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Pretty Pretty Princess

“Princess Scientists” Draw Young Girls Into Science, and Plenty of Controversy

Erika Ebbel Angle, host of the live science show “The Dr. Erika Show”, has two costume elements that should tell you everything you need to know; a lab coat, and her Miss Massachusetts tiara. The tiara in particular is a big hit with the studio audience of kids, most of them girls. Ebbel Angle, who is an MIT graduate with a Ph. D. in biochemistry, says the crown-and-labcoat pairing is meant to subvert what she feels is a stereotype about female scientists, and their presumed slovenly appearance. She wants to prove beauty and brains are possible for scientific women, and makes sure that the kids are getting the message.

But swinging too far to an emphasis on beauty is its own extreme stereotype, and Ebbel Angle’s show is seen by some as a case of protesting too much. If popular entertainment for the age group can be taken as a reasonable sample of our cultural mores, the show is speaking that language, and using it to make science more inviting. The “Princess Scientist” concept is tailored to its target audience of young girls, many of whom could be drawn to consider an area they had not otherwise. At the same time, it re-enforces an ideal of the smart, career-oriented woman who should also maintain a perfect physical appearance. It seems like, either way, there’s no winning. The real question becomes whether it is more important to appeal to impressionable would-be female scientists or enthusiasts, or to examine why this spectrum exists, and what can be done to change the perception of choices for the way women represent themselves.

The choices become more muddled – and, for some, more problematic – when the “Princess Scientist” concept is taken from children’s entertainment to pageant. Taking the anti-geek stereotype aim even further is Japan’s “Miss Rikei Contest”, a competition among university students and researchers based on the criteria of intelligence, “contributions to improving the image of science”, and beauty. Many professional researchers, in the US and abroad, when hearing of the contest’s existence, were disconcerted at the emphasis on appearance, and felt that it shouldn’t be emphasized any more than it is for male co-workers. It’s an age-old argument at this point, for sure. Does emphasizing appearance mean female professionals are taken less seriously? Or is it a necessary way to maintain place in a system that, in certain respects, is still stacked against women? Should getting ahead be achieved by any means? Or should more attention be paid to altering the judgement that makes this an issue at all? One thing’s for sure. There are no easy answers.

It could be said that a broader diversity of role models, including ones that are purposefully not outwardly ‘geeky’, or are examples of traditional feminine beauty, are needed to effectively get girls into the science fields. Call it the “do whatever it takes” approach. At the same time, a recent study at the University of Michigan for their journal of Social, Psychological & Personality Science found that “beauty-focused” role models actually discouraged girls who had not previously shown an interest in areas like science, engineering, or math. However, the same psychology researchers, Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa, were just as quick to point out a previous study done at the University of Washington, which showed that “geeky role models” can also discourage women who feel that they don’t identify with the image.

An ideal world would see room for not one side or another, but a way to expose the middle ground, and leave room for the many different kinds of positive role models that the community can offer to budding scientists. Betz and Sekaquaptewa said it best when asked about their assertions:

“On the surface, it might look like a ‘Damned if you’re feminine, damned if you’re not’ situation. But really, it’s about extremes: Role models should broaden examples of who can succeed in different fields, not limit them to one stereotyped image or another.”

(via LiveScience)

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  • Anonymous

    Call me crazy but what about letting female scientists be who they are rather than demanding that they look or act a certain way.

  • Bittersweet Fountain

    I think the biggest importance is that we get parents to tell their daughters they can be anything they want to be including being an engineer. It never ceases to amaze me how in this day and age there are still parents who only encourage their daughters into “girl” fields and their sons into “boy” fields.

    My parents always told me I could be anything I wanted to be AND meant it. So when I saw how awesome Geordi LaForge’s job was on the Enterprise, it didn’t matter to me that he was a guy, or black, or blind. What mattered to me was that he was human and so was I and all humans can aspire to the same things. And it worked out well for me. Now I’m an engineer working on satellites.

  • seespotbitejane

    I hate the emphasis on appearance but I do actually like the concept of the “Princess Scientist.” My comment is more about Princess Bubblegum up there and the idea of marketing science to girls than it is about making actual scientists perform in bizarre beauty pageants.

    Little girls love princesses, and yeah, that’s mostly because they’re told to from infancy. I don’t see that going away anytime soon (not that we shouldn’t work on it). What I like is subverting the idea of what a princess is. Instead of making scientists into pretty pretty princesses we should be altering the idea of what it means to be a princess. Instead of teaching little girls to aspire to be pretty, vacuous, and helpless. And characters like Princess Bubblegum and Merida and the My Little Ponies are a great place to start. The idea shouldn’t be that scientists really want to be princesses, but that princesses can and do aspire to STEM careers.

  • Terence Ng

    I know. I think Doctor Princess is another great example of that.

  • Travis Kyle Fischer

    It’s a complicated issue, so I’m going to resort to my default position of “if it gets more people interested in science, I’m for it.”

  • Anonymous

    The point isn’t to get actual female scientists to change. It’s to get the popular perception of female scientists (or simply of the concept “scientist”) to change in a way that makes a science career seem more achievable or desirable to young girls.

  • Kay Livingston

    I don’t know the source material, and I don’t see anything in this article explaining how “beauty” is emphasized in the show. Is it emphasized just because the person hosting it is beautiful? The host wants to prove that scientists can be beautiful, but does that come into play in the show?

    I think this show sounds like an amazing idea because it breaks several levels of stereotypes, not just one about women scientists not being attractive. It also combats the myth that science is for boys, and that pretty girls don’t have to think, etc. I think that the value of having a Princess Scientist is significant, and I’m sad we feel the need to criticize her show when I would have loved a role model like this.

  • Kate

    It’s emphasized because she’s wearing a freakin’ Miss Whatever Beauty Pageant tiara. And don’t tell me that pageants are about brains, ’cause they ain’t.

  • Anonymous

    I think they’re doing a good thing. This is just one show and one show can’t change the mores of society, all it can do is work with those mores to try to achieve its purpose, in this case getting young girls interested in science. In so many places they are taught the importance of ‘pretty’. It isn’t practical to think any kid would ignore so many other voices to listen to one counter opinion.
    Besides, this is about teaching. Teaching is about passing on what is known, applying and improving what is known comes later. Hopefully the girls that learn from this show will apply and improve what they learned so the show they make doesn’t need the tiara or better yet they can make the ‘girls can do science too’ lesson obsolete, a lesson we still need to teach sadly.

  • Laura Truxillo

    I like the idea of “Princess Scientist” even though I wasn’t much for “girly” stuff as a kid. Not so much the emphasis on beauty, but still…

    It makes me think of the Fancy Nancy books. They come through the library a lot, and I honestly wish every parent would read them to their little ones. The main character is cute and funny and loves playing dress-up with “fancy accessories.” She also loves exploring, learning about stars, dancing, and generally being awesome with her friends, (and vocabulary–boy howdy, these are great for teaching kids fun vocabulary). They such charming, inclusive books with excellent messages for the kids, a big one being: “You can be ‘fancy’ if you want to and you can learn and explore and get messy and be smart.” And it’s always “fancy” not “girly” because it’s not just the girls who get in on it.

    Anyway, maybe that’s proof that I’ve been shelving children’s books too much. But my point is, I think it’s important to let kids know that learning about science or playing a sport or learning a hobby doesn’t make you less of a girl (or a boy), and that you can be a sparkly princess and a mad scientist at the same time.

  • thebravestheart

    Winifred Burkle.

  • Anonymous

    Concur. Unless she’s giving makeup tips after showing kids how to do a baking soda volcano, I can’t really see how there’s a beauty *emphasis*. To me it sounds like a show about intelligent things with a little “also, she looks rather pretty” on the side.

  • Anonymous

    Hey, a lab coat and a tiara – that sounds like a great idea. I had a co-worker back in the 70s who always wore a lab coat in the highly air conditioned computer lab, partly because it was cold, but also because he looked cool in it. My significant other, an artificial intelligence researcher, made her big career move wearing a bright orange Claude Montana lab coat, so people would take her seriously. (Hey, it was the 80s.) Neither wore a tiara, but neither made it quite to the top slot either. (I think the guy form of a tiara would be a coronet for – you know – prince of information technology or duke of chemical process research.)

    I’m sorry the movie John Carter didn’t do better at the box office. I really liked their take on Princess Dejah Thoris as a fighting scientist, but then again, I’m sort of a sucker for space princesses.

  • Anonymous

    I can sympathize with this but in another way: scrubs. My clinic orders scrubs for us once a year and even though the majority of the staff is female they always get us these unisex nightmares that make it look like we are wearing sacks. So when we buy our own scrubs we usually go very feminine either by color (PINK!!!), prints (flowers and Tinkerbell) or by the cut (companies like Koi and Peaches).
    Because guess what? What we wear or look like doesn’t seem to affect how smart or how skilled we really are! I shouldn’t have to wear unisex scrubs to be taken seriously.

  • Pan Dimensional

    “Does emphasizing appearance mean female professionals are taken less seriously? Or is it a necessary way to maintain place in a system that, in certain respects, is still stacked against women?” This is such a patronising question it’s almost unbelieveable someone is asking this in this day and age. Making science ‘pink’ is insulting to both science and scientists, male and female. By taking the ridiculous position that you need to make science ‘pretty’ all you are doing is chauvinistically continuing to marginalise the contributions of people who are ‘not quite the right shape’, a fact which is of supreme unimportance to science.

    Imagine you are a tomboy-ish girl, and have spent your whole life being grumpy at having to wear dresses, play with dolls and fit into this stupid mould society has deemed appropriate for you. Now imagine you find science, and think, wow, that’s amazing – a thing I can do that is purely about smarts, where gender has no bearing. Then you’re given a fucking pink diamante lab-coat and told that today you’ll be making eyeshadow. I can’t imagine anything more insulting or that is likely to put actual scientifically-minded girls off of studying anything worthwhile ever again.

  • Pan Dimensional

    And what is this emphasis on ‘role models’? Why is it presumed that boys will just enjoy science but that girls can’t understand why they might like it until they see another woman doing it? I see the point being made but the author is still arguing from within a non-relevant gender dynamic. Expose both boys and girls to both science and art, and just see what they want to do. Why is this hard?

  • Oliver Tully

    Just to say, ‘Princess Scientist’ is actually the title of a webshow that noted podcaster, author and writer-advice-writer Mur Lafferty produces with her daughter: Great article, just thought you should know.

  • Michail Velichansky

    It’s so hard because it just doesn’t work that way. Yes, some girls will be so confident in themselves that no amount of cultural gender crazysauce will affect what they want to do… but most kids model behavior based on what they see. They suck up all these signals culture sends them about what they should and shouldn’t be, and they internalize them, and they often don’t even realize it’s happening (nor do we, unless we’re paying close attention).

    Boys don’t “just enjoy science”. They get constant confirmation that this is an acceptable field for men.

    Girls “just enjoy science” just fine — up to a certain age, just as many girls are interested in science as boys (I’m picking out things I’d read and heard about in recent years, so it may still be slightly less, but I know it’s close). Then somewhere in the late pre-teens or teens there’s a sudden loss in interest from a lot of these girls. Why? Because in these years when most teens are already extremely sensitive to what they’re supposed to do, how they should fit in, etc. the culture simply doesn’t support a continued interest in STEM fields.

    Sure, it would be great if these girls all said, “Whatever, I can do what I want!” But most girls don’t. Most boys wouldn’t either. It’s our job to make sure girls and boys grow up knowing they can do what they want, and try to breakdown the damage cultural stereotypes do. It is not the job of teens to be magically immune to the cultural bullshit we’ve forced for them to wallow in.

  • David Woodrow

    I’m a scientist, and I knew I wanted to be a scientist from the time I was five. Back then it was biology, now I’m in forensics and chemistry. I got into the science field because I grew up feeling a sense of pride and excitement at the thought of one day understanding things that seemed alien to me, and just the thought of studying things that my peers told me were boring filled me with pride and accomplishment. And note, even as a boy, I’m half black and grew up in council estates, plenty of people told me I shouldn’t aspire to it, other children and adults alike.

    I want other people, male and female, to get into science because of that. I want people to love science because deep down it feels right to them, not because tv told them it can make you sexy, or pretty, or famous. To those in science, being part of it has a sensation that nobody else can feel or understand, even when you’re too young to know what that feeling means, and it isn’t cosmetic. Bottom line is, girls don’t need shows like this to tell them it’s OK to be a scientist, that’s patronising even to a 4 year old. All they need is access to the subject matter, and they’ll head straight for it like heat-seeking missiles.

  • Anonymous

    Why can’t she be a smart, career oriented PERSON? Aren’t women people? First, instill gender segregation, then wonder why it works (pushing the girls away from Science), then create more segregation such as “princesses” vs “geek/plain”… What’s next, blue eyes vs brown eyes, like in the famous experiment? (anti-pattern)

  • Lisa Still Smouldering

    I too think this angle is great. There are plenty of hot tomboys out there doing awesome things, but I’d think a lot of ‘princesses” mothers would try and push them to go to school for home ec or marketing or something else that would completely waste the potential of a child with a parent whose strong feelings about the world would make them try to force their daughter to remain the princess in her high tower. Sounds like hell to me….hell with Honey Boo Boo played ad nauseum.