In this article, we look back at some of the common stereotypes of the scientist, a profession that in film and television is marked by dichotomous characters: between the “villain scientist” and the “hero scientist” there is little room for compromises.
In the 1980s, several studies have found that film and television transmitted a stereotyped and negative image of scientists as compared to other professions. In fact, for decades some of the most memorable scientists who appeared on the screen were crazy geniuses, dysfunctional villains, characters with a big ego and the God complex.
To name a few examples, all dates back to Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein, repeatedly adapted to film, and continues in more modern times with characters like the scientist Seth Brundle in the movie ‘The Fly’ by Cronenberg.
However, more recent studies support a new theory according to which the current portrait of scientists in film and television is predominantly positive, with frequent scientists-heroes who save the day and the humanity.
So while it is undeniable that there are stereotypes in fictional scientists – in white coats, with unkempt hair, glasses, hard working, very intelligent and socially inept – we can break down these stereotypes according to different portrayls.
In the study ‘Entertainment Media Portrayals and Their Effects on the Public Understanding of Science’, authors Matthew C. Nisbet and Anthony Dudo present some of the most frequent scientist stereotypes in film and television:
Scientists as Dr. Frankenstein
In this image, which is one of the most common, scientists are portrayed as sinister, evil, violent and socially irresponsible. Examples of this stereotype are Gregory Peck as Dr. Mengele in ‘The Boys from Brazil’, Marlon Brando as Dr. Moreau in ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ and Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle in ‘The Fly’.
Scientists as powerless pawns
Scientists are people easily manipulated and dominated, who do the dirty work of large enterprises, military agencies or a master evil figure. Robert Duvall as Dr. Griffin Weir in the science fiction film ‘The 6th Day’ and several of the scientists of the movie ‘Jurassic Park’ fit this stereotype.
Scientists as eccentric and anti-social geeks
Inspired by Einstein’s image, these scientists live immersed in their work, dress strangely and have an almost nonexistent social life, being socially inept. One of the most memorable scientists that falls into this category is Doc from ‘Back to the Future’. The character Temperance Brennen, in the TV series ‘Bones’ is another example of this stereotype: smart, obsessed and cold, as is Sheldon Cooper in ‘The Big Bang Theory’: prodigiously intelligent but with a total lack of social skills, a tenuous understanding of humor and profoundly narcissistic behavior.
Scientists as Heroes
The scientist is portrayed as someone heroic, with superior intellectual and physical abilities, and possessor of common sense and an exemplary ethics. Often, the scientist is someone who predicts disaster and warns the humanity that does not want to believe him. Examples of this category are Dr. Alan Grant in ‘Jurassic Park’, the radio astronomer played by Jodie Foster in ‘Contact’ and the climatologist played by Dennis Quaid in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’.