For fictional scientists, I do believe this to be the case … every character I have posted about over the past three blogs has her character defined by her femininity in some way. This may seem obvious because they are women, but male scientists are generally not defined by their masculinity, but by their job. This underlines the (often unconscious) bias that people have towards an expectation of a character; people associate science, maths, engineering and technology with men. When personal computers first became available for home use, they were marketed towards men and boys even though just as many women and girls were purchasing them.
The best example of this phenomena would be to contrast the two scientists from the same show, such as Amy and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory … or Bernadette and Howard. As I discussed Amy last blog, let’s run with this second couple.
When we first encounter Bernadette, she is working with Penny at the Cheesecake Factory, while studying microbiology. She is better friends with the non-scientist Penny than with Amy, even though they are both scientists with doctorates in the biological sciences; I see nothing odd about this, as she was friends with Penny first. She breaks the stereotype of being a ‘dumb’ blonde, and is pretty, buxom and short; however, she is also strong-willed and knows her own mind. I suspect she loves Howard partly because she can dominate him both emotionally and intellectually, even though he is an aerospace engineer and an astronaut, and partly because he is basically tender-hearted and loyal and he sings her songs he had written himself.
Howard loves Bernadette because she is beautiful and sexy and smart, and she got on with his mother. He was a Mummy’s Boy. He met Bernadette through Penny, and the start of their relationship was quite rocky, mainly due to Howard’s inability to understand women while thinking he knows all about them. Since marrying Bernadette, his ‘creep’ factor has been dialled down. Bernadette finds Howard’s friendship with Raj a little wearying, but she still manages to accept most of their strange behaviour when together. Bernadette started off as a comedic foil for Howard, but her role has been expanded.
Both Bernadette and Howard have managed to cause major accidents at work, and survived with careers intact. Bernadette makes more than Howard, but Howard has been an astronaut and helped run Mars missions. You might consider their careers on par, even though Bernadette has a doctorate and Howard has a Master’s degree (which is a sore point with him, but he never seems to be doing anything to gain a PhD).
However, when the three women interact, they generally talk about their men, even though two of them are scientists in the same field. When the male characters interact, they talk about their pop culture obsessions, their work, and their women. See the difference? Howard has been given a whole range of interests outside his work – music, comics, movies, and his magic tricks. Bernadette seems to have no hobbies worth mentioning, and seems to spend her free time gossiping with Penny & Amy or doing girly activities with them like clubbing.
And this is the root of the problem. Bernadette is written to be just an ordinary girl … with an extraordinary mind. In a very real way, Bernadette has been stereotyped not as a scientist but as a woman. Her gender is more important to her characterization than her intellect or career. Characterization shouldn’t work that way.
Look at Brennan from Bones. Her character started off with many personal quirks that related directly back to her career and personality. I suspect it was to be inferred that Brennan was a little weird, possibly she had Asperger’s, because everyone knows that too much knowledge melts your brain (looking at you, Sheldon). As time has passed, she has been normalized as a wife and mother, with a reduction of her awkwardness and those strange little gaps in her knowledge, and a reduction in her enthusiasm for risks.
Now, who is an exception to this need to domesticate the extraordinary into the ordinary? Professor River Song of Doctor Who. She has a PhD in Archaeology, but her characterization has grown to show her to be a free-thinker, a vigilante, a risk-taker and problem-solver, who is scary enough that a Dalek will beg for mercy. She embraces her femininity and at the same time is a gun-toting adventurer with a sassy attitude. No one tells her what to do – not even the love of her life, the Doctor. Nor does she settle into being a domesticated wife and mother after they marry; they lead independent lives, coming together when needs be. Instead, her personal growth is about becoming more responsible and caring for other people, so that her ethics improve if not her morals. River breaks all expectations and stereotypes.
Another exception is Doctor Julia Ogden from Murdoch Mysteries. Not only has Julia not given up her career upon marriage – because the expectation was that a woman’s real job should be to look after her husband and home – but she hasn’t given up on her enthusiasm for the suffragette movement. This pleases me immensely, that the Steampunk-inspired television show has broken all the Edwardian-eras expectations of conforming behaviour. Even after marriage, Julia is still fey, flirtatious, and prepared to try new things. I am yet to see her character show any signs of her extraordinary personality and intellect being made to change with marriage.
Tomorrow, I will be pondering further into the implications of the depiction of fictional women of science.
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