His Dark Materials’ Dr. Mary Malone Is the Ultimate Fictional Woman in STEM
An astrophysicist is not the type of female character you typically expect to see on a fantasy show, and yet! Enter Mary Malone on HBO’s His Dark Materials, a key character from Phillip Pullman’s novel series, played by Simone Kirby. She showed up in the second episode of the second season tonight, and through talking to Lyra about dust made some important discoveries of her own. You know how Will’s world (our world) and Lyra’s world have different names for similar phenomena? It turns out that dust is dark matter! Besides that, Mary Malone brings a dose of scientific reality to His Dark Materials and it’s relatable to boot.
The HBO series doesn’t get into it all that much, but gender roles are more strict and traditional in Lyra’s world than they are in ours/Will’s world. You may have guessed that by the Church’s tyrannical role in society, the way there are no female scholars at Lyra’s Oxford, how her mother Mrs. Coulter never treats another woman as her equal, and the way the most powerful and “free” female characters are literal witches.
So, a female astrophysicist is probably an important person for Lyra to meet and work with, as well. It changes her perspective. Representation matters to fictional characters, too!
I personally haven’t been a STEM girl since the one year in middle school that no teacher wanted to coach Odyssey of the Mind and made my team do Science Olympiad instead. Despite my parents’ desperate desire for me to be into math and chess, I generally gravitated towards the humanities and books. But I understand both the importance of representing women in STEM on screen and the Disney-fied STEM girl fatigue that Karen Han identified for Polygon in 2019: an overabundance of young female characters who had been written to love “science!” in a way that seemed glaringly like an afterthought or, worse, an executive’s script note.
These girls, in films like Dumbo, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, and Dolittle, had a shallow, undefined, and unrealistic interest in physics or experiments that seems almost laughable, and therefore won’t reach the girls they’re trying to reach. The exception to that, of course, is Shuri in Black Panther. Her scientific expertise and skill is actually explored in the Marvel movie and plays a role beyond labeling her as Not Like Other Girls.
Mary Malone, thankfully, is more like the latter. While His Dark Materials is a fantasy show and the research Mary is doing has ties to religion and magic and is therefore not “realistic,” the way Mary is portrayed doesn’t fall short. If you know a university professor, researcher, or scientist, you’ll recognize her overall attitude. Dr. Malone is exhausted, over-caffeinated during the day and drinking beer while working late at night. She’s frazzled, but curious, like any good mad scientist or absent-minded professor stereotype that typically takes the form of a man with glasses, a sweater vest, and/or elbow patches.
Above all, Mary Malone is worried about getting funding from the university to continue her research. Academics in our world watching His Dark Materials don’t have daemons that take animal form … they just have inner demons reminding them that their department could be shut down at any moment, making Mary all the more relatable and authentic.
(image: Simon Ridgway/HBO)
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