In Annihilation, a group sits around a table discussing the people who will be heading on a dangerous mission into a logic-defying mystery box they call The Shimmer. There’s Anya, a paramedic; Josie, a physicist; and Dr. Ventress, a psychologist. “All women?” someone asks. “Scientists,” one corrects. Yes! And they’re unlike any other female scientists in films I’ve seen—not just because they carry guns, but because they work as a team of all women.
This post started, as most things do, with a complaint. The object of my ire was another recent sci-fi outing with a female lead: The Cloverfield Paradox. There was much discussion about the movie after it made its sudden Netflix debut following the Super Bowl. Most of it centered on the marketing: Was it a shrewd move of Netflix to generate buzz with an unexpected release? Or was it another case of the streaming platform burying an acquisition that should’ve been given a theatrical run?
Instead of weighing into that fray, my post-Paradox reaction was this: Oh, great, another female astronaut with dead kids.
There were dead kids in The Cloverfield Paradox. There was a dead kid in Gravity. There were dead kids in Arrival. And, if female scientists weren’t motivated by children (either the desire to have them or the grief over losing them), it was absent fathers (think Contact, Twister). Meanwhile, when Capa sends his last message back to Earth in Sunshine, he sends it to his sister, and talks about saving the world.
Of course, when I brought this up on Twitter, people started chiming in right away with more examples and counter-examples. So I tried to be semi-scientific about it, and collect data points that either prove or disprove my hypotheses about the portrayals of female scientists in film. Who is allowed to save the world for altruistic reasons, and who has to be motivated by a dead kid or dad or spouse? Who are the engineers and physicists, and who are the biologists and language experts?
I dove into movies from the last ten years. And, okay, right off the bat I admit this isn’t the most scientific survey ever, even though it’s about scientists. There’s a lot of sci-fi that I haven’t seen. But I tried not to cherry-pick only the examples that fit my hypotheses—see The Martian’s Mark Watney, who fits none of my categories—so I set some ground rules:
1. The character in question has to be a scientist. Should go without saying, but a lot of times a movie you might think of as being about a scientist is actually about other military personnel, which comes with its own set of stereotypes.
2. The scientist has to be the lead in the movie. I’m not cataloging the motivations of every third-nerd-on-the-right. Chances are, if a woman isn’t a first or second lead, she doesn’t have enough depth to have a motivation anyway.
3. A professional one, too. Teenage science prodigies don’t count—they’re not old enough to have the full weight of society’s child-bearing pressure on their tiny shoulders. They also have a lot more absentee fathers. It’s not really comparing apples to apples.
4. No sequels, no superheroes. Otherwise you end up a chart that’s half Tony Stark. And, for those types of movies, what’s more interesting to me is who actually gets to be a scientist. On the men’s side, you get Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and a whole bunch of villains, and, on the women’s side, you have Jane Foster and…14 movies later you get Shuri. (And she wouldn’t make the chart! She’s not the lead! But the fact that it’s taken Marvel 21 MCU movies to make a woman its main, title character is a problem for a different post.)
You might not agree with my editorial choices, but that’s the beauty of the chart below. You can run any character through these metrics and see what you think. Gutted I didn’t include Alien: Covenant? Did I forget that some so-and-so in Ant-Man is a scientist? Usually, I’d say, don’t @me, but feel free to @SportsAlcohol with your thoughts (or leave a comment below. More data points would make this more interesting, and I’m confident my results won’t be completely overturned by new info.
Ok, here goes.
[Note on Annihilation: At the beginning of the movie, Lena’s husband, who has been presumed KIA, is taken to a military hospital in critical condition, which sets the rest of the events of the movie into motion. I’m counting that as a dead-spouse motivation, because it basically is, even if his heart monitor is still beeping. Does he pull through? You’ll have to see it. Also because it’s good.]
Given my criteria and the admittedly small sample of movies I included, some of my findings were totally expected. I couldn’t find a single male scientist with dead kids in his background. It’s almost as if the world doesn’t think that fatherhood is the be-all end-all of a man’s existence? Weird. The women were also more likely to have daddy issues, while the men were more into giving their lives in some act of protective sacrifice.
Other things surprised me. I initially thought that, while women would have dead kids, men would have dead wives, but it turns out that the dead-spouse motivation hits men and women pretty evenly. I also thought that women would let their feelings of motherhood get in the way of their ethics, while men’s sexual attractions would do the same; actually, both men and women feel the pangs of parenthood—but men are still more likely to try and sleep with their experiments.
Of course, you can come up with a million scientists who don’t fit the general mold. (Let me hear about your faves!) There are some in the chart. I already mentioned Dr. Watney, who is basically the control for the rest of the group. I wonder if his refusal to adhere to any hacky screenwriting conventions is a product of his self-published origins. My real favorite, though, is Will Rodman from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I bent the sequel rule because I love him so much (and also because of this site’s soft spot for apes). He’s the classic lady scientist: He’s a biologist (the womanly science), he got into science to cure his father’s Alzheimer’s (daddy issues!), and he feels a parental bond over his project that leads him to do something unethical (hello, Caesar). Ah yes, the Ape War was started by a scientist who couldn’t keep it objective, and it wasn’t a woman! On the other end, there’s Evelyn Caster, a glass-ceiling-busting scientist in Transcendence, a movie I don’t recommend watching, so just take my word for it. She works in A.I. (with her husband, but still), her romantic feelings for her experiment—said husband in digital form, don’t ask—cause her to let things get out of control, and she has to sacrifice herself to save the rest of humanity. What a dude.
You might think: OK, if movies like Transcendence (or The Lazarus Effect or whatever) are junky anyway, what does it matter if they have clichéd images of scientists? Because if there’s anything this current media age has taught us, it’s that representation matters. And if women can’t get into science without it being some kind of bonding activity between her and Daddy even in a crummy movie—like Basmati Blues, where Brie Larson is a misguided scientist because her father is!—how are girls ever going to see themselves as researchers who can be taken seriously? (And how are boys ever going to learn that, uh, you shouldn’t screw the experiment?) We need more films where male scientists worry about how their work affects their home life, and more of Annihilation‘s all-female team of badass, Shimmer-slaying scientists.