Mad Max, Smart Girls, and the Scientific Workplace

Today, my lab-mate Talia Moore and I took the afternoon off to watch Mad Max: Fury Road. We’d both seen the movie before and loved it enough, derived enough of a strange sense of hope from it, that we wanted to see it again. The film’s been hailed as surprisingly feminist—though I don’t think it has an overtly feminist agenda per se, it’s certainly lives within a feminist worldview. It seems odd to say this, but the interactions and relationships within the War Rig in Mad Max: Fury Road felt more authentic to me than anything I’ve seen on a mainstream movie screen, well, ever. It’s a space in which people respect each others’ skills, cooperate and coordinate to get the job done, a space in which relationships develop with some annoyance and mistrust but also lots of compassion and support. Toughness coexists with vulnerability, and charming dashes of awkwardness. The characters have individuality but also shared purpose, and there’s little room for egotism, for pretending to be someone you aren’t, for objectification, for stereotyping.

If I imagine the human dynamics of an ideal work environment, it would look a lot like the inside of the War Rig. In my career thus far as a field biologist, some of the most positive work environments I’ve been part of have in fact looked like this ideal*. They’ve been environments in which my capabilities, willingness to learn and take up challenges, and ability to collaborate were what mattered. You know what didn’t matter? The fact that I’m a woman. What I look like. Whether I look sexy or not. Whether I’m fixated on my biological clock. But these are exactly the attributes of women that, purportedly for satire, are brought to the foreground of the new science series by Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls called Experimenting with Megan Amram.

This show’s first episode exploits the tired idea that women shy away from science because being a scientist isn’t sexy, and that the route to making science appeal to young girls is by showing them that they, like the character who hosts this show, can “love science but also love looking good.” Amram opens her interview of Dr. Beverly McKeon, an aerospace engineer at Caltech, with “the most universal question in science: do you like me?” And it gets worse. As Dr. McKeon talks about her science, Amram’s character interjects with just about every girly-girl stereotype there is, from nail polish to wanting to be a model to swooning over The Notebook. By the end of it, I’d learnt very little about science, and had cringed more than laughed at the show’s attempt at satire. As my colleague Heather Olins put it,

I appreciate the value of satire, but the episode didn’t feel like satire to me. I don’t think that a 12 year old girl would get that it was making fun of stereotypes—I could barely tell they were trying to make fun of them. I was disappointed that they didn’t even take time to actually explain the “experiment” they did…[and] interrupting your guest – a top notch scientist – with vapid commentary just wasn’t amusing to me. Why not call it what it is—an attempt at a comedy show, not a science program

It isn’t that, as a woman scientist, I don’t care about looking good—some days I don’t, and some days I do. It isn’t that I don’t wear nail polish or won’t be entertained by a romantic comedy. It’s that none of it matters to my work as a scientist. If the reality of the  scientific workplace was less like the War Rig from Mad Max: Fury Road and more like Experimenting with Megan Amram, I wouldn’t be a scientist. It’s a weird, sad world we live in when an action movie (albeit an unusual one) does a better job of depicting a good work environment, what working in science can actually be like, than a show presumably meant to get women excited about a career in science. Of course, most scientific workplaces are neither the War Rig nor the Experimenting set, and can range from subtly discriminatory to overtly hostile towards women. But while we’re working to fix the problems that remain, it seems counterproductive to foster in young girls the very stereotypes we’re trying to dismantle. So if you’re looking to introduce young women to science, show them videos like this one instead:

And when they’re old enough, suggest that they go watch Mad Max: Fury Road.

*For a complementary take, check out Anne Hilborn’s blogpost on why Max would make an amazing field assistant to a biologist.

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