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Guest Post: Women, Science and Film

Guest Post: Women, Science and Film

Women and Hollywood readers are well aware of the appallingly low number of female directors working in Hollywood. Well, this disparity exists in the sciences and other industries as well. Sometimes, however, the attempted solutions shed more light on the prejudices causing the problems in the first place. This was the case with a recent debacle involving the EU’s (European Union) campaign to entice more girls to be interested in science.

The EU started the “Science, it’s a girl thing” campaign with the best of intentions. The main problem, though, became quickly apparent after the release of the campaign’s trailer. Judging by the content of the video—which seemed more like a fake Barbie commercial than a promo for a campaign attempting to empower teenage girls—you would think that girls only want to go into the sciences if it involves strutting around in stilettos while being watched by a significantly older male decked out in a white lab coat. Oh, and it helps that the “i” in the campaign title is represented by a lipstick. Basically, the video was so bad that it had to be quickly taken off of the website in response to public criticism.

As a female filmmaker and female scientist, I am equally concerned by another problem the video unintentionally raises: why is it so difficult to use media to make science—or the idea of being a scientist—accessible to the general public? How was it so easy for the well-intentioned campaign message to be turned into such an irresponsible piece?

So, here are some initial thoughts I have in response to the trailer for those responsible for it:

1.      Girls are not dumb. They have interests outside of the world of Abercrombie or Forever 21. They are actually just as discerning as you and me and can tell when they’re fed dumbed-down messages.

2.      Science can actually be cool. Why else would there be news reports on the search for dark energy and why else would we care about the race to find a cure for cancer? Why else would people actually study it?

Basically, girls can be anything they want and there is much more to science than pristine lab coats and goggles. Unfortunately, what is missing most in both the trailer and in our society in general is a mainstream awareness that science is accessible as well as exciting and that science is most definitely “a girl thing.” There are stories and adventures in the sciences that wait to be told, and scientists are definitely not the coldly calculating males often portrayed in the media. This is why when I made my film Losing Control about a female scientist looking for the meaning of love.  I wanted to create stories that are personal and real. I wanted the heroine to be a female scientist who is likable, flawed, and relatable with a career that is chaotically exciting and just plain fun.

When I watched the trailer, I cringed at the trailer’s attempted portrayal of the supposedly most attractive parts of science: it’s so hip and cool and appealing to that cosmetics-infatuated demographic because of all the pink, glitter, and sparkles. The trailer makers desperately resorted to their usual bag of superficial marketing techniques in an attempt to woo a demographic that they don’t seem to understand and about a subject they understand even less. Maybe they should have tried to do more research and figure out first what real science is. And maybe next time, the EU should hire someone who actually knows what science is to portray what is actually hip and cool about science, and to show that they actually believe that girls can be scientists or filmmakers or whatever they want to be.

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Valerie Weiss is a scientist-turned-filmmaker with a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard Medical School whose film, Losing Control, recently wrapped up a 9-city theatrical release. It will be released on home video October 9th. Click here for more information.

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