Oct 10 2012 10:00am

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?

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?

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.

S Cooper
1. SPC
This generally only bothers me when they make the love interest an unconvincing scientist. Like the "nuclear scientist" in The World is Not Enough. Another disappointment was in Space Cowboys - in general I loved the movie, but the woman's arc was to go from capable engineer to weeping girlfriend. Like any character, their presence and their identity should serve the plot. When they're shoehorned in, it's a distraction.
Dr. Thanatos
2. Dr. Thanatos
If they are going to make them scientists (which any fan of Amy Farrah Fowler can understand) they should be believable scientists.

Case in point: Basilisk, the Serpent King. Admittedly a forgettable secret pleasure especially where the monster eats the clothing off the bad girl one layer at a a time (that's another post entirely). But the hero is the blond female scientist WHO SPENDS THE ENTIRE MOVIE RUNNING IN HIGH HEELS AND A LITTLE BLACK COCKTAIL DRESS. Scientist in name only (SINO!)
Charles Moore
3. Shadeofpoe
I had thought this was pretty well used in both SciFi and Fantasy, no? I mean in everything from Mass Effect to The Dresden Files you normally have a male hero type that does the general ass-kicking/heavy-lifting/ogre slaying, and often times the female lead, minus maybe Mass Effect's Ashley, is going to be a brainy side-kick helping the hero along in the way that she can.

I would think that the Brawny female hero would be more atypical. Which is where Wheadon excells with Buffy, Black Widow, Zoe, and to a lesser extent Inara. You always had a science-y, brainy heroine in the action movies of the 80s at least. IMO we need more Rivers (Song or Tam), and less Physicists as played by Tara Reid and Natalie Portman.
Dr. Thanatos
4. Dr. Thanatos

Problem with most of the female scientists you describe is that a) many were just cute Tara Reid types who say things like "I'm a scientist, fer shure; now let me practice my screaming" i.e. the stereotype 1950's stock female sci/fi character who's purpose was to look purty and scream real nice, only now they wear labcoats instead of poodleskirts; and b) they aren't scientists. They are people in labcoats who give exposition.

Give me real scientists, who solve problems and keep the strong-but-dumb heroes from either stupidly blowing up the world or (worse) save the world by pure dumb luck and reinforce the stereotype that smart is bad and strong is good...
6. JoeNotCharles
A notable example of a "buff action hero" woman with a brainy male sidekick (although emphatically not a love interest) was Relic Hunter.
Dr. Thanatos
7. Eric Saveau
@Shadeofpoe -

I mean in everything from Mass Effect to The Dresden Files you normally have a male hero type that does the general ass-kicking/heavy-lifting/ogre slaying,

What are you talking about? In Mass Effect, Commander Shepard personally led her crew in ass-kicking and relied mostly on Dr. Mordin Solus for the sciencey stuff. At least, if you played the game the right way ;-) And though Liara was definitely a "hot scientist" she was also uncompromisingly capable in combat.
Alan Brown
8. AlanBrown
I think the female scientist trend reflect trends in current society. I read about women are doing better in school, outnumbering men in getting degrees, more women being seen in technical fields.
Since my granddaughter has two genius parents, and shows every sign of following in their footsteps, I fully expect her to join the scientific ranks any day now!
Dr. Thanatos
9. Rancho Unicorno
Granted, my media watching is somewhat limited, but wasn't Dark Angel on the list of non-Wheadon/non-Who shows that turns the trope around? What with DiNozzo playing the scientist and Jessica Alba playing the action hero?

I'm a bit hard pressed to think of others, but going through my TV shows, I've never really thought of Community, Top Gear, etc as the type of show that needed an action hero or a scientist (of course, I don't think Who needs one either...).
Dr. Thanatos
10. Rayonn
Speaking of the Dresden Files, if you substitute 'arcana' for 'science', Dresden and Murphy are the opposite of the trend, especially in the early books. Picture 'Fool Moon' from Murphy's POV.
Most of Harry's contribution falls into:
--Looking tall and imposing in his duster
--Providing technobabble
--Using his special training to bring the pyrotechnics a few times per book (while Murphy does most of the hand-to-hand fighting)
--Complicating things by getting into trouble in ways that are stereotypical for his gender (going off alone to 'protect' Murphy)

Of course, that dynamic gets changed up somewhat once Harry comes into his own as a combat wizard (over the course of Dead Beat through White Night), but Murphy still takes point in fights.
Charles Moore
11. Shadeofpoe
@Eric Saveu

Touche sir. Well played.


That's an interesting look at Dresden. I was thinking more on the later books when you see Harry working with Elaine and Molly, with both of them being more finesse and Dresden being more brute force. Which is how I feel all female magic users are when they pop up around Dresden. Wasn't even thinking about Murphy, never liked her in the early books before she came into her own. Always hated how Legal Eagle/by the book she was in the first couple.
Dr. Thanatos
12. J-Ro
Re: Dresden Files - the show didn't really get into it much, but in the books both Murphy (the female cop) and Susan (love interest and reporter) are protrayed as more than capable of taking care of themselves and neither are scientists. In fact, in the later books Murphy is teaching Harry how to defend himself.

As for television, it's really corny but the first Librarian movie has the bodyguard as a kick-ass female protecting the brainy librarian on his first trip to the field.

In any case, I like the trend of women in movies being more than an excuse for the hero to go ballistic on the villain. Having an actual reason to be along for the ride other than "pretty girl in the wrong place at the wrong time" is definitely a step up. If it makes being a scientist look cool to young girls, that's a bonus in my book.

Less Girl in the Refrigerator, more valued contributer to the story.
Dr. Thanatos
13. Taryntula
My issue isn't that we don't have women be the brawn and men be the problem is that we don't have as many loveable female brawn. We need strong, kick ass women who also can cut-up like RDJ's Iron Man. I don't want a pissed off Michelle Rodriguez saving the world...I want a happy-go-lucky Amy Adams out there saving with a smile :)
Emily Asher-Perrin
14. EmilyAP
Awesome examples by everyone, and really great points being made! :)

@Taryntula - Agreed! That is perhaps my biggest beef in all of fiction - no female Iron Man, or Jack Sparrow, or Han Solo, etc. Maybe if they actually make a Ms. Marvel movie, they'll let her be that hero?
Dr. Thanatos
15. Rayonn
@Taryntula - Really good point. Closest thing I can think of to that is Buffy ('fruit punch mouth'?). Oh, and several characters in the Malazan Book of the Fallen (Hellian, Shurq Elalle, many of the female Marines and Heavies)
Dr. Thanatos
16. Megpie71
As with so many of these tropes, the "female scientist sidekick" was actually first done in Dr Who (Liz Shaw, the first companion of the third Doctor). At the time, she didn't really last that long: the in-show explanation was that the Doctor didn't need a highly qualified scientist as a sidekick, he needed "someone to pass him his test tubes and tell him how brilliant he was" (quoting the Wikipedia article about her). The out-of-show explanation was that the writers really didn't know what to do with the character at that time.

EmilyAP makes an interesting point in that there don't seem to be very many female antiheroes (the Iron Man, Jack Sparrow, Han Solo style of characters). Either they're heroes, or they're the hero's sidekick - there isn't a really good example of a female character who's on the same vague side as the hero, but opposed to their choices of direction. My more cynical side suspects the reason for this is that a female antihero would need to be allowed to be RIGHT for at least some percentage of the time (this being one of the defining characteristics of the antihero - they do hero things in a less-than-heroic way, usually involving intelligence over brute force, and it works, sometimes better than the hero's plan would have).
Dr. Thanatos
17. Fenric25
In regards to the above statement on Liz Shaw: Doctor Who had done several one-off female scientists before her (Anne Travers, for instance, from The Web of Fear, and Miss Gia Kelly, the expert on the T-Mat system that teleported supplies and people all across the space age idea of the 21st century) and, as far as companions go, Zoe Herriot, the last companion of the 2nd Doctor, just before Liz Shaw, was also a brilliant computer scientist and parapsychologist, IIRC. She even beat the Doctor in an alien intelligence test and, in one episode (The Mind Robber) was shown to have some martial arts skills (rather poorly done, of course, but that's 1960's BBC stunt acting for you). Of course, because she was a teenager, Zoe was portrayed more as the child genius role and certainly wasn't considered in the same manner as Liz Shaw, who was, indeed, a brilliant, competent scientist who was often the voice of reason to the seemingly crazy genius that the Doctor was. Several such women in Doctor Who would follow in that vein (the Time Lady Romana and later Nyssa of Traken, and one might even consider Peri and Mel, both supposedly a botany student and a computer engineer, though neither really showed much skill in either manner), but, in the end, Liz Shaw was definitely the best, and it was such a shame that she had to be written out and never given a proper send-off (of course, in this case, it was because she was pregnant, actually, IIRC-they were going to write her off but that changed things immediately).

Liked the article, by the way, made quite a few good points. I love female action figures as well as the female scientists and hope we get more of both from movies and TV in the future...
Dr. Thanatos
18. driceman
I don't think the scientist female love interest thing in superhero movies is meant to be degrading to other career paths or anything. I think A. it's convenient for the plot in several cases (as you said), and B. superhero movies, because they're live action interpretations of comic books, are often attempting to scientifically explain impossible things. How better to do that while keeping the run time low?

In other news, I appreciate the feminist approach to movies, I really do. I think as a culture we need to grow up and start treating people as people. That said, Emily, do you write anything other than feminist articles? I know this isn't 100% accurate, but every time I see your name it seems to be right before a rant about women being treated as objects in movies.
Dr. Thanatos
19. Setsuna
Only buff gal/brainy guy example that comes to my mind is Dexter. Deb is a butt-kick cop (I love Deb!) and Dexter is a lab tech (ignoring his...extra curricular activities, at least).

I never knew Jane from Thor was originally a nurse... As a woman who studied astrophysics, I thought it was really neat she had that role in the movie. However I was extrey upset with how the movie ended.. Not to give any spoilers, but from what I could tell -Jane- was the lead scientist, not that old guy. SHE should have been the person in the after credits scene, not that over guy. I get that was probably related a lot to not be assault being able to book Nataile Portman for other movies, but I was extremely disappointed.
Terence Tidler
20. libertariansoldier
It does seem to be a trend. In the Bourne Identity novel, she was an international financial wiz. Good career, and supported the plot--and the plots of subsequent books--but definitely not kick ass.
Dr. Thanatos
21. Dificat
I hate when female scientists are unrealistic. There was one in "The Saint" who didn't talk like a scientist. She alone had developed cold fusion, but frankly she was all fluttering optimism and no real work. In movies, female scientists wear lab coats all the time, even to write software, unless they are on a date, and then they wear dresses and shoes that most young scientists couldn't afford. They run labs before they are even 40. They were always the top of their classes and are respected worldwide. They talk only about science, using words that the other characters don't know, showing a distinct lack of communication skills that ill-befits a world-renowned lab director.

I thought an unappreciated scientist character was Anne Heche in "Volcano." It was a so-so movie, but at least the geologist love-interest was believable. She wasn't the head of the USGS, just someone who worked there and liked doing public outreach. She indicated her level of confidence in any conclusion, dressed and talked like a geologist might, and was neither emotionless nor unnecessarily sexed up. (Scientists of any gender are sexy, but it isn't usually Hollywood sexy.)
Liz Bourke
22. hawkwing-lb
Megpie @71:

I think we're start to get a few more female anti-heroes myself: from what I've seen of Revenge it looks like the main character's definitely one, and the first season of Nikita played around a bit with that line, I think. (I also really like the fact that in Rizzoli & Isles we have a buddy-cop show with two women buddies, but that's beside the point.)

I'm hoping we get more female anti-heroes. It'd make an interesting change.
Jenny Kristine
23. jennygadget
I must admit to having given the trend a pass just because for so long I wished some of the scientists in movies could be female - and look! here they are!

That said, I agree with all the complaints about the lack of realism. I'm also annoyed that female scientists are usually only brought in because movies need both exposition and romance and someone clearly thought it would save time and effort to combine the two. Can the geniuses who are out to destroy the world - or who are called in to help save the day at the last minute - can they never be female too? Do scientists only get to be female when the male leads needs an expositing romantic partner?

That said, Emily, do you write anything other than feminist articles?
Does it matter? Would you even notice , much less ask the question, if she mostly wrote about Game of Thrones, steampunk, or any hundreds of other topics?

For the record, what I notice is that "every time I see (Emily's) name it seems to be right before a" really good post. Often one that introduces me to ideas and opinions that I hadn't thought of before! Emily, please keep doing whatever it is that you are doing because I love all your articles.
Shelly wb
25. shellywb
And then there is Prometheus...

But we have come a long way since Lost in Space, in which the biochemist spent all her time hanging clothes out to dry and cooking.
Joseph Newton
26. crzydroid
I'm glad you call nursing a perfectly respectable career. I get the feeling, however, that most people, especially in Hollywood, would see that as a somewhat degrading role to cast their lead female in; ie, a woman being a nurse is an outdated stereotype that they wish to avoid.

I guess I never noticed the feminist rant posts before. Everytime I see your name, it seems like it is before a post on some geeky topic which draws us all to
Emily Asher-Perrin
27. EmilyAP
@driceman - Um... yes. Yes, I do. But I view things under a feminist lens often, because it's important. :)

@hawkwing-lb - I absolutely love that Rizzoli and Isles is a buddy cop show starring two women. Especially since female duos like that are perhaps even rarer than female anti-heroes on their own. You have Thelma and Louise, and it just sorts of stops there...

@shellywb - The Alien universe does seem to be one of the primary places where most of those stereotypes fall away. Oh, Lost in Space. That is such a perfect example! I guess the show never really pretended to be about anything other the the robot, Will, and Doctor Smith after the first season or so, but really.

@jennygadget, a-j and crzydroid - Thank you so much! You're all incredibly kind and it warms the cockles of this blogger's cyberspace-y heart.
Gerd K
28. Kah-thurak
@16 Megpie71
Wouldnt Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck be exctly the character you are looking for? Seems to fit pretty well I think.

@27 EmilyAP
The interesting thing about this is that while there are a lot of political posts on this blog going in the feminism/equality/etc direction while all other political points that could be made are mostly ignored. This makes for a rather strange balance and is the only thing I do not particulary like about this site.
Emily Asher-Perrin
29. EmilyAP
@Kah-thurak - Speaking from my own personal perspective, I don't consider feminism/equality topics to be "political," though they are, of course, often brought up in polictical platforms. I consider them to be social issues that deserve discussion. They aren't everyone's cuppa, but they are perfectly easy to ignore if they're not. :)
Gerd K
30. Kah-thurak
That distinction is a pretty arkward one. All things that can be considered political are also "issues" that have some other aspect, either social or technical or financial or whatever. But that is only a matter of semantics isnt it?

The strange thing is just the choice of this blog to have a strong feminism agenda but ignore every other political aspect (or "social issue" if you prefer that word). Feminism is hardly the only major theme that touches on Science Fiction and or Fantasy literature - but I have yet to notice an article on this side that discusses the ethical problems of genetical engineering to name just one random topic.
Emily Asher-Perrin
31. EmilyAP
@Kah-thurak - You could make that very same argument in the other direction, so I suppose it is a matter of semantics. The reason why pairing it down to politics bothers me is, when viewed from an American perspective, suddenly every argument is given a label, be it "leftist" or "conservative," and everyone has an "agenda." I'm personally not a fan of any of those terms because I think that these topics pertain to far more than party alignments.

From what I know of the writers here and elsewhere across the internet, we write about what interests us. Perhaps it is notable that more than one of us is interested in feminism and women in fiction, but it's hardly surprising to me. You never know - I might develop an interest in genetic engineering in the future, and I'm sure I'll write about it if I do!
Gerd K
32. Kah-thurak
I cant comment much on american party alignments. I hate bothering with german parties too much to be overly interested in foreign ones ;-)

But to claim that the topic is not political just because politics are bothersome is not really productive. That you have to write about what is interesting to you is naturally right. Nothing else makes sense. Nevertheless: There are a whole lot more articles about feminism than about any other political topic or social issue here - and therefore there will allways be comments on this imbalance.
Emily Asher-Perrin
33. EmilyAP
@Kah-thurak - I don't think there's anything unproductive about about making a distiction between the political and the social, as it pertains to the piece that was written. If I were talking how laws affect women, etc., I would call that political discourse. From the standpoint of this article, I am talking about how women are portrayed in fiction, which I would call a social and/or cultural commentary. Though that may seem like semantics, in my experience, it affects how the topic is discussed in an online forum, which is why I'm keen on the distinction.

And naturally there will be comments on the fact that many writers online deal with feminism. And there will naturally be responses from those of us who don't perceive an abundance of this discourse to be problematic. :)
Dr. Thanatos
34. Mercury
@17 And don't forget Martha Jones in New Who--she's a medical student when the Doctor picks her up, and she often plays a more grounded role as compared to Ten, who is brilliant but also more than a bit manic. In the first episode of Series 7, we also had the (possibly to be seen again?) computer-whiz Oswin who describes herself as a "total screaming genius" and pretty much lives up to that description in all of 45 minutes when she manages to hack the Dalek hivemind and save the Doctor and Amy and Rory.
Mig Archey
35. Quilld
In 1954 Them! gave us Joan Weldon as scientist Dr. Patricia 'Pat' Medford to help deal with those pesky giant ants.
Dr. Thanatos
36. salmat
Sam Carter of Stargate SG1 may be a brilliant astrophysicist, but she's with the air force, and she can kick ass on her own. I remember one episode where she fights a chieftain on some planet in hand to hand combat.
Dr. Thanatos
37. Llama
@9 makes a very good call.

For those looking for a female anithero, Max on Dark Angel was pretty much a 90s-era superhero but female. She's a genetically engineered escapee from a secret government project, has been making a living as a cat burglar in post-apocolyptic Seatlle, and pushes people away with cynicism and a tough-guy attitude. She becomes a reluctant hero because she meets Logan, the computer genius freedom fighter who uses his wealth and hacking skills to expose corruption and help the innocent. He's in a wheelchair after the pilot and is basically Max's mission control, distressed damsel, and conscience. Meanwhile, she teaches him to loosen up and enjoy life, and they both learn to be better humans. It's a total gender role reversal.

The first season of that show is pretty amazing SF. Quit after that, though. Post-apocolyptic sci-fi was insensitive after 9/11 and they turned the show into weak, awful pseudo-fantasy crap in season 2.

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