Decoding the Digital Beauty : Women in Tech on TV and Film

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I hadn’t heard of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist until this week and Mary Sue post that compared the show to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – an excellent show with original songs, a complex central woman character (played by the show’s co-writer and creator Rachel Bloom), and a fascinating and nuanced approach to representing and diagnosing mental health issues (see also: You’re the Worst). Is Zoey’ EP that good? No. But it does do something pretty exciting and on brand for me – it has not one woman computer developer but two, and one of them is the presented as the boss. TWO WOMEN IN TECH AS MAIN CHARACTERS as part of a mildly diverse work force where women appear at different levels of the company hierarchy.

Jane Levy (What/If, Castle Rock) plays Zoey, a gifted and dedicated software developer who works at a San Francisco startup – SPRQ Point – a tech firm that specialises in smart devices and apps. After a freak accident in an MRI scanner during an earthquake (obvs), Zoey suddenly finds herself being able to hear people’s inner thoughts as covers of pop songs. These ‘heart songs’ also come with elaborate dance sequences that incorporate unknowing passersby – it draws from the dreamy aesthetics of La La Land and the pop culture savviness of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It’s bizarre, uneven, and saccharine, but oddly charming and boasts an excellent (if underserved) cast.

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Creator/writer Austin Winsberg (centre) with (L-R) Jane Levy (Zoey), Kapil Talwalkar (Tobin), John Clarence Stewart (Simon), Michael Thomas Grant (Leif), Skylar Astin (Max), and Lauren Graham (Joan) Image: Austin Winsberg Twitter

The titular character is one of two named women in technology in the show (women workers, hopefully devs, appear in the background on occasion). Both of whom hold managerial positions. Zoe also has a woman mentor (Joan/Lauren Graham) offering some hope further along the pipeline. One of the things that makes this representation of women in tech so exceptional is that it normalised. Zoey’s promotion to an engineering manager is not a major plot point (beyond the pilot) and the misogynistic comments from her initially stereotyped tech-bro colleagues even lessen especially as other male devs act as allies to Zoey and acknowledge her challenges in a male-dominated field and workspace.

As noted in the quote above, creator Austin Winsberg did not originally write the lead dev character as a woman. But perhaps, because of who the show was pitched to, the director of the underrated women-led reboot of Ghostbusters Paul Feig, it does now. A Hollywood producer who knows the power of a woman-led narrative (both positive and negative), whose influence in part led to the production of this women in tech-led show. Zoey’s EP‘s plot is held up with extraordinary events that are notably not about a woman struggling in STEM. Zoey’s gender and tech abilities were intended to flesh out the character, but it’s the normalisation of these that really makes the show extraordinary. The de-spectacularisation of complex emotional topics including misogyny, race, gender, disability, grief, infidelity, and mental health means that they just become part of the song and dance of the day-to-day.

Thinking about and promoting the normalisation of women’s STEM expertise and the representation of women in positions of power in STEM subjects and workplaces is an important part of my own research and what I want to communicate through it. Of course, Zoey’s EP can’t fix the problems in the industry alone because to truly normalise professional women we need to see lots of them. Additions that should feature women of STEM as part of a diverse representation of the sciences that can be aspirational rather than simply reflecting the institutional misogyny and racism of reality.

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Katie (Alison Pill) a gifted quantum physicist and inquisitive software engineer Lily (Sonoya Mizuno)

Forthcoming shows like Devs (Hulu, 2020- ) will hopefully offer further examples. Sonoya Mizuno plays Lily, a computer engineer investigating a quantum computing company called Amaya that she thinks is responsible for the disappearance of her boyfriend. The mini-series was created, written, and directed by British director Alex Garland who also created the Silicon Valley critique Ex_Machina and the women scientist-led Annihilation. Its description bears some parallels to Annihilation as the motivation for its woman protagonist is the recovery of her missing boyfriend (Natalie Portman’s Lena goes into ‘the Shimmer’ in Annihilation so she can help/save her husband Kane [Oscar Issac]). A common trope for women scientists on screen is for them to be defined by their relationships to men – as daughters (Murf in Interstellar) and love interests (Ellie in Jurassic Park).

Sociologist of visual culture Eva Flicker developed a taxonomy of women scientist stereotypes in fictional media in 2003, identifying six categories of women scientists: the old maid, the gruff woman’s libber, the naïve expert, the evil plotter, the daughter or assistant, and the lonely heroine. In a 2008 revision of her work she added ‘the clever digital beauty’ reflecting the growing popularity of the hacker/developer character. These devs are young and beautiful and often have stories of loss and betrayal concerning male characters.

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Both Skye/Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennett) from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2014-2020) and Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) from Arrow (2012-2020) are former hackers recruited into crime-fighting groups. Their expertise is essential to the plots of their respective shows, but they both have backstories that revolve around absent and manipulative fathers and the development of their abilities are inextricably linked to those relationships. These characters also tend to go through glamorous makeovers when they go undercover, Smoak and more recently Nine Ball/Leslie (Rihanna) in Ocean’s 8 reveal their ‘hidden’ beauty as their capacity to wearing contact lenses and a figure-hugging evening gown become more useful ‘skills’ than their computational capabilities.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist - Season 1Zoey might be in many senses a regular rom-com heroine in a complicated love triangle with a close relationship with her father (albeit a terminally ill one), but it is refreshing that her role and position as a scientist is not aligned to or inspired by a man. Her entirely occasion-appropriate glamorous upgrade in episode two, where she attends a launch party in her newly promoted position, is prompted by Zoey’s woman boss. Joan gifts her a pair of Louboutin’s as a thank you and invites Zoey to attend a Women In Tech conference with her. Louboutin shoes are a romcom trope that signals success, control, and female power (see In her ShoesThe Devil Wears PradaThe Proposal…) but here, rather than being seen as such (we notably don’t get to see them) they are just part of the building up of Zoey’s character and confidence as a woman boss. She can be both feminine (her daily wear is pretty but practical) and a respected woman in technology.

Other than Rihanna/Nine Ball all the examples given here, and in the list below, are almost exclusively white women. As I have suggested elsewhere, ‘as a genre immersed in futurism, science fiction often fails women and people of color – and most definitely [those] multiply marginalized at the intersections of gender, race, and sexuality.’ Diane A. Mafe argues that it is predominately privileged white women who are often given representation and that they are commonly reinforcing ‘white male authority’. We need to have a diversity of representation not only on screen but across the industry – diverse stories not only offer representation but an opportunity to critique the flaws in the system (both scientific and cinematic).

Normalising women in STEM on screen is central to changing broader attitudes about what and who a scientist is, attitudes that need to be altered across lines of gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability. By making women more visible in stories about science, the inspiring images of science that can and are being produced can be associated with women who are not only represented as smart anomalous individuals but as part of a network of diverse and complex professional women. A network of women that should also extend to behind the camera (as creators, writers, directors, and science advisors) across the production of TV and film media that represents women scientists.


Read Engineering Manager Leemay Nassery’s piece on about what Zoey’s EP gets right and wrong about being a woman developer.

Take a look at my other Women in STEM posts and projects for more on this subject.


Please share any further examples of women developers/hackers in film and TV, especially if they are women of colour. I am always happy to expand my knowledge of media with interesting representation of women in science.

  • Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) and Katie (Alison Pill) – Devs (2020)
  • Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy) and Joan (Lauren Graham) – Zoey’s EP (2020- )
  • Emily (Maria Dizzia) and April (Ashlie Atkinson) – Emergence (2019- )
  • Jiya (Claudia Doumit) – Timeless (2016-2018)
  • Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) – Westworld (2016- )
  • Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) – Criminal Minds (2005-2020)
  • Skye/Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennett) – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2014-2020)
  • Felicity Smoak/Overwatch (Emily Bett Rickards) and Alena Whitlock/Kojo Sledgehammer (Kacey Rohl) – Arrow (2012-2020)
  • Darlene Alderson (Carly Chaikin), Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday), Shama “Trenton” Biswas (Sunita Mani), and more – Mr Robot (2015-2019)
  • Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) – NCIS (2004-2018, series ongoing)
  • Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) – Halt and Catch Fire (2014-2018)
  • Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) – Sense8 (2015-2018)
  • Shuri (Letitia Wright) – Black Panther (2018)
  • Nine Ball/Leslie (Rihanna) – Ocean’s 8 (2018)
  • The Girl (Amanda Seyfried) – Anon (2018)
  • Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
  • Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)
  • Cindy “Mac” Mackenzie (Tina Majorino) – Veronica Mars (2004-2007)
  • Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) – Flicker’s example of the Digital Beauty
  • Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – eXistenZ (1999) 🖤
  • Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss) – The Matrix (1999)
  • Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) and Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte) – Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
  • Kate Libby (Angelina Jolie) – Hackers (1995)
  • Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock) – The Net (1995)
  • Lora Bradley/Yori (Cindy Morgan) – Tron (1982)

 

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