One summer night back in 1979, I went to see the movie Alien with my brother and some of his friends. More than 30 years later, I am still recovering. For me, there are three enduring images from the film: 1) the space critter bursting out of John Hurt’s chest; 2) the android with his head chopped off; and 3) Sigourney Weaver’s underwear in the final scene.
If you saw the movie, you may remember the scene. Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ripley, is the sole survivor of her crew. She has made it safely aboard the shuttle, although we all know she is anything but safe. As she prepares for her journey home, she takes off her flight suit, only to reveal skimpy little underwear. I distinctly remember saying out loud in the movie theater, “No one wears underwear like that in space.”
I said it again this summer when I saw Star Trek Into Darkness. For reasons that are anything but plot related, in one scene Alice Eve’s character, Carol, a science officer, stands scantily clad in a black bra and matching panties. Now don’t get me wrong. There is a time and place for a black bra and matching panties, but I don’t think they’re necessary for the final frontier.
I didn’t know what to expect when watching Gravity this week, the new space thriller starring Sandra Bullock. After surviving harrowing experiences outside the space craft, Bullock’s character, Ryan, makes her way onto a space shuttle for safety. She takes off her flight suit. I prepare myself. Ryan reveals she not only has a brilliant mind and a broken heart but also sensible underwear — black briefs and an olive green tank top. Thank goodness.
But Sandra Bullock aside, women scientists depicted in entertainment — and most importantly, in REAL LIFE — still struggle to get a break. I just read an interesting article about the lack of women who pursue science. The author suggests that TV’s top comedy The Big Bang Theory does nothing to encourage women to pursue that field — the show’s brilliant neuroscientist, Amy Farrah Fowler, dresses like a grandmother and is socially inept, while the ditsy waitress Penny always looks adorable and gets all the guys. Personally, I love the character Amy Farrah Fowler as played by Mayim Bialik, who actually holds a PhD in neuroscience. But I have to admit, the author has a point.
While Hollywood tries to get it right, I offer two antidotes from the worlds of theater and storytelling. First is The Story Collider, a storytelling collective based in NYC, founded by Ben Lillie. Ben is a former high energy particle physicist with a PhD from Stanford. At some point in his career, he decided that while he loved science, he didn’t much care for research and actually loved storytelling and theater. So he headed to NYC and started The Story Collider, where scientists and non-scientists alike come and tell stories about their everyday experiences with science. Lucky for me, I’ll be performing with them on Dec. 12 in Cambridge, MA.
Second, there’s The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project — I attended a theater lab this summer with their amazing associate director, Linsay Firman. This is an initiative “designed to stimulate artists to create credible and compelling work exploring the worlds of science and technology and to challenge the existing stereotypes of scientists and engineers in the popular imagination.”
So, as always, there’s hope for change. Check these groups out and please give them — and budding women scientists — your support.
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