4d. The role of gender in contemporary fictional depictions of science

Research Team: Norbert Schaffeld, Jennifer Henke

Society has long perceived the practice of science as an inherently "masculine" undertaking. Not only were women excluded from practicing science, just as they were excluded from many other professions, but scientific thought itself was perceived as "male thinking" in ways that other intellectual and creative endeavors were not (Keller 1996: 76). These "beliefs" are deeply entrenched in cultural stereotypes, education systems, and in the institutions and practice of science (cf. ibid; Russett 1989; Hewlett 2008). In her seminal 1985 treatise on gender and science, Evelyn Fox Keller attempts to track the "genderization" of science, claiming that "the fact that the scientific population is even now overwhelmingly male is itself a consequence rather than a cause of the attribution of masculinity to scientific thought" (1996: 76). The persistent lack of women in the scientific workforce is the focus of attention and concern in the 21st century, both in terms of equal opportunity and wasted human resources. But women have become a more significant presence in many fields of science and in particular in the life sciences (cf. European Commission 2009; Hill 2010). How is the entrenched perception of science as gendered reflected, challenged, or illuminated in contemporary fictional treatments of science? How does gender impact the representation of institutional and social conditions for science?

Analyses of popular entertainment media and literature indicate that throughout most of the 20th century, science was depicted as an overwhelmingly male-dominated enterprise (cf. Haynes 1994, 2003; Flicker 2003; Weingart 2003; Steinke 2005; Colatrella 2011), where women are subject to “strategic marginalization” (Flicker 2003: 316) and "have either no place at all or ‘their’ place, i.e., a woman’s place” (Weingart 2003: 283). These studies have looked at representations of scientists in literature and film identifying stereotypes such as the (male) mad/bad, noble, inhuman, and dangerous scientists or the (female) old maid, male woman, daughter or assistant, lonely heroin, and babe scientist. Carol Colatrella has examined selected novels and films ranging from the 19th to the 21st centuries, looking for constellations of characterization and narrative that might encourage or discourage women from entering scientific professions. But the representation of gender per se in recent literature or film where science is center stage has yet to be explored. What exactly is a "woman's place"—and a man's—when it comes to the production and implementation of scientific knowledge?

Employing techniques for reading film as “text,” with its own semiotic system and “film language” (Metz, [1974] 2007), we conduct textual analyses of recent science novels and of contemporaneous films with "realist" portrayals of science (examples of the latter include Outbreak. (USA: 1995); A Beautiful Mind (USA: 2001); Contagion (USA: 2011); and Die Vermessung der welt (D/AT: 2012)). Can we identify the stereotypes mentioned in earlier studies? How might they have changed, or have new ones emerged? What gendered character traits are associated with success and failure, who is marginalized, and who works in the mainstream? Do we find gendered modes of thought when it comes to science—do the male and female scientists have different ways of solving problems, or thinking about scientific concepts, or considering ethical implications? Where exactly in the scientific sphere do we find male and female scientists? In the public university lab, the private company, or hidden away in a cellar at home, as Weingart noted in many of the old films he analyzed (2003: 285)? Do they work on the top floor or in the basement? Place or, more precisely, physical space in the sense that it is manipulated in social power relations, can be particularly revealing when it comes to understanding representations of gender and the more subtle aspects of hierarchical relations (Löw 2001; Liebrand 2003; Massey 2007; Henke 2010, 2013). Here we examine the symbolic function of the places in which the male and female characters move, or their spatial juxtaposition, the borders around and between them—interior or exterior, private or public, home or workplace, office or laboratory, high or low, close or distant. How are territories defined in the scientific workplace? Are female scientists included in or excluded from certain spaces such as labs or offices, and how does this affect their access to knowledge and power?

Both novel and film can be understood as complex sign systems with specific modalities and mechanisms of meaning. Whereas the novel creates meanings in a single textual dimension, film employs several audio-visual dimensions. Do we see any categorical differences between the representations of gender in science films and novels? What particular insights do we gain from the construction of gendered spaces, and do these differ in the two media? Is the practice of science still perceived as gendered, and how does the presence or absence of women in the representation of the scientific sphere influence those perceptions?