We’re Gonna Need A Better Script: Uneven Representation of Women Scientists in Shark Films

Great white shark Dyer Island [Wikimedia Commons | CC]
Great white shark Dyer Island [Wikimedia Commons | CC]

By Sam Muka

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM) recently released findings that show that there is still a huge race and gender discrepancy in the portrayal of scientists in films. The longitudinal study examined STEM characters in film and television and found that men, specifically white men, vastly outnumber women almost 2 to 1. The fewest number of women portray physical scientists, computer scientists, or engineers. In addition, most scientists, either male or female, are white (over 70%). There were several positive findings, including the fact that even though there are fewer women scientists on screen, they are being portrayed as competent and as likely to be in power as male counterparts.

Research has shown that fictional representations of women impacts the perception that girls and women have on their own scientific abilities.  GDIGM points to “The Scully Effect,” named after the character Dana Scully on the X-Files, in which many women practicing science today trace their general interest in the field to seeing Scully on screen. Jocelyn Steinke’s work shows that girls are more likely to embrace and explore science if they see positive portrayals of women in fictional accounts. In an episode of “Science Goes to the Movies,” several astronomers discuss the influence of gender representation in movies such as Contact and Interstellar on women in their field. In short: representation matters.

Research has shown that fictional representations of women impacts the perception that girls and women have on their own scientific abilities.

But not all of this representation is positive.  

Eva Flicker’s work highlights six common stereotypes of women scientists in media: the old maid, honorary male, naïve expert, evil plotter, assistant or daughter, and lonely heroine. These are overlapping categories, but most women scientist portrayals fall into one of these categories. The most common portrayal is of a woman with emotional/empathetic connections to the earth, animals, and other humans. These women are mother/scientists who care for their teammates/co-workers or the earth through their work and often sacrifice themselves or their scientific research for those in their care. In the end, their research always comes secondary to their duty to care for others. The least common trope for women is that of evil plotter or mad scientist, although J. Kasi Jackson found stronger female scientists and those considered less ethical occur more often in B (low budget) movies.  

The recent report suggests that we have made great strides in breaking many of these stereotypes in the last 25 years, but that progress is stalled. Lady Science writers have noted the inclusion of a wider range of women scientists on film, including black hematologist Dr. Karen Jenson in Blade and the all women scientist crew (with several women of color) in Annihilation.  But do these few movies represent larger trends?  

I’m interested in women scientists in The Shark Film genre. I’ve chosen three films in which women marine scientists appear: Jaws 3D, Deep Blue Sea, and The Meg. (Sorry Sharknado, The Shallows, Into the Deep, and Ghost Shark!) Looking at these films, we can see how the issue of representation of women as scientists is about more than just quantity, but quality.

The original shark feature is Jaws, and all subsequent films about sharks exist in the shadow of it. Few films feel more invested in portraying the sea and those who work on it, including scientists and sailors, as hypermasculine. Sheriff Martin Brody hates the ocean, but his pursuit of the shark pushes him to form tenuous friendships with the young shark biologist, Matt Hooper, and the grizzled Captain Ahab figure and WWII veteran, Quint. Both characters are traditional representations of the masculine nature of seagoing and the ocean, and by extension, marine science appears explicitly masculine in the film. Even the shark named Bruce is male in the film, leading many to suggest that the film can be read as a comment on a crisis of masculinity. The women in movie are either young, scantily clad women who serve as Bruce’s victims, or mothers and wives, none of whom enter the water and merely serve to further the association of the water with men. The gender politics of the ur-shark film make the inclusion of women scientists in subsequent shark films particularly noticeable.

Jaws 3D introduced one of the first extended portrayals of women marine biologists on screen. (There is a woman scientist in Jaws 2, but she only appears onscreen for a few scenes). Dr. Kathryn “Kay” Morgan is a marine mammalogist at SeaWorld and a dolphin trainer dating Mike Brody. In the film, a young great white is trapped in Sea World, and Morgan hopes to rehabilitate and study the animal. The specimen dies, and she is devastated. But not as devastated as the mother shark, who proceeds to wreak havoc on the theme park. In the film, Morgan and the mother shark are similar — two maternal figures devastated by the death of the young shark.

At first glance, Morgan’s character falls into the category of empathic and ecologically minded Earth Goddess. She has an obvious connection with her dolphins and the young shark and talks to them like children. But there is a twist to this portrayal. First, she is the head of her program and is shown “doing science” throughout the film. Second, she isn’t a wife, but instead a girlfriend, and a secondary storyline introduces the idea that Brody will be moving to take another job. It becomes clear that Morgan won’t leave with him because she wants to stay to finish her research at SeaWorld, another indication that she is a serious scientist.

The second shark movie to feature women marine biologists is Deep Blue Sea. The film contains two female scientists: Dr. Susan McAlester and Janice Higgins. McAlester, a neuroscientist, has no friendships with the crew and seems unmoved by her test subjects (sharks) and by the deaths of her colleagues. In one scene, she decides to return to her submerged room to retrieve her “research data and testing work.” When questioned by Preacher, the cook, whether the data is worth her life, she responds that “without that data, everyone dying isn’t just tragic, it’s useless.” This conversation highlights a rarely viewed gender dynamic onscreen — a man questioning the value of science over human life and a woman choosing science. In this scene, McAlester appears as a lone or even mad scientist, willing to sacrifice other humans, including herself, for her work.

Her personality is presented in contrast to Higgins, who falls into the category of empathic and maternal figure. Higgins is also a marine scientist and openly mourns the death of her colleagues and shows a spectrum of extreme emotions. When McAlester explains the experimental process for making the sharks smarter, Higgins responds, “You stupid bitch!” Higgins’s emotional character contrasts strongly with McAlester’s disconnected one and presents the audience with something rarely seen: two very different types of women scientists working side by side. In this way, Deep Blue Sea presents an oddly feminist portrayal of women in science, allowing a wider amount of the audience to imagine themselves as capable of being a scientist (and, spoiler, subsequently devoured by super-intelligent sharks).

Merely referring to someone as a scientist does not help the audience form imagined selves.

Finally, the most recent shark film, The Meg, shows that we can’t expect the groundbreaking gender dynamics of previous films to be maintained. Suyin Zhang is a marine biologist, although her specialty isn’t clear. Most of her character arc revolves around romance, her relationship with her father, and her relationship with her daughter. Because of the inclusion of her father as her “boss,” this film places her squarely in the antiquated category of assistant/daughter. She is joined by engineer Jaxx Herd, who fills the role of engineering wunderkind, but again, we don’t really see her doing much scientific work and are merely informed that she designed the whole underwater base. The film doesn’t make strides in the portrayal of women scientists, but, instead, takes them backwards. The audience never actually sees Suyin or Jaxx “doing science” — merely referring to someone as a scientist does not help the audience form imagined selves.

Hopefully, The Meg’s portrayal of women marine biologists is an anomaly that won’t work to undo the strides made in marine biology over the last 25 years. In this subgenre, we see the inclusion of a larger number of women in scientific roles over the last 30 years, but the representation is hollow and without substance. Representation is more than just calling a female-presenting actress “Doctor” or “Professor.” Rather, it requires characters to portray scientific work with emphasis on science, not sex appeal. The analysis of shark films shows that there is a long way to go before women marine scientists are fully realized as scientists on screen.

Further Reading:

Kirby, David A. Lab coats in Hollywood: Science, scientists, and cinema. MIT Press, 2011.

Inness, Sherrie, ed. Geek chic: Smart women in popular culture. Springer, 2016.

Lady Science is an independent magazine that focuses on the history of women and gender in science, technology, and medicine and provides an accessible and inclusive platform for writing about women on the web. For more articles, information on pitching, and to subscribe to our newsletter, visit ladyscience.com.