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"But you don't look like a scientist"

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

Abigail Joyce casts a spotlight on the portrayal of female scientists in the media

As we approach film awards season, there is often an increased awareness seen in the general public for the lack of representation of many groups in popular media. The 11th of February marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and, having worked with young aspiring female scientists at schools, it is obvious that positive role models in this particular field in the media are scarce. Hearing the phrase “but you don’t look like a scientist” from a young girl in a class I was teaching highlighted that the majority of the next generation of scientists still have a very clichéd view of what the role involves. This stereotypically includes wearing glasses and a lab coat, and a certain degree of social ineptitude; and, of note, being male. Portrayals in film often contribute to this view via either underrepresentation or misrepresentation of female scientists as well as perpetuation of aged stereotypes of what a “typical scientist” looks and acts like.

Although many argue that film and media portray dramatised and inaccurate depictions of real life, in actuality they mirror the social attitudes and opinions of our era, weaving them into narratives for the purpose of entertainment. In all media, 82% of all characters in key scientific roles are male, and any women scientists are often demoted into supporting roles in which the focus of their storyline is either romantic or non-existent. Their roles also often highlight an imbalance in femininity or intellect. In other words, because they are a scientist, they are not a “real” woman and because they are a woman they are not a “proper” scientist. Their intelligence and achievements are often shown as inferior to that of male characters or “put to one side” to make way for a romantic plot.

Although the portrayal of strong, intelligent women on the silver screen has greatly improved in the last few decades, movies that centre around a male scientist’s endeavours have fabricated female scientist characters for the sake of representation. Many have argued that a more substantial way to contribute to accurate representation would be to produce films focusing on the achievements of real female scientists.

There are also arguments that these increasingly out-of-touch portrayals of real people working within scientific fields increases the polarisation between the general public and the scientific community. This is because it is not an accurate form of scientific communication and continually portrays scientists as indifferent and socially displaced.

As a science student, I have always found it difficult to find authentic, female fictional scientists, as many are portrayed either as geniuses in their field who also happen to excel in every other field, just to compensate for them being female, or are diminished in their role as a scientist in favour of being the romantic interest. Furthermore, when a female scientist is portrayed as strong, driven and ambitious, it is often related to some form of tragic event in her past that has spurred her on in the hopes of revenge or retribution.

Recent years have brought more and more hopeful female representation in media which I can only hope will provide more well-rounded fictional female role models for the future generation of women scientists.

From Issue 20

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