Sat, May 15, 2021

How Hollywood Highlights the White Lab Coat

How we view wearers of the white lab coat can often be forged in our minds by how we see them through the lens of media. So how has Hollywood tended to portray scientists to us through the movies?

In 2005, a British research study of thousands of horror films released in the UK over a 53-year period between 1931 and 1984, found that scientists in white lab coats were portrayed as villains in more than 40% of those films. Moreover, they were portrayed as heroes in less than 1% of the films.

Once you put your mind to it, the examples are not hard to come by of the stereotypical mad scientist in a white lab coat on the big screen. Just think of:

  • The iconic Frankenstein.
  • Any number of comic-book villains who started out as scientists which now grace our screens annually in a host of Marvel movies.
  • Or even the chemist turned crystal meth manufacturer Walter White in what is regularly touted as one of the greatest TV shows of all time, Breaking Bad.

There is further hard evidence to back up this claim of Hollywood’s obsession with the white lab coat wearing “mad scientist”. In the 1980s, George Gerbner, a communications researcher working at the University of Pennsylvania, produced a study to backbone these claims of negative portrayals of the science profession. Through a content analysis critique, Gerbner’s analysis found that in comparison to other occupations highlighted on primetime TV, men and women of science suffered a higher ratio of unfavorable stereotypes.


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Given how Hollywood and the film industry can influence culture and society, what has this meant for the STEM sector? Join the dots and put yourself in a hypothetical white lab coat of your own. You’ll quickly understand how frustration has spilled over into the scientist community who decry this default negative image of a scientist that cinema has helped to project into our collective cultural consciousness.

For example, a more recent study that tackled how white lab coat wearing characters are portrayed in film and television discovered one huge and dangerous trend. That is that when it comes to the big screen, Male STEM characters outnumber female ones by 62.9% to 37.1%, and most STEM characters — 71.2% — are white. The study also found that films and television shows perpetuate the myth that some scientific disciplines are inappropriate for women. For example, compared with men, there are fewer female physical scientists (6.4% to 11.8%), computer scientists (8.6% to 11.5%), and engineers (2.4% compared to 13.7%) on the screen.

Movie Madness Descends Into Twitter Backlash

It is a safe bet to predict that when it comes to the big screen, nine times out of ten, a TV show or a movie with a white lab coat wearing character will generally follow that standardized description. So much so that lately, the easy to predict categorization was trending on Twitter with some hilarious inputs from witty users. An article titled “Hollywood's Portrayals of Science and Scientists Is Ridiculous” in the Scientific American highlighted some of the hilarious critiques.

  • I’m a female scientist in a movie. I look like a swimsuit model, i have a PhD from Cal Tech in the exact subject that is plaguing the world in this movie, and i will watch as a former athlete saves the world. (@michaellevine2)
  • Hello, I’m a medical lab scientist in a movie. Wait, no I’m not, because no one actually understands we exist and are highly-trained medical professionals. Instead, they show doctors or nurses doing our work while holding pipettes upside down. (@MariBrighe)
  • Hello, I'm a scientist in a movie I know everything about theoretical physics, geology, astronomy, cosmology, history, biology, linguistics, oh yeah, also I'm a hacker. (@DeNaturedEnzym)
  • Hello, I’m a scientist in a movie. You need the cure to a strange disease in 24 hours. I just so happen to be the best in my field. Everything works the first time I do it, and my knowledge spans through three different fields. Without extensive testing first, here’s your cure. (@Queen_ofthe_Lab)
  • Hi, I'm a scientist in a movie. I got my PhD at the age of 20 & can sequence DNA in 10 minutes. It doesn't matter what my area of expertise is, because I am superb at all types of science. My background in microbiology is absolutely enough for me to explain alien space travel. (@Satirony)

While these stereotypes are far from the previous damaging ones of a mad scientist or evil genius which we initially discussed, the point is still clear. Movie goers who are actual scientists feel like the industry unreasonably dumbs them down by ignoring the highly detailed and sectorized specialties of their job. Distorting the reality of what it is to be a scientist and dumbing down the real rigorous process that these jobs entail skews the way the public views them, ultimately doing a damaging disservice to the jobs.  They are more than just a white lab coat!

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Because attributing depth to scientists and giving full freight to the scientific process is not as straightforward and easy to do, the way the public sees science is skewed. These “funny-not-funny” social media memes about how science and white lab coats are misrepresented and downplayed in cultural communication channels, while funny and entertaining, only serve to reinforce a disconnect between the professions and the public.

The Winds Of Change

However, the winds of change start with a rustle, and change is coming.

Recently blockbuster science-fiction films have seen a subtle but key shift in changing the narrative. This genre has been steadily recreating the narrative and casting scientists as diverse, virtuous heroes rather than middle-aged lunatics in ill-fitting white lab coats bent on revenge or wielding science like a weapon against their enemies.

For example, ten years ago, back in 2011, Vox reported how in the Marvel movie Thor, Natalie Portman’s character was changed from being a nurse to being a physicist rather than a nurse, a move that veered off-road from following the original comic book series.

And white lab coat wearers are champing at the bith to sink their teeth into the fruitful Hollywood pie and sow seeds that will further benefit the STEM community. As Hollywood drives to give its audience a more realistic and accurate portrayal of the width and breadth of science, they are hiring more and more experts in the field to help clarify and correct otherwise would be flaws in their plot holes and scripts. Let’s not forget space thriller Gravity, despite being a box office and awards hit, was ripped asunder by Neil deGrasse Tyson for its science inaccuracies.

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The white lab coat community relishes this open door as working with a billion-dollar industry that has the potential to reach audiences throughout the globe is the perfect means of communicating to the wider public about the true wonders of physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine.

Where Hollywood Has Got It Right

The 2014 Christopher Nolan film Interstellar is a wonderful example of this. The movie hired a Nobel prize-winning theoretical physicist, Kip Thorne, as an Executive Producer and Science Adviser for the sci-fi film. Thorne reflected that working on this time-traveling movie starring Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain gave him the perfect fishing rod to cast out his ideas to young and receptive minds around the world about the beauty and the power of science. Thorne was right. Interstellar was a blockbuster hit that sold 100 million tickets and involved complex but cool subjects such as time travel, wormholes, and black holes. Nolan, hot off the success of his Batman franchise reboot, was the perfect vehicle to transfer these ideas through.  The presentation of Thorne’s theories through such a powerful director in one of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters of the year made difficult and hypothetical concepts more real and more persuasive, drawing increased scientific and public attention to the science behind it all.

But it wasn't just the funky themes and plotlines of Interstellar that helped shine a positive light on the world of white lab coat wearers. Throughout the two-hour-plus movie, the cast of the film (who were playing scientists of various fields) was constantly problem solving and working together in groups to overcome obstacles. It highlighted how a scientist works, thinks, interprets data, and comes up a Plan A, B, and C to execute. And it looked bloody well impressive!

Of course, it also didn’t hurt that those decked out in white lab coats were played by some of the best-looking people on the planet either. Again, think about how we originally discussed at the beginning of this essay how scientists were portrayed as mad hatters with oversized rimmed glasses, balding, grey wiry hair, and scrawny unattractive bodies. Now we’re getting the likes of Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and Matt Damon! These aren’t mad scientists. These aren’t evil geniuses, geeks, nerds, or even human punching bags (In fact, I seem to recall Damon getting the upper hand in his bout of fisty-cuffs with McConaughey). These are the cream of Hollywood representing a previously grossly misrepresented field.

Where Interstellar accelerated in its positive portrayals of science and scientists was not just that it was driven to deliver an accurate portrayal of the laws of physics on screen that would stand up to scrutiny from the community, it also portrayed the white lab coat wearers as swashbuckling All-American heroes.

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The point was solidified a year later with the release of another sci-fi thriller, The Martian -  again starring Matt Damon. Here, we saw the scientist portrayed as the everyday layman. Someone who just chilled on Mars pretending he was a pirate and kicked back listening to Disco tunes. Come to think of it, maybe he was a mad scientist after all, and we can slip that one back into the “negative portrayal” column.. However, back on planet Earth in the same movie, we had career funnyman Jeff Daniels (think Dumb and Dumber) play the Head of NASA, while the physicist who helped solve the problems surrounding the rescue attempt of Damon was none other than the “This Is America” rapper Childish Gambino.  This film had range. We could all be scientists!

Funnily enough, ever the outlier, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, dating all the way back to 1968, is perhaps the most scientifically accurate film ever produced. The film presented such a plausible, realistic vision of space flight that many moon hoax proponents believe that Kubrick staged the 1969 moon landing using the same studios and techniques. Kubrick’s scientific authenticity in 2001 came thanks to, you’ve guessed it, his in-depth use of science consultants. To be precise, these included two former NASA scientists and more than sixty-five companies, research organizations, and government agencies that offered technical advice on the wonders of space flight. 

The Proof Is In The Pop Culture Pudding

The success of Interstellar and The Martian was a big leap forward for a group often relegated to the role of sinister magician or evil genius.

And the idea that media representation of scientists as the good guys can help shore up outdated perceptions of the field is not far-fetched. Just as science can melt into pop culture, pop culture can melt into science. For instance, did you know that due to the monstrous success of Jurassic Park, paleontologist Jack Horner, who advised on the film, was actually granted funding to study dinosaur DNA! And, in my mind even more bizarre,  Mayim Bialik, who is best known for her role as Sheldon’s other-half, Dr. Amy Fowler, on The Big Bang Theory, actually earned a Ph.D. in neurobiology!

For better or worse, we learn from television. So when waged correctly, this is a powerful tool for hope and change. The more diversity and accurate portrayals of white lab coat wearers on the big screen, the more likely it is to inspire the next generation of scientists. To hammer this home, a 2009 study examined a possible connection between portrayals of scientists and public opinion of them over an 18-year period between 1983 and 2001. They found that when portrayals of white lab coat wearers shifted to a more positive light, so too did the audience’s faith in science.

Here’s to the future science-fiction movies, and the next wave of young talented scientists that are lifted up on its rising tide.

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