There was a time when the only scientists you would see in feature films were men, and white men at that. But women scientists are finally getting the storylines they deserve. Yes we’ve had female scientists in past movies but their opportunities were limited, so it’s exciting to see this generation being given the centre stage.
Take the recently released science-horror Annihilation, for example. From its early scenes women scientists are at the forefront of the narrative, and (unnamed) men are quite literally blurred into the periphery, and guarding the perimeters.
The women in Annihilation are scientists but they are not framed as being unique or unusual because of this. Instead they are introduced as being part of a diverse community of scientists at the military/scientific Southern Reach facility. The source novel defines the women by profession, not name. They are the biologist, the psychologist, the anthropologist, and the surveyor. In the film adaptation, they are given names, presumably in an attempt to help the audience stay tuned in to what is happening in an otherwise depersonalised story.
When the team meets before entering the mysterious “shimmer”, Lena (played by Natalie Portman) remarks on the fact that they are “all women”. To which physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) corrects her simply by saying: “Scientists.”
The fact that they are front and centre in the story is certainly a step forward for the portrayal of women, and specifically women scientists. Yet there are still some very big problems with the film – not least in terms of the alleged whitewashing of characters. Yes, the women scientists who go in to study the “shimmer” offer a range of diversity rarely seen in female characters (gay, black, Latinx…), but the decision to make the two most influential women white is a problematic and poor choice.
Annihilation did not receive an international theatrical release, instead it is available on Netflix. It has been suggested that it was released on the streaming service because it is too intellectually complex, and that the lukewarm audience response to Blade Runner 2049 has made cerebral genre fiction a box office risk.
But Annihilation has an A-list cast with Oscar winners Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, as well as Star Wars alumni Oscar Isaacs – and still it was felt that it would not bring in the crowds. Viewers are forced to watch this visually and aurally stunning film on the small screen alongside the frustrating Netflix-created tagline “she has lost the love of her life and wants answers”. The advertising playing down the enticing female-led science fiction/bio-horror elements to focus on passive male plot points.
Annihilation was released weeks after global box office hit Black Panther. As well as having a black writer/director and a predominately black cast, the film features the magnificent (Disney!) princess/scientist Shuri – a genius-level black woman scientist who develops the physical and virtual technology that gives Black Panther/T’Challa much of his power. Alongside the magic herbs, of course.
Shuri interacts with her brother, who is also king of Wakanda, as an equal, and as part of a wider egalitarian society where women occupy high ranked positions. As a princess, she is bound by the myths and traditions of the monarchy, yet Shuri’s intellectual abilities make her a scientist/warrior capable of fighting alongside the country’s all-female militia.
To use black feminist critic bell hooks’ phrase, Black Panther moves black women from “the margins to the centre” both as warriors and scientists. Rather than looking in from the periphery the women are active bearers of intellectual and physical power.
Shuri has already inspired the term “the Shuri effect”. Having a young black woman portrayed as an intelligent scientist can inspire future scientists – a fact that has already prompted funding for STEM programmes for young men and women in the US.This is a stark contrast to most other women scientists in contemporary film and TV, who are often secondary to or inspired by their male counterparts – remember Annihilation’s Lena is advertised as being on a mission to save her man – but this is not the case for Shuri. She has complete control over her creations and her spectacular laboratory, and her brother respects that. Wakanda shows audiences what is possible when women and men are equal, and that the empowerment of women does not need to be at the expense of men. At no point does the audience question how women became so empowered as we assume that it has been that way for generations.
Films that present women as complex characters who are defined by their abilities instead of simply their looks are something that Hollywood needs to get behind more – and promote properly. Black Panther and Annihilation are just two films that show women can lead and sustain critically and financially viable narratives, and that both real and fictional women scientists on screen can inspire and promote ideas about the diversity of science in the real world.