Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Women scientists on the big screen

All, right, folks. Let's make a list of movies that include women scientists as characters. Feel free to debate the relative stereotypical-ness of each. I'm afraid it'll be a short list, but please, prove me wrong! (And give me something to watch on the various planes I'll be on this summer.)

Caveat: I don't think physicists in hot pants count, unless they're actually doing any physics.

I already call Jodie in "Contact".

25 comments:

lorax said...

I _think_ the female lead in Jurassic Park was a paleontologist, though that's a hazy memory at best.

Twice said...

Lorraine Bracco's character in Medicine Man and the Dian Fossey character in Gorillas in the Mist are the only two I can think of right now.

TenureTrackNewbie said...

How about agent Scully in the X-Files? A woman scientist with a gun - I think that must be most alarming to society.

Anne said...

There's Tempe Brennan in Kathy Reichs' books, and the TV series ("Bones"?) based on them. Okay, not technically a working scientist (she's a forensic anthropologist working for the police) and not technically a movie. The field is getting thin...

estraven said...

There's a woman mathematician in Proof. I don't remember the name, though.

kyrademon said...

Dr. Susan Calvin in I, Robot.

Dr. Karen Jenson in Blade.

Dr. Aki Ross in Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within.

Dr. Evelyn Carnahan in The Mummy and The Mummy Returns.

Dr. Jo Harding in Twister.

Dr. Susan McCallister in Deep Blue Sea.

Dr. Emma Russell in The Saint.

Dr. Allison Reed in Evoution.

Dr. Karen Ross in Congo.

kyrademon said...

Some analysis: poking around the web, it looks like some informal studies have shown that about 22% of scientists in movies are female.

Looking at the examples so far in the responses, I'd say that the most common appearance is as an adjunct to a male action hero, providing useful information, and often being a love interest, but in general being a second banana.

However, also fairly common is a male-female two-scientist team of roughly equal importance. Most often, but not always, this variety either comes as an already-together mated pair, or is portrayed as having existing sexual tension between them.

Significantly more rare is the female scientist presented as the hero of her own movie, but there are in fact quite a few notable instances of this, including Contact, Proof, Gorillas In The Mist, and a number of others. Even Tomb Raider could be said to be a variant of this genre, albeit focusing on action rather than science.

Television shows, which are far more often ensemble pieces, actually tend to have a better representation (in movies featuring several scientists, espcially ensemble pieces with no clear single protagonists, there is almost always one female scientist; the same is true of television, and more common.) Most television shows which are likely to feature scientists, such as science fiction, medical, and science-oriented legal drama, are likely to have a female scientist or two.

I think this can be attributed primarily to the legacy of Star Trek, which entrenched in the genre the idea of a team of experts who were mixed-gender and mixed-race. However, the existence and influence of strong female characters in soap operas is also probably a factor.

Chuck said...

Was Jodi ever seen actually doing any science in Contact?

Does Marie Curie in "Young Einstein" count?

lorax said...

Jodie was seen doing movie science.

She was sitting out on the hood of a truck with a laptop, listening on headphones to the signals the VLA was receiving. Not something a real radio astronomer would do [hey, astrodyke, there's a post idea for you!] but it was supposed to be showing her doing science.

Anne said...

There are of course people who question whether SETI is actually science...

Anne said...

Actually, listening to data is not such an unreasonable thing to do. When I went to a talk by Joanna Rankin, she played tapes of pulsar signals - and there was interesting data to be heard (nulling patterns sometimes have structure and sometimes don't, and the ear's not a bad way to look for it). By contrast the Jodrell bank or GBT pulsar recordings are more entertaining but less informative. I grant you nobody's plugging their headphones into the VLA, but I am reminded of Jocelyn Bell's comment that if she had been using computers to analyze her data she would never have made the discovery of the first pulsar that won her supervisor the Nobel prize.

Chuck said...

How did she not share that prize?

Anonymous said...

Lindsey Brigman in The Abyss? Or is she an engineer?

The woman in Jurassic Park is Dr. Ellie Sattler.

You are, I assume, familiar with Bechdel's Law? ("I only watch movies with 1) at least two woman characters, who 2) talk to each other, about 3) something besides a man")

Anonymous said...

Postscript: If you don't mind pretty fluffy scientists spouting technobabble in action movies, there's Dr. Lillian Reynolds in Brainstorm

Exl Blogger said...

What about Jean Grey in the X-Men movies? She's both house MD and the lead mutant medical research scientist at Xavier's school. Given the mutated physiologies of her patients, she's often stuck doing science rather than medicine.

This is off on a tangent, but I was reading entomologist Mae Berenbaum's Buzzwords and she was sort of the model for an X Files scientist, Bambi Berenbaum. According the writer, she was the starting point at least. You can guess where the end point was with the name Bambi.

Exl Blogger said...

How about the spunky gal geologist in Tremors? The threat is from underground, and she actually does the old hypothesis, experiment, conclusion thing.

I'd mention Andromeda Strain, but it was such a bad movie, that I've sort of forgotten if there was any science in it. I saw it at MIT, and there was an awful lot of hooting.

Flicka Mawa said...

Just wanted to comment that I've watched every episode of Bones, and she definitely does still do research too, it's just not often depicted as part of the show, but it's occasionally shown. Like when she had some bones to analyze that had recently been discovered, and she was planning to spend the whole weekend on it. It was used in the show more as character development than a focal point, but that only matters if you're going to make the distinction that the science she does for the FBI isn't enough. I think it's still great; she and her team use science constantly to get information from the bones that a layman would never dream possible. She is quite a positive character, and as the namesake of the show, is not just a sidekick.

Also I would comment that although Cameron in House MD is a medical doctor, she is shown as publishing papers based on the cases the team gets, and as the seasons have progressed has been depicted as more and more logical over emotional.

I also put in a vote for Jean from X-Men.

The Royal House of Edan said...

Dr. Pat Medford in "Them!" (entomologist, did some little science on screen)

Dr. Margo Green in "The Relic" (Paleontologist, I think,a s well as lead character). Although the character of Dr. Green is a bit petulant, there are also two other strong female scientists in the cast and a fair amount of (movie) science.

Top of my head stuff, here. The classic monster films had a ton more and were more positive than you might think. for example, in "Creature from the Black Lagoon" it is made clear that A) Kay Lawrence is the best actual scientist in the group B) her male boss is not only a lecherous jerk, but uses her to bolster his institute's scientific rep, and C) Her scientist boyfriend owes his job to her.

astrodyke said...

You guys are awesome -- what great contributions.

Kyra, that's the thoughtful analysis I'd expect from you. Have a vegan donut.

Re listening to yer data: speakers have played pulsars and variable stars during talks I've attended; as anne said, they're neat. Still, as many of you know, the VLA's an interferometer, and unless y'all do Fourier decomposition in yer heads, there's not much point in listening. Though I *suppose* in the context of the movie, each telescope could be pointed at a different star, in single-dish mode. In any case, the VLA operators keep a signed photo of Jodie in the control room.

anonymous, thanks for mentioning Alyson Bechdel's comic strip about movies. The punchline is, "That must be hard." "Yah. The last movie I could see was Alien. The two women talk about the monster."

I will nominate the chick astronomer opposing Sean Connery in the TERRIBLE disaster flick Meteor (1979). As I recall, she was trained as an astronomer, but could only get hired as a secretary (ouch). "Meteor" features the famous line, "Shit, five miles!" (Just say it with a Sean Connery accent, and you'll see why it's brilliant.)

Any insights on why so many of the chick scientists on the screen are medical doctors? Is this just the ubiquity of hospital & crime dramas, since they involve exciting life-or-death situations?

Anne said...

I was all enthusiastic about writing a quick hack so I could listen to the data we were taking with the GBT, but it turns out that 90 GB/hr hammers the computer's IO system so much I didn't dare do anything clever. I would have been hearing RFI anyway...

As for why so many women doctors on TV, the feminist answer is that a doctor is a caring, nurturing role, and therefore more acceptable for women. I'm not convinced. There definitely are more doctors, period, presumably because it's easier to produce televisable drama there than in, say, astronomy...

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Uriah said...

the world is not enough, denise richards plays scientist christmas jones :-P