The Cinematic Scientist

Science Life

Welcome to Science Life: A discussion of the weird and wonderful intersection between science and our day-to-day lives.

To kick off this week’s column I’m going to ask you, my readers, to think of a movie or TV show with a scientist in it. Now, let me ask you a few questions. Is the scientist Caucasian? Are they male? Are they middle aged? Chances are that your scientist ticked at least two of these three boxes.

It’s not just me making up these criteria. An analysis of 222 movies in the journal Public Understanding of Science showed that 96 percent of scientists were Caucasian, 82 percent were male, and 40 percent were aged between 35 and 49.

These statistics might have been accurate in the 70s, but here in 2017 they’re out of touch with reality. Follow #actuallivingscientist and you’ll see that researchers come in a range of genders, ethnicities and ages. Some wield test tubes, or petri dishes or cheetah poo. Some have families, others are single and many – like the rest of us – just wish they could marry Benedict Cumberbatch.

I’m not sure why modern film writers resort to these outdated demographics. I don’t know why scientists featured in film are either socially inept dorks, or power hungry maniacs that go by the name Dr McFrankenDoom. It would be easy to say that the writers are subconsciously enacting petty revenge against their high school chemistry teachers for forcing them to tie their emo fringes back – but I suspect it goes deeper than that.

If you work your way back, you’ll see that the antisocial and power-hungry scientist character pre-dates movies. Before Frankenstein cried ‘It’s alive!’ in the eponymous 1931 movie, Mary Shelley’s original 1818 novel – subtitled ‘A Modern Prometheus – was published. Prometheus himself was a Greek mythology figure who meddled with the creation of life and was severely punished for it. And guess what? Both Victor and Prometheus are traditionally depicted as white and male. Our modern day writers are following a tradition based in longstanding cultural norms.

I encourage you to break this cycle. It’s not only unrealistic, but it’s also harmful. Role models are just as important for the would-be-scientists as they are for future sport stars and lawyers. Whilst the latter have Cathy Freeman and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we have to be content with white men who want to destroy the world with death rays.

This is why films like 2016 acclaimed Hidden Figures are so very important. By breaking the cycle and showing scientists who are women of colour – and amazing mathematicians – the audience is being told that brilliance is not a trait exclusive to any ethnicity, gender or sexuality. We are shown that there are scientists from minority groups out there who are rightly appreciated for the talents that they bring and the hard work that they do. When future scientists can see a relatable role model who has made that same step, they will be more likely to do the same. I am not saying that this will break down research barriers overnight – it is just a step, but it is a crucial step.

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