Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A diatribe on fashion and "Princess Scientists"

I normally keep my mouth shut on "gender and science" issues, but Princess Scientist has taken things one step too far.

How is promoting "princess scientists" different from barraging young girls with ads full of unrealistically skinny and overly-photoshopped models?

Also, it doesn't work. As a recent Jezebel article notes,
A study from the Univerisity of Michican acknowledged that the "unfeminine" idea of the female scientist kept girls out of STEM, but added that counter-stereotypical beauty-focused STEM role models "reduced middle school girls' current math interest, self-rated ability, and success expectations relative to gender-neutral STEM role models and depressed future plans to study math among STEM-disidentified girls."
All these initiatives, they're not talking about science! They're focusing on appearance and then mentioning science as an aside.

That awful EU commission video was like the Zoolander version of science - maybe learning to turn left and hitting my experiments with "Magnum" will get me an instant Nature/Science paper.

Fashion isn't about looking hot or being sexy. Fashion is about self-empowerment, self-expression, and individualistic creativity. To pigeonhole yourself into some archaic feminine stereotype is to completely miss the point. Sure, there are some trends which are more risk√© than others (this summer's sheer lace with no pants phenomenon), but others offer us a chance to play around with shapes and challenge perceptions (volumes of fabric and masculine shapes for women).

I don't hide my love of fashion, but I would never try to promote that aspect of my personality as the thing that defines me as a scientist. For me, my clothes and shoes are an extension of my mental state and might be influenced by the weather, my location, or my professional/personal commitments on a given day. Its a very personal thing. Fashion is a type of performance art, calculated and targeted, reflecting the overarching zeitgeist and your place in the world amidst all this chaos.

A few months ago I saw Anna Wintour give an interview on the Colbert Report. She was talking about the this summer's exhibition at the Met "Prada and Schiaparelli: Impossible Conversations". The Vogue editor-in-chief has some inspiring words that succinctly summarized this viewpoint:
"I think clothes also reflect the culture and the time. If you look at a great fashion picture say of the sixties it tells you just as much about what was going on in the world as a headline in the New York Times. Fashion is self expression. Fashion is really about, if you’re talking about a great designer like Miuccia Prada, she’s going far deeper than just simply things that you put on your back, she’s examining what’s happening in the world through art, through film, through music, and really that’s what this exhibition is trying to talk about."
Of course not everyone shares this view. Whether you're a scientist or not, some people approach clothes as a functional necessity, preferring to pour their energy into other obsessions. While I find my niche in art and design, other people find fulfillment in repairing cars or a little bit of #bikedouchery. What we need to emphasize is that there IS not stereotypical scientist. We're all individuals on our own life trajectories, with wildly diverse hobbies and interests. To quote Prada and Schiaparelli:
"I think you have to do your job, and who cares about the title."
For scientists, the thing that connect us all is, well, science. We need to keep talking about that, albeit a little louder and more persistently. The more scientists that are in the public eye, the better. People will ultimately notice our diversity of personalities. Some of us might grace the pages of Vogue, while others might catch the attention of Rolling Stone. We need to present a broad spectrum of personalities--as the Mary Sue states, we need something for everyone:
...psychology researchers, Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa, were just as quick to point out a previous study done at the University of Washington, which showed that “geeky role models” can also discourage women who feel that they don’t identify with the image. An ideal world would see room for not one side or another, but a way to expose the middle ground, and leave room for the many different kinds of positive role models that the community can offer to budding scientists.
The sad truth is that we're not just not even on the radar right now. We're competing with hollow, shallow reality stars that the media keeps trying to spoon-feed the public.  

The "Dr. Erin Show" isn't a bad concept - a fake scientific version of the Jerry Springer show. But a host with a lab coat and a tiara? It just distracts you from the awesomeness of science.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm...a thoughtful post, but I think it is important to encourage the people trying to push society through this awkward transition of having women be respected contributors in fields historically considered "male." The Princess Scientist concept is a great example of having women bring uniquely feminine pasttimes (pageants) to historically male endeavors. Plus, you have to admit, a lot of little girls love princesses, and a Scientist Princess is a pretty great thing for them to want to be. -@KikaTarsi

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