Not all scientists are weird and ugly

pacific-rim-scientistWe watched Pacific Rim the other night – and I know I probably shouldn’t be admitting that to an audience who are old enough to go to a bar. But, anyway, it drove home to me again how poorly male scientists are portrayed in mainstream films and how completely mis-aligned with reality that is.

Male scientists in films invariably dress badly, are unfit, often physically damaged, and obsessive to the point of stupidity. Female scientists suffer from a different, but related, set of portrayal problems – but there weren’t any female scientists in Pacific Rim (in fact I think there was only one female character so the Bechdel Test didn’t get a look in).

Now maybe I don’t associate with the right class of scientist; but all the scientists I’ve met are clever, well-adjusted, well-dressed people. They are often extremely fit and, very often, extremely personable. Many of the younger scientists I know are a much closer match for the clean-cut hero-portrayals in movies like Pacific Rim than are the policemen or soldiers I’ve met.

In some ways, their awareness of the stereotype ensures they don’t match it.

So why do scientists get portrayed so poorly in movies? My theory is that it is all about accessibility. Anyone can imagine themselves hitting an alien on the nose with a spanner, or kicking a bank-robber in the nuts. The reality is we’d probably be quivering piles of squealing fear – but we can imagine we’d be doing the physical hero stuff. Most of us simply can’t imagine where to put the glowing blue wire to get the nuclear reactor back on line, or doing the maths to work out where the next supernatural hoard is going to appear – there’s nothing there to identify with. And if the audience can’t identify, the character gets played for sympathy and laughs.

Or perhaps it’s because if there was a character that could not only think their way out of a problem but also kick-some-butt on the way your average punter would find that threatening. Much easier to think that those egg-head boffins can’t tie their own shoe-laces without the help of the clean-cut high-school graduate with a big gun.

Easier, but not the real world.

Addendum: Someone just asked me why it matters. It matters because we’re trying to persuade people to choose science as a career. And image does matter in choice of career. Scientists are, generally, fascinating and cool and it’d be good if people knew that in making career choices. In fact I reckon out here in the real world scientists get to do much more interesting things, in much more interesting places, and usually for more interesting remuneration than soldiers or other clean-cut movie heroes do.

Image: Pacific Rim.

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