A Discussion about the Depiction of Female Scientists in Fiction – Part one

In the previous two blog posts, I’ve posted images of the depictions of female scientists on television and in movies. In recent years, there has been an increase in the depiction of female scientists in both main stream shows and in Science Fiction and Fantasy shows. However, even back in the Sixties and early Seventies, I can remember watching Liz Shaw on Doctor Who, Colonel Lake from UFO and Doctor Steele on Get Smart. 

Doctor Steele from Get Smart – gadget inventor and chorus girl.

All of these women have been attractive, but that is pretty standard for actresses so I am glossing over this aspect. Handsome is as handsome does. It is the intelligence and the academic achievements of these women that have caught my imagination over so many years.  After all, the eight year old girl that I once was would have needed role models to get the idea she wanted to be a scientist when she grew up.

I studied zoology at university for my first bachelor degree. This is not me. I only wish I looked this confident at university when I was a teen.

There were no real life women scientists I could relate to as a child – Marie Curie was the only one taught in school and she was so many years ago. The only ‘real’ scientists I could watch on television were Professor Julius Sumner Miller, and the zoologist Rob Morrison and Dr Deane Hutton from The Curiosity Show. And, of course, I read everything I could by Isaac Asimov.

Fictional female scientists tend not to be married to their career and often appear to have private lives with romantic entanglements. Often, when they do marry, it seems as if they reject other scientists and marry action men, like Doctor Temperance Brennan, Doctor Allison Blake, Doctor Julia Ogden (though Detective Murdoch is an inventor and technophile), but some marry/become engaged to fellow scientists, such as Doctor Allison Blake (obviously doesn’t have a type);  Dr Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz ; Dr Amy Fowler; Doctor Grace Monroe and  Kim Anderson – who both marry Henry Deacon (rocket scientist/engineer who obviously does have a type – genius women). Not every female scientist is paired up romantically, with my best examples being Petronella Osgood and Liz Shaw. Generally though, a female scientist does seem to have some romance in her life … and are often shown to be less awkward and socially adept than male scientists (think Fitz and Simmons from Marvel’s AOS).

There doesn’t seem to be any restriction on what sort of scientist a woman is in fictional universes. All the sciences are covered, from the biological, medical and life sciences, the so-called ‘hard’ sciences of physics and chemistry, to the ‘softer’ sciences of psychology and sociology. Actually, I fiercely reject the designation of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, because it is an artificial categorisation that valorizes the hard over the soft, just as our Western culture tends to valorize the masculine traits over the feminine traits. You can’t tell me that ‘dark matter’ is any more important that supporting mental health. In the Victorian era, the only science that women where ‘encouraged’ to follow were the botanical sciences, because flowers were a suitable subject to ‘amuse and entertain’ woman scholars. I’m glad to see physicists and rocket scientists are among our fictional women of science.

“When can I find the time to do proper science when I have to maintain this hair and make-up?” 

One can’t help but wonder if pop culture is trying to explain that even a genius is still just an ordinary girl, by making these characters more well rounded than their masculine counterparts. Amy from The Big Bang Theory started off as a feminine version of Sheldon, but as her character became more important in the show, she started to develop into a well-rounded character with emotions and character flaws and unexpected strengths … while Sheldon’s character has grown very little in comparison. I would argue that Amy’s character has gone through the most growth of any other character on the show, from a logical Vulcan-like stereotype to a proper 3D personality … an ordinary woman, with her extraordinary mind becoming less important to her characterization. Surely an extraordinary mind is allowed to be a little quirky?  Why settle for ordinary?

Real life people are layered and have personal quirks. Extraordinary people tend not to settle for the ordinary.

Doctor Patricia Bath – real life inventor and woman of science

Tomorrow, this discussion will continue to explore the depiction of Fictional Women of Science

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Filed under Characterization, Pop Culture, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, Stereotypes, Uncategorized, Women in Science

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