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June 2, 2020

Inspirational film depictions of women in STEM

By LAUREN PADILLA | April 11, 2019



Actresses Spencer, Henson and Monáe played strong female scientists.

Representation matters. Studies have shown that a major factor driving young women away from STEM careers is the lack of female STEM characters in modern media. 

Nevertheless, according to a joint study from the Lyda Hill Foundation and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, less than 40 percent of on-screen STEM professionals are cast as women. And even among the media representations of women in STEM that do exist, it’s difficult to find films and series that showcase women STEM professionals not just as homogenous archetypes. Here are five media portrayals that do showcase women in STEM as developed characters with unique perspectives and experiences:

1. Shuri in Black Panther 

Seeing a woman scientist in a feature film is rare. Seeing a woman scientist depicted positively in a feature film is rarer. Seeing a woman scientist of color depicted positively in a feature film is practically unheard of. 

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Black Panther, the Academy Award-winning 2018 film lauded for its acting, costumes and, perhaps most critically, its representation, includes a dynamic woman in STEM. Shuri, portrayed by Letitia Wright, is a genius inventor and scientist, warrior and princess of Wakanda. She’s responsible for creating some of Wakanda’s most groundbreaking technology and still has time to deliver witty one-liners. 

2. Elizabeth Macmillan in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries 

Based in 1920s Australia, the historical drama television series surrounds the story of Phryne Fisher, an adventurous Melbourne socialite-turned-detective. The show tackles a range of medical and social issues — from women’s health to academic elitism.

Though it might seem like Phryne, the show’s heroine, with her outlandish list of hobbies and pursuits (from race car driving to flamenco dancing) would dominate the show’s story line, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries also develops a variety of impressive secondary characters. 

One of the most compelling is Elizabeth Macmillan, Phryne’s best friend, an openly gay woman physician and medical professor. Throughout the series, Macmillan not only helps Phryne solve some of the city’s most gruesome murders but also fearlessly advocates against the injustices she experiences and witnesses: from the sexist harassment of a female medical student to her colleagues’ blind support of eugenics.  

3. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures  

Perhaps the most inspiring part of the film, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book, is that its heroines — Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan — are all based on the lives and accomplishments of real women. Shortly before the movie’s release, former U.S. President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Earlier this year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) renamed one of its buildings the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility to acknowledge Johnson’s contributions to its mission, showcasing the power of representation both on- and off-screen.

4. Rainbow “Bow” Johnson in Black-ish

The ABC sitcom first aired in 2014 and centers around the Johnsons, an intergenerational African American family living together in modern-day California. Since its release, Black-ish has built a reputation for its willingness to address critical, traditionally contentious social problems. Over the years, it has covered everything from workplace tokenism to colorism among communities of color.

One of Black-ish’s standout characters is Rainbow Johnson, played by Tracee Ellis Ross. She’s an anesthesiologist and proud feminist who’s passionate about her career, as well as her family. Though not all episodes of the series feature Bow in her workplace, the ones that do highlight the absence of African American women in the medical profession and explore the challenges Bow faces as one of her hospital’s only African American female doctors — from personal isolation to incidents of fellow staff members questioning her credentials. 

5. Jillian Holtzmann in Ghostbusters

Released in 2016, the remake of the classic film stars a hilarious all-women cast, including Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones and Kristen Wiig. Best of all, the film does not include just one leading woman scientist but three. McCarthy and Wiig both play physicists, while McKinnon portrays Jillian Holtzmann, a brilliant, outrageously eccentric electrical engineer. 

Although popular media often depicts STEM workers as dull or emotionless, and consequently unsympathetic, Ghostbusters frames its scientists as relatable and intelligent. 

Sprinkled between discussions of particle physics are heated arguments over take-out orders, rock concerts and, of course, ghost encounters. One of the film’s comedic highlights is Holtzmann, undoubtedly the most eclectic member of the Ghostbusters team and embodiment of the “mad scientist” trope. Whether dancing cheerily to DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night” during a lab fire or wheeling her cart of high-tech gadgets along the subway tracks, McKinnon’s Holtzmann is both intrepid and endearingly awkward. 

The film’s director, Paul Feig, later confirmed that Holtzmann is gay but noted that studio pressure prevented the movie from openly revealing Holtzmann’s sexual orientation. Though it’s unfortunate that the Ghostbusters remake, marketed as a diversity win, stopped short of fully acknowledging the intricacies of one of its key characters, McKinnon’s portrayal of Holtzmann is an example of the multidimensional women STEM characters Hollywood needs.   

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