January 21, 2014 at 10:56 am #42029
A recent article  by M. Bhatt, J. Blakley, N. Mohanty and R. Payne explores how media shapes the perceptions of girls and women in Science, Technology, Engineeering and Mathematics (STEM) in the United States: “How Media Shapes Perceptions of Science and Technology for Girls and Women“. Their examples mostly come from TV but the points are equally valid for film writing.
In recent years, women have been earning the majority of the undergraduate degrees (50-something percent for women, 40-something percent for men). The article doesn’t mention this, but a quick search shows that they earn the minority of STEM degrees (40-something percent for women, 50-something percent for men, although there is a wide variation depending on the exact field). However, when it comes to STEM employment, the numbers drop (20-something percent for women, 70-something percent for men). The statistics for women are worst at the graduate degree level, which of course makes it hard to staff teachers at all levels of the educational system in STEM fields.
What does all this have to do with writing, much less screenwriting?
Media influences beliefs in ourselves
- Media’s “pervasive negative stereotypes about women and science and math constitute some of the most important and insidious roadblocks to attracting and retaining women in STEM fields.”
- “Media affects the way we view ourselves and the rest of the world.”
- “If most of the images of women that a young girl sees fall into a limited number of categories, she will have limited beliefs about who she can become.”
- “… individuals adopt behavior changes based on the observation and imitation of other individuals, including fictional characters appearing in mass media …”
- “… the gender gap in science and math achievement in a country is significantly correlated with implicit gender-science stereotypes in that country…”
- “… providing girls and women with positive role models, both real and fictional, has the potential to reduce stereotypic beliefs and alleviate the effects of stereotype threat.”
- “Increasing representation of women in these fields, even with something as simple as a textbook image or a video with a gender-balanced crowd, can help mitigate these effects.”
They end with these recommendations:
- “Representation: depict more well-rounded portrayals of scientists and technologists.”
- “Participation: include more female characters in all the STEM fields in scripted dramas and comedies.”
As a very old example, in one of the DVD’s for the complete Get Smart TV series (created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry in the 1960s), there is a relatively recent interview with Barbara Feldon (who played Agent 99) where she pointed out that the her character was the smartest and most competent, as the writers intentionally indicated by giving her the highest agent number. Feldon mentions that she has met women employed in a STEM field who told her how Agent 99 inspired them.
I, for one, vote we bring back Agent 99!
Reddit has a list of shows with strong female leads.
 Meghana Bhatt, Johanna Blakley, Natasha Mohanty, Rachel Payne, “How Media Shapes Perceptions of Science and Technology for Girls and Women“, 2013.
Related discussionsJanuary 21, 2014 at 11:39 am #42033
Excellent post David. It makes a persuasive point for adding educated and empowered women to the list of characters a screenplay should feature. #bethechangeJanuary 21, 2014 at 12:10 pm #42056
“If most of the images of women that a young girl sees fall into a limited number of categories, she will have limited beliefs about who she can become.
I don’t think this can be stressed enough. We need far more TV shows and films that show women in a broad spectrum of roles and not just the accepting wife or hot girlfriend.January 21, 2014 at 12:23 pm #42060
It would also be nice if these strong women weren’t conditionally strong, i.e. the female character who is highly competent professionally but a complete wreck in her personal life. Or the independent woman who has really just been waiting for the right man to come along. Or the happily child-free woman whose inherent maternal desires are awakened by the arrival of a distant cousin’s orphaned baby.
And while we’re at it, why don’t we quit using sexual assault as a way to garner audience sympathy for our strong female characters.January 21, 2014 at 3:27 pm #42092
Over the years I find the problem is one of expectations. Media is in a Catch-22 position of wanting to push forward a positive image while worrying over the push back from audiences, which boils down to advertising or box office dollars.
It’s the “I’m not sure if people would buy that…” sort of position.
The best way to get around this is to put more positive images out there. Simply having more visible and interesting characters will get more people willing to believe that a woman can be in science / technology leadership roles and not have it questioned.January 21, 2014 at 7:40 pm #42100
It will be interesting to see what Marvel does with their first Muslim teenage girl superhero (at least, the first to headline her own comic book), Kamala Khan.January 21, 2014 at 8:56 pm #42102
Thank you for writing this up, David. (And bonus marks for working in an Agent 99 reference.)
I agree, Chris. We wind up in a bizarre feedback loop where, instead of shaping culture, we play to the lowest common denominator of received prejudice–and our perceptions of “what people would buy” aren’t always up to date with current attitudes, either.
It reminds me of the classic episode of the West Wing which introduced the character of pollster Joey Lucas (who incidentally was a successful blind character who wasn’t defined by her diasability). They were polling on a political issue (maybe gun control), and the staff’s attitude was that they didn’t stand a change in the states where the majority of voters supported a different policy than the administration. Lucas points out that they’ve got it dead backwards and those are the states where they can change attitudes, win people over, and pick up votes.
Rather than play to the most regressive attitudes in our audiences, we have the opportunity to change attitudes, too. In the specific case of women in STEM, we can definitely contribute to positive change by acting on the report recommendations and writing better, more well-developed depictions of people in STEM fields and more roles for women (and by extension, for people of color and the whole intersectionality spectrum) as characters in STEM field jobs.January 22, 2014 at 2:33 pm #42149
Great post David, thanks! More important food for thought.January 30, 2014 at 3:49 pm #42792
I realise they aren’t exactly leads but it should be pointed out there have been some good sceintific roles for women on some shows not listed, like President Roslin, Sam Carter or Doctor Who’s Romana!
In fact I listed five of them myself ages ago on my blog to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day: Five Fictional Women Scientists from TVJanuary 30, 2014 at 4:02 pm #42795
Interesting blog post, thanks GirlWithAGunMic.February 3, 2014 at 2:18 pm #43119
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