Female scientists on the big screen

Physics professor Sidney Perkowitz reflects on how women scientists are portrayed in film

Jul 21, 2006
Sidney Perkowitz
I'm a physicist by trade, but I've always had a passion for science in the movies. For the past year I've been putting the finishing touches on a book about science and scientists on film. In the process, I've had the enviable job of soaking up literally hundreds of hours of DVDs of science films of all varieties -- from biopics to B-movies and blockbusters. That's a lot of popcorn.Naturally I was interested in the accuracy of the science that I encountered, and in the prejudices about science and its purveyors that were inevitably reflected in various movies. But one thing that really struck me was how women scientists are portrayed, and how they differ significantly from their male counterparts.First, it's important to look at how many films have included female scientists as characters. In a survey of 60 films containing scientists between 1929 and 2003, Eva Flicker from the University of Vienna reported that eleven (18%) included female scientists. But a survey of more recent films (1991-2001) by Jocelyn Steinke at Western Michigan University found 23 female scientists in 74 science-related films (31%). My own keyword searches on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) identified 84 women scientists out of 382 films containing scientists (22%). So female scientists on film are in the minority, but there are more of them in recent films. And the 22% figure from IMDB isn't too bad, considering that studies suggest that women comprise only 25% of the science and engineering workforce, 28% of university faculty, and 8% of full professors in the sciences. So how do our male and female movie scientists compare? Flicker has written about the cliché of the male scientist, who comes in various guises. He can be a hard and diligent worker, sometimes obsessively enthusiastic -- he'll follow his scientific curiosity, even at the risk of human costs. He can be absent-minded, confused, and even mad. He can be inattentive to people, and uninterested in social trends and fads. And although there are certainly exceptions (think of dashing, leather-jacketed Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park; chiseled Pierce Brosnan in Dante's Peak; and earnestly blue-eyed Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow), he tends not to be particularly attractive, typically resplendent in glasses, a lab coat, and tangled hair. Surprisingly, women scientists are not particularly mad, evil, or nerdy. Indeed, Steinke notes in her survey that in 23 films, only two were mad and only three were absent-minded or antisocial. Moreover, in contrast to male scientists, women scientists do not work on "dubious" projects in secret laboratories, but remain solid "with their feet on the ground," Flicker reports. Female scientists also didn't contribute to "negative myths surrounding the image of science," she notes.But it's with looks that the discrepancy becomes really obvious. The female film scientist tends to be gorgeous. In Flicker's words, she is "remarkably beautiful and, compared with her qualifications, unbelievably young. She has a model's body -- thin, athletic, perfect -- is dressed provocatively and is sometimes 'distorted' by wearing glasses." Although I like watching sexy women as much as the next guy, I also appreciate depth in my female film scientists. One favorite is Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue) in The Saint (1997). Action scenes dominate the film, but Emma is the scientific center, and shows grit and moral courage. When she finds that Simon Templar (Val Kilmer) has romanced her only to steal her cold fusion secrets, she persuades him that the ethical thing is to give the secrets to the world. Emma emerges as having it all: her work, idealism, intelligence, femininity, sexuality, good looks -- and Kilmer. Emma sits in strong contrast to her counterpart in a 1996 movie about cold fusion, Chain Reaction. Physicist Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) works on the Hydrogen Energy Project along with machinist Eddie Kasalivich (Keanu Reeves). Lily and other scientists can't make the process work until Eddie finds the right frequencies. When the two are framed for an explosion and murder in the lab, they escape the FBI largely through Eddie's ingenuity. Lily is no Emma; instead, she emerges as having good looks, but not much else. She's mostly along for the ride as Eddie saves her, does the science, and makes the moral decisions.For woman scientists, films like The Saint match Flicker's description of how things have changed: "Since the 1990s, [we're seeing] the powerful, competent, utterly qualified, and feminine woman scientist -- the uniting of an intellectual and erotic person." But, as Flicker notes, films like Chain Reaction demonstrate that some female scientists are unable to spread their wings, remaining "dependent on male characters and in this respect stand in the second row, behind their male colleagues." But I'm optimistic. Film portrayals of scientists are more diverse than our preconceptions might suggest, and as the surveys indicate, there's reason to think that the portrayals of female scientists are keeping pace with real-world changes. Sidney Perkowitz is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics at Emory University, Atlanta, Ga. This piece is based on his book in progress Hollywood Science (due out in 2007). He is also the author of Empire of Light, Universal Foam, and Digital People.Sidney Perkowitz sperkowitz@the-scientist.comLinks within this article:H. Black, "Science goes to the movies," The Scientist, June 17, 2004. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22233/E Flicker. "Representation of Women Scientists in Feature Films: 1929 to 2003." Bridges, Vol. 5, April 14, 2005. http://www.ostina.org/content/view/389/Eva Flicker http://www.ostina.org/content/view/112/254/E Flicker. "Between Brains and Breasts ? Women Scientists in Fiction Film." Public Understanding of Science 12, 307-318 (2003). http://pus.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/12/3/307J Steinke. "Cultural Representations of Gender and Science. Portrayals of Female Scientists and Engineers in Popular Films." Science Communication 27, 27 ? 63 (2005). http://scx.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/27/1/27Jocelyn Steinke http://www.wmich.edu/comm/faculty/fulltime/steinke.htmInternet Movie Database http://www.imdb.com/A. N. Pell, Fixing the leaky pipeline: women scientists in academia. Journal of Animal Science, Vol 74, Issue 11 2843-2848 (1996). http://jas.fass.org/cgi/content/abstract/74/11/2843Science and Engineering Indicators 2006, National Science Foundation http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind06/c3/c3h.htmThe Saint http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120053/Chain Reaction http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115857/Sidney Perkowitz http://www.physics.emory.edu/faculty/perkowitz/