A tour of sexism in film

What makes a girl who looks like that get mixed up in science?
Submarine commander Richard Widmark, reacting to atomic physicist Bella Darvi in Samuel Fuller’s Hell and High Water (1954)

In its sexist-caveman way, Widmark’s question isn’t all that unreasonable. Ever since the junk-sci-fi boom of the 1950s, the movies have given us a thin but steady supply of onscreen female scientists, and they’ve needed actresses to play them. But in real life, those actresses really are women who felt no urge to get mixed up in science. They wanted to, you know, act, or at least spend as little time as possible staring into microscopes: Uma Thurman (who played a biologist in Paycheck and a crazed botanist in Batman & Robin) grew up in an academic household but struck out on her own as a teenage fashion model; Elisabeth Shue (a nuclear scientist in The Saint and a molecular biologist in Hollow Man) was a successful child actor in TV commercials; Summer Glau (a genius neuroscientist on TV’s Dollhouse) was originally a ballet dancer before Joss Whedon recruited her into his stock company of performing waifs; and Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Chief Scientist of Venus in the 1958 schlock classic Queen of Outer Space, was… wait, what was Zsa Zsa Gabor famous for again?


Queen of Outer Space, in which Gabor wears a laboratory uniform consisting of a Bob Mackie evening gown, heels, pearls, and salon-perfect hair, is one of the earliest examples of my favourite category of onscreen female scientist, a type I like to call the vavavoomologist. Cinema’s classic vavavoomologist is probably Raquel Welch in Fantastic Voyage (1966), a buxom surgeon’s assistant who is shrunk down to a fraction of a micrometre and injected into the body of a dying scientist—in the film’s most iconic sequence, she dons a skin-tight white wetsuit for an excursion into the man’s lungs, only to be attacked by antibodies, sticky, wriggly little Gummi worms which her male colleagues must pull off her body by hand. (Donald Pleasance has a particularly hard time disguising the eagerness with which he tackles this assignment.)

Welch has had several cinematic descendants, the notable recent example being Jessica Alba’s Sue Storm from the two Fantastic Four films. Storm is a brilliant genetic researcher who gains the power of invisibility when she is exposed to a massive dose of cosmic radiation, a development that the film mostly uses as the springboard for humiliating gags in which Alba suddenly appears naked in public. (The rest of the time, Alba wears a specially designed form-fitting suit which we’re told is made from a space-age material that’s somehow able to turn invisible along with her. The creators of Star Trek: Voyager also used The Ploy of The Magical Suit to explain why ship astrometrician Seven of Nine had to walk around in a shiny, body-hugging spandex catsuit for seven seasons.) And let’s not forget Tara Reid, donning a thick-rimmed pair of glasses in an endearingly fruitless attempt to pass herself off as an archaeologist and museum curator in Uwe Boll’s Alone in the Dark; or Denise Richards as tanktopped nuclear physicist Christmas Jones in the James Bond picture The World Is Not Enough; or Deep Blue Sea’s Saffron Burrows, who does Raquel Welch one better by starting out in a wetsuit and then stripping down to her underwear in order to defeat the superintelligent sharks she’s bred in her flimsily constructed ocean laboratory.

Closely related to the vavavoomologist are the women who turn up in that odd subgenre of science-themed sex farces. Often set on college campuses (like the pioneering film in the genre, Howard Hawks’ 1952 Monkey Business), these films inhabit a cozy fantasy world of uptight deans, kooky inventions, and DayGlo-coloured potions brewing in test tubes. These are films dedicated to exploring the hypothesis that deep inside every science geek lurks a horny sex addict just begging to be released. Let’s call these women “stealth Welches.” I’m thinking of characters like Sandra Bullock in Love Potion No. 9, playing a biochemist who becomes ferociously attractive to the opposite sex as a result of a gypsy elixir. Or Ann Miller as an apple-cheeked anthropologist in the MGM musical On the Town, using a visit to the Museum of Natural History as an excuse to deliver a risqué ode to “Prehistoric Man.” (“Bearskin, bearskin,” she sings, amorously caressing a statue of a Neanderthal. “He sat around in nothing but bearskin/I really love bare skin!”) There are even a couple of bizarre variations on this theme with campy titles like Sexual Chemistry and Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde, in which buttoned-down male science professors ingest potions that turn them into hypersexualized women.

But is it patronizing to suggest that any movie containing a female scientist runs the risk of turning into camp? Is there something about a certain kind of luscious female beauty—or at least male reactions to a certain kind of luscious female beauty—that makes any attempt by a sexy actress to play an intellectually serious character seem inherently ludicrous? Why does Jon Hamm come across as a credible NASA scientist in the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, but Jennifer Connelly seem so hard to buy as his astrobiologist assistant? Why, in the credits to Jurassic Park, is Sam Neill’s character identified as “Dr. Alan Grant” while Laura Dern’s fellow paleontologist is merely referred to as “Ellie”?

Perhaps part of the problem is that we have so few images of illustrious real-life female scientists for our imaginations to draw upon. Biopics of female scientists are few and far between: Greer Garson was nominated for an Oscar for playing the title role in 1943’s Madame Curie, a film so old-fashioned and earnest as to be practically radioactive to modern audiences. HBO’s Temple Grandin, first aired in 2010, was a sensitive, respectful account of the life of the autistic animal scientist—played by the willowy Claire Danes, even though in real life the woman looks more like Paula Poundstone. And then there’s Sigourney Weaver as primatologist Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist, somehow looking majestic rather than foolish as she squats in the jungle, grunting and grimacing in emulation of her beloved mountain gorillas.

In Sigourney Weaver, we at long last find an example of an actress whose physicality seems like a perfect extension and expression of her intellect. Imposingly tall, with that sharp nose and that powerful jaw which manages to be apelike yet feminine, Weaver is not so easily condescended to—even clad in nothing but her underwear in her breakthrough film, Alien, she projected a mental focus and a sort of patrician adeptness that marked her immediately as something more than a sex object.

And so she continues to be. One of the greatest visual pleasures in any of the movies released in 2009 was to be found in James Cameron’s Avatar, when Weaver’s chain-smoking exobiologist makes her first appearance in her artificially incubated alien body, a fusion of her own genetic material and some Na’Vi DNA that her consciousness can then control from a remote laboratory chamber. She has been playing a pickup game of basketball with her fellow scientists, themselves also transformed into ten-foot-tall, blue-skinned extraterrestrials, and she is an impossibly sexy sight as she saunters towards us. Maybe the first thing we notice are her giraffe-like legs, or the way her Stanford tank top leaves her delectably long, lean midriff exposed. She is unreal, an impression amplified by our subconscious awareness that at least three-quarters of the image is the product of CGI. But then she breaks out a proud, cocky, challenging grin, and, instantly, you can see Weaver’s soul flooding this character’s face and body language. It’s as if Weaver had been waiting her entire career to be transformed into a ten-foot-tall alien.

This union of the physical and the cerebral need not be so dramatic. Sometimes it can simply be a matter of visual metaphor. Think, for instance, of Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Arroway in that early scene from Contact, spending yet another night sitting outdoors, earphones clamped to her head, antennae pointed toward the sky as she listens for any sign of extraterrestrial life, her posture mirroring that of the satellite dishes arrayed behind her, her small, sharp features so intent that her nose practically resembles an antenna itself. Maybe it’s something in the eyes. Sarah Polley, who still has the wide, wise, curious peepers of a child prodigy, managed to be convincing as a rock-star genetic scientist in this year’s Splice, even as the movie around her grew progressively ludicrous. Emma Thompson seems like she’d make a good onscreen lady scientist—she has the slouchy, distracted quality of a smart person who’s spent way too many hours cooped up alone in a lab—but the only time she’s played one is in the gimmicky Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Junior. (Okay, okay, she also has a brief uncredited cameo in I Am Legend as the creator of a cancer vaccine that winds up turning most of the world’s population into bloodthirsty mutants — it all happens so fast, the Nobel people probably didn’t even have time to demand their medal back.)

If one had to name cinema’s supreme female scientist, though, tenure would have to granted to Anna, the larger-than-life heroine of Winnipeg auteur Guy Maddin’s six-minute silent-film pastiche The Heart of the World. The plot, related via Maddin’s usual mix of quick cuts and overheated intertitles and driven along by Georgy Svindov’s propulsive piano score, begins with Anna’s affections torn between two brothers: Nikolai, a mortician, and Osip, an actor currently portraying Jesus in the town Passion play. When Anna, who appears to be some kind of celebrity astronomer geologist, discovers that the earth’s core (depicted literally as a beating heart at the centre of the planet) is about to give out, the news triggers a worldwide panic—riots, violence, orgies in the street. In the confusion, Anna forsakes Nikolai and Osip and instead surrenders herself to the desires of a fat, oily business tycoon. As if responding to Anna’s fall from grace, the earth suffers a heart attack. The end of the world seems imminent, until Anna vindicates herself by sliding down a tunnel and, through some unexplained magical transformation (not unlike, come to think of it, Sigourney Weaver’s mystical union with the tree of life at the end of Avatar), taking her place as the new “heart of the world”—a perpetual source of energy and inspiration now known as “Kino” (the German word for “cinema”). Anna is Maddin’s idea of the Holy Trinity: science, movies, and womanhood, all united in one outlandishly costumed package.

As for movies that run longer than six minutes and which are not made by movie-drunk Winnipeggers… well, it’s probably useful to remember that while Hollywood screenwriters may have given us very few realistic portraits of female scientists, they’ve also given us very few realistic portraits of science. In Hollywood movies, an ordinary bullet is powerful enough to lift a man off his feet and send him crashing through a plate-glass window, but a fireball expands slowly enough for that same man to outrun it five minutes later. Here, laser beams are visible, dinosaurs can be cloned, and buses can drive fast enough to leap across a fifty-foot gap in a highway. In a world filled with such scientific unlikelihoods, why shouldn’t the women who study them be equally improbable? Like Anna at her post at the heart of the world, long may they throb.

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