Thursday, January 7, 2010

A women-in-science take on Avatar

A lot of the critical analysis of Avatar that I've seen so far is, unsurprisingly, from a racial standpoint. You can find that discussion by googling; I have nothing to add to it. I'm somewhat surprised, though, that none of the women-in-science bloggers I follow have said anything about Dr. Grace Augustine. Compared to discussing the plot flaws and the ecology and the racial aspects, I suppose it is a little bit peripheral (or maybe they haven't seen it yet). The only comment I've seen from the science blogosphere is from Sheril Kirshenbaum, about how Dr. Augustine and the rest of the movie scientists are a good portrayal of scientists in general:

1) Dr. Grace Augustine. Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of a research scientist was uncharacteristically good. Instead of the typical caricature we see in Hollywood, she wasn’t socially inept (i.e. typical Rick Moranis roles) or out to destroy everything (i.e. Dr. Evil). Instead, Grace conveyed the natural curiosity about the world that I observe so often in colleagues. Also noteworthy, she was funded by a program with corporate interests, but really using the opportunity to pursue her own research. Sound familiar to anyone?

Since I've never personally encountered serious sexism, I'm a little new to the game of thinking hard about portrayals of female scientists, but my impressions were generally very positive. As Sheril and others have noted, the scientists were realistic curious-about-the-world types, and they were Good Guys too. The lab population seemed pretty diverse, with female technicians in addition to Dr. Augustine. And clearly they've done a lot before the main character even gets there (written books, learned the Na'vi language, taught the Na'vi English, etc.) There's a scene where Dr. Augustine has been mortally injured and is being carried past some biological wonder, and instinctively murmurs, "I should take a sample!" Awwwww.

(Also, points for bio-lab realism: there was a fridge labeled "Only FOOD in this fridge".)

I'm a little curious about why Cameron et al chose to make the head Avatar scientist a woman. Possibly just because Sigourney Weaver is awesome (and I'm sure I'd have more to say about this if I had seen the Alien movies). Possibly because the Good Guys are fairly diverse in general, including women and ethnic minorities, as part of the overall racial-tolerance message. The one possible motive that bothers me is that perhaps it was felt that a male head scientist couldn't possibly spout all this unity-of-nature Gaia interconnectedness stuff, but that seems like a weak motivation compared to the chance to have Sigourney Weaver. When Dr. Augustine explains to The Evil Corporate Weenie how Pandora is all interconnected and networked, he is naturally incredulous, and I picked up a "you women and your earth-mother crap" vibe from him, but he's a Bad Guy so of course he's allowed to think that way. The film overall implies nothing about Dr. Augustine's femininity affecting the validity of her conclusions about Pandora.

Perhaps best of all, Dr. Augustine struck me as having a decent mix of stereotypically masculine and feminine traits. In her first scene, after she's woken up to meet the main character, she acts like just another unfriendly hard-ass who thinks Jake Sully is incapable (by lacking scientific training, not by being disabled). Her "where's my cigarette? What's wrong with this picture?" line reminded me of Noah Vosen the abrasive CIA team leader from the Bourne movies, which I had just been watching. But as we get to know her better, she reveals quite a bit of depth for a minor character. She's not a dumb blond and she's not socially dysfunctional. She's a good mentor to her research assistants, and takes a nurturing role towards Jake Sully when he starts neglecting his human body in favor of his avatar (making sure he eats and at one point covering him with a blanket when he falls asleep in front of the video log). And she doesn't take any crap from the military-industrial folks who are cramping her style -- she doesn't stop doing science until she's physically restrained in one fight scene.

It took me a while to realize this, because I had to get past the fact that she's a field scientist and I'm not, but Dr. Grace Augustine is something like the kind of scientist I'd like to grow up to be. I'm pleased that she exists as a role model.


Grace Augustine is actually the first Sigourney Weaver doll that you can take home to play with. "I didn’t want a Ripley doll. That’s why there’s a Ripley doll with blue eyes. But Grace, I hope she has a few little pieces of plants and things like that. I hope she comes with a little botany kit. It’s good for girls to see a woman scientist who’s so good at what she does." [source]

Awesome! I want a little botany kit!

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