses disbelief regarding Commerson's claim of ignorance, given that Baret had been his housekeeper and lover... and had borne his son... prior to the voyage.  The logical conclusion is that Commerson and Baret conspired to have her accompany him as his male valet and field assistant and that Commerson was careful not to leave any written record that hinted at their deception.

Ridley further speculates that Baret did not keep a journal because that would certainly have left a written record of their deception and possibly have led to arrest and punishment.  The assumption here is that Baret would have had to talk about the fact that she was really a woman in such a journal and/or reveal herself to be a woman in expressing her innermost thoughts.  I do not agree with this assessment.  I think it would have been perfectly reasonable for Baret to keep a journal, even talking about her experiences, feelings, and insights, without revealing her gender.  She was dressing, speaking, and behaving like a man.  It doesn't seem so far-fetched to think that she could also write like a man (or at least in a genderless manner).  I would even speculate that such writing might even further help to maintain her disguise as a man, especially given the widespread belief at the time that women were intellectually inferior to men.  

A notebook was found with Commerson's other papers, which Ridley speculates was Baret's compilation of herbal remedies written prior to the voyage.  So if Baret was the author, she was accustomed to keeping detailed records and descriptions of things that interested her.  Another point is that Baret spent much of the voyage isolated in the tiny cabin that she shared with Commerson. Perhaps she spent some of the time cataloging the collection of specimens or reading, but she certainly had plenty of time and opportunity to write down her thoughts.  If not during the voyage, she had opportunity during several years she spent on Maritius before she was able to return to France. 

It's a different matter, however, whether Baret could have managed to protect such a journal and avoid its discovery or loss during all those years.  She would either have had to hide it on the ship or take it with her on field expeditions.  She was known to carry pistols with her, even when on board the ship, to protect herself from the rowdy seamen.  She could have easily secreted a journal under her bulky clothing or in the various boxes and collecting gear while on field excursions (I keep thinking about that plant press she struggled to carry everywhere....what a great hiding place!).  Baret was eventually attacked and unmasked by some of the seamen (unidentified) while they were ashore on New Ireland.  Ridley speculates that Baret was also raped--based on the descriptions in other journals.  It's easy to imagine that any journal she might have been carrying would have also been found and possibly destroyed.

Whatever the real story, there is no existing record of Baret's experiences written in her own words. What a shame.  What could she have told us about how she survived, what amazing things did she see and experience, and what motivated her to embark on this expedition in the first place?  I like to think that she did write a journal, but kept it private.  Maybe it was destroyed or taken from her during the rape?  Perhaps it's buried somewhere at her last port of call? Perhaps she took it with her when she returned to France and it was thrown out when she died?

The point I want to make here is that it's unlikely that Jeanne Baret fully recognized the significance of her adventure or that later generations might want to know about her experiences--and especially how she managed to survive in such a hostile environment.  Baret was succeeded by female explorers who fully documented their expeditions. Mary Kingsley is one excellent example.  Today, we have the means to describe our own adventures in the field and the laboratory and have our words read by others around the world--at the click of a mouse.  What would Baret have thought of such a thing?

I don't know the statistics of how many women scientists and naturalists write about their experiences, but my impression is that it is a very small percentage (I personally know no female colleagues who have a blog and only one who writes stories about her experiences).  But this is one way for women to make their voices heard and to inspire young girls to consider science as a career. 

Who knows? What you write about today may influence future generations or even be important to future historians.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


To what extremes would you go to practice science? Women have contributed to science from ancient times, but often did so under unique circumstances. During the Middle Ages, many were prevented from making contributions because they were excluded from acquiring a formal education and holding jobs in science.  Women were believed to be incapable of intellectual thought and holding positions of authority.

Those women who managed to pursue their interest in nature and science, despite such social restrictions, provide some lessons for those of us who currently struggle with lingering obstacles to a pursuit of full and rewarding careers in science.  I'm currently reading "The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe" by Glynis Ridley.  It's about a French woman who set sail in 1766 disguised as a male valet and assistant to her botanist lover, Philibert Commerson, who was the expedition's naturalist.  In addition to having to wear tight bindings to hide her breasts (and which restricted breathing and caused a bad case of eczema), she also had to display strength and stamina equal to a man in order to maintain her disguise.  She hauled heavy equipment into the field and carried back all the collected samples (her naturalist lover was perpetually ill during the voyage and apparently left most of the heavy work to Baret).  One can only imagine the conditions she endured on an 18th century boat as well as on land during field expeditions.

How many of us would choose to endure such challenges to pursue our science?  Not many, I would guess.  For me, it would not be the physical challenges so much as the mental and emotional challenges of persevering alone, with little hope of recognition as to my contributions, no one to empathize with my situation, and the constant fear of discovery (and being abandoned on some remote shore).  It's interesting, perhaps, that such emotional challenges are not that different from those that modern female scientists experience (and list as their primary reasons for being unsatisfied with a career in science).  When you feel unwelcome, are closely scrutinized, are excluded from socializing with colleagues, not given the resources you need to compete, and are not recognized for your accomplishments, you must be extraordinarily strong and self-confident to persist.

How did Baret manage to survive and continue to work under the conditions she endured for two years?  I'm not sure we'll ever know, since she did not leave a journal that expressed her innermost feelings.  Her story is told by others through journals and ship's logs that mention her and describe the expedition.  All we know is that she did survive.  She did not return to France for a decade or more, so one can assume that she was put off the ship and left to fend for herself until she managed to find passage home.  Her lover, Commerson, died on the return voyage on the island of Mauritius at the age of 45.

It may be that Baret embarked on this expedition with the idea that she would see far away places and be able to collect plants never before described--certainly a strong lure for anyone interested in nature. This was an incredible opportunity for anyone living during that time--to sail around the world and explore areas never before described by science. Especially for an herbalist, such as Baret, the opportunity to collect new plants with new medicinal attributes must have been exciting.

She may also have thought that going as her lover's assistant would mean that they could share in this adventure and that she would be somewhat protected by this association.  However, I imagine that whatever she anticipated initially was not what she actually encountered.  Especially the barbaric ritual she endured during the crossing of the equator.

All sailors who had never crossed the equator before were put through a horrendous hazing, described in vivid detail by Commerson in his diary.  Initiates were immersed in "the pool" a contraption constructed of sail cloth and suspended from the side of the ship, into which seawater flowed and where the seamen could be safe from sharks or drowning (this was used as a type of bathtub normally).  However, during the ritual, the pool also contained excrement from the crew and livestock (according to maritime records), and the initiates were held submerged and then coated with soot.  As the initiates struggled to avoid swallowing the vile water, other crew members would beat them back with oars and hold them underwater. Most initiates endured this ritual naked. Baret, however, could not and so her clothes and bindings would have become soaked in the filth. Once out of the pool, the initiates were then bashed about the deck by the crew swinging buckets of seawater and cat-o'-nine-tails.  One can only imagine the condition Baret was in after such an experience (Commerson's journal does not say). Commerson clearly was unable to protect her.  After this event, Baret still had two month's of sailing before they reached their first port and the opportunity to escape the confines of the ship and the crew.

It's unlikely that Baret had any comprehension of what was in store for her when she and Commerson planned their adventure.  Once committed, however, she had no recourse but to continue on the voyage...either that or be left alone in some foreign port.  Today, she would have had a choice of quitting and returning home, if things did not turn out as expected. I suspect, however, that Baret would not have quit, even if she had been offered first-class passage to return to France.

Image Credit: Life Magazine, "Cus Crossing the Line/Equator"

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A (not so) Famous Female Scientist

This past week I've been reading the book, "The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe" by Glynis Ridley.  It's about a French woman who set sail in 1766 disguised as a male valet and assistant to her botanist lover, Philibert Commerson, who was the expedition's naturalist.

Baret was an accomplished botanist herself, although her expertise was self-taught.  The book credits Baret with the "discovery" of the bougainvillea plant, which Commerson named in honor of the expedition captain, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.  While Commerson was laid up with leg ulcers, Baret went ashore alone collecting plants and insects near Rio de Jainero. She returned to the ship with several boughs of the showy vine as well as seeds, which ultimately led to the plant's introduction to the rest of the world.  Ridley speculates that Baret collected the plant because she thought it might have some healing properties with which she could treat Commerson's nearly gangrenous leg.  Turns out that the plant has no such medicinal properties, but has been a success as an ornamental in tropical and sub-tropical gardens.

Baret was an accomplished "herb woman", familiar with plants in her native France and plant-based remedies for various ailments.  The beginning of the book makes the point that much of the botanical (and associated medical) knowledge of the time resided with such women.  Men who enjoyed professional positions as professors of botany or medical doctors got much of their information about plants and their properties from these female experts (typically in secret).  Apparently, many of these male professors and doctors never bothered to go out in nature to observe plants, preferring instead to study about them in books and classrooms.  The more enlightened ones recognized the value of this knowledge that had been painstakingly gathered over generations; so they regularly visited herb women to get information or to purchase dried herbs for use in their medical practices.  This is how Commerson apparently became acquainted with Baret, who ultimately became his housekeeper and lover. 

Baret never received credit for the discovery of bougainvillea, nor for anything else, including surviving a grueling two-year trip around the world with a boat load of suspicious seamen.  She hid her feminine physique under tight bindings around her breasts (which led to a horrendous case of eczema) and a loose, bulky sailor outfit.  Rumors still broke out among the seamen about a woman being on board (naval law prohibited women from sailing on any vessel).  She apparently countered this rumor with a clever story about being a eunuch, which played into the fears of every man on board, who immediately recoiled from any further investigation into Baret's gender (although not all ship occupants were so convinced).

That's about as far as I've gotten in the book.  My impression is that Ridley has done extensive research, but has filled in a lot of blanks based on deductive reasoning and educated guesses.  It's a fascinating story and one that makes our modern trials and tribulations as women in science look pretty minor.  Perhaps I'll have more thoughts on that after I finish the book.

‘MAD LLA BARÉ’, Engraving, artist unknown. From Navigazioni de Cook pel grande oceano e itorno al globo, Volume 2, 1816, Sonzogono e Comp, Milano.

Photo of bougainvillea, modified from image at

Monday, January 3, 2011

The 90 Second Science Report

Could you explain your research in 90 seconds or less?  Ten years ago, the American Institute of Physics created Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science (DBIS) as a way to provide lay audiences with accurate and reliable science information.  One of the talks I heard at the AGU meeting a couple of weeks ago was given by Emilie Lorditch entitled "Everything I Need to Know about Science Communication, I Learned from Local Television News".  Lorditch is a media specialist.

She described the process whereby DBIS distributes twelve 90-second news segments to local TV stations in the US and abroad each month.  They cover a range of topics from astronomy to zoology. Story ideas go through a rigorous background research and peer review (by scientists and media).  They identify research breakthroughs in different scientific fields and put together these short news reports, which are then distributed.  National and international news programs pick them up and use them in their broadcasts.

I think that the approach used by DBIS is a very effective one.  Instead of waiting for the media to do a hasty report (usually with errors) on a science finding, they prepare careful stories that are checked beforehand by scientists.  By limiting these reports to 90 seconds, they not only provide news segments that can be aired immediately, but also focus on the most important message.  The network of news stations that subscribe to their newsfeed totals 60 stations, representing a potential audience of 70 million.

Lorditch had a couple of insights to share.  One was that real people make the story.  The scientists are center stage in the news segment--sending the message that real people are behind the science.  The other point she made was that visuals and animations were important in getting the science message across.  People reported that what they remembered about a news story was often an animation or demonstration explaining some aspect of the science.  In other words, the talking heads approach is not the most effective in getting a science message across.  Yet, that is often what you see--a scientist being interviewed about some discovery or asked to comment about an environmental disaster.

Even a simple slide show inserted into a story does a great job of providing lasting images and also illustrates the main message of the story.  See this site for an example (involving computer-generated snow crystals).  One of my favorites is a story about phantom traffic jams (when traffic back-ups occur for no apparent reason)--something I often encounter in my own commuting.   See below for the 40 second animation showing the scientists' model in action (of how traffic jams occur).

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Plain Speak

One of the charges made about scientists in their attempts to communicate science is the tendency to use jargon.  Jargon is defined as "vocabulary peculiar to a specific trade, profession, or group".  Jargon is necessary within science to convey information accurately and simultaneously save time in getting our message across.  The problem arises when we try to speak to those outside our profession and who are not familiar with our technical terms.

I've encountered junior scientists who think that the more complicated their terminology, the more knowledgeable they will appear to others.  I had a former post-doc who insisted that writing or speaking about science using concise, simple language was wrong.  Her point was that to uphold the image of the scientist as the expert, one must speak in technical language (the more obtuse, the better).  If others could not follow, too bad. I strongly disagreed with her viewpoint. Even when writing for technical audiences, use of straightforward sentence structures and simple terms where possible is preferable.  The reason is that you must prepare your text or presentation from the viewpoint of the reader (or the audience).  You are familiar with your information, but your audience is not.  It's your responsibility to present that information in a way that is that particular audience.   If you make them work hard to figure out what it is that you are trying to say, you may fail to reach them, or even antagonize your audience.

I could provide a lot of examples, but here is a great essay written by a former director of USGS in 1921.  It is just as relevant today as it was then.

Photo Credit: modified Life magazine photo of a volcanologist speaking to the media.