Stereotypes are evident throughout all forms of media. Television shows and movies in particular use stereotypes to eliminate the details of a character, this allows the audience to know them without needing to spend vast amounts of time developing the character. However, stereotypes often create characters that poke fun or marginalize the group the stereotype represents. Since media stereotypes are used so often, the same stereotype being repeated over and over again, they become the only way an audience views the marginalized group.
Stereotypes can have many different effects on the ways the real being marginalized in the stereotype live: they may feel ashamed to branch out from activities defined by their stereotype, they may be forced into activities defined by their stereotype, and they may be denied opportunities based on the stereotype they have been placed into. One example that can be used as a lens to see the effects of stereotyping is the portrayal of women in science fields, or female nerds, in the media. Women scientists are often portrayed as being on the fringe or as being socially awkward.
This stereotype not only influences the way all members of society look at women in science fields, but also influences women’s desire to enter fields of science or express their inner nerd. Women have historically had trouble entering science, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields (STEM). Some of the most influential advancements in science came from women who never received credit for their work. Alice Evans was the first scientist to suggest that milk should be pasteurized in order to prevent illness.
Alice was ridiculed for her findings and milk was left to be consumed in its raw form for another 10 years until scientists who were men would suggest the same practice. This is just one example of the way women were ignored in the scientific community, only to have their findings validated by men who would receive all of the credit. The fact that media has only within the last 20 years or so begun to highlight female characters in science can be seen as a step in the right direction, however the manner in which these women are shown is still hurting the cause rather than strengthening it.
There are several characters in media the come to mind when speaking about women in STEM fields: Amy Fowler from The Big Bang Theory, Abby Sciuto from NCIS, and Temperance Brennan from Bones. First let’s examine Amy Fowler from The Big Bang Theory. Amy Fowler is a neurobiologist. Amy is socially awkward, to the point where she cannot function within normal society. She has trouble relating to people and carrying out conversations unrelated to science. Other women in the show often feel the need to clarify or ‘translate’ what Amy says because of her inabilities to interact with others.
Secondly, there is Temperance Brennan from Bones, who is shown in a similar way as Amy Fowler. Temperance is cold and blunt, oftentimes being described as unfeeling. She too is unable to relate to others a rs and carry out basic conversations. Temperance also has no sense of pop culture. The biggest issue with Temperance as a character is that her traits that play into this stereotype developed over time. When the show began she didn’t own a tv and just didn’t care about pop culture, but she still knew how to act and be a part of society. As time went on she seems to get socially stupider.
The writers seem to have abandoned character development to play into the stereotype of an awkward female scientist. On top of that, in recent seasons the show has turned into the average drama, with her marriage to the character Booth and her child with him becoming the focus of her character, rather than her brain and career. Lastly, there is Abby from NCIS. Abby works in forensics and represents a different aspect of the female nerd stereotype. Women in science are often seen as being on the fringe. Abby has tattoos and dresses in gothic clothing.
She is constantly hopped up on caffeine and bopping around to heavy metal music. In addition to Abby, many of her female friends on the show who are also in science exhibit these fringe traits. They have unnaturally colored hair and act in a way that is not within societal norms. All three of these women exist with the small pool of female scientists and nerd portrayed in the media, and all three exhibit undesirable traits that play up the stereotype that women in science exist on the edge of society and or incapable of being socially adept.
This stereotype of women in STEM fields, or women who are nerds, in the media perpetuates the idea that women that work in science or enjoy the field cannot function in society or be relatable to the average person. Psychologist Sapna Cheryan from the University of Washington conducted a study to show that women whose only experience with the computer science field was through media stereotypes were less interested in the field and/or had a negative view of women that chose the field.
Cheryan did several tests and concluded that the media stereotypes of women in STEM, mentioning the Big Bang Theory herself, negatively impact the interest levels of women in STEM fields. Sapna Cheryan concludes her research on gender stereotypes and STEM fields in the media by saying that the media presents and unrealistic example of what women in STEM fields are really like. The average American woman cannot possible relate to the stereotyped women in STEM fields shown in the media.
These stereotyped characters are “inconsistent with how many women see themselves and how they want others to see them. ” They discourage women from pursuing these fields at the risk of also being seen in the same negative portrayal, as being looked down upon as cold, distant, frumpy, unsociable, and on the fringe of society. There cannot possibly be a discussion to increase women’s interest in STEM fields without addressing the American medias portrayal of women that choose those fields.
The media can include women in STEM fields without marginlizing the entire group and misrepresenting them. Other countries media outlets already do a very good job at this. Toshiko Sato from Torchwood, which is a BBC show, is a hacker and engineer for a secret government agency. She is smart, resourceful, and very much a woman of science. Toshiko also has friends, is sociable, and goes on dates. She is versed in pop culture and is witty without being insulting to real women who follow similar careers.
Toshiko dresses and acts like the average woman. She doesn’t dye her hair, or act and dress in unconventional ways. Toshiko represents the average British woman, and she also happens to be a scientist. If American media represented women in STEM fields the same way across media, it could have a drastic effect on women’s interest in science. They would not see an awkward scientist on the screen, they would see someone very much like them. Someone who bright, strong, passionate, and most importantly, relatable.