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Sisters in STEM on Screen

We’ve all heard about the importance of representation in the things we watch. In developmental psychology, Bandura’s social learning (later, social cognitive) theory suggests that we learn attitudes and behaviours from the things we see and experience in the world around us (1). While Bandura’s work focused on children, social learning also applies to adults. Visual media, like films and tv shows, can have a huge influence on the way that we see ourselves and how we act. On-screen characters can give us confidence and inspire us to think bigger. In short: representation matters.


Who do we have now?

Seeing Black women as main characters on screen can be difficult. In the last decade, only 3.7% of the leads or co-leads in the 100 top-grossing films have been Black women (2), and finding Black women scientists can be just as much of a challenge.

Bar chart showing that 14.3% of Black female characters are given a STEM occupation compared to 9.6% of other female characters of colur and 9.6% of while female characters
Bar chart showing racial distribution of fictional women in STEM from Geena Davis Institute report (2)

Yet, a 2021 report by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that Black women are more likely to be shown on screen as working in a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Maths (STEM) occupation than other women of colour and White women (14.3% compared to 9.6% and 9.6%, respectively) (2). In recent years, Black women scientists have become a more common sight on our film and tv screens. Some examples are:


Fictional characters

  • Professor Denise Gaines, a molecular biologist, in The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000). Denise, played by Janet Jackson, was the love interest and, later, wife of Sherman Klump - the nutty professor. In the movie, Denise used her scientific knowledge to help Sherman recover his memories (3). Although Denise’s story arc focuses more on her role as a love interest rather than as a scientist, her being a scientist is an integral part of the resolution of the plot.

A Black girl in a white dress. She is standing in a lab in front of a holographic image, looking out of frame to her left
Princess Shuri of Wakanda from Marvel's Black Panther (2018). Image from Marvel Studios
  • Princess Shuri, engineer, lead scientist, and head of Scientific Advancements inthe fictional African country of Wakanda. She shows up in a few of the Marvel projects, including Black Panther (2018), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019), What if...? (2021), and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022). In the live-action movies Shuri is played by Letitia Wright and, in the animated series What If…?, an alternate universe version of Shuri’s character is voiced by Ozioma Akagha. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Shuri is considered to be one of the smartest people in the universe (4). She regularly designs and builds new technology to help improve the lives of everyone around her. As one of the youngest characters in the MCU, Shuri is smart, mature, and relatable and acts as an inspiration to Black girls of all ages.

A Black girl sitting at a tablein front of an electrical circuit. She is holdinga soldering pen and wearing a grey-blue tracksuit set
Riri Williams from Marvel's Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022). Image from Marvel Studios
  • Riri Williams, a genius inventor and university student studying mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Riri’s character is first introduced on screen in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) and her story will continue in Ironheart which is stated to be released sometime later this year. Riri is played by Dominique Thorne. In Black Panther, Riri used her intelligence and engineering prowess to build a replica Iron Man suit and help the people of Wakanda protect their home.

  • Josie Radek, an astrophysicist, in Annihilation (2018). Josie is played by Tessa Thompson. In the movie, she uses her knowledge of biology and physics to help provide answers at critical points in the plot.

  • Lieutenant Palmer, a communications officer and member of the USS Enterprise-D crew, in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94). Palmer was played by real-life astronaut and the first African American woman to travel in space, Dr. Mae Jemison. Dr. Jemison’s character, Lt. Palmer, appeared in one episode in the 6th season of the series (5). The episode was titled ‘Second Chances’ and aired in 1993. The role that Dr. Jemison had in the episode was small but significant as Palmer’s character temporarily took over the post usually held by Nyota Uhura*, a character who Dr. Jemison credits as an inspiration for her career as an astronaut (6).

Two black women facing each other on a TV filming set
Nichelle Nichols (left) and Mae Jemison on the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1993). Image from Memory-Alpha-Fandom.com

*Special mention also goes to Nyota Uhura, a member of the USS Enterprise crew in the original Star Trek TV series (1966-69). Although Uhura’s character was a linguist and communications expert rather than a scientist, her presence on the show was one of the first portrayals of Black women as main characters in a mainstream science-fiction series. Uhura was played by Nichelle Nichols who, between 1977 and 2015, worked closely with NASA to encourage the recruitment of some of the first female and ethnic minority astronauts to the space programme in the United States. Given Star Trek’s global fan base, it is likely that Nichelle’s advocacy work also inspired many Black women in other countries around the world to dream of becoming an astronaut.


Black female scientist representation also exists in visual media aimed at younger audiences.

A screen capture of the 3 main characters from the animated Netflix series 'Ada Twist, Scientist'
Ada Twist (middle) and her friends Iggy Peck (left) and Rosie Revere. Image from Netflix
  • Ada Marie Twist in Ada Twist, Scientist (2021). The animated series airs on Netflix Junior and follows a young scientist and her friends who use scientific discovery, collaboration, and friendship to help people and explore the world around them. The series is an adaptation of Andrea Beaty’s 2016 picture book of the same name and is executive produced by Michelle and Barack Obama (7). Both the book and the series target pre-schoolers and aim to encourage children to develop an interest in STEM. The book is part of a series called ‘The Questioneers’, which includes other titles such as ‘Rosie Revere, Engineer’. Whilst Ada is the only Black character in the series, the other books also encourage children to explore ‘less common’ job roles.

Special mention also goes to Dottie ‘Doc’ McStuffins from Doc McStuffins (2012-20). Doc McStuffins dreamt of becoming a doctor like her mother and used a mixture of magic and health advice she read from encyclopedias to help her toys ‘recover’ from various illnesses. While Doc McStuffins was not a traditional scientist, she was one of the only forms of representation of Black female characters in a scientific field in children’s TV until Ada Twist, Scientist.


Non-Fictional Characters

Biographical

  • Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures (2016). The movie tells the true story of a group of Black female mathematicians and scientists who worked at NASA during the 1960s (8).

Three Black women standing side by side in a kitchen
From left to right: Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures (2016). Image from Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) was a brilliant mathematician who calculated the trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions. Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe) was an engineer who worked on the NASA supersonic wind tunnel. Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) was a computer programmer who was instrumental in introducing IBM computers to NASA. The film follows the women as they face discrimination and segregation at work and in their personal lives, while still making important contributions to NASA's space program.

  • Woman in Motion (2019), a biographical documentary about Nichelle Nichols (mentioned above) and her work advocating for increased diversity in the astronauts recruited for NASA’s space programmes.

Documentaries

  • Code Girl (2015), a documentary about ‘The Technovation Challenge’, which is an international coding competition (9). The documentary follows groups of girls around the world aged 10-18 years as they develop apps to help better their local communities and try to win the competition. The documentary, distributed by Netflix, included groups from Moldova, Brazil, Nigeria, and the United States and aimed to encourage girls to pursue a career in computer science and technology – fields primarily dominated by men.

As you have no doubt noticed, the list of Black women scientists on screen, although not exhaustive, is quite short. The list is also based entirely on the Western film and tv media landscape. If you know of any Black female scientists that have not been included in the above list, please let us know through our social media.


Where do we go from here?

The history of Black women in film and TV has been tumultuous. Black women in film and TV were very rarely given protagonist status. Fictional Black women were often relegated to characters that exist solely to help white protagonists by offering sage advice or solutions; a trope commonly referred to as ‘The Magical Negro’. Whilst the presence of these characters has decreased in recent years, in line with fewer Black female characters in subservient roles, representations of other tropes or stereotypes persist in current media (2).


Historically, ‘The Sapphire’ trope was a Black female character who was depicted as masculine, controlling, and aggressive. This has now evolved into 'The Strong' and 'The Angry Black Woman' stereotypes (10,11).

An older Black woman wearing a white headwrap. She is looking over her right shoulder and smiling slightly at the camera
Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939). Image from Selznick International Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

‘The Mammy’ trope was based on Hattie McDaniel’s character ‘Mammy’ in the 1939 adaptation of Gone With the Wind and was used to describe nurturing and submissive Black female characters (2,10). In contemporary media, Mammy has become synonymous with non-threatening Black women with larger frames (12). ‘The Jezebel’ stereotype dates back to the era of chattel slavery and typically described hyper-sexualised and sexually deviant characters (2,10). This trope exists almost unchanged in current media (13,14). A longitudinal study of the representation of Black women over time found that Black women are significantly more sexualized than Latinx and Asian American women characters (13). Representations of Black female scientists are unfortunately not exempt from these tropes (15,16).


The majority of the positive representation of Black women in science on Western screens has only emerged within the last decade. This suggests that there is a growing interest in telling our stories and representing us positively on screen. It also suggests that this is just the beginning and that there is still a lot more story to tell. The characters listed above have no doubt inspired many Black women to either pursue science or keep pushing on in their scientific careers, despite any adversities that they may face. Hopefully, they will continue to be good examples to future Black women in STEM.


We might not always be able to see people who look like us in real life, but having positive representation immortalised on screen can be instrumental in helping us feel seen. Hopefully, the positive representation of Black women scientists on screen will continue to increase over the next few years. Until then, we can watch and rewatch the examples listed above (and any others you can think of), take inspiration from our peers, and dream of a better tomorrow.


By Esther Ansah, Blog Writer

Bibliography

1. Bandura A. Social-Learning Theory of Identificatory Processes. In: Goslin DA, editor. Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research. 1969. p. 213–62.

2. McTaggart N, Cox V, Heldman C. Representation of Black Women in Hollywood. 2021.

3. Heroes Wiki Fandom. Denise Gaines. No date available.

4. Bonomolo C. ’Avengers: Infinity War’s Letitia Wright on Playing The Smartest Character in The MCU. Comicbook. 2022.

5. Memory Alpha Fandom. Palmer (Lieutenant JG). No date available.

6. Nemecek L. Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion. 2nd ed. Pocket Books; 1995. 249–250 p.

7. Gazitt J. What is the show Ada Twist, Scientist on Netflix about? Fansided. 2022.

8. Wei-Haas M. The True Story of “Hidden Figures,” the Forgotten Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. Smithsonian Magazine. 2016.

9. Chilcott L. CodeGirl. 2015.

10. West CM. Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel: Historical images of Black women and their implications for psychotherapy. Psychotherapy.1995;32(3):458–66.

11. Gray White D. Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. W.W. Norton and Co; 1999.

12. Mastro D, Figueroa-Caballero A. Measuring Extremes. Quantitative Content Analysis of Prime Time TV Depictions of Body Type. J Broadcast Electron Media. 2018;62(2):320–36.

13. Tukachinsky R, Mastro D, Yarchi M. Documenting Portrayals of Race/Ethnicity on Primetime Television over a 20-Year Span and Their Association with National-Level Racial/Ethnic Attitudes. J Soc Issues. 2015 Mar 1;71(1):17–38.

14. Mastro DE, Greenberg BS. The portrayal of racial minorities on prime time television. J Broadcast Electron Media. 2000;44(4):690–703.

15. Steinke J. Cultural representations of gender and science: Portrayals of female scientists and engineers in popular films. Sci Commun. 2005;27(1):27–63.

16. Moynihan C-L. The Female Scientist: How Does The Media Portray Women In STEM? Impact Magazine. 2021.

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