Portrayals of Women in Science: thoughts on Big Hero 6

This past week I saw Big Hero 6, the recent animated film from Disney. I enjoyed the movie and thought the animation was really cool. It definitely hit all of origin-story motifs and so was a bit predictable. But one of my favorite things about the movie was the portrayal of academic science as cool. The movie starts off with Hiro, a boy genius, thinking that his brother Tadashi is super lame for going to college. Until he visits the lab his brother is working in, meets all of Tadashi’s labmates, and sees all of the cool technologies that are being developed in an academic lab. At that point Hiro decides he has to go to college too.

I think that this is really fantastic, because as many feminists have pointed out, the movies children watch can subtly influence their perception of themselves and their goals in life. So promoting science in this movie is a really huge step forward. Additionally, the movie did a pretty good job of showcasing than anyone can be a scientist, and none of the characters fit into the stereotyped awkward introvert that is often how people view scientists (and which is perpetuated by shows like The Big Bang Theory). Everyone in the movie seemed really cool and fun, which is honestly how all of my scientist friends are. Sure, sometimes we’re awkward and we all have our introvert days (even the extroverts!) but we’re also friends and have more dimensionality to our personalities than just ‘being a scientist’.

Despite this huge advance in the portrayal of scientists, I was still a little dissatisfied with the women in the film. Don’t get me wrong, they were strong, smart characters, but as a woman scientist I had trouble connecting with them. There were two: Go go and Honey Lemon. Go go is a sort of punk, chip-on-her-shoulder young woman who just wants to go as fast as possible on her electromagnet bike and Honey Lemon is your typical girly-girl who studies chemical interactions in order to make substances with her favorite colors, pink, purple, and yellow (or at least that’s what I gathered). I loved that neither of them played a ‘typical’ female role of damsel in distress and that both of them were very strong characters. However, if we really want to get young girls engaged in the sciences, it would be awesome to have a more relatable female character in the mix. And yes, the supporting male characters could fit into stereotypes as well, but young boys have both Tadashi and Hiro as relatable male characters to look up to. So although I think Big Hero 6 did a really great job in making science more accessible and in making science seem really fun and cool, I would say there’s still more to do to make female scientists seem relatable.

On a last note, I’ll leave you with a link to a video on National Geographic about actual female scientists and how they’re real people who do more than just look at beakers in the lab–they’re “women in the field, getting their hands dirty” and who have diverse hobbies and backgrounds. It’s short and worth taking a look!

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