Originally written by Katherine DuBois, “The Power of STEM Women in Film” discusses how inspiring young women doesn’t start and end with the word ‘woman.’
When I set out to create Space to Explore, a short documentary profiling aerospace engineer Natalie Panek— and her big dream to be the first to set foot on Mars— female representation was at the forefront of my mind. Mid-flight on my way from Calgary to Los Angeles, I found myself tearing out a magazine article on Natalie and stuffing it into my pocket. But what had captivated me about the article enough to save it? I could never have imagined the journey that lay ahead or that I would, some four years later, still have that article folded neatly, saved carefully, in my wallet. As a filmmaker, I had recognized the specialness of the profile on Natalie. She was a woman in a male-dominated field, with—literally—the biggest dreams imaginable, determined to succeed. She wasn’t just a dreamer, she was a scientist, a travel adventurer and explorer, a public speaker, an Instagram inspiration, and much more. I felt inspired, but more importantly, I felt represented as a dimensional woman. Even given the differences in our careers and goals, Natalie, in that exact moment in my life, was everything that I felt I was and wanted to be. I made that documentary on Natalie and it changed the way I think about representation in film.
“Even given the differences in our careers and goals, Natalie, in that exact moment in my life, was everything that I felt I was and wanted to be. I made that documentary on Natalie and it changed the way I think about representation in film.”
The only way to understand representation in film and media content is to understand what happens when people do not feel represented. Imagine watching a piece of content about someone who is different from you in every fundamental way. You may enjoy the story or empathize with the character, but your experience may feel more akin to reading a translation of a great work. The meaning and value you derive just doesn’t quite feel like your own, though you can translate the character’s experience into one you understand. When we see people who represent us in story, our experience is more visceral. The story becomes one in which we, ourselves, could live. When media represents women in STEM leadership roles, women have the opportunity to be a part of a community of real and fictional examples of themselves: succeeding, dreaming big, tackling obstacles, leading teams, and being stellar contributors. These representations of themselves are written in their own language, no translation needed.
The caveat here is that, although representation in media is hugely important to a sense of community in today’s global and high-tech world, there is also pushback against singling out women for their gender. During one of the first shoots I did for Space to Explore, I interviewed FIRST Global Tech Challenge teams–all high school students. In teams representing nearly every country in the world, some were comprised only of young women, some were mixed, and many were only young men. What I discovered was that, while everyone celebrated teams made up only of young women, some young women I spoke with said they just wanted to be seen as members and equals on their teams– not distinguished by their gender. So, my question became, how do I represent and celebrate women in my film without focusing on their gender? What I discovered was that I had to focus not on the demographic characteristics of my subjects, but simply on them as individuals. After all, it would have been a disservice not to highlight and illuminate what made Natalie so dimensional. In the end, I chose not to include any language about Natalie as a woman in a male-dominated field – Natalie’s richness and her success in her field needed no qualifiers. It was Natalie—in all her dimensions—that inspired me that day on the plane, in the article I keep, to this day, in my wallet.
“My question became: ‘how do I represent and celebrate women in my film without focusing on their gender?’ what I discovered was that I had to focus not on the demographic characteristics of my subjects, but simply on them as individuals.”
Here are a few award-winning short films that put the theory to the test.
Representation without reduction:
Space to Explore – 15 minutes – adventure documentary
One Small Step – 8 minutes – inspiring animation
Space Girls – 10 minutes – short fiction
Dreamgazer – 12 minutes – short fiction with subtitles
To read Katherine DuBois’ article in its entirety on the Society of Women Engineers’ website, click here.