Another common myth about life as a scientist is that everybody who works in science is a man. Strictly speaking, that is not correct. in popular culture, women are often scientists. But that comes with two major caveats: they are not as brilliant as men (although they might work harder) and they are hopelessly unaware of their femininity. Women in science are more often than not portrayed as unaware or uninterested in their looks and social lives (only for those feelings to be awakened as a side plot-point). The comparison that is often brought to everyone’s attention is that of Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch, the two actress that portray the lady-scientists on the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory (Mayim Bialik actually has a PhD in neuroscience, so strictly speaking she is a lady-scientist on and off the screen). This is what they look like in real life.
And here is what they look like on the show:
Yikes! Especially in the case of the Amy character, the vilification goes way past looks. When we meet her, she seems perfectly content living like a hermit (we never really work out whether she has friends of her own, although that might be explained by the fact that she is a minor character on the show, or at least she was in the earlier series). She only goes on a date with Sheldon to make her mother happy and, throughout the following episodes, she seems surprised and confused by her own natural emotions as an adult woman. If we take away the comedy aspects of the show, she is a really sad person with no personal life, no friends and no real chance of living a normal life. Even in the later series when she and Sheldon develop a more adult-like relationship they are far from having the kind of intimacy and partnership that would be normal and healthy in people their age. Popular culture, however, is much kinder to regular professional women. Here is what happens on the same show to the character of Penny, who goes from waitress to successful pharmaceutical rep.
The actress (Kaley Cuoco) looks like this: When she goes to her job, she looks like this:
That is, like most women, not as attractive as she does in her “sexy clothes” but still broadly speaking the same.
Much like the myth of scientists having to be socially inept, the idea that women in science have to be as manly as possible is, simply put, ridiculous. And yet going into schools and talking to young girls as a female scientist I always find a sense of disbelief that real-life female scientists are just regular women. Not more or less attractive than the average – and for the most part with normal lives, friends and relationships of their own.
I can’t help but feel that this kind of stereotype is a huge hindrance to more young women getting into science. Nobody wants to be like Amy Ferrah Fowler. Of course, that doesn’t mean that funny comedy shows should stop doing funny comedy. It is neither their responsibility nor their purpose to enact social change. But it would be nice, once in a while, to get a lady-scientist in pop culture who is just that – a regular lady who happens to be a scientist.