The Complicated Nature of STEM Girls in Media

This was triggered by a handful of watchings of Thor. The first time through, I liked it because Jane Foster is an astrophysicist and that fact keeps coming up in the movie. For Thor: The Dark World (which I haven’t seen and don’t know when I’ll get around to fixing that), actress-scientist Natalie Portman teamed up with Marvel to create some sort of program to encourage girls to get involved and stay involved with STEM. It seemed like a great idea.

But a small problem became apparent on further viewings of Thor: Jane keeps saying, “I’m gong to go charging in,” only to be seated on the sidelines by Thor (and her research supervisor, I believe). Her social scientist gal pal Darcy sees more action than Jane does, effectively making Jane a super-intelligent damsel in distress.

It got me thinking about other STEM girls (often my favorite characters) in other science fiction media. For example, Firefly‘s Kaylee is a gifted mechanic, a natural talent capable of directing others to complete mechanical repairs she’s unable to because she’s just incapacitated enough to not be able (which happens with some regularity across the show’s brief run). But Badger’s men manage to get a hold of her pretty easily, and Jubel Early subdues her with nothing but verbal threats while she’s surrounded by tools that could easily do double duty as a bludgeoning tool. (I get that Mal’s cool with her not handling a gun if she doesn’t have to, but when her life and safety are being threatened? Doesn’t quite work.) Dr. Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation is similarly talented in her field, whipping up antidotes to the strangest alien contaminants. But when she gets kidnapped, she just sits and takes it. (Actually, she doesn’t. She starts applying her healing skills to her kidnapper’s people, provoking a conversation about Stockholm Syndrome among fans.)

Before you start thinking Star Trek dumbs down its women characters (or that all STEM women seem apathetic toward their physical well-being), Dr. Pulaski (whom I actually can’t stand) also whips up whatever medical miracles are needed. But when she’s infected by a bizarre virus that’s in the process of rapidly killing her by accelerating her aging process, she creates the antidote that saves herself and the other infected people in the area. More recently, Jemma Simmons from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a biologist talented enough to be drafted into a secret operation. But when she caught an alien bug that turned her into a ticking time bomb, she spent what she assumed would be her last hours developing the antidote that ultimately saved her life (even though she herself was not the one to administer it because she was busy taking an extreme action to keep herself from blowing up her teammates).

Joss Whedon is noted for writing strong female characters, which we’ve discounted with Kaylee and supported with Simmons.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Willow doesn’t necessarily sit and take it when something bad happens to her. She takes up arms or starts talking her way out. Willow actually has a different problem: She is shown repeatedly during her high school years engaging in some pretty decent-level hacking to help her friends out. But when the Scoobies get out of high school, Willow appears to leave her hacking hobby behind, preferring instead to employ magic even where a computer might make more sense.

And while we’re on the topic of girls who are heavily engaged in a STEM activity and then drop it quietly for no apparent reason, let’s add one more girl for the fire, because her own path has just been odd: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ April O’Neil. I’m going to leave out April the Reporter, simply because I didn’t care for the original series, and as a result don’t really know much about her. But April from the 2003-2010 series started off as a research assistant in a lab. Unfortunately, her boss is a complete whack job, and when the lab ceases to exist, April doesn’t go find another lab job. She opens an antiquities shop, the shop she has in the 2007 movie, where she’s clearly decided to embrace the Action Girl trope. She does return to her STEM roots, helping Donatello with various geeky projects from time to time and eventually leaving behind a technical corporation. The current CGI incarnation of April has so far tutored a fellow student in math, and sought out martial arts training so she can defend herself in the future.

I’m pretty sure if I had the time to fall down the TV Tropes rabbit hole, I would find that these are various shades of the same trope. It’s just fascinating to think about as we say we want more STEM women represented in our media. Jane Foster is considered a good representation, but she’s not a thoroughly strong character. What is it we’re really asking for?

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