My follows on Twitter are mostly people in the science blogging circles, and when I was scrolling through my Twitter feed last Friday morning, I noticed a lot of people talking about the hashtag #sciencegirlthing.
Well, that’s not quite right — it sounded like women and men all over the Twittersphere had found the New Great Evil Against Science and were halfway through a public stoning.
So I clicked the link and watched the video:
My immediate reaction was a little laughter — especially when I saw the E.U. logo pop up in the end. I thought to myself, “Ha! Of course this had to be European.” The trailer, designed for a European Union science outreach campaign called “Science: It’s a girl thing”, had the kitch of a Mentos commercial and the gloss of a Spice Girls music video (admit it, you remember them) and that effortless continental chic.
Those Awkward Teenage Years
Over the past few days, the video has been slammed throughout the web for fostering stereotypes, sexist clichés, Hollywood glitz, et cetera. Many commented how this was a terrible way to encourage teenage girls into scientific careers, and how instead of catering to popular stereotypes, people should focus on highlighting the excitement and wonder of science and research.
But you know what I was worried about when I was 13 years old?
Girls, and whether they liked me. And being envious of the good-looking popular kids.
Not science or careers.
I don’t know what teenage girls are/were worried about, but I bet for a percentage of them, it’s boys. And being envious of the good-looking popular kids.
That feeling can make us feel bad about being smart, especially when being smart isn’t valued by our peers. At the time, it made me think about trading in smarts for popularity.
I loved science, but I was embarrassed to be with other geeks and nerds, even if they were my friends. Add to the fact that I had just emigrated from an Asian culture where being smart about science landed you all sorts of praise and envy — it could not have been more jarring. My jock friends teased my friend and me for being “pansy park rangers” because we liked to fish and always talked about nature and biology.
A video that hinted, Hey, you can be smart — and be popular and “normal” too, would have probably caught my eye.
Does this video satisfy that comfort? No, but it shows girls as confident, fashionable, having fun, popular (yes, in the Hollywood way), and catching the eye of a handsome “Dr. Microscope” (as someone on Twitter named the dude).
My 13-year old self would have died to catch the attention of a lovely Miss Dr. Microscope. But I think they were all too worried about not looking like one.
The video normalizes an interest in science. Yes, to a glamourized ideal. But that’s the world we live in. That’s the baseline each of us has to compete in for attention and individuality. And that’s just as true in an adult’s world — I wager the majority of Americans still looks at anyone remotely in the science field as awkward nerds, brainy geeks and intellectual snobs. Step outside the comfortable salon we’ve built ourselves, and you’ll find that mentality still out there.
That difference between the geeks and nerds and the rest of the Popular World — and the surprise when we find it juxtaposed or normalized — is also why we laugh at ads like this old one from General Electric:
These ads may be fantasies brewed up by Madison Avenue and clique culture, but you know what? Belonging feels good. Acceptance feels good. When you’re young and you haven’t found your way and identity yet, you probably feel pretty lonely– even when your role models tell you it’s okay to be yourself and march to your own beat. You still want to be part of the big group.
What a Scientist Looks Like
The thing is, the girly video was just a teaser trailer: the video profiles of the women scientists on the actual campaign website itself are gorgeous, high-production-value clips showcasing smart, confident women of various ages, nationalities and technical expertise, each of them having a balanced personal/family life and diverse hobbies.
Indeed, the profiles don’t conform to traditional girly girl types. One of the women plays soccer (football); another takes improv classes; one is in a band; another is seen having fun with friends after work (fro-yo never looked so cool) and another chilling out with some Adult Beverages.
You know, “normal-people” stuff. Stuff that boys want to do, too, for that matter.
And that teaser video got me to go to that site.
I understand the huge internet backlash, and I am not in favor of promoting stereotypes. At the same time, I have a feeling that many folks out there have forgotten what it’s like to be awkward teenagers and the probability that this trailer was not meant for adults. And it’s fairly obvious the trailer itself wasn’t meant to educate girls about research careers — it was probably just to get some girls onto the main website and watch the videos intended to serve that purpose.
Come in: Here is the fantasy that you’ve been conditioned to want. Now that you’re sitting down, here is a reminder that it’s okay to like science — and that you get to lead a “normal” life too — whatever you choose as normal.
Of course, popularizing science as a feminine thing could turn off some girls (there’s a recent study that talks about this, as Dr. Marie-Claire Shanahan explains at Boundary Vision). And perhaps normalizing science as a popular thing may drive a stake in some adolescent nerd-hearts (“Great — now another thing the cool kids are good at — they’ve stolen my only thing!!!“).
And yeah, the branding for #sciencegirlthing could have been a little less dramatic. There should have been a series of teasers each taking different approaches at attracting girls. The pink lipstick in the logo seems overkill.
But, hell, what do I know — has anyone asked actual teenage girls what they think of all this? What about girls from various European cultures versus American culture?
Clearly, the organizers were not yet ready to unveil the full campaign — the website is incomplete, and their Facebook page was sparsely populated. Their other big marketing flop was probably releasing such a provocative teaser, while trying to play a “soft launch” strategy and not having a backup plan ready.
Yes, we definitely still need the Dr. Jane Goodall’s and Dr. Sylvia Earle’s of the science world to appear on popular media (which brings to mind: name all the women science role models in popular media today). We need passionate grassroots efforts such as #LooksLikeScience to put a personal face on the brand of science. And we need real scientists and researchers of all genders and diversities to reach out and show their faces in classrooms and at career fairs to leave favorable impressions and set an example of being a smart human being and having a happy, satisfied life.
But one teaser catering to glitz to get kids in the door is not going to hurt, as long as it connects to the real message. It might even help out a few awkward teens out there.
Mob or Gatekeeper?
My own personal thoughts aside, the most worrying aspect of #sciencegirlthinggate was the reaction of the science Twittersphere itself.
If science bloggers are to take on the mantle of gatekeepers of scientific advancement and strive to offer sound analysis of scientific information and science outreach, then we must take care to provide that service.
If you dipped a toe into the Twitterstream on Friday, you would’ve hit a wave of tweets damning the #sciencegirlthing teaser trailer, but very little discussion about the merit and context of the outreach campaign itself and the scientist interviews — which had a very different tone and substance than the teaser.
It was more like Frankenstein and pitchforks than news and analysis.
I also did not see any articles with interviews with the E.U. campaign organizers — an element a worthy journalistic investigation would have included or attempted. (My apologies if this is out there.)
Those of you out there who took care to share nuanced perspective, personal experiences, peer-reviewed research and those of you who stepped back to view the entire situation — I commend you, whatever your opinions may have been. Tell us more about what you think.
With #arseniclife and #sciencegirlthing, the science online chorus has proven to be a force for change that extends beyond salon sessions and into society at large. This power is very real, and it can be wielded with the zeal of a cable news pundit, or with the surgical precision of an editor’s pen.
Both can be means to the same end. Which one do you want to be known for?
— Ben Young Landis
Addendum: As many of you already know, the campaign took down the original teaser video late Friday. On the campaign’s Facebook page, you can read the campaign’s response to the public, as well as the exchange between public commenters and the profiled scientists, like this one. Or comments from consultants who advised the campaign, like this one.
Addendum II: Here’s an anecdote from “Laura”, a scientist friend and mom of two, with whom I was discussing the #sciencegirlthing issue: “My friend [Rachel] and I decided we had better learn to act dumb so we could fit in. It was hard work and we were totally unsuccessful. I still remember standing near the popular kids on the high school steps and overhearing them say with laughter ‘I bet Laura and [Rachel] will talk about Einstein’s theory of relativity at the prom.’ I was completely devastated at the time, obviously, as I still remember this incident 30 years later.”
Addendum III: Another sentiment shared with me by “Susan”, a communications specialist: “My own opinion on this is a bit different, honed by years of watching sexist come-ons to get women/girls to do things. I dislike that approach intensely, and am tired of it after decades of seeing it done, but you’re entitled to your viewpoint! In time, you may get sick of this approach, too.”
Addendum IV: In discussing #girlsciencething, consider and compare these other women-in-science outreach campaigns:
- The White House – Women in STEM program
- The White House – Girls in STEM: A New Generation of Women in Science
- L’Oréal/UNESCO For Women in Science programme
Addendum V: A reaction on #sciencegirlthing at Sociological Images, edited by University of Minnesota sociologists. See also posts by Alan Boyle at MSNBC; by NoisyAstronomer at Skepchick; and by Olga Khazan at Washington Post.