Notes from a Queer Engineer: What “Ghostbusters” Gets Right About Women in STEM

Notes From A Queer Engineer_Rory Midhani_640

Header by Rory Midhani


As a quality engineer working in consumer goods manufacturing, I spend a lot of time communicating with coworkers and contractors half a world away. I interface with people from a broad range of backgrounds, all of whom brought different motivations, language capabilities, and levels of technical understanding to the conversation. Job title is usually (though not always!) a pretty good gauge for expected technical skill and motivation going in. When it comes to language skills, however, you just kind of have to jump in and see how it goes. It often doesn’t unfold quite the way you want or expect it to*, but there is one helpful rule of thumb I’ve picked up: humor = fluency. If your conversation partner is able to successfully understand a joke you’ve told, they have advanced language skills. If your conversation partner is able to successfully tell you a joke, they’re fluent.

I loved the most misandrist movie of the year for so many reasons, but chief among them is this: with the release of Ghostbusters, I feel like Hollywood is finally reaching the point of fluency when it comes to representations of women in STEM.

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Also: Kate McKinnon. Good grief. I have no words.

I’ve spent a lot of time scouring pop culture in search of characters like me, and I can tell you definitively: there aren’t that many. We don’t get to see mixed race Filipina faces in Hollywood movies all that often. We don’t get to hear women casually calling themselves bisexual. We do get to see women working in STEM, sometimes, but I often find the writing to be frustratingly reductive.

Some things I’ve seen and do not wish to see again:

  • Lady Scientist Needs Rescuing – For example: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in Gravity, rescued the only man by within literal striking distance (Matt Kowalski/George Clooney) after her emotions override her apparently nonexistent astronaut training. If that’s not bad enough, the male character even reappears to save her as a hallucination after he dies because the writers couldn’t imagine a way for the woman to save herself. Like, Matt Damon gets The Martian and we get this shit? Come on.
  • Lady Scientist Randomly Takes Her Clothes Off – See Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) in Star Trek Into Darkness. In an early scene of the movie, she decides to change clothes in front of the male lead (James Kirk/Chris Pine). With the shuttlecraft back door hanging wide open. When there’s absolutely no reason to change outfits. (This is, by the way, the same character we’re told is a weapons expert, yet defuses bombs by frantically yanking the innards out and hoping for best. Brilliant choices all around.)
  • Lady Scientist Is A Romantic Prize For The Male Lead – Remember how Charlie Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), the hot flight instructor in Top Gun, was an astrophysicist? No? Me neither. Probably because Charlie’s defining characteristics were only deemed important when they happened to further the love story with the male lead (Maverick/Tom Cruise).
  • Lady Scientist Teaches Male Lead An Important Moral Lesson – See Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) in The Amazing Spider-Man. Dr. Emma Russell (Elizabeth Shue) in The Saint. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) in Avatar. The list goes on.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m happy these stories exist. But these characters aren’t exactly the work of a culture fluent in depicting women in STEM. Ghostbusters manages to avoid every one of these tired tropes, and made me laugh for nearly two hours straight. Humor! Fluency! We’re getting there, you guys. We are.

Also notice the lack of racial diversity.

Note that these women are also all white.

As a viewer, even the smallest moments of Ghostbusters brought me joy. Erin at her desk, confusedly asking if her beige, three button, windowpane plaid suit is “too sexy for academia.” (It’s not, but I relate to her struggle.) Holtmann in her lab, offhandedly scoffing that “safety lights are for dudes.” (They’re not, but I’m delighted by the idea of mildly implied gender disparagement being lobbed at men for once.) Patty wincing after being dropped by the crowd, saying “OK, I don’t know if it was a race thing or a lady thing, but I’m mad as hell.” (It’s both, probably, and I’m delighted by all the meta-ness going on.)

I especially loved Holtzmann’s character. I’ve never seen a woman in Hollywood play the eccentric scientist/tinkerer type before, and I’m thrilled by the idea that girls growing up today get to see a woman in that role. After X-Files, the “Scully Effect” resulted in an uptick in young women entering careers in STEM, and we still see the effects today.

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In the past couple years, we’ve gotten women-centered reboots of Boy Meets World, Full House, and Star Wars. Despite the tantrums of man-babies and haters, Ghostbusters is now part of that list, and I couldn’t be more excited. I hope we keep this momentum going and reboot all the moderately enjoyable comedies of my youth. I want Back to the Future with all women. Honey I Shrunk The Kids. Men in BlackFlubber. Yes: Flubber. Kate McKinnon should have some free time in her schedule by 2018, and my body is ready.


*Note: my coworkers often speak Cantonese, Mandarin, a local dialect and English, so if anyone’s deficient in this situation, it’s me.


Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of 14 days. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 211 articles for us.

42 Comments

  1. As a designer (creative/ux designer/visual designer) I never know if I get to be sheltered by the STEM flag, but everything you’ve said here resonates with me.

    I get positively titillated when I see a badass, cool, sharp, chill queer represented; I KNOW they exist, so where’s the media representation?! So here’s to seeing Ghostbusters as many times as I can until it’s out of theatres ( and then buying the DVD), feeling affirmed by these scenes, until the next one… which hopefully won’t be too far away!

  2. I’m a lady in math/neuroscience and I approve this message. REPRESENTATION MATTERS. I am so lucky to have excellent dude bosses who respect their female underlings but I would love to have some women higher-ups. Also, everyone thinks I’m some kind of genius, but I’m doing THE SAME MATH AS THE GUYS. It’s not impressive, trust me; they just think that being a woman in my lab must mean I have special masculine powers of coding.

    Anyways. I will be seeing Ghostbusters tonight and I can’t wait.

    I will also henceforth refer to “men” as “man-babies”, because it will make politics more bearable to follow.

    • “everyone thinks I’m some kind of genius, but I’m doing THE SAME MATH AS THE GUYS”

      I relate to this so much! When coworkers say things like “you’re a genius” to me, it’s like…
      A.Thank you, that’s correct, I am a genius.
      B.However, I’m highly suspicious that your assessment is bc women are expected to be terrible, so my basic competency looks like the work of a genius.
      C.I’m just going to accept the compliment because there’s no way to succinctly explain B without sounding paranoid and like the problem is that I’m undervaluing myself, which I’m not.

  3. Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books have been optioned, which delights my heart because there is a beautiful lesbian mad scientist who wears suits and has her secret lab under a hat shop.

  4. It’s hard to articulate ny thoughts right now. Not because they’re particularly cplicated, just because they are a very loud, very proud out-of-tune acapella version of the theme tune. BAHDUM BAHDUM BAHDUM BAHDUM BE-BE-BADAHDUM!
    It’s all I’ve had in my head all week. Probably seared per.anently in my brain from when Holtzmann was the biggest badass of all time while those two proton beam guns.

  5. Also I feel out of place feeling represented when I see women in STEM in media as I no longer work in STEM.
    But on the other hand maths is cool and I don’t want dudes having all the fun.

  6. I just saw Ghostbusters last night (LOVED IT [especially Holtzmann]! <3), and, as an astrophysics major (who is due to start her last year of undergrad in just over three weeks…), I couldn't agree more. Hopefully more positive representations of women in STEM are coming soon (including better representations of women of color in STEM. Until then, I'll be gleefully looking forward to the DVD release of Ghostbusters.

    Kelly McGillis's character in Top Gun was as astrophysicist? Really? I mean, it's been twenty-some-odd years since I last saw that movie (Tom Cruise's character was an insufferable git… and so, he was the perfect representation of every fighter pilot I've had to misfortune to know, and thus getting me to avoid that movie completely), so that doesn't help recollection, but I had no idea at all.

  7. They also had pretty good science/engineering consulting on the script. In most movies, when somebody spouts physics-talk, it rings totally false to me. But Holtzmann’s lines describing the enhancements she’d made to the equipment had me flashing back fondly to long-ago encounters with some of my favorite experimentalists.

    Or maybe I just have a big fat crush on Kate McKinnon that attenuated my physics-bullshit filter.

    • I would die.

      Maybe someone can resurrect both Vanessa Hudgeon’s career and “Flubber” in the same move. I don’t think it would be very good, but I do think that equality means women get equal access to mediocrity. Theoretically.

  8. This was wonderful, Laura!

    I love Mac a.k.a. Dr. MacMillan in the Australian tv show Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. She’s a medical doctor and forensic pathologist, and she’s lesbian, and she’s awesome <3 (bonus points for lgb representation in period pieces as the series is set in the 1920's!) (and, fyi , it's available on netflix)

    My favourite woman STEM-career woman character in a movie is of course the incomparable Dr. Ellie Arrowway, radio astronomer and non-poet, in the 1998 film Contact. I think she successfully avoids all the tropes you mentioned, but obviously — one movie is not (nearly close to even approahing the proximity of being close) enough.

    Holtzman forever kthxbai 😀

  9. I’m really glad that my biggest problem with Erin’s character was that she’s a physicist who uses Windows (seriously? Windows? I know literally 0 physicists who use Windows for work), and not anything to do with with the characterization of her gender.

    Also, Kate McKinnon gave an interview where she said she’s obsessed with physics and once cried while watching a particle physics documentary and since I’m a physicist this made me like 100x more attracted to her.

    Also this movie is great and I know own a Holtzmann figurine which is the first pointless action-figure-like knicknack I have ever purchased in my 26 years of life.

    • Wait was that when she was at university though ? Because in my Uni we don’t really get a choice of OS, IT services rule the land with their iron fist and if they decide Windows is what you get, then that’s it.

    • I agree with Chloe. At my university it’s all Apple products unless someone (be they professor or student) uses a personal machine. What magical place are you in where IT doesn’t hold 100% sway?

      • Physicists code. They need access to the command line. Windows makes it hard to do that. I’ve worked at three different universities and two national labs and have never been given a Windows machine or been told what kind of laptop to use.

        If she’s a professor, she could’ve bought whatever she wanted with her grant money.

        Then again, the movie also had a professor who was up for tenure “practicing” a lecture that they had never given before, which also seemed out of hcaracter.

  10. Your column explained feelings about portrayals of women in STEM I didn’t even know I had until I read it. In hindsight, I’m sure that the cultural smog played a role in my thinking that I couldn’t be a girl because I’ve always been fascinated with science. It is so refreshing to see female identity and STEM as not not opposed.

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