In the United States of America, only 25% of STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) workers are female. Across the pond in the United Kingdom, it’s even worse at 13%. In the African country of Guinea, only 5.8% of its science researchers are female. Many theories have been published about the lack of female scientists but entertainment has played their part in the fiasco.
Professor Sarah Hentges wrote in her book, Pictures of Girlhood: Modern Female Adolescence on Film, that “as a girl, I came to expect very little of myself because the popular culture where I saw myself reflected, directly or indirectly, expected very little from me, and reflect little of me.If I had a boyfriend or husband, some kids, maybe a job and a hour, then I had exactly what any woman should want.”
Does entertainment create the environment in which we live or does art simply reflect our environments as it is? Either way, television shows, films, books and other media can have the power to show reality as that creator WANTS it to be. This is another reason why the current tropes for female scientists can be so annoying…
The Quirky Assistant
Everybody needs a sidekick and why not make it someone quirky that can provide humor either through sarcasm or being socially inept? Naturally, she should be female. Then, when your show is lacking in angst, she can be easily disposed of like Winifred Burkle, Beverly Katz, Toshiko Sato, Esther Drummond, and very possibly, Osgood and Jemma Simmons. In the case of Ava Ayala, she hasn’t been seen in almost six months on Ultimate Spider-Man.
Of course, Abby Sciuto, Penelope Garcia and Daisy Wick have survived but their characters are often described by their traits, “that goth girl from NCIS” rather than actual names. Their quirks outshine their talents. Two exceptions to this rule would be Darcy Lewis and Cosima Niehaus. While Lewis’ major was Political Science, she has learned enough Physics to prove herself an invaluable assistant to Jane Foster. Niehaus has a variety of plot-lines, from her illness to her girlfriends but her skill in science and desire to get her Ph.D. in Microbiology is always foremost to this character’s being.
Because a woman can’t be a genius unless she’s inept in some other way, right? There is some truth in that because studies have proven how higher intelligence and the Autism spectrum are linked but it still feels like a need to make a smart female inferior by making her lack social skills or hate talking to other people. Some examples of this include Temperance Brennan, Dr. Patricia Tannis, Maura Isles, Doctor K, Claudia Donovan and Alice Morgan. Of course, if they did admit that these characters were on the Autism spectrum, then that would make things better by providing a successful role model to look up to. While diagnoses are typically male, the numbers are skewed because females are either diagnosed later or not at all. Perhaps a diagnosis later in life to a major character could even inspire others to see if they should be tested, too. Otherwise, you’re taking a capable, intelligent woman and turning her into “the bitch.”
The Taken for Granted Medical Examiner
Since the lead character(s) is male and/or Caucasian, let’s use the medical examiner character to have some diversity! She’ll be allowed to have 1-3 scenes per episode except for sweeps when she might be allowed to have her own episode in an attempt to prove she’s just as important as the rest of the cast…but she really isn’t. These under-used characters include Lanie Parish, Dr. Camille Saroyan, Elizabeth Rodgers, Melinda Warner, Molly Hooper, Kate Wilding and Loretta Wade. There are two exceptions. Maura Isles is already an “Aloof Genius” and star of her show. Leslie Thompkins could easily be the taken for granted medical examiner or just be the romantic interest for James Gordon but she puts him in his place about trying to control her, “You’re a hypocrite. You say you want a strong woman to share your life with but you want me to stay home and bake cookies.” Hopefully, this powerful character isn’t weakened by becoming a regular on Gotham‘s second season.
She’s smart, successful and usually drop dead gorgeous but it typically won’t matter because her plot-lines are almost all about her male companion. The worst at this have been the Transformers films. They had a mechanic, an engineer and a geologist -all female- and they reduced all of them to screaming and waiting for a male to rescue them. Then, there’s River Song; extremely bright with a million college degrees and a doctor in her own right, but we only get to see her due to her husband being the Doctor. We never get to see what she did away from him. Martha Jones stopped being the Doctor’s companion in order to escape his shadow and grow into a better person and better doctor. Then, the majority of her last few appearances concerned either how she was engaged or that she married a different man more than her professional achievements. Why should that be a defining part of her character? The Elfhome series stars a wonderful female named Tinker who’s a mechanical genius but is thrust into adventures because of her husband. In The Big Bang Theory, several smart females make up the cast including Mayim Bialik who has a Ph.D. in real life, but in the show, she’s still basically known as Sheldon’s girlfriend. Dr. Marta Shearing must have been an incredibly smart women for the CIA to hire her for their top secret project but she quickly becomes little more than Aaron Cross’ girlfriend.
In a 2012 study released by the Girl Scouts, “Half (50%) of African American girls (compared to 38% of Caucasian girls) agree with the statement: ‘Because I am female, I would NOT be treated equally by the men I studied/worked with if I pursued a career in STEM.'”
Even Lauren Lewis on Lost Girl is often defined by her relationship status although her partners are women. At least Jane Foster did propel the plot forward by using her science skills and wasn’t dependent on Thor. We’ll see if Sue Storm’s intelligence will be allowed to shine in the Fantastic Four reboot. Women need not have an awesome boyfriend to provide good plots as Avery Ryan and Helen Magnus attest. Ryan is in charge of her own C.S.I. division and Magnus controls a whole Sanctuary of supernatural beings. Magnus is one of the best examples because they spent four seasons with her as the star without focusing on her relationships while showcasing her as an extremely brilliant scientist.
Dumbed Down Female
Now, we can’t have females being too smart and competent. It would make the men look bad or maybe we’d be accused of creating a Mary Sue. In May, the Telegraph reported Salma Hayek “saying she’s seen strong female characters in scripts get ‘dumbed down’ so as to not to outshine the leading man.”
The comic book companies are the most easily exposed with this. In the comics, Bobbi Morse held a Ph.D. in Biology as well as being a skilled ass-kicker. She should have become BFFs with Jemma Simmons, right? Nope, in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Morse has been given a fear of needles and is strictly a weapons expert. The show has made a hard line that weapons experts use weapons and science experts use science but wouldn’t that make a scientist even more exciting to a young mind? That she can create a new element or invent a new device AND save everyone around her if need be? Even Hope van Dyne must be an expert scientist in Ant-Man but the trailers have only shown how well she can throw a punch. Maybe Skye will be the answer. The season finale a couple of months ago finally had Skye using her new powers as Quake AND her hacking prowess, showing that science could work hand in hand with action, even as a female. It had been so long since Skye’s information technology talents had been used that even the character had to be reminded of them. It’s similar to when Willow Rosenberg seemed to drop all her science interests to be a witch. Jane Foster is about the only example where her character went from being a nurse in the original comics to an Astrophysicist in the films and in many ways, is more intelligent than Thor.
DC hasn’t always been better either. in 2012, they debuted the animated series of shorts, Super Best Friends Forever, where Wonder Woman and other female superheroes were teenagers. However, this somehow means that there’s almost no crime fighting and the young heroes think ideas, like stealing Wonder Woman’s invisible jet to get burritos, are totally awesome. Lastly, there’s Elena Neves who appeared to be highly skilled in criminal sciences in Fast Five but by Fast & Furious 6 and Furious 7, she was nothing more than a glorified babysitter. Literally, she watched over a baby for almost all of Fast & Furious 6 and missed the climatic battle of Furious 7 while watching over a young girl. Even Synergy, who was a powerful computer program and not even a real person, has been dumbed down in the new Jem and the Holograms film to a 1970s era robot that even Johnny 5 would side-eye. The fact that the robot only seems capable of playing home movies and being nothing more than an extension of Jerrica’s father makes it even worse.
It’s Okay if You’re Young
When a girl is young, there are lots of options for fictional role models. Disney Junior has Doc McStuffins about an African-American girl who’s a doctor to her toys just as her parents treat humans. The Octonauts have females for their engineer and Information Technology Officer. There are also new adventures with Tinker Bell where she proves her name was earned by her mechanical prowess. Over at Nickelodeon, they continue to have Dora the Explorer traveling all over the world and learning new things. Then, Nickelodeon decided to have a series with an older Dora as well. In the original series, Dora, along with a monkey, seemingly Gallifreyan backpack and a magical map, proved to be self reliant and able to take care of herself whatever the situation held all over the world. She also helped out her cousins, Diego and Alicia, who rescue animals. Alicia is shown as an expert in Information Technology. With both these positive role models, Dora found her own scientific niche, right? Maybe she aims to be a biologist or animal researcher?
While Dora is a community organizer in a few of the episodes of Dora and Friends: Into the City!, she’s less confident. She relies on her friends to provide knowledge like mathematics or science. For every viewer wondering what happened to her, there’s just as many or not more parents wondering the same about their own daughter.
Studies have shown that by age seven, children will automatically draw a scientist as a Caucasian male in a lab coat. While 66% of females in fourth grade report liking science, as they grow older, interest in math and science careers wanes. Dora becomes the norm; the girl who loses her confidence and lets other people know the answers instead. Wouldn’t there be role models to aspire to in children’s television as they grew older like there was when they were preschool age? No, there isn’t a consistent series with a female scientist as a lead character and aimed towards ‘tweens. Why is that? Is it because shows about fashion and boys are easier to market and turn into profitable merchandise even though it hurts the global economy not to have more women in science? The United Kingdom released a report earlier this year that 43% of their vacant STEM jobs are hard to fill because it’s hard to find people qualified for those positions. Every country in the world is reporting similar findings of their own.
Where are the female scientists in Young Adult literature?
Most readers have a fondness for Young Adult literature at some point in their life. It’s what causes a child to wait patiently on their 11th birthday for an owl to appear, climb inside wardrobes or have opinions on whether a vampire could be sparkly or not. So, where are the female scientists? In the classic series, A Wrinkle in Time, the main character’s mother is an accomplished microbiologist with two finished doctorates. This was over 50 years ago so where are they now?
There is the novel, Cinder, where this telling of Cinderella has her first getting the prince’s attention because of her mechanical abilities. The Babysitter’s Club series always encouraged its members in all their achievements including Stacey McGill being a Mathlete and the books are being re-released in graphic novel form. A critically acclaimed but relatively new book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making, features a girl, September, who did just what the title says and won a sword that took the form of a wrench. Her mother is an airplane mechanic during World War II and September remarks, “that some girls worked hard at training to be a quality wife and a mother to children that would one day be born. But her mother did all that and also made airplanes fly with just a wrench and her own good brain.”
However, one of the greatest Young Adult scientific heroines ever created is Yoko Tsuno. While raised in Japan, Tsuno lives in Belgium as an electrical engineer. She has a black belt in akido, can pilot most flying vehicles including ones to other planets and is a skilled SCUBA diver. Tsuno is also part Chinese and her companions include all races, even aliens. She’s even more impressive since the first story was published in 1970 and sadly, you probably have never even heard of her. How could that be? Why would such an awesome woman be kept hidden? Even though she’s been in print for 45 years, it wasn’t until 1989 that they were translated from French into English. Since then, only ten of the graphic novels are available in English. There are no television or cinematic adaptations. Which is scarier to Hollywood: that she’s a biracial Japanese female or a female scientist with a black belt?
Why is it so important anyway?
Why does it matter that entertainment doesn’t support female scientists? It matters because entertainment can influence career paths. After the popularity of Dana Scully and Sydney Bristow, the FBI and CIA both reported increases of interest in joining those organizations. The majority of females in STEM occupations in television or film are going to be in medical related fields and that corresponds with the real world. While only 25% of STEM jobs are filled by women, women make up 75% of the health-care workforce in most countries. Nearly 72% of students seeking to become a Psychiatrist are women. What would the numbers be if there was an equal amount of female characters shown who were engineers or technology experts? Would some of those entering the health-care field decide to try an interest they didn’t realize was available to them?
Bright Patches of Possibility
There has been enough public outcry that corporations are starting to change. It may be slower than a Snorlax but it’s still change. Marvel has held scientific competitions where the grand prize winner is flown to the films’ world premieres. For Ant-Man, girls, aged 14-18, had to build an easily reproduced device that incorporated at least one inexpensive micro-tech component. The winning designs included everything from a bubble blower to a smart shower head to a teddy bear with voice and facial recognition that could be upgraded to scan for health problems.
DC has launched the DC Super Hero Girls; this will be an interactive site. Right now, only the character descriptions are up. Some are good like Bumblebee made the technology that shrinks her down to bumblebee size and Poison Ivy is a Botany genius but shouldn’t that be Botanist and why has Harley Quinn been turned into the Class Clown when she was a licensed Psychiatrist? Another bright spot is on ABC Family of all places. Even though the rating is TV-14, Pretty Little Liars is one of the top rated shows for teenagers. One of its main characters, Spencer Hastings, loves science so much that she enjoys reading about satellites and in her spare time, she built a working Electro-Magnetic Pulse. Plus, Rise of the Tomb Raider comes out November 10th.
Hope for the Future
Improvement should be coming in the future. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Vision was also partially created by Dr. Helen Cho and in 2018, they’ll release Captain Marvel whose title character is skilled in military science. It’s not clear when we’ll have a film starring a female hero with more traditional science skills. Natasha Romanoff is quite skilled in computer sciences but Marvel appears reluctant to give Black Widow her own film.
Meanwhile, DC is coming out with the Suicide Squad next summer. Among its females are a Psychiatrist and a Doctor of Political Science. Maybe Tina McGee will have a more crucial role on the Flash along with Patty Spivot appearing next season.
The most exciting upcoming project for using female scientists is Ghostbusters. In the original Ghostbusters, the three of the team members had Ph.Ds in Parapsychology and one had a second in Psychology. It stands to reason that the new female team should have an equal or better set of credentials. Someone’s also going to need to be an expert in engineering to create those proton packs and other equipment. The use of a Faraday cage in miniature form suggests a knowledge of Physics as well. Please don’t let this film fall into Dumbed Down Female.
Did you see the United States beat Japan for the Women’s World Cup?
Did you know that their win meant that they were entitled to $15 million or just $7 million more for winning than the United States men’s team received for losing in the 16th round last year?
FIFA should reconsider after learning that it was the most watched soccer game in United States’ history and the highest rated female soccer game on Telemundo. The game attracted just under 23 million viewers, almost as many viewers as game 7 of last year’s World Series.
Next Week… Supergirl…did the new series warrant the bashing online or should it be given a second chance?