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Representation of Women Scientists in Feature Films: 1929 to 2003

by Eva Flicker

Most people never have and never will meet a scientist personally. Since the 1940s and 1950s, with the military's use and misuse of scientific knowledge (e.g., the atomic bomb), there has been widespread skepticism about science. This skepticism is made evident in intense public debates, for example those on reproductive technologies, genetic technology, etc. Yet, at the same time, there is a great deal of interest in new knowledge arising from scientific research, especially in the natural sciences.


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We have become accustomed to public depictions and images of science in the most diverse contexts. The mass media have become a key means for publicizing scientific production and research results. The popular media of film, cinema, and television - in the area of documentaries as well as fiction - contribute to a general overall picture and to the public's understanding of science. This article summarizes the results of my studies on women scientists in feature films dated from 1929 until the present, focusing on the perception of the occupational roles in science, and here exclusively on the female actors, the women scientists [note: the term "Wissenschaftlerin" (woman scientist) in German comprises all scientific disciplines in the natural and social sciences and humanities.]


Media sociological aspects

Media sociological perspectives focus on the interaction of social practice and the construction of reality in mass media/film. On the one hand, film takes social realities and weaves them into film stories. On the other, mass media's images of reality influence the audience. The mass media, including film, have a central function in the creation of opinions and myths. Film functions as more than a simple mirror, it also works as social memory and cultural metaphor. In contrast to purely linguistic media, film creates pictures that continue as social myths.


Sociological and scientific aspects of communication

My studies focus on the medium of the feature film from within the realm of mass media's communication of science. Myths and prejudices about science are components of a shared culture. What should be emphasized is the ambivalence between hopes for technical progress and the fear of technological disaster. This polarization between trust and mistrust in science seems to be intensifying.

 

Even experts within the various scientific disciplines are no longer able to assess the complexity of scientific specializations. A layperson's attitude toward a scientific theme is therefore based much more on an intuitive guess than on rational deliberation. Mass media play a crucial role in this process. Art - including painting, comics, literature, theater, radio, film, and television, etc. - also contributes to the mediation of science. The images of science and scientific work are deeply embedded in the culture and remain fairly uniform. In all media, the scientists portrayed in the key scientific roles are, for the most part, men (82 percent). Women scientists are rare and, when they do appear, their roles differ greatly from those of their male colleagues. The audience is confronted with a perspective on science that cuts straight across the natural and social sciences and humanities, in which a male character role is adapted to suit the woman scientist. Most analyses of the representation and communication of science pay scant attention to the gender relations of the scientists. The purpose here is to remove this blind spot.


Sociological film interpretation

Sociological film interpretation allows comparative analysis of the content of a large sample in terms of the films' social references. Films are viewed for social context and in terms of their date of origin. Cognitive interest focuses on the relation of film content to social reality.


The widespread cliché of the scientist

The depiction of women scientists is not the same as the widespread cliché of the male scientist, which can be sketched as follows: He is a hard and very diligent worker; he emanates an aura of absent-mindedness, extreme confusion, or even madness. He is more of an outsider in terms of social contacts. He is inattentive to the people around him and is uninterested in social trends and fads. He seems socially displaced. He is not a particularly attractive hero, having glasses, a work apron, ruffled hair, etc. His enthusiasm for his work could almost be called an obsession. His work attitude can sometimes be completely apolitical or even scrupulous. In the eagerness of his scientific curiosity, in some cases he even takes the risk of causing immense damage to humanity.


Six models of presentation of women scientists in feature films
The cliché of the scientist sketched above is not valid for both genders. With a qualitative sociological film interpretation of approximately 60 feature films, it is possible to determine the following six stereotypical portrayals of women scientists in feature films:

1. The old maid
2. The male woman
3. The naïve expert
4. The evil plotter
5. The daughter or assistant
6. The lonely heroine

Summarized conclusion - the woman scientist in feature films

The role of the professional "scientist" is reserved for men; women are represented in less than a fifth of these roles in feature films. In contrast to male scientists, women scientists in feature films do not work in hidden laboratories on dubious projects but, rather, remain solid "with their feet on the ground." Female characters in feature films do not contribute to the build-up of negative myths surrounding the image of science.

The audience may be surprised when "the professor" is a woman. The woman scientist tends to differ greatly from her male colleagues in her outer appearance: 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.

From the analysis of the character role of the woman scientist in feature films, clear transformations can be seen across the period of roughly 70 years that was investigated. Although women scientists in earlier feature films (until the 1950s/1960s) had to choose between a career or a private life, more recently they are able to have both. Although once dependent on male mentors (father, husband), now it is "only" the male-dominated system that holds them back. Femininity and intelligence can both be completely developed. However, femininity and success are mutually exclusive in feature films.

When the women scientists in feature films work in teams, their positions are subordinate to those of their male colleagues. They also remain inferior to male counterparts in terms of their scientific qualifications. The character role of the woman scientist presents a more stereotypical woman's role than the occupational role as a scientist. In the character portrayal, the professional stereotype is overlapped by a gender stereotype. From a dramaturgical perspective, the character of the woman scientist is employed to develop suspense. To the professional level of science they bring intuition, emotional elements, love affairs, and feelings. They do not represent the rational scientific system of their male colleagues. They are therefore taken less seriously as "scientists."

At a superficial glance, the differentiation between the roles of women and men scientists in feature films seems to have nearly dissolved since the 1990s. Now appearing is the powerful, competent, utterly qualified, and feminine woman scientist - the uniting of an intellectual and erotic person. Nonetheless, in the end, these female characters also remain dependent on male characters and in this respect stand in the second row, behind their male colleagues.

Despite a strong transformation of the images of women in film, the analysis shows that women's character roles in general, and those of the woman scientist in particular, are clearly subject to sexual stereotypes. This is problematic to the extent that the social image of women scientists and their social relevance is also influenced, as mentioned previously. In the actual scientific world, women are still professionally disadvantaged and discriminated against. In this respect, the depictions of women scientists described here portray social reality. Women still commonly stand in the second ranks of the scientific world, not because they are less qualified but, rather, because of strategic marginalization. The portrayal of women scientists oriented toward their deficiencies - either not a "real" woman or not a "proper" scientist - contributes to the formation of myths about women scientists' lack of competence and therefore also to women's experiences of social discrimination.


Publications:

Flicker, Eva (2004) Wissenschaftlerinnen im Spielfilm. Zur Marginalisierung und Sexualisierung wissenschaftlicher Kompetenz. In: Wahnsinnig genial. Der Mad Scientist Reader, Torsten Junge and Dörthe Ohlhoff (eds.) (2004) Alibri Verlag, pp.63-76.

Flicker, Eva (2003) Between Brains and Breasts - Women Scientists in Fiction Film: on the Marginalization and Sexualization of Scientific Competence. In: Public Understanding of Science (2003) 12: 307-318.

Flicker, Eva (1991) 'Professor, mir ist nie aufgefallen, wie reizend du bist!' Eine film- und wissenschaftssoziologische Untersuchung zur Darstellung der Wissenschaftlerin in Spielfilm. Diplomarbeit, University of Vienna.



Sources:

  • Petra Pansegrau and Peter Weingart, Forschungsseminar, "The Perception and Representation of Science by Hollywood" University of Bielefeld, Germany (2000-2002).
  • Roslynn D. Haynes (1994), "From Faust to Strangelove - Representation of the Scientist in Western Literature" (John Hopkins Univ. Press) Baltimore and London.{/access}

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