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Annihilation and the hard truth about women scientists in genre films

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Mar 7, 2018, 5:30 PM EST

The primary cast of Alex Garland’s Annihilation consists of Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin), Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Tuva Novotny (Eat Pray Love), and Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange), a notably diverse group of people. And the five main characters are all female scientists, two of whom are women of color and one of whom openly identifies as queer. That is an unprecedented level of representation for female scientists in a science fiction film, putting most of the rest of the genre to shame.

That becomes especially true when you look at a list of female scientists in popular science fiction movies from the past 25 years.

Jurassic Park, Ellie Satler

Credit: Universal Pictures


- Ellie Sattler, Laura Dern (Jurassic Park, 1993)

- Catherine Langford, Viveca Lindfors (Stargate, 1994)

- Pamela Isley (aka Poison Ivy), Uma Thurman (Batman & Robin, 1997)

- Ellie Arroway, Jodie Foster (Contact, 1997)

- Susan Calvin, Bridget Moynahan (I, Robot, 2004)

- Susan Storm (aka Invisible Woman), Jessica Alba (Fantastic Four, 2005)

- Corazon, Michelle Yeoh (Sunshine, 2007)

- Helen Benson, Jennifer Connelly (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2008)

- Elsa Kast, Sarah Polley (Splice, 2009)

- Grace Augustine, Sigourney Weaver (Avatar, 2009)

- Nyota Uhura, Zoe Saldana (Star Trek, 2009)

- Jane Foster, Natalie Portman (Thor, 2011)

- Elizabeth Shaw, Noomi Rapace (Prometheus, 2012)

- Gwen Stacy, Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man, 2012)

- Ryan Stone, Sandra Bullock (Gravity, 2013)

- Carol Marcus, Alice Eve (Star Trek: Into Darkness, 2013)

- Maya Hansen, Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3, 2013)

- Amelia Brand, Anne Hathaway (Interstellar, 2014)

- Murph, Jessica Chastain (Interstellar, 2014)

- Helen Cho, Claudia Kim (Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015)

- Beth Johanssen, Kate Mara (The Martian, 2015)

- Melissa Lewis, Jessica Chastain (The Martian, 2015)

- Louise Banks, Amy Adams (Arrival, 2016)

- Abby Yates, Melissa McCarthy (Ghostbusters, 2016)

- Erin Gilbert, Kristen Wiig (Ghostbusters, 2016)

- Jillian Holtzmann, Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters, 2016)

- Miranda North, Rebecca Ferguson (Life, 2017)

- Dr. Maru (aka Doctor Poison), Elena Anaya (Wonder Woman, 2017)

- Hamilton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (The Cloverfield Paradox, 2018)

- Tam, Ziyi Zhang (The Cloverfield Paradox, 2018)

- Jensen, Elizabeth Debicki (The Cloverfield Paradox, 2018)

This isn’t by any means an exhaustive list, but it’s certainly more than representative of female scientists in science fiction and genre films from 1993 to 2018. These “scientists” range from medical doctors to researchers-turned-astronauts and, as we’ve meandered further into the 21st century, the number of female-identifying scientists in genre films has gone up. We’re getting better. Best of all, sometimes, these women’s storylines don’t revolve wholly around a man; sometimes, these women aren’t a male main character’s romantic interest; sometimes, we’re lucky enough to get more than one woman scientist in a movie.

The list, though, is overwhelmingly white and straight. It’s important to remember that one white, straight woman appearing as a scientist in a sci-fi film does not spell “representation for female scientists.” There are a couple of reasons for this pointed lack in both gender and racial diversity of scientists in film.


Yes, women write, direct, and generally create science fiction films — amazing science-fiction films — but of the 31 female scientists featured in the above list, guess how many women had a hand in creating them?

Contact (1997) is “based on the story by” Ann Druyan, Antoinette Terry Bryant co-wrote the screenplay for Splice (2009), the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot was co-written by Katie Dippold, and Wonder Woman (2017) was directed by Patty Jenkins. That’s it.

Diversity begets diversity. And, for the most part, when one type of person (in this case, white men) is in charge of writing, directing, and producing an entire genre, diverse voices get snuffed out and lost.



Women make up a majority of the US population at 51 percent of all citizens. A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that “the US will not have a single racial or ethnic majority” by 2055. In the United States especially, statistics are in women’s and people of color’s favors. Earth as a whole is, unsurprisingly, a very diverse place. So, why has the United Nations found that women only make up 30 percent of the world’s researchers?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women of color make up an overwhelmingly small portion of people graduating with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees in the United States. But a study published in February 2018 by psychologists Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary found that women are more than capable of succeeding in STEM fields, regardless of race, sexuality, or socio-economic status. When looking at STEM-related test scores from students across 67 countries and regions, Stoet and Geary found that “girls performed similarly to or better than boys in science in two of every three countries, and in nearly all countries, more girls appeared capable of college-level STEM study than had enrolled.”

In 2013, the New York Times reported that women earned over 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the United States but “only 20 percent of the degrees in computer science, 20 percent of those in physics and 18 percent of those in engineering. Women constitute half the nation’s workforce but just a quarter of its scientific corps, and women with science degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a scientific occupation.”

There have been countless studies on what, exactly, is holding women back from striving for careers in the STEM fields. Most of it comes down to social understanding of the relationship between women and STEM, which is to say that STEM fields are regularly regarded as owned by men and impenetrable by women. Social roles and norms have hindered women from classically male-driven professions for decades;

And that brings us to the real-world implications of including more women — especially diverse, realistic women — as scientists and people of influence to the plots of science fiction films.

Yes, friends, we’re talking about the importance of representation in media.

Star Trek, original cast

Credit: NBC


You know how The Jetsons promised us flying cars by the mid-21st century and paranoid authors always predict the downfall of humanity by artificially intelligent robots? Science fiction looks to the future, portraying the worst and best outcomes with equal fervor.

The go-to example for “the brightest future humanity has to offer” in science fiction is undoubtedly Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Here was a 1960s fever dream of diversity and unyielding curiosity about the universe surrounding us. Not only did it feature a black woman, Nyota Uhura, as the communications officer — the literal voice of the USS Enterprise — but it featured the first interracial kiss on television. A Russian man (Pavel Chekov) and a Japanese man (Hikaru Sulu) held the captain’s undisputed trust, a virtual declaration of war against post-McCarthy and Japanese internment paranoia that still clung to the American psyche. And these were scientists and PhD-holders, genuinely intelligent, hard-working, open-minded people with a lust for discovery. They were the best humanity had to offer.

Star Trek was and continues to be unerringly optimistic over 50 years after its inception and is a prime example of what science fiction can accomplish in diversifying people’s experiences, even if that diversity comes through a screen. Not only have science and tech communities strived to create the futuristic Trek gadgets once deemed out of reach (and succeeded), but we’ve moved toward a more diverse future, inch by painful inch, since Star Trek first premiered. It’s not perfect by any means — but we’re trying.

Even in just the past few years, science fiction and other genre films have gotten better at trying for diversity. Arrival (2016) features a female scientist as the main protagonist; the (much-maligned) 2016 Ghostbusters reboot featured an all-female cast of heroes; Wonder Woman exploded into theaters in 2017 as a triumphant tale of female warriors and a superhero who finds strength in love; The Cloverfield Paradox (2018) is a virtual grab bag of diverse characters from different nations.

And then there was Annihilation. The movie offers up five complicated female scientists with deeply personal agendas. Every single one of the women in the film has her specialty; every single one is individually capable. That is a painfully rare phenomena in a genre so obsessed with “what if.”

That being said, Annihilation has not been without its fair share of controversy. Just because it’s more diverse than many other films in the genre doesn’t excuse it from criticism. Not long before the film’s premiere, accusations of whitewashing arose surrounding Portman and Leigh’s casting as the biologist Lena and the psychologist Dr. Ventress, respectively. This was after people realized Portman’s character was meant to be of Asian descent and Leigh’s character had been described as half-Native American, half-Caucasian in author Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation’s source material.

Garland told Deadline in February that “the characters in the novel I read and adapted were not given names or ethnicities. I cast the film reacting only to the actors I met in the casting process, or actors I had worked with before.”

Annihilation, the first book in VanderMeer’s trilogy, does not, indeed, describe any character’s race or ethnicity. It’s not until the second novel, Authority, that the subject of the biologist and psychologist’s racial identities arise. But given that two of the only characters to have their races explicitly described in the novels were miscast as white women, many were unwilling to accept Garland’s reasoning — that he started writing the screenplay for Annihilation before VanderMeer had published the final two books in the trilogy. Meaning, he claims ignorance of the characters’ races.

You might be one of the many, many people calling bulls**t, but, at the very least, we’re talking about this. We’re talking about the importance of diversity, of inclusion, of representation. It wasn’t long ago that people were just happy to see one woman, let alone one female scientist in a sci-fi film — regardless of race, sexuality, or any other personal or social identity. For a genre steeped in futurism and questions of “what if,” popular science fiction has long failed women and people of color.

It’s these kinds of diverse stories that point out the flaws in the system. But, more vitally, they give us a glimpse of how we can do better. If diversity begets diversity, then movies like Annihilation can help lead the way for a more inclusive, realistic future.

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