The Best (and Worst) Women Scientists in Movies and TV

Author Lauren James takes a look at the good – and not-so-good – STEM role models in movies and TV.

Female Scientists: Arrival

As a science student, it’s always been difficult to find fictional scientists who feel real. Most of the time, the scientists I see in films are wildly absurd – geniuses in not just their field but in everything, who know how to hack any server, recreate any molecule, identify any liquid, and calculate the angle of impact of any bomb.

If people grow up only ever seeing scientists as being impossibly, unbelievably clever, then they are going to be discouraged from ever studying science themselves. This is especially true for women: who wants to become a scientist when your on-screen counterparts are constantly harassed, seen as bossy or lacking social skills, and are either comically unattractive or so sexy that it makes it unsafe to be in a laboratory environment? (I’m looking at you, mini-skirt lab coats and high heels.)

Frankly, this isn’t great. In a time when women still only make up 23% of the STEM workforce, there need to be better role models for the aspiring girls in the audience.

These movie and TV female scientists are rated from worst to best. The ranking system takes into account the realism of the science, the intelligence level (from Human Google to Unable to Converse in Anything Except Algebra), the respect given to them by male colleagues, the lab-appropriateness of the clothing, and Number of Deceased Children.

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8. Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Emma Stone’s character in this version of Spider-Man was working as a laboratory assistant at Oscorp (while also at high school, somehow?). Her lab coat does not meet any laboratory’s Health and Safety guidelines. In fact, it has a mini-skirt. This defeats the entire point of lab coats. While it’s important for women to be allowed to retain their femininity in a laboratory environment, there are times when compromises in sexiness must be made.

The film also includes a significant amount of “hand-wavey science nonsense” – the kind of stuff that sounds right, if the actor says it fast enough, and you don’t think too hard about it.

7. Claire Dearing in Jurassic World (2015)

On a similar “just plain ridiculous” note, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character Claire Dearing, research scientist and operations manager at Jurassic World, wears heels for the entire film. Yes, even when being chased by dinosaurs. Needless to say, high heels are inappropriate for any kind of zoological setting, especially one with such a high risk of high-speed chases.

The science is, of course, all accurate to that of modern dinosaur theme parks.

6. Dr. Carol Marcus in Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Alice Eve plays the Star Trek reboot’s version of a character from the original series who is the mother of Jim Kirk’s son. She has a doctorate in applied physics and she gets to use these skills to deactivate a photon torpedo (hand-wavey science: check).

However, her character loses points due to the cinematic choice to have her appear naked in one of her few scenes. This is a moment so unnecessary and incongruent that it’s hard not to laugh when watching it, and undermines all of her character development by turning her into eye candy.

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5. Dr. Ryan Stone in Gravity (2013)

Sandra Bullock’s character is given a lot of screen time in this film, which focuses on her struggles to get back to Earth from a destroyed shuttle. She is very proficient at her job as an astronaut, and yet is allowed to make mistakes. In one scene, she checks the user manuals for a spaceship because her memory is, shockingly, not a human version of Google.

However, the film falls prey to the (spoilers) “Dead Child Backstory” trope, like the next in this list. In both cases, the female character’s relentless ambitions are fueled by grief and guilt. This worrying cliché, also seen in The Cloverfield Paradox and Aliens, implies a lot about the kind of women who are given permission to focus their attention on their careers.

Points are also lost by the typically masculine name, part of a baffling trend of unisex names in sci-fi (see also: Murph in Interstellar, Michael in Star Trek: Discovery, and Ripley in Alien).

4. Dr. Louise Banks in Arrival (2016)

Arrival‘s Dr. Banks, portrayed by Amy Adams, is introduced while giving a lecture at a university. She has a quiet but confident and charismatic demeanor, and while utterly confident of her own abilities, she isn’t portrayed as cocky or overconfident. When she leverages her greater level of knowledge over a male applicant to get a job, it’s done calmly and without smugness. It is clear that her skills are respected by the men around her.

She is notably given an unusual amount of depth for a female character in a science fiction film, as it explores her emotional trauma over her life (even if it is a Dead Child Backstory).

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The film loses points as, though Banks is unarguably the protagonist, this tie-in book cover features only the face of Jeremy Renner’s supporting male character.

3. Dr. Claire Randall in Outlander (2014- )

Claire, played by Caitriona Balfe, is a 20th-century nurse – and later a doctor – who is flung into the 18th century in Outlander. During her time in the past, she attempts to recreate modern medicine to help the people around her.

In the books, a lot of time is dedicated to her research, and she even uses her limited resources to reinvent penicillin by collecting mold. In the TV series, the focus is more on the plot, but she does get the chance to perform surgery and collect medicinal herbs (even if the penicillin so far has all been brought ready-made from the future instead of being made from scratch). There is a lot of focus in the series on the level of sexism in the medical field, as she has to prove herself when people frequently doubt her skills as a woman.

Notably, she is the only woman on this list given the honor of canonically having living children. Who says women can’t have it all?!

2. Violet Baudelaire in A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004 and 2017-19)

A refreshingly young scientific role model, Violet is a budding engineer in both the 2017 Netflix version of A Series of Unfortunate Events, where she is played by Malina Weissman, and the 2004 film, portrayed by Emily Browning. She regularly solves difficulties by problem-solving, helped by a handy ribbon which she uses to tie back her hair when she needs to think.

Her skills are shown in direct contrast to her brother, Klaus, who is a researcher. She is a more physical thinker and usually works with mechanical devices to show off her engineering knowledge.

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1. Prof. Erin Gilbert in Ghostbusters (2016)

Kristen Wiig played a physics professor at Columbia University in the most recent Ghostbusters reboot. Her character is introduced while trying to secure tenure, and the plot involves her struggles to gain legitimacy in academia because of her extra-curricular interests. She abides by Health and Safety rules, even when it causes disagreements with her colleagues and fellow Ghostbusters. A core part of the plot of the film revolves around a disagreement over research she did with another female scientist: GREAT!

As you can see, there is still a long way to go in terms of female science rep on screen. For now, I’m going to stick to books to getting my science fix: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, Sourdough by Robin Sloan, and Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott are miles ahead of the competition on-screen.

Lauren James is the author of Young Adult science fiction, including The Loneliest Girl In The Universe, The Next Together series and The Quiet At The End Of The World, which is published by Walker Books on Thursday the 3rd of March. She teaches creative writing for Coventry University and Writing West Midlands, and has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers And Artist’s Yearbook. You can find her on Twitter at @Lauren_E_James or her website laurenejames.co.uk