All about shes (and hes)

I recently watched the wonderful classic All About Eve – Best Picture at the Oscars in 1951. Its a great film if you like the classics, the language is spectacular ( I am always amazed at the language in good films before CGI where the script was the only thing to really keep your attention), Bette Davis a triumph. I am a not a film critic so will stop there…

And by today’s standards its amazingly outstandingly sexist (but not entirely). For one thing big powerful actress (Bette Davis) gives up her career to be a ‘woman’ in fact Ms Davis has a whole monologue on how you have to devote yourself to being a woman if you want to get married. Its beautifully delivered and even the more ironic as Bette Davis in her real life did no such thing. She did marry but didn’t by any means give up her career.

Bette Davis

The movie contains all, and I do mean all, of the female stereotypes from the 50s. The mendacious, manipulative career girl who simpers sychophantically and sleeps with the right people to ruthlessley claw her way to the top of the pile. The aged actress who is 42 (42 was aging in 1951!). The gentle, pretty well-meaning (but thick) housewife. The battle axe servant lady who tells it like it is. The film is also complete with a manly slap or a wrestle or two to calm the hysterical women. Stuff you wouldn’t really get away with making a movie today; it’d be too obvious and cause a furor. I am not saying Hollywood ain’t sexist; just that its not so obvious.

Stereotypes still definitely exist today and not just in the movies.
Think about how female scientists, female acadmics or indeed females in any profession, are viewed by the media at large and folks that aren’t (or are) in those professions.

We all know what they are, the dragon lady (ruthless), she slept her way to the top (too thick to suceed on own), and so on. Many of them are age old tropes from back as far as Shakespere (if not further thiking about the female gods in Greek culture), but are still used today. But like more modern Hollywood movies, they usually aren’t quite as obvious as they were in 1951.

Male scientists have stereotypes as well. The one that particularly comes to mind is the absent minded professor. Which is good in some ways, at least they get to be smart, but its not so nice either in fact its quite condescending this idea that if scientists can solve some equation of everything in the universe, they probably can’t tie their shoes. Which is all a bit silly.

I optimistically think these old tired stereotypes must be fading, at least I don’t hear people say such things as often as I used to. Except for the absent-minded thing, but that seems to be applied to women too (what was I saying, sorry I just had a particularly erudite thought). On the other hand, I doubt we have broken out of the stereotype mold, we humans like to type people and catagorize things into patterns and boxes and these stereotypes have been around for a long time.

I don’t have a conclusion to this post, but a question or two.

How pervasive are these stereotypes still in scientists? And are there any new stereotypes for scientists? If so what are they? Do tell!

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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9 Responses to All about shes (and hes)

  1. Akkie Bardoel says:

    Hi Sylvia,
    Thank you, I enjoyed this. I agree the female stuff is disappearing and good-oh on that.

  2. Martin Austwick says:

    My comments are actually on “All About Eve” – while I agree it reflects some sexist attitudes of the period, found it really interesting. For one, Bette Davis is a magnificent, beautiful, successful woman; her misfortune stems from being able to see the malign nature of the ingenue that everyone else has been taken in by; and whatever the cheezy and dehumanising finale, you sense the desparation of a woman used to controlling her destiny being robbed of a professional and possibly romantic future by her age, and others’ attitudes towards it.

    I disagree that Eve is a stereotype – I think that like King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin, she presages the modern desire to be recognised, the unalloyed ambition somehow mixed with a genuine admiration for those she intends to usurp – and the final images show the endless repetition of that in endless wannabees whose sense of self is only bolstered by the adoration of others.

    Not sure what I think about how this applies to scientist stereotypes – what was the question, again? 🙂

  3. cromercrox says:

    Did you know that screen goddess Hedy Lamarr was an inventor who pioneered wireless technology? No, neither did I.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I read that there is indeed a new biography on Hedwig (Hedy), and that she invented wireless guided missiles that the US navy used against German U-boats in WW2. All this and while not finishing high school due to her acting career. Pretty amazing.

  4. Liz Whitelegg produced an interesting report for the UKRC about how children are exposed to scientists in the media, and how they respond. The stereotypes would seem to be going strong and I think pretty damaging for encouraging boys and girls to think of science as a career. Who wants to aspire to be a two dimensional stereotype?

  5. deevybee says:

    Contemporary TV goes for the glamorous scientist with brains and beauty. It was interesting to see what US TV did to forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan, in the series Bones. As in the books by Kathy Reichs, we are repeatedly told that Brennan is a geeky woman who doesn’t care about her appearance. But she’s played by stunning Emily Deschanel who looks like a model most of the time, which just makes it seem like everyone in the cast is blind.

  6. Thanks for all of your response –
    yes @deevybee I think there is a new ‘glamour’ scientist for girls motif in the media – which may well have started when Elizabeth Shue was a physicist in Oxford for that horrific move I can’t remember the name of. But she was ditzy and ended up being the sort of an absent minded scientist – on heart medicine, she was weak and needed a man to protect her, etc. its odd.

    as for stereotypes being alive and well @athene I think you are probably right although sometimes as kids get older then recognize that stereotypes aren’t the only thing they see? She says hopefully.

    Thanks for your comments

  7. Steve Caplan says:

    Just a couple peripherally-related comments:

    1) It is of interest that a generation ago in the US many Jewish people ended up becoming scientists. The reason for this had nothing to do with the image of the scientist, but rather a quota on the number of Jews allowed into medical school. This was an alternative career for those who didn’t make the quota. I’m certain, though, that many of these scientists-especially the successful ones-came to feel that they were in the right career later on.

    2) Hopefully those of us striving to write lablit novels depicting real-life scientists who are neither superheroes, no super-geeks–but rather human beings with all of the range of human characteristics and behaviors–with have at least a small impact on the image of today’s scientists. [DO NOT SKIP THIS ADVERTISEMENT] For promotional purposes, here are my 2 novels displayed on Amazon (cover for Welcome Home, Sir coming soon):

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