Episode 5: STEM Women in Popular Culture
Hosts: Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg
Guest: Dr. Amy Chambers
Producer: Leila McNeill
Music: Careful! by Zombie Dandies
In this episode, Anna, Leila, and Rebecca talk about why the BBC series Call the Midwife is the best show on TV. Guest Dr. Amy Chambers joins in to talk about her work on women and minorities in entertainment media, particularly science fiction.
Communicating he Nature of Science Through The Big Bang Theory: Evidence from a Focus Group Study by Rashel Li & Lindy A. Orthia
J Botting, "The History of Thalidomide," Drug News Perspect 15, no. 9 (2002): 604-611.
Neil Vargesson, "Thalidomide-induced teratogenesis: History and Mechanisms," Birth Defects Research 105, no. 2 (2015): 140-156.
The Woman Who Stood Between America and an Epidemic of Birth Defects by Leila McNeill
Transcription by Rev.com
Rebecca: Welcome back to episode five of the Lady Science Podcast, a monthly deep dive on topics centered on women and gender in the history and popular culture of science. With you every month are the editors of Lady Science Magazine.
Anna: I'm Anna Reser, co-founder and co-editor in chief of Lady Science. I'm a writer, editor, and PhD student studying 20th century American culture and history of the American Space Program in the 1960s.
Leila: I'm Leila McNeill, the other founder and editor in chief of Lady Science. I'm a historian of science and freelance writer with words in various places on the internet. I'm currently a regular writer on women in the history of science in Smithsonianmag.com.
Rebecca: I'm Rebecca Ortenberg, Lady Science's managing editor. When I'm not working with the Lady Science team I can be found writing about museums and public history around the internet and managing research projects at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.
Rebecca: This month, we're super excited about this episode. The three of us will be discussing and fangirling over one of our favorite TV shows "Call the Midwife" and then writer and researcher Amy Chambers will join us to talk about her work on women, gender, and science in entertainment media.
Anna: Okay. Call the Midwife. I'm so excited.
Anna: I did want to say also that I think this is such a good discussion for us to have this episode because it comes out with our 40th issue so it's a little bit of an anniversary and Call the Midwife is one of the first things that Leila and I ever had the kind of critical discussions that led to working on women and gender together and for Lady Science itself. It's one of the first things that we wrote about for the magazine so it's just nice little full circle.
Rebecca: Yeah it is. I didn't even think about that. That's great.
Anna Reser: Yeah. I guess we should say just a little bit about the show. In case people don't know, it's a British television show and it's a period show set in I think the first season starts in 1957 right? Just at the end of the 50s and it's set in East London in Poplar, and it follows these midwives who work with other midwives who are nuns but it's the young nurses and they live with these nuns and they take care of all the people in Poplar and deliver a bunch of babies and do community care and have all kinds of extremely charming adventures.
Anna: The main reason that Leila and I got so excited about this show and wanted to write about it to begin with is for me it's just incredible. It was the first time I'd ever watched a television that was just exclusively about women and women's lives and the things that are particular to being a woman in a way that wasn't gimmicky or ... it just has a very straightforward angle on the lives of these women and they're all very different, and they have their own trajectories and very little of it has anything to do with men and it's so incredibly refreshing.
Leila: I think it's in the beginning of episode two or three of season one where they have the voiceover. Who's the actress that does? It's Vanessa-
Rebecca: It's Vanessa Redgrave.
Leila: Yeah, and she's doing her traditional voiceover that she does every episode and I think it even starts with her saying something like, "And the men were just extra."
Anna: Yeah, absolutely. I think I was rewatching the second episode of the first season last night and a lot of that stuff is kind of explicit in the first season about taking care to say, "This is a show about women and this is the way it's going to be," and they do that through the voiceover a lot where Jenny's talking about understanding her life in Poplar as being centered around women in a way that it might not otherwise be if she worked at a hospital or something, so the setting is really important for making the show focused on women in this way.
Anna: I just wanted to talk more generally about the show and it's aesthetics and production and why I think it's special and why I love it so much. The biggest thing for me that I, in addition to not ever seeing TV that was just about women, I'd never seen labor and delivery portrayed on TV the way that it is on "Call the Midwife." It's incredible. Like I said, it has that very straightforward kind of gaze. It isn't ashamed or afraid of the bodies that it's looking at in a way that just filled my heart up.
Anna: Babies have good and blood on them when they're born and that's okay and you see some goo and some blood and stuff, and the way they just really get the camera ... it's not explicit, you don't see any genitals or anything, but they get the camera right up in there next to the mother's hip and you see the midwives working. It's a bodily practice. You see bodies touching each other, and I think that maybe there's a cultural thing about American TV, especially portraying women's bodies. It felt almost taboo to me growing up watching American television.
Leila: They don't just focus on the delivery itself, the baby and the mother, but the actual practice of midwifery with the way that they show how the midwives place their hands on the mother and on the baby during delivery. This is a legitimate practice that you had to do in a very specific way.
Anna: I think sometimes it's almost like that cooking show magic of television logic where you see the mother in labor and then you see the doctor and then some stuff happens that you don't really see that they fill in with B-roll of the dad being upset or something and then through the magic of TV a baby is born. They show the midwives saying, "You've going to have to turn over", or, "I'm going to have to put my shoulder into your thigh and push on you this way." It's stuff I've never seen before so I kind of learned a lot [inaudible 00:07:10].
Rebecca: Yeah and they talk about, I feel like especially early on, there's a lot about enemas and just other awkward bodily functions that have to do with being pregnant and giving birth and they always mention the afterbirth. Again, they talk about all of the good of giving birth and women's bodies and they don't forget that.
Anna: Yeah, exactly. It's just part of the texture of the world. I was just reminded of that episode where the midwife give the afterbirth to the husband because he wants to put it on his tomatoes because it helps his tomatoes grow and I was just like, "This is fantastic." That's the big thing for me. The physicality of the portrayal of pregnancy and labor and delivery. It's unlike anything I've ever seen before.
Anna: More broadly, the show's perspective on its setting of Poplar and East London, there's a lot of poverty, and in the 50s, there's people that are still dealing with these sort of haunting legacies of the work house and things are better now in the time the show's set. They talk a lot about the NHS and how there are more social programs but a lot of the people in Poplar grew up with nothing. There are characters in the show they had rickets or one time they talk about someone being deprived of sunlight. That they grew up somewhere without windows, and they couldn't see the sun for a long time. There's a really sort of disturbing past that everyone in Poplar is dealing with and coming to terms with, and the show doesn't hide it and it also doesn't fetishize it. It deals with people from all different classes, different races and there's never any leering or judgment. This is true of things that you would never see on American television.
Anna: There's an episode about incest-
Rebecca: I was literally just thinking about that.
Anna: That is handled unbelievably sensitively. I've never seen anything like it. There's an episode about people with developmental disabilities having a sexual relationship. That's something I've never seen before. All of these thing are handled extremely sensitively and openly in a way that is just really refreshing.
Anna: You guys have other stuff you want to talk about specifically, I'm just gushing about the show. The one last thing I wanted to say is that I didn't realize this because I'm an American watching British TV on Netflix so I'm not embedded in the culture of it but apparently "Call the Midwife" is viewed as like fluffy feel-good TV for women. We did a screening of this with our students a couple years ago and that's what one of them said. They were like, "This is just British feel-good TV." I guess that's something we could maybe talk a little bit about how stories about women that are focused on women and interested and admit that there's something interesting about women are marginalized as just feel-good TV. I think Lifetime stuff in the U.S. is billed that way, but I gave that student a talking to and then we had a good discussion about how it's not feel-good TV.
Rebecca: Yeah, it's funny how it gets discussed as in this cozy British TV category or, "Oh, it's really saccharine and there's always a happy ending", or, "Oh, it's not explicit, it's just there to make you feel good", and I'm like, "There's a lot of dark stuff in it", but doesn't fetishize the dark stuff. I think that there's also a degree to which because it's about women and women's issues that I think we could bill it as this happy, squishy, feel-good thing, but I also thing that so much serious TV these days is about fetishizing terrible things that happen. Then they say, "Oh well no, life is hard," and here's the show where it's not fetishizing that but is saying, "Well, life is hard and terrible things happen, but people keep getting shit done because that's what you have to do." That's so much more powerful-
Leila: So much of TV has to be dark and gritty and the protagonists have to be these anti-hero types of characters where you have to feel conflicted about who they are as people and whatever. You don't get that with really any of the protagonists, any of the nuns or any of the midwives, and the music is often very uplifting no matter how dark that episode is that it ends with a narrative-
Rebecca: And it's Vanessa Redgrave who's telling you everything will be okay.
Leila: Yeah, and it really does a good job of weighing reality with the sentimentality that comes out of these types of stories, and I think it's the sentimentality angle that makes people bill this as puff rather than something that's a serious show or doing actual serious storytelling, and I'm going to talk about in a minute, actual serious historical work. Just the idea of it being sentimental, the fact that it makes people cry all the time, that label of sentiment being so closely associated with things that are feminine for such a long time is what makes it seem not like a serious show.
Anna: But it is a really serious show so Leila, I want you to talk to us about the thalidomide arc, which, I don't understand, is there anything more serious than thalidomide? How do we even have to have this debate about this show?
Rebecca: It's so dark and so horrifying, everything about it, but Leila, have at it.
Leila: So the thalidomide story arc, they tease it at the end of season four in really the most absolute soul-crushing way if you know what's coming. The way that season four ends is a mother who had to be, she was hospitalized, right, because her morning sickness was so bad. She couldn't stay at home. She had to be constantly medicated for her morning sickness, and Dr. Turner prescribes thalidomide to her and it ends with her being able to go home after taking this miracle drug, and she's putting on her coat in a very jaunty way and she's heading out with her children and that's kind of how the season ends, with the promise that something like this had for women who had really bad, tough pregnancies.
Leila: Then in season five, the baby is born, and it's baby Susan I believe is the baby's name, and she's born with a birth defect and this is the beginning of the thalidomide story arc. Some historical context for what thalidomide was, and I don't think that maybe in the U.S. there's as much consciousness about what happened there because it didn't happen in the same way in the U.S. We only had 17 reported cases of birth defects from thalidomide in the U.S. whereas in Europe and Australia there were thousands. Worldwide there are about 10,000.
Leila: The drug was manufactured by a German company in 1953 and it was originally used as a sleeping pill replacement for barbiturates. Then it was used to treat morning sickness in pregnant women and that started being prescribed for that specific purpose in 1957. One of the side effects that was well-known and wasn't always marketed with the medication itself was peripheral neuritis, which is inflammation of the nerves and can be really painful, but no one really asked, "Well what will this do for pregnant people if this is affecting nerves?"
Leila: It was manufactured and distributed pretty much all over Germany, came to the U.S. after it was marketed in Britain and Australia, and throughout the 1950s there was really little to no oversight in how drugs were manufactured and also how they were marketed. Someone could sell thalidomide as curing morning sickness and leaving off the side effect and that would've been completely legal. You can't do that anymore.
Leila: So the result of what this did for babies and for pregnant women was very severe birth defects, and we don't even know how many fetuses died in utero because of it, there's no way of knowing that. One of the most visible birth defects was phocomelia which is limb deformities and that's what they really show in the show. They do that with prosthetics. Usually in the show, and the reason why things look so real with the babies is because they use 10-day old babies as newborns ,and the mother sign up to have their babies on the show before they even give birth. I'm sure they just have a constant flow of newborn babies coming in and out of that set. But for these they use prosthetics instead of the real babies and they look incredibly real, it's pretty amazing actually.
Leila: After the thalidomide thing, governments had much stricter regulatory processes. In the U.S. we had the Kefauver-Harris Amendment and then in the UK, which what where this was taking place, was in 1963 the government set up the Committee on Safety Drugs and then in 1968 the Medicines Act, which established the Committee on Safety and renamed it Committee for Safety of Medicines and that's very similar to what we have now in the U.S., so similar to the FDA.
Leila: So season five starts off in 1961. That's the same year that thalidomide was withdrawn from the market because of the birth defects. The timeline of the history that they're showing is really great and really spot on and in general the history the history of what they're showing is really spot on. One of the things that I really really like about the way they handle this story arc is that it seems like they all felt a big responsibility in the way that they told the story. They kind of felt the weight of what they were trying to portray and what they were trying to say.
Leila: Heidi Thomas, the series writer and she's also the executive producer, she was a child when this was happening so she saw some of this stuff going on, so it was somewhat of a personal history for her as well and you kind of had these different angles of history coming in. She said in an interview that, "This isn't just history. People affected by thalidomide are still fighting for the recognition of their injuries." She says that they're telling just the beginning of the story that is still ongoing. A lot of the babies that were born with these birth defects are still alive and their families are still alive and they what, just got an apology less than ten years ago? They had to fight even for an apology, much less any financial assistance from having to live a life with a disability.
Leila: I think that the show does some actual really good historical work aside from just being a good TV series, good storytelling. I think it's doing actual good historical scholarship, and I think that the way that they feel responsible for telling that history and telling that story is a really good lesson for historians in general. For us, for me studying 19th century and earlier is that we see the effects of history, making connections and threading those things, but this is completely different because these people are still alive. Not only do we still feel the effects, we can see them and so certainly do the people that lived through this time. I think it shows what a responsibility that historians have to do justice to the subjects that they're studying. That's one of the things that I love about this show but specifically this story arc that they took such care on.
Leila: I also really like that since they followed this one family through the process of the pregnancy through to birth and into trying to go forward from there that you get also more of a feel of the personal aspect of what this could do to families. Especially since they're working in the East End, what this could do to poor families. I really like that you get kind of the larger history, but then you also get the more personal aspect of what this did to people and especially to women.
Leila: One of the things that they show in the story arc is how women were constantly blaming themselves for what had happened to their babies. Women are historically and presently positioned to be the one's responsibility for reproduction because it's their bodies and so if something goes wrong that blame is placed on the mother.
Rebecca: One of the things that I think is really interesting about this plot arc is if you were to make one historic medicine criticism of the show it's that there are times when it dips into a "everything new is better and modernization is an upward track," and honestly, I think it does a better job of not falling into that than a lot of history of medicine on TV, but there are moments that in creating a happy ending the happy ending is, "Well these people now have more technology available to them, isn't that great?" This whole plot arc skewers that entirely, and they're really explicit about that because it's presented as this legitimately important medicine that is helping women. Especially if you're a working woman, morning sickness, even if it didn't send you to the hospital, could be totally debilitating. What do you do if you can't go to work because you're throwing up all day? That's a serious issue for someone who is heavily reliant on that income.
Rebecca: It presents the importance of that. That hope of a magical solution and then skewers, I don't want to call it hubris but I'm going to call it hubris, the hubris of saying, "Oh, we can find a solution to every problem and it will be easy."
Anna: I think it actually demonstrates the show's growing self-awareness as it has matured because, I think it's the one I was watching last night, an early episode from the first season talking about the woman who had was it rickets, I think? She had some scarring or something that made it really difficult to carry a pregnancy to term and that storyline wraps up with her being able to get a cesarean section without charge because of the NHS.
Anna: We could probably do a whole episode about cesarean section and the history of that particular procedure but that I think is one of those "all progress is good progress" kind of storylines, but they very often overturn that sentiment and I think, especially with the thalidomide thing, they do it in a way where they pattern the beginning of that plot line after the earlier progress narratives and then they flip it on you in a way showing their own self-awareness about what they've written before and how they've constructed this history before. You expect when the mom to be comes home and she can finally stop throwing up and she can take her kids out, it seems like one of those progress upward and onward kind of narratives and then you find out what drug it is she's taking and it's totally devastating.
Rebecca: Yeah. They kind of tease the contrast between what they're doing Nonnatus House with the midwives and what they're doing in the hospitals. Especially, I can't remember exactly which season, when Jenny goes to work in the hospital, and they don't let her be with the mother and the babies the way that she would've been in a woman's bedroom delivering that baby with her own hands. Instead she's kind of the nurse that stands back now while a doctor takes over in a hospital ward. The setting is very different, her place in that setting is completely changed, and it shows a really nice contrast between what midwives do and why that matters and why that's important versus the more modernizing of childbirth in the hospital ward.
Anna: Are you ready for this amazing segue? Is it not when she goes to male surgical at the hospital that she meets Patsy? That's how that happens right?
Rebecca: I think so, yeah.
Rebecca: Or at the very least it's in that season transition period with Jenny. Yes.
Anna: Smooth, so smooth.
Rebecca: Duh, perfect. Yeah.
Leila: I love Patsy.
Rebecca: I love Patsy. I'm going to explain who Patsy is and why I love her so much. But to step back with the plot with Jenny. Jenny is the character that up until about halfway through season three, the show is following. The whole show is based on a book written by a woman named Jennifer Worth who Jenny is, while doesn't have quite the same name, I named after and represents. The first two and a half seasons, while it's very much an ensemble show, it's about her. She's a little bit higher than the rest of the ensemble.
Rebecca: Then, as happens often in British television, the actress who plays Jenny decided that she wanted to do other things, and the show had to figure out what to do. They made made a really interesting choice which was they accepted. They said, "Okay, the show is still super popular and we're not going to do anything dramatic with the fact that we have to shift the show," *cough* Downton Abbey, *cough* "We're just going to accept that these women are midwives, they're women in their early 20s who are upwardly mobile and are either going to go on to other careers or get married or both. It's sort of a transition moment in their lives and so let's accept that midwives are going to come and they're going to leave and we're going to let them have natural story arcs", which I think honestly adds to a lot of the emotional realism of the show and why you feel like someone is being kept there for artificial reason because they need the character to keep going. That's really great.
Rebecca: It also means that they're able I think to diversify the main cast in many different kinds of ways and I think are going to continue to do so as the show goes on. It starts with the three midwives are three middle class white girls, three straight middle-class white girls, and that starts to change after they realize that Jessica Raine is going to leave, and they should bring in another midwife to not replace that character, but to have another midwife in the show.
Rebecca: the character they bring in is Patsy Mount. Halfway through the season she's introduced and I swear she waltzes in to Nonnatus House like a ginger-haired Katherine Hepburn of my dreams. I didn't go back and watch the first couple episodes where she is so I can't tell you exactly what it was that made my wife and I go, "Yeah, she's definitely queer, right? This isn't just us, right?" It took us about two episodes and we were like, "There's something about how she wears wide-legged trousers and doesn't talk about her personal life and seems knowing but doesn't join in on Trixie's boy crushness that makes us think please tell me she's a lesbian. Please tell me this isn't just our desperate desire for some queer representation on this show", which up to that point there hadn't been.
Leila: Anna actually texted me and she said, "Is Patsy queer?"
Leila: I was like, "Yeah, I think so." That wasn't just you guys.
Rebecca: I'm glad it wasn't just me at least or just us, but it was great, and it does take another season of the show before it is revealed that Patsy has a girlfriend. It's another nurse that works at the hospital nearby and the nurse's name is Delia, she's adorable, she's Welsh. They start to tease at the fact that yeah, they're super happy and adorable together, they'll obviously because this is the early 1960s their relationship is very much under wraps.
Rebecca: There's this whole, as it goes up to the end of season four, which the season four finale morning sickness plot arc is the happy story in the season four finale because also in the season four finale is when Trixie goes to AA and it's really devastating and also Patsy and Delia think that they are going to get an apartment together and immediately before that happens Delia gets in a traffic accident, is in a coma, wakes up, and has amnesia. It is the most infuriating plot arc of "Call the Midwife." I was so mad at the show. I was never going to give up on the show, I don't want to go quite that far, but it was not only a super out of left field melodramatic soap opera-y thing for the show to do, but it was in a way that is very very common way to deal with queer characters on TV, and especially queer female characters on TV.
Rebecca: This was something that actually in 2016 came up a lot, people on the internet might remember, because of a number of high profile shows that killed off their lesbian characters including, and I am about to spoil a few shows, Lexa on the "100," Poussey on "Orange is the New Black," and Denise on the "Walking Dead." I'm familiar with the first two shows, actually I've never watched the Walking Dead but in all of these cases my understanding is not only were lesbian characters killed off but the characters were killed off right before or immediately after their happily ever after moment essentially.
Rebecca: That is this really terrible trope in stories that has been true for a long time where girl meets girl, girl falls in love with girl, girl almost lives happily ever after, then one of the girls dies. It really speaks to a lot of awful stereotypes about how queer people, LGBT people can never be happy, that society is always going to get in the way or their own inner demons are always going to get in the way, and it's really problematic. This season of "Call the Midwife" that did that kind of happened around the same time that people were talking about it a lot. That was incredibly frustrating for me-
Leila: Can I ask a question real quick?
Leila: Do they treat male gay characters the same way as they do lesbians?
Rebecca: Yes and no. I want to say that there's definitely still the sort of like, "queer people can never be happy" thing that exists through so much of pop culture and literature. I think that the whole almost being happy and then having it snatched from your hands thing does tend to affect queer female characters more or at least is seen as affecting them more. The conversation in 2016 in particular was about queer female characters and the problems. I can't remember if it was GLAAD or someone else that regularly does surveys of LGBT characters on TV even showed in the 2016 survey it was like, "Representation was better for everyone, except for queer women", so that was also part of the conversation in there.
Rebecca: There're the trope, if you want to go on TV Tropes, which is a glorious black hole of a website if any of you have never been there before, the trope is referred to as "bury your gays" because it affects queer characters of all genders. There is this particular storyline that especially affects queer women.
Rebecca: They don't kill off Delia, and thankfully they don't kill off Delia because that means that they can decide to fix this. I don't know if they were always planning this or if someone told someone in the "Call the Midwife" writers room because they bring Delia back. Delia gets better, she comes back to Poplar, her memory has returned, she has to deal with some health issues, it's not like she just magically gets better. It's actually a really sweet story where she has to kind of fight with her parents for her independence to come back to Poplar and obviously without telling them that a large part of the reason why she wants to come back to Poplar is because that's where her girlfriend is.
Rebecca: There able then to spend some time letting Pasty and Delia just be happy and to negotiate what it means for them to have a relationship. Delia ends up moving into Nonnatus House, so they're living in the same place and seeing each other a lot and there's some interesting negotiations that happen there. It is teased that Pasty has never thought about herself as a lesbian or having what we'd now call a queer identity. At one point, they go to a lesbian bar and Patsy is super uncomfortable with the idea essentially being in a queer space in a way that Delia isn't so much, which is just interesting, but it's not overwrought and it's not like they are beset with moral quandaries and it's not that they're fearful all the time of the danger that they are in.
Rebecca: It sort of goes back to what we were saying earlier also about the idea that the show gets knocked as a feel-good show or a saccharine show because it has a positive outlook on the lives of the people in it. The fact that it just kind of lets finally, though it has some fits and starts to get there, let's these two characters be happy and live in the world and that this is also happening in a historical drama means a lot and it speaks to the importance of representation on TV and also in the stories we tell about history.
Rebecca: It's easy to, in a lot of traditional historical narratives, to essentially make it seem like gay people didn't exist until the modern age and that can be a really devastating thing and even more foolishly sometimes it feels like non-white people didn't exist until the modern age, which is also terrible. This representation matters and I hope that "Call the Midwife" continues with that trend they have had a wide diversity of people in the community of Poplar, but I think it's always great when the main characters, the midwives, are also a diverse group of women with a diverse group of experiences.
Rebecca: I have seen a tease for the season that's coming out in 2018 they are going to have an Afro-Caribbean midwife. I am super excited about it. I highly recommend you guys can go and look at this, Leila is making excited faces-
Leila: I had not heard about this.
Rebecca: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. They seem to be continuing to expand that idea and I hope that they do that because of the way the show is structured, because of its willingness to center on women's lives and looking at women's lives, it's also super important that they continue to expand the variety of women's lives that they focus on.
Leila: While I think we could talk about "Call the Midwife" literally all day, I think we should bring in our guest, Amy Chambers, who is joining us from Manchester where she is a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. In her work, Amy looks at representation and projected futures of women and minority groups within scientific cultures and imagined futures in Anglo-American entertainment media. She also regularly contributes to the great popular culture blog Science and Entertainment Laboratory, and she is currently working on a book titled "From Star Child to Star Wars: Science, Religion, and Cinema from 1967-1977" in which she explores post-Hollywood science-based cinema and how mainline U.S. religious groups have influenced, responded to, or appropriated science on screen.
Leila: I can say personally, after reading your posts on the Science and Entertainment Laboratory and talking to you on Twitter for a couple of years, I'm so happy to have a real life conversation with you and welcome you to the podcast.
A. Chambers: Thank you very much for having me. It's great to actually finally get to be involved and sort of meet you, if only virtually.
Anna: Okay, well I will echo what Leila said, when I first started grad school and sort of started using Twitter for work, you're one of the first people that I started following which was really fortuitous because your work made me realize like, "Oh, we could do pop culture stuff, it doesn't have to be all Galileo all the time." It was just a really nice thing to inject into my brain really early on and break the cycle of Galileo, which is just shorthand for stodgy, boring studies of science.
Anna: You do not do stodgy, boring studies of science and I'm just fascinated by how interdisciplinary your work it and so to kick us off, can you just tell us how you managed to carve out such a cool niche for your research and talk to us a bit just about how you came here and came to be doing this work?
A. Chambers: Yeah, it's kind of flukey really, because a lot of it comes from unexpected moments of academic introduction. I started off as a bachelor's undergraduate looking specifically at history. I had a program set up on looking at military and naval history, specifically post American Civil War military and naval history, and that's what I did for my first three years of my undergraduate program. I also picked up a couple of modules in film studies but the only thing that would fit in my first year program to fill out my first semester was a module on the introduction to film and I thought that sounded fun. I went in and the first clip they showed was a clip from "Singing in the Rain," which is one of my favorite movies of all time. I used to watch it with my mom on Sunday afternoons and I loved it and I rang her up as soon as I came out that class to tell her that I'd be changing my degree to history with a minor in film studies.
A. Chambers: I always thought of them as two separate spheres and so as a student it was my relief from the history was to do the film and vice versa and then when I got into my fourth year I ended up taking some cultural history modules, one of which was called America on Film which looked at the history of the U.S. and across the Hollywood system and thinking about how points of history intersect with the industry, how they're represented not only through historical films and political films but also through entirely fictional films. I did a presentation on "Planet of the Apes," wrote a massive dissertation on how we could use "Planet of the Apes" as looking how the '68 version transitions through to the 2001 Tim Burton edition, thinking about how the issues and ideas across that changed across history and across time. It didn't go down very well in a traditional history department doing "Planet of the Apes" and pop culture.
A. Chambers: Then I ended up following that into a entire thesis, my PhD on "Planet of the Apes" as a reflection of counter-cultural trends in America in the 1960s into the early 1970s. It's a long story. After I finished my PhD I went to work in a history of science department on a project that was looking at the intersection of religion and science and entertainment media which is where the science and entertainment love comes from. The rest is history.
A. Chambers: It was just this sort of shift, little things that came in and it was just this project that came up. They wanted someone who had a background in science fiction, was interested in science, and could speak to religion as well. I'd done a couple of chapters that looked at science, technology, and "Planet of the Apes" and religion in "Planet of the Apes" and that seemed to be enough to get me into that project. Just those little moments where you're not quite sure how you got to where you are but a weird and wonderful move history from-
Anna: That's so awesome. To go from military history to writing your thesis on "Planet of the Apes" I think that's fantastic. Good job.
A. Chambers: I don't know quite how it happened but it did. It was like, "Oh, obviously you did military history to start off with", and I was like, "Yeah." Then I randomly took a module in film and then I picked up a module in film and history because it looked fun. It just sort of snowballed.
Anna: So you said that your master's project did not really go down all that well in a traditional history department and I think we find also sometimes that kind of stuff is a little bit of a hard sell to capital H historians and that sometimes there's this disconnect between historians or other humanists who do pop culture work is like it's on the side work and then they have their real history work. I was wondering if you, aside from what you eluded to about your master's project, if you've had to deal with any of that kind of academic pushback, either about your specific research topics, working on science fiction in general, or about how public-facing your work is. There's sometimes among academics a disdain for being on the Internet or writing blog posts or things like that. I wonder if you've had any of that.
A. Chambers: I get the discussion a lot of, "Why do you use Twitter? Why be on social media?", and it sort of makes it sound really boring and, I don't know what's the right word for it is, but using Twitter specifically for research academic work and academic networks, it is social for me in the sense that sometimes it's nice to know that there are other people out there working on similar things or totally different things who are interested in what you're working on.
A. Chambers: People struggling with this idea that being a historian and being very engaged with Twitter especially in my case and blogging and sort of putting your work out there in three different formats you get a lot of people assuming that it's either a bit low culture and a bit trashy way of engaging with and communicating research, but for me I've actually found it really exciting. I've met people that I'd have never have met at an academic conference or in a traditional setting. Women of science, people who work as scientists, research groups that are engaged with promoting women in STEM, all of these things have come through this sort of online stuff. For me it's integral to me as a researcher but also that public-facing stuff which is so important to me as an academic is integrated into that.
A. Chambers: I've been pretty lucky thought academically. There is a community of historians that work around and publish in and go to a conference called Film and History, which was one of the first journals that engaged directly in the discussion of film and history together as connected and equal disciplines. It still tends to focus on historical films, so films about a particular historical moment or historical figure our character or films that are particularly important historically, but there's definitely a set of us that look at totally fictional, non-history based stuff.
A. Chambers: I have to say the first time I went to the Film and History Conference which is generally held in either Madison or Milwaukee in Wisconsin, it was like I'd found my people. It was great. Suddenly I'm like, "Oh, I don't have to explain why studying film is an entirely helpful way of thinking about history", especially for someone who looks at history specifically post-1960s and as someone who's interested in cultural history and cultural trends. Film and television are so integral to that, especially within American popular culture. I get pushback in a sense that I always get that question at conferences like, "You can do that with a film?" And I'm like, "Yes."
A. Chambers: But then I've been to lit conferences where I've explained the processes of filmmaking and drafting and redrafting and scripts changes and editors and the whole industry that sits round it and they're sort of like, "Oh, it's the same", and you're like, "Yeah, it's a similar process." It's not pushback, it's more fascination that you're actually able to do this, combined with the, "Your job is so cool", and I'm like, "Yes, it is."
Anna: Agreed. In that case, I do want to ask specifically about the period that you're working on in your book project, the decade the 60s into the 70s in science fiction. This is also the period that I work on so as a sort of selfish interest but can you talk to us a little bit about this moment in the genre and why it's important for understanding American culture in general?
A. Chambers: I look at specifically to do with science-based fiction and science fiction and for me those dates are an important book end, A, because you're writing a book and you've got to get it to fit into something reasonable so you don't end up writing a student essay "since the beginning of time", it's not very helpful, so it gives you a nice boundary. I specifically look at '67, '68, through to '77 because of a turn in American science fiction, British science fiction as well, but predominantly book ended by American films, that start in '68 with the release of "2001 A Space Odyssey" and "Planet of the Apes" and resolves in 1977 with the release of "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
A. Chambers: '68 is an important point in the history of Hollywood because it is the official end of censorship in Hollywood. You have had films that have broken the censorship rules and have been released that engage with ideas and stories about science that would not have been permitted during the censorship era, but you've got this sudden burst of creative cinema that comes out from 1968 where directors have suddenly got a lot more freedom to produce and create images and ideas, in my case about science, that haven't been available prior to that.
A. Chambers: You get this fascinating series of films that are all squished into this period which are very much engaged with ideas about science and it's science fiction where science is the main propellant in that particular narrative rather than just being something in the background that allows the story to happen. You get things like the "Andromeda Strain," which is about viruses and about that experimentation; it's so central to that particular narrative. When you get to '77, "Star War"s comes in an ruins everything. Those things on Twitter is like, your most unpopular opinion that no one ever agrees with, I hate "Star Wars." It's never done anything for me. I can research it, read about it, write about it, but I just never didn't ... I watched "Silent Running" as a child with my dad, not "Star Wars" so that gives you an indication of the type of science fiction that I got into and how I got into them.
A. Chambers: You get this moment where you've got "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," which is much more [inaudible 00:54:39] 2001, that sort of science and wonder and communicating with aliens and this much more philosophical science fiction released almost exactly the same time as "Star Wars." Lucas doesn't even refer to it as science fiction, it's science fantasy. He never intended it to be this stalwart of the science fiction genre that it becomes so it's this interesting moment. So they historically link into the history of the industry, but also in terms of the content of science in the movies at that time they're quite important beginning and end points.
Anna: Oh man. Good luck with the backlash after this podcast comes out.
A. Chambers: It's my favorite unpopular opinion. I used to teach a module on science fiction and the week that did "Star Wars," because if you don't put it in students are like, "Why did you not put "Star Wars" in our module?" I did it on merchandising and the importance of popular culture and ephemeral culture and that was how I got round teaching Star Wars.
Anna: That's great actually. Well, let's talk about stuff that you've managed to get a little bit closer to. Rebecca?
Rebecca: Yeah, of course us being Lady Science we especially love the work that you have done about women scientists in the media and women in science in the media and women in sci-fi. In one of your essays where you talk about this, you quote something that I feel like is kind of a cliché but is a useful cliché, which is, "If she can see it, she can be it." I was wondering if you could just take a moment to unpack that and explain what that means for you in your work.
A. Chambers: It was a phrase that I came about when I was researching that. The whole women in science thing comes from a rant I had about "Planet of the Apes," more specifically "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." There's always a link. I was really frustrated that the two female characters in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," which is the second of the most recent cycle, you had Erin, the girl one, was a former CDC, they don't even give the female ape a name, it's only in the marketing material. It sort of spawned from the fact that I was irritated and ranted at lots of people about this.
A. Chambers: I started researching women in STEM on screen and thinking about it in recent representations and how far it'd come forward and "if she can see it, she can be it" was a phrase that came up a couple of times because a lot of the research that's been done female representation in Hollywood is being conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media who have a campaign called See Jane and the whole campaign is about what can a girl be if she can imagine it and where in culture should we be trying to engage young women in thinking about their future careers and what they can actually achieve as women in the future.
A. Chambers: They've got a campaign at the present moment which is called Reel Girls, R-E-E-L, Inspire Real Girls, R-E-A-L and they're talking about in that case Merida from "Brave" who's Disney Pixar's first woman [inaudible 00:58:20], Merida, I got really tongue-tied. So the campaign of Reel Girls Inspire Real Girls is to do with young girls wanting to be archers which will be Merida from Brave and Katniss Everdeen from the "Hunger Games." That was what I was trying to say, but the names all go mixed up in my head. It's all archery.
A. Chambers: So you get this idea of thinking about how things that appear on screen can actively encourage young girls to think about what they could be in the future. That project is much broader and is intended to be a much more broader thing about putting professional women on screen but for me, that phrase was really helpful about thinking about why and where the issues come from in terms of how girls get involved in sciences and how they don't get involved in sciences.
Rebecca: You've written about and you've done some interesting surveys about women scientists on television so I was wondering if there were any conclusions in particular that you've drawn from looking at a pretty wide variety of women scientists on TV?
A. Chambers: I looked specifically at post-2000s women. I'm interested in that change-over and thinking about because there's previous studies that ran up to "2000" but there's not anything on post-"2000" representations of women in science. It's not to say that that's a moment of change historically, but rather those studies just don't exist. It's something that I want to look at in much more detail in my future research on this because I think there's a distinction between the television and film representations and the volume of women scientists seems to be higher on the small screen than it is on the big screen. Perhaps some of this is down to the fact that it's less risky in a small screen setting. You can introduce these characters, you can develop them over a long period of time rather than asking an audience to automatically believe that there's a woman and also she is a scientist. Rather than having to build it up, don't worry guys, she's a mother, she's a daughter, she's a sister, she's a lab assistant, and a scientist.
A. Chambers: In the case of TV, you can build them up and you get characters like Temperance Brennan, "Bones," who's introduced as a scientist character and the core of that show straight off, but she develops as a character and becomes normalized and less frightening by becoming a member of a family, both scientific family and a literal mom, dad, and two kids family as well. I think there's a higher volume.
A. Chambers: They also tend to be more bio scientists as well. Women tend to be associated with the bio sciences so you have the scientists on the "Big Bang Theory" who I tried to keep a record of every female scientist who had appeared in the show and there was only one person that I could find who wasn't a bio science. Not that there's anything wrong with the bio sciences, there's not anything inherently problematic but there is this sort of idea of the softer sciences versus the hard sciences and often when you get women represented as physicists they are kooky or unusual. You get Jillian Holtzmann, in "Ghostbusters" is the kooky physicist. The lines of what a woman can be in that representation is something I'm really interested in and if it's just what I've seen or if it's actually a larger trend. It's part of a bigger study.
Rebecca: Excellent. Again, you mentioned the "Big Bang Theory" which I thought that your writing about that was interesting. I have mixed feelings about the show, I watched it regularly for a while and dropped off watching it and there are definitely things about it that make me crazy as I think is true of everyone but I do think that as you know in your essay there are some unique and varied portrayals of women in science so I was wondering if you could expand a little bit on that.
A. Chambers: It's this idea that in order to give a rounded representation, it's not just to have a woman scientist but also show them as part of a community as professional womens. As professional women and the challenges that come with being at a certain level in any field regardless of gender. They do offer that in some senses but it's something that as a show they develop across the series eventually sort of.
Amy Chambers: They sort of introduce the alternative women to Penny later in the series and you get Amy Farrah Fowler as that first introduction as this socially incapable oddball and the fact that she's a scientist she's just really the same nerdy scientist stereotype but a girl one. That is not great and the more they develop her I think she gets better as a character, but it's also helped I think in terms of the fact that she is played by an actual woman neuroscientist, which helps that in terms of how it's spoken about in broader popular culture rather than just in the show itself.
A. Chambers: They start off again as stereotypes and then become a bit more developed but I think that's the same with the male characters. I think it starts off as like a one-note series that they don't think's going to be ... if you told me when it started that this was going to be a 10 season plus series that was going to be West's top rated comedy, I wouldn't have believed you but I has this odd longevity that continues. For something that doesn't have particularly big story arcs or anything other than the characters to draw you back in.
Leila: I wonder if you have any thoughts about how this seems to be a very generally popular show, but scientists that I've seen tend to hate it very much. I'm wondering if you have thoughts about what's kind of going on there between the different communities that the show is speaking and not speaking too.
A. Chambers: There's some interesting research done by, I think she's Australian National University, a researcher called Rochelle-Lee who's looked at the "Big Bang Theory" within a sociological project and asking people about how they've understood it in terms of science and how they have seen the show and then been inspired to go look at a particular scientific theory or a particular idea that's been in the show. There's this interesting narrative around it as a piece of science communication that actually inspires people to go and look things up and go, "I didn't understand what they were talking about", and rather than letting it blow over, actually go and look it up.
A. Chambers: I can imagine the frustration of a scientist as this representation of it as this real life portrayal of what it is to be a scientist and the ease of grants and ease of discoveries and collaborations and the way they work and the representation of the university as a wider institute is quite problematic I think throughout the series. I can imagine it's frustrating if that's one of the main ways that a lot of people learn about research scientists and that's how you're represented and people want you to align to that stereotype.
A. Chambers: That's why we come with problems of like, "This is not what a scientist looks like", or "This is what a scientist looks like it should be." This idea of what we expect a scientist to look like in comparison to the reality of what an actual scientist looks like and the problem that we all have of being young women with or working towards a PhD and that assumption that you're not old enough or you're not the right gender to have a PhD and to have a title and those problems that come with people's expectations of what you can be based on what you look like. I think "Big Bank Theory" attempts to engage with that but at the same time confirms a lot of those stereotypes that we try to work against.
Leila: Does anyone have any final questions or anything for Amy?
Rebecca: No. This has been fabulous, thank you.
Anna: Yeah, this was really fun.
A. Chambers: Thank you very much for having me. I was very excited that you invited me to come and ramble at you.
Anna: Thank you so much for coming and talking with us and we'll be sure that we include links to all the articles of yours that we talked about today and to your page so that people can keep up with the stuff that you're posting on Academia.edu.
A. Chambers: I don't usually use that but I currently am because I'm just about to start my new post. I don't have a proper one yet at the university so once that's set up, I'll send you the link to my proper university one because Academia.edu has lots of problems technically ,and I just feel bad promoting them.
Leila: Cool. Well we'll be sure to include whatever way people can reach you and keep up with the stuff that you're doing. Thanks again for chatting with us, it was a real pleasure.
Leila: So this month we are going to forego our last segment of one annoying thing because this episode has literally been curse. We have dealt with all sorts of problems including a blackout during recording, so we're going to quit while we're ahead. Anyway, if you liked the episode, what you heard of it today, head right on over to iTunes and leave us a rating and a review so that others can find us, questions about any of the segments today, tweet us at @ladyxscience or #ladyscipod, for show notes, to sign up for monthly newsletter, read monthly issues, pitch us an idea for an article and more visit ladyscience.com. We are an independent magazine so we depend on the support from our readers and listeners. You can support us through a monthly donation with Patreon or through one-time donations. Just visit ladyscience.com/donate. Until next time, you can find us on Facebook at Lady Science Mag and on Twitter at @ladyxscience.