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Radioactive and Marie Curie: Why are there so few biopics of great women in STEM?

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Oct 2, 2020, 2:50 PM EDT (Updated)

Marie Curie is the kind of legend whose reputation greatly precedes her. The Polish-French scientist pioneered ground-breaking research into radioactivity that led to the discovery of two new elements. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win the Nobel prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields: physics and chemistry. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the prestigious University of Paris. During the First World War, she developed mobile radiography units for field hospitals that helped to save countless lives.

On top of her endless honors, Marie Skłodowska Curie's life was defined by a series of successes and scandals, from her long-term marriage and collaborations with her husband Pierre to an extramarital affair that caused angry mobs to gather outside her home to scream that she should return to where she came from. Her death was tragic, the result of many years of exposure to radiation, and her legacy insurmountable. Everyone has heard of her and she's one of the few historical scientists with such an honor. So, why are there so few movies about her, and generally speaking, where are the biopics of great women in STEM?

Radioactive, one of only a scant few Marie Curie biopics, made its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, screening at the closing night gala. Directed by Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian-French creator arguably best known for her autobiographical comic book Persepolis, the film stars Rosamund Pike as Curie, Sam Riley as her husband Pierre, and Aneurin Barnard as Paul Langevin, the man she had an affair with.

 

Despite her ubiquity, especially in France, cultural depictions of Marie Curie remain surprisingly lacking. Alongside Radioactive, there is the 2016 Polish film Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge, which received solid, if unspectacular, reviews. Legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert played her in 1997's Les Palmes de M. Schutz, based on the play of the same name. Curie received her splashy old-school Hollywood biopic way back in 1943. Madame Curie featured Greer Garson, then one of the biggest stars in the business, in the lead and landed her the fourth of six Oscar nominations. As was the case with most biopics from this period, Madame Curie is heavily fictionalized and cuts out anything that would have offended the Hays Code or American audiences. There's no mention of her political support for the liberation and independence of her homeland Poland or her affair. Instead, it's a conventionally told hero's journey that's all about triumph in the face of adversity, with the sharper edges sanded down for general consumption.

The competition is hardly tough but Radioactive, even with its faults, is by far the best Marie Curie biopic we have. In many ways, it's your standard biopic. It hits all the expected beats of the genre, one that has built its reputation, for better or worse, on sticking to a sturdy formula that demands little in the way of innovation. Then again, why not give Curie the more conventional treatment when she's been denied it for so long? Rosamund Pike is especially strong in the lead role, bringing a prickliness to Curie that rings true for a woman used to rejection and dismissal but refusing it at every turn. When the film embraces a trippy aesthetic — from the eye-burning green of the radium to the Curies' copulating shadows melding into the sky — it's a far more pleasurable viewing experience.

What makes Radioactive stand out is how it contextualizes not only Curie's life but the discoveries she made. We, the modern viewer, have the hindsight of history in our favor with a story like this, so we know how awful radium is to the human form before the Curies do. This makes moments where she cradles a sample of it like a nightlight rather horrifying to watch, as well as one scene where Pierre describes the myriad products available during the radiation fad, from toothpaste to chocolate. Interspersed with the more linearly-told biographical drama are glimpses into the future of radioactivity. We see a young boy whose cancer is treated with an early form of radiotherapy, but we also see the horrors of Hiroshima and Chernobyl. In one moment, the American military tests a nuclear bomb at the Nevada Proving Grounds, where dozens of tourists have paid to watch the event. As that overwhelming mushroom cloud engulfs the sky and the perfectly put together fake town, populated with mannequins, melts in a fiery blaze, the tourists stare indifferently through their goggles, as if they were watching a commercial rather than a true weapon of mass destruction. The terrifying consequences of Curie's work became little more than a distraction of chaos.

Biopics rest on the notion of greatness. You can't just make a biographical movie about anymore. They're supposed to be based on figures of great importance and measurable influence or impact. A biopic also signals a mild form of cultural deification. Cementing someone's status in society through a glossy Hollywood production full of pretty people and soaring strings will ensure their legacy (assuming the movie is any good.) In that aspect, as critically lambasted as they often are, biopics are a crucial part of our consumption and development of history. They decree who gets to be remembered. That's why it matters when so few of them are about the iconic achievements of women.

Whose Lives Are They Anyway?: The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, film studies scholar Dennis Bingham describes the key differences between biopics on male subjects versus female ones:

"Films about men have evolved from celebratory warts-and-all to investigatory to postmodern and parodic. At the same time, women in biopics have been burdened by myths of suffering, victimization, and failure from which they are only now being liberated."

Essentially, such biopics elevate men as heroes and reduce women to victims. This is obviously a generalization but it does highlight how the Great Woman Movie remains something of a rarity in the biopic genre. Radioactive is thankfully more of the former than the latter, and there are moments where it steadfastly refuses to take the easy way out. For instance, it's clear that misogyny impacts Curie's daily life, both professionally and personally, but Radioactive doesn't want its characters to just boldly declare that fact, as many biopics would. We see the subtler ways Curie is affected by sexism and how her popularity with the public and her fellow professionals is all too contingent on her success and compliance. Her greatness is frequently talked about but in seeing what it will lead to in the future, we get a greater understanding of her skills, which makes for far more satisfying viewing than endless scenes of people just speaking about how wonderful she is.

Perhaps Bingham's assertion is one of the reasons it's so hard to find biopics of women in STEM. There are exceptions, like Radioactive and Hidden Figures, but they are vastly outstripped by ones dedicated to men. There are the obvious reasons, such as Hollywood sexism and how historical misogyny has ensured that women in these fields were always greatly overshadowed and outnumbered by men. Pop culture has spent centuries being dominated by the falsehood that women's stories are only relatable to female audiences while the plights of men are universally accepted. To put it bluntly, Hollywood doesn't like telling stories about women dealing with sexism unless it can be concluded neatly and happily for all (read: mostly men) or have a helpful male character prove that not all men suck. Stories of scientists are also typically coded as too dry or cerebral for emotional drama, with only the most instantly recognizable figures, like Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein, being exceptions to the rule.

It's a shame these stories are so maligned because they're practically tailor-made for pop culture: Think of Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of Lord Byron and child genius who became one of the world's first computer programmers; or Fatima al-Fihri, who is credited with founding the oldest existing university in the world in 859 CE; or Rosalind Franklin, a scientist central to the discovery of the DNA double helix and whose legacy was oft-denied by the men she worked with. It can't be that the film industry has collectively decided such stories aren't worth their time, surely? Are they considered too much hassle or not interesting enough for the masses? It's not just a case of dismissing women's stories; it's about the consequences of a culture that won't elevate them to the levels of importance saved for white men. When pop culture continues to tell you which stories matter and who should be remembered beyond their life, it's important to call out how women have historically been maligned in these aspects. When it was this tough for Marie Curie, imagine how impossible it must be for everyone else.

Radioactive had its closing gala premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 14. It has yet to receive a general release.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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