Picture a good Star Trek episode. Replace the Federation crew with a ragtag group of smugglers and the Enterprise with a rust-bucket held together by sarcasm and Chinese swears.
Category Archives: Pop Culture
Finally, an understandable reason for why both Betty and Veronica chase after that two-timing goofball Archie. Fiona Staples draws my favourite graphic novel (at the moment), Saga.
Possible Spoilers for Grimm – don’t read on if you haven’t yet watch Skin Deep.
One upon a time in America, if you wanted to hint that a character was the real baddie, you made them English. Alan Rickman got a lot of work that way. Now – partially thanks to the superbly talented Ben Mendelsohn – you can pick the villain if anyone with an Aussie accent makes an appearance. Over the past month, I’ve seen several examples of this phenomenon, with the most recent example being the Skin Deep episode of Grimm. As soon as I heard the Australian accent, I suspected a villain, and I was spot on.
American television likes to have foreigners as villains. It is easier to dislike the Other and Stranger. It is lazy writing. As well, it has the knock on effect that it makes stereotyping all strangers/foreigners as villains that much easier. This sort of thinking descends from the Red Menace and Yellow Peril propaganda of WWII and the Cold War.
Australians, like everyone else, have a mix good and bad. And I am certain this current trend towards depicting villains as Australians will be fairly short-lived. However, don’t fall into the trap of stereotyping ‘furriners’ as inherently evil. This is just as bad as depicting every antagonist as beautiful or handsome. Characterisation shouldn’t be defined by expectations…break the mould and your characters will suddenly be more interesting and memorable.
Wouldn’t it be nice to visit with Buffy now that she is middle aged?
Being a middle-aged woman who has been a fangirl most of her life, I find there is a dearth of middle-aged women characters in popular culture (unless you count all the evil stepmothers in fairy tales). And yet, with middle-aged women being one of the largest consumers and creators of pop culture and anything in the fantasy/science fiction genre, you would expect plenty of representation. I can only think of one or two really memorable middle-aged character; most female protagonists are usually very young or very old females.
My favourite is the menopausal witch, Jenny Waynest, in the Winterlands novels by Barbara Hambly.
A quick search of the usual fan art sites on the internet comes up with just a few images of Jenny – with only one showing Jenny as a human. Most show her in her dragon form. If I turned up dressed as (the human) Jenny to a cosplay event, I doubt anyone would get my character right. Most would think I was Nanny Ogg or Professor McGonagall, who are considered elderly rather than middle aged (though McGonagall was only middle-aged in the books).
Even Terry Pratchett has only a few middle-aged female characters, like Lady Sybil Vimes and Lady Margolotta (though, as a vampire, does Margolotta Amaya Katerina Assumpta Crassina Von Uberwald really count?). They are only secondary characters, though Sibyl does manage to play a major role in several Discworld novels. Middle-aged women are nearly invisible in Discworld, think Doreen Winkings (vampire by marriage), Mrs Evadne Cake, and the series of humorous landladies that pop up in the books. It must be noted that in all the Tiffany Aching books, we never learn what her mother’s Christian name might be, though we know her father’s name is Joe and her grandmother was Sarah.
(By the way Disney, you couldn’t do better than to convert Tiffany’s books into animated movies. The story for ‘Wintersmith’ will make everyone forget Frozen.)
Thanks to Doctor Who being such a long running show, we have had the opportunity to see characters age, including everyone’s favourite companion, Sarah Jane Smith. Sarah Jane managed to remain feisty, opinionated,and strong willed to the very end; it is a damned shame Elisabeth Sladen died so young and will never get to see an elderly old lady with grit and wisdom. And River Song has to be considered middle aged, even though she isn’t exactly human, as she is played by Alex Kingston who is 53 (same age as me).
Of course, genre has a major impact on the ages of your main characters. In Young Adult fiction, the protagonists are going to be teens or a little older (or at least look like teenagers, even if they are hundreds of years old – I’m looking at you Twilight). Older women might play secondary roles, but they are never going to be the protagonists. However, why does nearly every other television show, movie or dystopian novel assume only young people can be protagonists? Where are the middle-aged female superheroes suffering from menopause and finding it difficult to fit into the same clothes they were wearing in their twenties? Do the genre markers for our various narratives actually encourage ageism?
Genre fiction is supposed to be able to take risks and envision strange, new worlds. So why are middle-aged women so under-represented? If you can think of a middle-aged lady protagonist in any Steampunk narratives (not a secondary character or antagonist) that will rock the world like Buffy, please feel free to let me know!
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
Tomorrow, this discussion will continue to explore the depiction of Fictional Women of Science