A Discussion of the Depiction of Fictional Women Scientists – Part Two


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.

Bernadette the Pocket Rocket marries her Howie.

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.

Raj – the co-dependant best friend

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.

The shared bedroom – with little evidence of Bernadette’s personality.

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.

The domestication of an extraordinary scientist

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.

River in action outfit

Professor River Song from Doctor Who – a doctorate in Archaeology

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.

For those who are interested, I have two pages on Facebook:



Doctor Who!







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

9 responses to “A Discussion of the Depiction of Fictional Women Scientists – Part Two

  1. NOW we’re getting to the nitty-gritty. Good work. (I got bogged in the detail sometimes – but I’ve never watched any of these shows. That would’ve helped, ‘spose.)

  2. First of all I always love how although my knowledge of steampunk is limited (it being the thrust of this blog) I can always join the party here, because of the author, (you Coggie!) and the really interesting subjects.

    Funnily enough I was thinking about this the other day. I’ve had access to both male and female convos as participant and observer when both parties forget that I’m there and I’d have to say that I found that women do tend to mostly talk about men! Husbands, boyfriends or the one they WOULD LIKE as a boyfriend, so I would say that the above isn’t inaccurate. However none of these women I observed were scientists and by that I would suggest that maybe having that intellectual element might lead to more interesting and varied convos…or maybe not.

    When I was touring with men as the only female aboard and once they had relaxed in my company over time, I found that their convo’s were about women – however it was commentary about passing women, (fat, sexy, beautiful critique type commentary) or women they’d just met on tour – rarely partners and home life – unless there was a specific, usually troubling, issue. The rest of their convos were pop culture stuff. This has always been my experience. Women drone on about their partners and ultimately babies when they have them, men about a mixed variety; sport, women, cars, gaming etc.
    Of course this is generally speaking, there are always women who have varied interests and are not family or boyfriend oriented and they are usually quirkily different in other ways…not the norm.

    And ha ha to that Bones observation lol. Whilst I don’t watch it (or the others) I am aware of it and it sounds like they just got bored of making her quirky and decided to go down the easier-sell romance / family route.

    • I hang out with a bunch of women who are wives and mothers – and have careers and are keen cosplayers and are really into pop culture. If we talk about our families, it is generally about what movies we are going to see or something along those lines. I have nothing against women who want to talk about their men and their families – family is everything important, after all – but but two scientists in a similar field together and they becoming boring about any new innovations in the field.

      • I too have nothing against my GF’s boring me about their Bf’s, hubby’s and families – I just tune out when it drones on too much, but what struck me was why men don’t talk about their family in the same way, especially as you say, family is important.

        What’s a cosplayer?

      • Cosplay is a portmanteau word created from ‘costumed play’. It is insanely popular with gamers, movie fans, anime fans, comics fans, and Steampunk Enthusiasts. I am a cosplayer because I dress in Steampunk gear.
        Australian men don’t talk about family in the same way because if a man was to start raving on about how clever his child or how great is wife is, he would cop a biff in the ear from his mates. Real men don’t show enthusiasm for anything but sports. Thankfully, that is slowly changing.

      • Lol. ‘Cop a biff’, love it! And yes, these silly man rules are outdated.

    • Oh, and thank you for that compliment at the start of your comment. Much appreciated!

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