On portrayals of women in science(y) films

There is a feminist critical film theory from the 70’s that pointed out (rather astutely) that in many films women where just there to be looked at. Men did stuff, women were present either for visual pleasure, or simply as a contrast – such as the evil step mother or Mrs. Rochester.

Portrayals of female scientists in film suffer from the same problem. Just think about Elisabeth Shue in The Saint. Female physicist with a weak heart who loses her equations (kept on Post-it notes stored in her bra) after being seduced by Val Kilmer in such a clever disguise no one could ever spot it. It all worked because she had to shed her under-garments as a result of said seduction.

Similar to other films, female scientists often turn into screaming idiots in the face of danger; or are overwhelmed when a more powerful man comes along – at which point they loose all of their senses. Science Fiction is guilty of this too. Although, thankfully, I have managed to mostly avoid watching Star Trek, I do remember many o problem with difficult women were solved by a good old love fest courtesy of Captain Kirk.

There are, though, some exceptions that prove that perhaps prove the rule.

1 – Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) in Alien and subsequently Aliens was the best kind of role model a girl could wish for. Ripley was practical, Ripley survived. She survived a truly frightening predatory Alien, two times, when no one else did. She also did prance around in her underwear, a bit, but the focus was on her being the biggest tough-ass survivor ever and she never lost her cool even when she had some sexual tension with the cool marine.

Ellen Ripley
Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Aliens

2 – Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) in Contact. Contact starts with Dr Arroway sitting in a room with head phones on listening to static for hours on end. This pretty much sums up what it means to be a scientist. Repetitive experiments, listening to noise or staring at lines on a screen – but you have to keep your eyes on the ball even when you are sick of it; and working through that tedium to find the cool results. The rest of the movie in my opinion was fairly stupid, but Jodie Foster certainly seemed like a scientist to me.

Jodie Foster as Dr. Eleanor Arroway in Contact
Jodie Foster as Dr. Eleanor Arroway in Contact

3 – Dr. Ellie Sattler (played by Laura Dern) in Jurassic Park. Up to her elbows in fresh Triceratops feces, the men around her are appalled and disgusted. Dr. Sattler is actually praised for this by the male scientists; the boys think she is amazing because she is focused on shit. It’s not a bad stereotype for a girl scientist; she’s sexy because she is smart and focused. She also outsmarts the Dinos; turning off the circuit breakers when all the men around have been wounded or are incapable; but not Ellie! Amazingly and laudably, the film itself goes on to attack the females are incapable stereotype. When John Hammond, the old guy (played by Richard Attenborough; David’s big brother) tells Ellie it should be him instead of her (because she is a woman) her response is priceless:
Look… We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.

Dr Ellie Sattler
Laura Dern as Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park.

It is true that all of these women are really good looking; hence could be considered to be there to be looked at, but so are large majority of people in Hollywood films; men and women alike. These women have beauty and substance and I find that rather encouraging.

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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11 Responses to On portrayals of women in science(y) films

  1. cromercrox says:

    The film of Contact is indescribably awful. The book, in contrast, is fabulous. Go read it.

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    Speaking of female-scientist heroines in literature: “Let My People Go!” (expected publication this summer/fall) features a smart female scientist/graduate student whose physical appearance is barely referred to in the course of the book. Of course, when Hollywood buys the rights for millions, I probably won’t have any control over who plays Maya in the film….

    • The cool thing about leaving a character not described much physically in a book is that people will superimpose themselves on the character more easily. I am convinced this is why Twilight was so successful … (yes I sadly read this) – not that I am comparing your character to that Steve – is she a Vampire ? 😉

  3. Dr. Zira in the original Planet of the Apes is also a kick-ass female scientist. I mean, OK, she’s a chimp, but she takes the lead in challenging the male-dominated scientific and religious hierarchy when she discovers evidence that contradicts her people’s origin myth.

    No, seriously.

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