Some of my Friends are scientists

There are three types of scientists on TV:

1. Scientists in a show about medical or forensic science. These characters are quite well developed. They’re all different, they are carefully selected to cover different races and genders and attitudes. But they’re always at work, because the show is about their work.
2. The funny “mad scientist” type in any other type of TV show. These are usually stereotypically male and white, and either very old or nerdy little kids.
3. Someone who just happens to be a scientist, but this is otherwise irrelevant to the story line.

You’ll have no problem finding examples of type 1 and 2, but it’s number 3 that we could use more of.
Scientists go home after work, and they have neighbours there and a family. Likewise, many people who have nothing to do with science have friends or family working in science. But on TV everyone’s friends have office jobs or work in stores or public services.

The one example of a type 3 scientist on TV that I know of is Ross on Friends. He’s a paleontology professor, but this has nothing to do with the main story line. The fact that he has friends and a sister and spends a lot of time in a coffee shop is relevant to the plot, but his work is usually only mentioned as a side story. He meets people through his work, but he could meet people through any line of work.
His apparent abundance of spare time is totally unrealistic, but the fact that anyone might know and hang out with a scientist is not.

TV needs more characters like Ross. If you happen to be writing a sitcom or drama and are stuck with character development, why not make someone a scientist? It doesn’t have to be about their job. Sometimes my friends ask me how things at the lab are going, and I would say something like “It’s a bit stressy. We have to resubmit this article soon, and I’m repeating some experiments, but I’m on a deadline.” or I would say “Oh, it’s okay. Nothing special. I’m just analyzing some data so I’m at the computer most of the time.” See, they don’t really need to know the details, they understand what I mean when I say something like that, and then we just go on with watching movies or drinking beer or sitting at the real world’s equivalent of Coffee Perk.

This is the kind of representation scientists need more of on TV. We’ve all seen the Nerdy Scientists and the Hip Scientists. It’s time for the People That Happen To Be Scientists.

Eva

Eva Amsen is a writer, science communicator and blogger, interested in the overlap between science and music, art, pop culture, and daily life. Portfolio | Twitter | Contact

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6 Responses

  1. Black Knight says:

    What is this ‘home’ thing of which you speak?

    (And Ross? Wasn’t that the whiney one?)

  2. Michael says:

    I entirely agree.

  3. Eva says:

    Yeah, that’s the one. That’s why it’s a bit sad that he’s the only one in category 3.
    Also, “home” is where you store all your stuff that is not at the lab! Sometimes mail comes there, too.

  4. What do you make of characters who are computer science types in a non-computer-science context? I’m thinking of Ms. Calendar (I think that was her name), the computer science teacher in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Willow, who early on was much more of a hacker than a witch. And what are we to make of Willow’s transformation from budding computer scientist to witch?

    Of course, BtVS had its share of mad scientists, too–including one female one. I can’t recall her name, but she designed the cyborg Adam in, I think, season 5.

  5. Eva says:

    I think it’s more common for shows to have someone who is a computer scientist than someone who is a lab/field scientist.
    I haven’t watched Buffy in years, so I can’t really comment on that show specifically. I remember Willow, though, and I’d say the fact that she became a witch had nothing to do with her geekiness – and that’s the kind of character portrayal I’m talking about: I’d like to see MORE characters who aren’t just a certain type of geek/nerd/scientist but have other characteristics as well.

  6. David at Forensic Psychology Degree says:

    Excuse the belated comment, but I think this is a fascinating question! Scientists are certainly stereotyped, shoe-boxed and simplified in mainstream television and movies. Perhaps part of the reason is because the people who write and produce these shows view professional scientists this way.

    How many script writers and directors spent their time taking science classes, or have friends who are career scientists? We’re talking two different worlds here with little overlap.