A couple of months ago, co-blogger Diandra wrote about scientist stereotypes she encountered in a 4th grade class, in which very few of the kids believed she and the other female scientists who visited were, you know, actual scientists, because everyone knows scientists are all nerdy white guys in lab coats, right? And she trotted out the familiar refrain of how the media fosters such inaccurate stereotypes, particularly film and TV. We had a spirited email exchange at the time, and this seems like a good time to revisit the topic, since I'll be talking about it quite a bit during SETI-Con this coming weekend. (If you're in the Bay Area, stop in and say hi.)
We can certainly debate the extent to which popular culture reflects a society's values, and to what extent it shapes those values in turn; it's probably a bit of both. And I'm not sufficiently familiar with the kinds of films and TV shows your average 4th grader might be watching to build an effective counter-argument to Diandra's charge at the K-12 level. But I can make a very strong case that, especially when it comes to the current crop of adult-oriented TV shows, there's an astonishing -- and likely unprecedented -- diversity in the range of fictional characters who happen to be scientists. We've come a long way, baby, over the last 50 years, in terms of how scientists are portrayed in film and TV.
I was reminded of this back in April, when the Science & Entertainment Exchange sponsored a screening of an independent documentary by David Gargani called Monsters from the Id, as part of the Los Angeles United Film Festival. Gargani's film weaves the intersecting themes of over thirty classic films in order to tell the untold story of the Modern Scientist and his role in inspiring a nation. (Science fiction buffs will recognize that the title alludes to the 1950s classic film, Forbidden Planet, itself a reworking of Shakespeare's The Tempest.) Check out the trailer:
We held a panel discussion after the screening, with JPL scientist Kevin Hand, marine biologist turned filmmaker Randy Olson, and Scripps Institute biologist Kristen Baldwin, moderated by yours truly. I think we all pretty much agreed that while we enjoyed the film, we weren't crazy about the basic premise, namely, that during this Golden Age of science fiction films, the mad scientist stereotype gave way to the scientist as hero and family man, and this was a Positive Thing for science. I suppose it's accurate enough, but the operative word here is "man" ("white man"). Women are mostly decorative in films from this era, and/or damsels in distress, and Forbidden Planet was no exception (Altaira merely exists to order shiny new dresses from Robbie the Robot, and tempt good men away from their duties). They certainly weren't depicted as strong, smart, independent scientists in their own right. And scientists of color (any color) are nowhere to be found.
Such is no longer the case. Sure, the time-honored stereotypes still exist -- mad scientists, social misfit nerds, bookish Plain Janes -- but they're part of a much broader landscape of scientist characters. In fact, I'd argue that we might just be in the midst of a different kind of Golden Age of science-themed film and TV -- one where diversity is the name of the game. Consider this random sampling of Hollywood scientists just from the last five years or so (warning: there may be a few inadvertent spoilers):
NCIS. How could you not love Abby, the pig-tailed punk/Goth sassy lab technician with mad hacking skills, who is so hip and edgy, she makes the cool kids look like nerds? She is rightly the most recognizable (and wildly popular) regular cast member on that show.
Numb3rs. You've got dreamboat mathematician Charlie Eppes, along with his best friend Larry the absent-minded physicist. Larry might be a bit of a stereotype, but Amita, Charlie's brilliant computational physics girlfriend, most definitely is not: she is a beautiful, strong woman in a traditionally male field, she's Indian (but not an obvious ethnic stereotype), and she contributes as much to solving FBI cases as any of her male counterparts. (Ditto for the female FBI agents on the show.) For a season or two, we also had a female physicist heading up the CalSci math and physics departments, played by the Rubenesque Kathy Najimy, who ended up dating Charlie's father (a retired civil engineer).
C.S.I. (Vegas edition). A.k.a., "pretty people doing science." It proved to be a winning formula. Gil Grissom brought the catchphrase "follow the evidence," into millions of households, along with science-minded characters of all shapes, colors and sizes. Greg the DNA technician (he later became a full-fledged field agent) is a white male in a lab coat, true, but he's cute, smart, listens to great music, and has a passion for Las Vegas history. And he's surrounded by smart attractive cohorts with colorful personal histories: a former stripper/single mom turned CSI, a black CSI with a gambling problem, a female CSI with a tragic family history, etc. The show's strength is its diverse cast, since their varied backgrounds drive some fascinating subplots and supply necessary conflict... and personal growth.
Bones. Head vs. heart is a major theme in this series, which is why the lead character of Temperance Brennan often struggles to steer clear of jargon when she communicates with non-scientists, and with reconciling her messy emotions with her rational scientific training. But she's beautiful, spunky (with martial arts skills), idealistic, and she has romantic entanglements just like anybody else. And like Grissom, she has a lab filled with smart, attractive scientists of diverse backgrounds. Okay, Zack's social awkwardness led to him being imprisoned for colluding with a crazy serial killer early on in the series, but ya gotta love Jack Hodgins, who revels in analyzing bugs and various icky substances, and devising nifty -- and often risky -- lab experiments to test his hypotheses ("King of the Lab!"). The man is passionate about his science, he's rich, smart, good-looking, and chivalrous, and he makes science look good by being so.
Lost. Sure, there was a lot of magic and mysticism in this series, but they had some terrific science-minded characters, most notably Season 5's heartthrob physicist Daniel Faraday. There was also Charlotte, the beautiful archaeologist, and Sayid, the sexy, morally ambiguous Iraqi assassin with mad electrical and mechanical engineering skills (he rebuilt his share of radios out of salvaged parts).
Eureka. You want diversity? Eureka gives you a whole town full of brilliant scientists, in lots of different fields. There are men, women, blacks, whites, Asians, all of them brilliant and valued for being so. Tesla High School's "cool kids" are the science whizzes and honors students, not your stereotypical jocks and cheerleaders. An average IQ is grounds for ridicule and being a social outcast. My favorite transformation on the show occurred with Carter's daughter, Zoe: a runaway rebellious sort who found her true self in Eureka when she discovered she was actually incredibly smart and talented in the sciences. She might never have figured that out on her own, and provides a terrific role model for high school students.
Fringe. Okay, Walter Bishop fits the "mad scientist" stereotype -- he's literally mad, having been rescued from an asylum to help Olivia and his son Peter solve the weekly mysteries and ferret out the Big Multi-Dimensional Mystery that forms the narrative arc of the series. But he's charming and lovable, a truly original character, and his troubled relationship with Peter forms the heart of the show. Audiences adore Walter; he's the main reason they tune in, week after week.
Breaking Bad. Chemistry teacher Walter White finds out he has a terminal illness and turns to manufacturing meth to raise enough money to provide for his wife and family after he's gone. He's not a hero, he's a basically good guy driven to desperate measures. And the result is a gritty, emotionally compelling drama with lots of real science woven into the background (although according to one of the technical consultants, some of the meth lab details are deliberately wrong -- for obvious reasons).
Big Bang Theory. Yeah, I know, this is the show many physicists love to hate, particularly the character of Sheldon, who is the poster child for socially inept scientists, and the root of much of the show's humor. But, like Walter Bishop, he is also the most beloved of the main characters, as evidenced by the huge cheer that went up during a Comic-Con panel last month when a clip from the series was shown featuring Sheldon. There's some validity to the criticisms. The sitcom genre traffics in stereotypes more than your average drama -- do you think Seinfeld was representative of real New Yorkers? -- and some episodes are better than others about rising above cheap laughs. But at its best, the characters on this show are smart, funny, likable people, and it's really about their relationships. It's also the top rated sitcom these days, and just snagged a record-breaking syndication deal of $1 million per episode. Bad for science? I doubt it. It means there are likely to be more scientists on TV in the future, because that's been shown to be a commercially successful model.
The point is, when I flick through the channels these days, I see a lot of diversity in how scientists are depicted. There are men and women, with varying degrees of attractiveness, some geeky, some cool, representing many different ethnic backgrounds, some socially awkward, some suave and sexy, some thin, some heavyset, some short, some tall, and so on. They have friends and families, they struggle with balancing the personal and professional, they grapple with ethical dilemmas -- in short, they are complex human beings, not two-dimensional caricatures, and they interact with each other in very interesting ways. This gives the writers a lot more creative fodder to work with, week after week, season after season, to keep the show fresh and compelling (because ultimately we're talking about fictional entertainment here, not earnest documentaries).
If scientific stereotypes persist despite all of this, can we still credibly place the blame firmly on film and TV? I just don't think it's that simple. I'm sure popular culture plays an important role in shaping public perception, but it does so in conjunction with other influences that are far more nebulous and tough to pin down. If we're too quick to take the fallback position that it's all popular culture's fault, we won't get very far in furthering our understanding of the myriad influences that shape our perceptions of science and scientists -- which in turn will give us clues about how to effectively change the negative perceptions.