This weekend I had an excellent cinematic experience. I planned to head to the mall and see Splice (which I'm dying to see), but the timing just wasn't working out, so I sat my out-of-town visitor down to introduce him to the world of Netflix. After going back and forth between Chaplin and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, we chose the latter. I still remembered Todd Gilchrist's review and Weinberg's brief-but-ebullient rant, and I was itching for some family-style laughs.
What I didn't expect, but was blissfully surprised to experience, was a film that skillfully intermingled smarts and silliness, and best of all -- another awesome and animated female co-star, the perfect cohort to Up's Ellie. When not killing myself over Flint Lockwood's hand scanner, the food jokes, or noting the fact that the hero has the same name as Michael Moore's Flint, Michigan, I was falling in love with Sam Sparks -- an endlessly appealing character who starts off as cliche, but learns to bite her thumb at antiquated notions of girls and science.
In the beginning, you want to smack her. The young, wanna-be meteorologist meets Flint after an experiment goes wrong, resulting in tasty food weather. Every once and a while a ridiculously smart thought will squeeze past her lips, but then she'll giggle, bat her eyelashes, and try to make herself sound stupid. Flint grows fond of her, but it's not until she puts on glasses and puts her hair in a ponytail -- Hollywood's favorite way to "ugly up" an actress -- that Flint really becomes attracted to her, and tells her how attractive she is. In the face of a society still hell-bent on chastising her glasses and ponytail, Sam slowly learns to re-embrace her love of the weather and not be ashamed of her naturally beautiful and brainy ways.
The only thing that irritated me was that just like Up, the awesome girl was only a supporting star, and not the lead of the whole affair. I was high on Sparks, but then I came across "Daring to Discuss Women in Science," which refers to the recent Duke study that proposes that sex should be included as a factor in the debate raging over women's biological mental abilities. Rather than getting into the science, because this really isn't the place for it, I'd like to comment on John Tierney's mid-article statement, and part of the study that references society.
Tierney: "In the early 1980s, there were 13 boys for every girl in that group, but by 1991 the gender gap had narrowed to four to one, presumably because of sociocultural factors like encouragement and instruction in math offered to girls. Since then, however, the math gender gap hasn't narrowed, despite the continuing programs to encourage girls."
Duke Study: "Would the same results be found with today's children, who did not have to swim against the tide of sex biases and lack of female role models?"
The notion that it's safe to presume that sociocultural factors helped inspire the change from one in fourteen to one in four, but that there has to be something deeper at work to explain the stall in further advancement is silly, as is the idea that the biases are gone. Anyone who fires up the net, hits the movies, or pops their head out the front door can see the myriad of ways that our sociocultural environment is still skewed for the blue boys and pink girls, where the former are the math/science smarties, and the latter are the creative cuties. That's the thing with assumptions, they're just a way of making information seem relatable or understandable to yourself.
In society, or more specifically for the purposes of this column, cinema, there's still a lot of advancement that needs to happen. Yes, the number of geek girls continues to increase, and they are finding louder and more recognizable voices. There are some accessible science-lovers and geeky girls for the next generation to latch onto, but their numbers are still small, and we must consider the way they're introduced to us. For as cool as Sam Sparks is, she's a supporting role. And, while it's great that she's able to help subvert notions of beauty, her storyline still revolves around her being the attractive love interest (whether that beauty is with or sans glasses).
This year, we're lucky to have Sarah Polley co-starring with Adrien Brody in Splice. Last year, we were lucky to have Sigourney Weaver getting her science groove on once again for Avatar. (No romance for her, though unfortunately, her avatar showed off lots of skin.) Outside of these ladies, there's a small pool of awesome cinematic female scientists to pick from. Elisabeth Shue in The Saint and Jodie Foster in Contact happened 13 years ago. Let us not entertain the notion of Denise Richards and the Bond franchise; Deep Blue Sea did more towards getting Saffron Burrows wet than it did for science; and my god -- Rachel Weisz's roles have come a long way. These days, she gets to be an old-school mathematician, but in 1996's Chain Reaction, she needs Keanu Reeves to figure out the secret -- even though he's just an undergrad technician.
For the most part, on-screen science, for women, is the science of youth, lust, and sex. That's not exactly the type of message that's conducive to inspiring young girls to be scientists -- not to mention the fact that most of these films aren't for kids, and for the most part, films focused on that demographic skew towards princesses, boyfriends, and traditionally "girly" things.
One commenter on Tierney's post wrote: "In elementary school, more than one math teacher told me that I would not get married if I continued to do well in math. In fact, throughout high school I intentionally hid my abilities out of fear of the associated stigma. The primary motivator for continuing my studies and not adopting the stereotypical female attitude of 'I'm bad at math,' was having a brilliant physcist phd as mother."
Imagine if more girls had "brilliant" physicists as moms.
Arguing biological smarts just skips us right by the fact that we need varied female protagonists, especially for the young girls, if we ever want to truly close the door on sociocultural factors determining the future of women and science. As long as options that diverge from pink, romance, babies, and beauty seem marginal, as long as mainstream media and society continue to push classic notions, there will always be a link, and to assume that society is sex and gender-balanced now is simply not good science.
For those hoping to inspire science in their young girls and women now, any family friendly female scientists you would suggest?