“Nothing happens in contradiction to nature, only in contradiction to what we know of it.” - Agent Dana Scully of X-Files
Cultivation Theory posits that media consumption has an enormously influential force in the way children and teens form their world-view. The degree to which this can have an effect largely depends on the quantity of the media being consumed. We can see evidence of this through the many shifts in trends which have accelerated since the dawn of the social media age. However, in the rare instances where quality has taken precedence, change ensues. It begins in the subtle ways in which we think and communicate with others, which leads to a change in action and that in turn breeds a change in the very fabric of our culture and the structure of our society.
THE SCULLY EFFECT
On September 10th, 1993 the Fox network premiered their science fiction drama series the X-Files. The premise centered around FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully and the strange cases they investigated. During a time when the story arch of a female character in entertainment commonly revolved around a male lead and often involved trading a burgeoning career for a more traditional role in life, Agent Dana Scully was a revelation. She was both a scientist and an authority figure. The fact that she was a woman was secondary to the bulk of her storyline and her male peers treated her as an equal. Due to these factors she served as a force of inspiration for women coming of age at the time, mainly the younger members of Generation X and the first female Millenials.
Dana Scully was a role model to many young women and girls, motivating them to explore STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics). Anne Simon, a biology professor and science advisor of the show asked her Intro to Bio class how many were influenced by the character to go into science and over half the hands in the room went up. Some may wonder how a character in popular culture can have such influence over people. The Cultivation Theory explains that in our formative years we often look to outside sources for validation, searching for guidelines we can follow in order to become a productive and impactful member of society.
For many years before the series premiered, women were held to certain traditional standards of living: family vs career, sexy vs smart, quiet vs opinionated, emotional vs rational etc. Throughout the series, Scully proved that not only could women be career-oriented, smart, opinionated and rational, but that “having it all” was viable option. She was caring, beautiful and in later seasons became a mother. In the end she did not have to sacrifice her career to find love, but chose to have both. She put forth the idea that life isn’t always about choosing one extreme for another, but having the strength to maintain balance.
REAL WOMEN IN STEM
Temperance Brennan is a forensic anthropologist and is the strong female lead in the popular series Bones. Throughout the series, she exemplifies the sort of focus, intelligence, ambition and resilience evident in the person she is based on. Kathy Reichs is a forensic anthropologist and best-selling crime novelist just as her fictional counterpart portrays. She is also married and has three children.
The “human computers” were a group of mathematicians who calculated the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were among the brightest of this group. These three African American women were called into service during a shortage of keen minds in the aeronautics industry during World War II. With their enormous contribution, the country was able to win the Space Race. They too were able to balance fruitful careers and a family life. Their story can be found in the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and the film of the same title.
In Life in Code: a Personal History of Technology, author Ellen Ullman recounts her story of life in Silicon Valley as a major player in the field of technology; and Hope Jahren tells the story of her childhood in rural Minnesota and how her father cultivated her interest in science, leading to a life of triumphs, disappointments and discoveries of scientific work in Lab Girl.
Just a few of the books that women have written regarding their work in science include the following: Spirals in Time: the Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells by Helen Scales examines the fascinating mathematical and scientific aspects, as well as the cultural impact of the mollusk. Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach was described by Entertainment Weekly as “One of the funniest and most unusual books of the year… Gross, educational, and unexpectedly sidesplitting” and examines how cadavers have been involved in scientific studies throughout history. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson alerted its audience of the dangers of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, leading to revolutionary changes in the laws affecting our air, land and water. Louann Brizendine examines the hormonal and neurological differences between men and women leading to a shift in perspectives regarding gender in her two books the Female Brain (now a major motion picture) and the Male Brain.
FICTIONAL WOMEN IN STEM
Female characters have undoubtedly come a long way throughout the history of film and television:
- In 2016 the reboot of Ghostbusters focused on a host of strong female leads played by Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. McCarthy, Wiig and McKinnon’s characters are showcased using their skills in STEM to conquer a male villain who wishes to use science and technology for a nefarious purpose. In the course of the film, Chris Hemsworth plays their handsome dimwitted secretary and becomes their Dudemar (the male equivalent of a damsel-in-distress).
- Agents of Shield features several female characters who use their skills in science, technology and law enforcement to serve the public in the shadow of the Avengers. They work together with Agent Phil Coulson to fight battles and solve crimes involving aliens, alien technology and the Inhumans - a hybrid race having DNA of both humans and Kree.
- Joan Watson, a former surgeon, explores the field of forensic science as she works alongside Sherlock Holmes to solve murders in Elementary.
- Evolving through the many decades it's aired, Star Trek has featured many strong female characters working in STEM in numerous high-pressure situations.
- In 2014 Gravity (2013) earned many Academy Awards and a Best Actress nomination for Sandra Bullock for playing Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer who works to survive a routine space walk turned disaster.
- In Arrival, Amy Adams plays linguistic professor Louise Banks as she leads an elite team of investigators working to solve the mystery of why spaceships have inexplicably landed in 12 different locations around the world.
As time passes we see more and more examples of strong female role models, both in fiction and reality. Granted, this has caused some tension in the social and political spheres, but it is also important to note that as things change, for some growing pains will be inevitable. It may take some getting used to, but the domain of pop culture has spoken. Women are no longer content with living in the shadows of society.
Whitney Taitano, Circulation Desk Attendant