GUEST NERD POST
By Shannon Brescher Shea
From dinosaur bones to aliens, some of the best Nerd inspiration comes from the movies. Unfortunately, female scientists and mathematicians notoriously have been under-represented on the big screen. But with an all-female Nerd team leading the Ghostbusters reboot and the story of forgotten NASA heroines finally being told in Hidden Figures starting December 25, it seems like things just might be changing for the better in Hollywood.
While examples of smart, strong female scientist roles might be few and far between for now, girl Nerds of all ages can still look to these characters for inspiration:
Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park played by Laura Dern: I was mildly obsessed with dinosaurs as a little girl, so my ten-year-old self loved Jurassic Park. And paleobotanist Ellie Sattler was my kind of heroine. She’s excellent at her job, always prepared, and staggeringly calm in the face of a velociraptor attack. She’s probably the most competent person in the whole place. To both Michael Crichton’s and Steven Spielberg’s credit, they don’t shove her into a stereotypical, sexually-objectified female role. She also has no patience for mathematician Ian Malcolm’s pretension, delivering one of the best lines in all of cinema.
Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson from Hidden Figures: Inherently, these characters are a bit different because they’re based on real people. But that doesn’t mean there’s any less drama to their story. These women worked as “computers” for NASA, calculating the needed thrust and trajectory of the earliest spacecraft. Even though their role was significantly downplayed at the time, they were absolutely fundamental to the mission’s success. As we read our science and math history, it’s important to remember that the people whose names weren’t recorded may be even more important to the discovery as those who got the credit for it.
Ellie Arroway from Contact, played by Jodie Foster: I watched this movie as a teenager with my dad at the dollar theater where the floor was sticky and the seats were broken. It was the perfect setting. Even though it involves aliens, the movie is largely about how we pass the love of science and discovery down to our children. In particular, it focuses on the relationship between Ellie and her father, who encouraged her to study science from a young age. When she finds proof of intelligent life outside of Earth, that conviction helps her break through multiple barriers. Like astronomer Carl Sagan, who wrote the original novel, Jodie Foster effortlessly expresses the awe that underlies so much scientific exploration.
Ryan Stone from Gravity, played by Sandra Bullock: While many astronauts in movies have generic “astronaut” jobs, Ryan is specifically called out as a biomedical engineer. Although she never gets to study the effects of space on human bodies due to the movie’s disastrous events, it shows her combining her technical capability and plain old ingenuity. She also demonstrates incredible mental and emotional strength as she fights for her life. Notably, Ryan is also one of the few female characters in science fiction who is a mom.
Erin Gilbert, Abby Yates, Jillian Holtzmann, and Patty Tolan from Ghostbusters (2016): The new Ghostbusters may be the first all-female team of scientists in cinematic history. Although it’s sad that it took this long, this hilarious movie gives women and Nerds so much to celebrate. It starts by tackling the sexism that female scientists often face, with Erin justifiably concerned with her male colleagues’ perception of her. Once she’s thrown off the reins of academia, she joins a unique team, where no woman is a generic “scientist.” Both Erin and Abby are physicists. Erin specializes in the mysterious neutrino particle, Jillian is a nuclear engineer, and Patty is an amateur but well-versed historian. Even though they have tremendous expertise and competence, they’re not only mocked, but mocked with gender-specific language. The main villain tells them, “You shoot like girls!” But despite it all, they rise to the occasion, defeating both the ghosts and the public’s skepticism about kick-ass female scientists.
In real life, female scientists continue to face systemic discrimination. While there’s much to tackle, watching teams of female scientists in movies as different as Ghostbusters and Hidden Figures give me hope. After all, these characters may one day inspire and encourage the next:
- Chemist Marie Curie
- Computer scientist Ada Lovelace
- Geneticist Barbara McClintock
- Molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn
- Particle physicist Melissa Franklin
- Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe or
- Astronaut Mae Jemison.
Shannon Brescher Shea is a senior science writer/editor for the federal government. The mom of two very young sons, she also writes about parenting on her blog We’ll Eat You Up, We Love You So.