Tinseltown’s New Favorite Trope: The Female Scientist

For the longest time it was just fine to let some buff guy do the heavy lifting and have his girlfriend or potential love interest sit on the side, flirting and looking generally impressed. Thankfully, your average modern audience is over that now. We want female characters who act, not delicate ladies who tie favors around their knight’s armor. So how do studio execs and Hollywood give these women agency and their own lives without making them action heroes that might compete with their male counterparts?

Well… how about making them scientists? We seem to love that one.

Granted, this isn’t a new move, but it is an increasingly more common one. We’ve got gun-toting boys, awkward geniuses and surly anti-heroes, but we need a lady to fill out the ranks. So suddenly one shows up in the form of a very skilled doctor or a scientist with an area of expertise that is usually crushingly complicated. See? She’s amazing!

You could argue that the whole trend gained ground with or around the debut of The X-Files. Agent Scully was a foil for Fox Mulder, the straight man to all his science-fictional nonsense; if our hero was going to be a puppy-faced FBI agent with his head in a UFO-formed cloud and a conspiracy theory to go with every awful tie he wore, then it made perfect sense for his partner to be a scientist. It allowed Scully a position that was rare for women at the time – the voice of reason, the logical, rational mind. And she was brilliant at it. She proved beyond a doubt that women were well capable of playing with test tubes and collecting data and letting their friends know exactly when they’d gone off the deep end.

Stargate SG:1 followed pretty close on the heels of this trend: with an original team of only four, and their first resident genius caught up in anthropology and linguistics, it made perfect sense to have the female member to the group be a sharp astrophysicist. Sam Carter was the team’s technobabbler, and actress Amanda Tapping tackled that aspect of the role with all the gusto it deserved, but the true reason why it worked for Stargate was because the character was flat out needed to make the show work. Daniel Jackson and Jack O’Neill’s areas of expertise had already been established in the 1994 film, so it was natural to round out the team with a scientist. An easy solution to balance out their main cast, and give their one female lead some interesting material to chew on.

The short-lived Invisible Man series from 2000 on the Sci-Fi Channel was another example, but here it begins to feel more cynical. The Invisible Man was essentially a buddy cop show where one of the cops has the ability to turn invisible, but also needed frequent injections to prevent his invisibility gland from turning him into a psycho. Enter “The Keeper.” She was a lovely British doctor who was responsible for keeping Invisible Darien injected and knowing all the science-y things whenever something inevitably went wrong. It was some time before Darien and his partner Bobby ever even learned the Keeper’s name (it’s Claire), and though The Invisible Man was a fun show, it was all-too-awkward noticing their approach where Claire was concerned: she’s unreasonably gorgeous and a bit exotic, but don’t forget to take her seriously! She’s a doctor! I suppose Bobby couldn’t have been female? (Wow, a female Bobby Hobbes would have been one of the most incredible characters television had ever seen.)

Hollywood has been picking up the trend with boundless enthusiasm, and it’s turned a few heads… but not always for good reasons. There was something of a backlash when Jane Foster, Thor’s human lady-friend, showed up in the Asgardian’s eponymous 2011 film as an astrophysicist – because fans will know that Jane in the comics is a nurse. It was felt by some that those high-and-mighty writers were undercutting the nursing profession, saying that it wasn’t as impressive or worthwhile as science.

Frankly, it seems just as likely that it was more convenient to the plot to make Jane a scientist, but it is an interesting point. Jane Foster was already a professional woman in the comics, with a perfectly respectable career. Was the decision to change that career made because we are now entranced by this idea of scientific female genius? Did the writers think that today’s women would be aggravated at the idea that Thor’s girlfriend, the one who essentially picks him up and dusts him off when he’s homeless and alone, is already a caretaker by profession? Was it wrong to give her a role that invested her beyond the scope of Thor’s attractive well-being, and get her interested in stars and what lies beyond her own world?

No, Peter, we generally call increased cellular mitosis 'cancer' and not 'spider-powers.'

No, Peter, we generally call increased cellular mitosis 'cancer' and not 'spider-powers.'

Perhaps we can make a case for Jane Foster, but then there was Gwen Stacy in this year’s Amazing Spider-Man. Not far into the film, we find out that Gwen has a fancy science internship at OsCorp, one that gives her an enormous amount of access to all sort of expensive equipment. Of course, this also lets her serve in some key plot points, but what caused this change? Apparently it’s not enough that Gwen be an excellent high school student – she’s way ahead of the curve, working at one of the most exclusive companies for scientific R&D in the world. Wouldn’t they have just hired her at this point, seeing as she’s clearly been given some top-level clearance? (We have to assume not just any kid working there would be able to cook up antidotes on command.) I mean, obviously she’s several steps above Raimi’s Mary Jane who was—gasp—an out-of-work actress! Peter, you must do better!

Is that the point? In worlds populated by an abundance of supermen and action heroes, did we have to make sure that the women who captivated them were well above average, too?

Here, this will enhance your cognitive abilities. But also I love you.

Here, this will enhance your cognitive abilities. But also I love you.

Take a look at The Bourne Identity: Jason Bourne’s love interest was the incredible Franka Potente, a randomly encountered woman who he offers money to drive him to Paris. She goes into shock after watching a guy jump out of a window, but she rises to the occasion commendably, an appropriately complex woman caught in the middle of a fight that she never asked to be a part of. And then The Bourne Legacy comes out, and Aaron Cross’s lady along for the ride is yet another scientist, one in charge of getting the operatives their “chems” to help increase their mental and cognitive function. Rachel Weisz is always dazzling, but her character is contributing to a very interesting pattern.

On the one hand, showing women in these fields can only encourage other women to believe those doors aren’t closed to them, and that is of utmost importance. On the other hand, why is this the new default for intelligent, capable ladies who aren’t interested in Black Widow’s beat? Where are the chefs and entrepreneurs and painters and engineers in genre and action films? And wouldn’t it be great to see just a few shows and films where the buff action heroes were women and the brainy love interests were men? It’s not that there’s anything wrong with amazing female scientists (and the men who love them). It just seems that we’re missing out on all the options.

Emily Asher-Perrin thinks Franka Potente should have her own superhero movie. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.


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