This past weekend the sequel to Marvel's blockbuster "Thor," "Thor: The Dark World," hit theaters. Those who have seen either movie know that Thor's love interest, played by Natalie Portman, is an astrophysicist named Jane Foster. There are too few women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields and even fewer in physics specifically. To use the film's popularity to possibly encourage more girls to go into STEM careers, Marvel launched a contest
that asked girls to meet local women in STEM careers and make a video about their experiences. The makers of the best videos would then be flown to Hollywood to meet Natalie Portman and several successful women in STEM fields. As someone who does outreach professionally I thought the contest left much to be desired both in terms of advertising and lasting effects. In some ways it was a wasted opportunity on Marvel's part, but more than that, I have seen women "scientists" in movies like Thor before (Denise Richards
, Jennifer Love Hewitt
) and they are usually just your average damsel in distress with thick glasses and too few clothes. How could it be ok to then use that as a model to encourage girls to go into science? So got myself a huge bag of Sour Patch Kids and took my notebook and book light down to the local movie theater and geared myself up for a long winded rant on the blog about representations of women scientists on film. Wow, was I surprised.
As I set out for the theater, I was sure that this movie would be another standard comic book flick where the good looking man rescued the half naked woman and saved the world. The woman's profession, or even personality, probably wouldn't matter as much as her clothing. I bet Buzz Skyline $10 that it wouldn't even pass the famous "Bechdel Test
." The Bechdel Test isn't a high bar to clear, the movie has to have at least two women characters, they have to have lines and they have to talk to each other about something other than a man. None of the three Lord of the Rings movies pass
, but even the trailer for Hunger Games: Catching Fire does.
The first time Dr. Foster is introduced she is on a very awkward date and her intern, Darcy, interrupts. First part of the Bechdel test passed, two women with speaking parts. But it went downhill from there when all they talked about was how Jane wasn't actually doing research anymore because she was pining away for Thor. Just when I was convinced I had been right about this whole film, it took a positive turn. Jane and Darcy ran off to explore some pseudo-physics phenomenon and started having a long conversation about science with no mention of men! Let me take this opportunity to say that the "physics" in the movie made me want to rip my hair out, but I wasn't watching the film to critique the "science." I was impressed with both characters' curiosity and rather genuine collaboration and friendship.
Soon after this, Jane was turned into a woman that needed saving, but she somehow didn't lose her curiosity or intelligence. So often good female characters can become one dimensional when challenged, but Jane Foster stayed the same even under stress. Without too many spoilers, she and Thor are jointly responsible for saving the universe, he with his muscles and her with her brains and scientific collaboration. Every time I thought this movie would fall back to the standard "boy saves world, gets girl as prize" plot, it surprised me.
The other female characters in the movie were also surprisingly reasonably done. Though they could be fit into the comic book archetypes, they didn't seem confined by them. Thor's mother, Frigga, is both a loving mother to both her sons and pretty handy with a sword. Though it is clear Sif has feelings for Thor, she helps Jane escape. There was only one female character that could have been replaced with a pretty lamp and she was part of the post-credits teaser. The characters won't exactly rival those of great literature,
but they certainly were better than the norm.
I really was all ready to hate this movie and there is still so much that could have made it better. But, I was pleasantly surprised, particularly for a genre that isn't known for its well developed female characters. All female armor covered their vital organs
and all clothing was modest enough that I would feel comfortable wearing it to a family costume party. For a comic book flick, that is pretty darn rare.
The accompanying contest,
however, was poorly done. It was a fantastic idea and had great support. However, the key points, a list of women
in STEM fields that are willing to mentor and lists of possible STEM careers,
is so anemic as to be unhelpful. They only had "hundreds"
of entrants and the only state with more than 5 "mentors" is California. Since only a handful of girls will win the grand prize, the lasting value of this type of contest is in getting girls to enter. Contestants are required to meet with a woman in a STEM field and learn about their career. The real winning comes from entering, not from a flight to LA and an autograph from Queen Amidala
. For a national contest run by Marvel with a grand prize of a trip to LA, "hundreds" of entrants in slightly embarrassing. The list of STEM careers was a fantastic idea, but it is simply a PDF of careers, with no supporting material about what types of classes you would need to talk to go into the various fields or even any information about why they are STEM careers. So much more could have been done with this and hopefully people will improve upon the idea for next time.
If I had to choose between having a good STEM contest and a movie with a good STEM character, I would pick the movie, no question. But why should it have to be a choice? Why should we still be talking about having a leading lady physicist as if its a big deal? Heck, why should it even be impressive there is a leading lady in a blockbuster movie that is at no point seen in her underwear?
*Note: I contacted the people in charge of the contest and offered to help improve things. My offer was declined, but I am listed as a mentor.