The “mad scientist” trope was always the easy way out. And, for generations, filmmakers, writers, and pretty much everyone else took it. Now, that’s changing, but in surprising — albeit photogenic — ways. If science is no longer indicative of an inner malignancy manifested by phenotypical failings, what will it look like in popular culture. What does the rise of the sexy scientists actually mean?
Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic Young Frankenstein is the perfect illustration of the off-putting scientist (with an ugly AF assistant, played by Marty Feldman). He’s a parody of Mary Shelley’s original mad doctor, the ultimate loner playing God, but he’s also a jumpy, socially awkward, and arch-Jewish. Gene Wilder plays the role as though his character has taken the lessons of old movies — The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Island of Lost Souls, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — to heart and added “Solipsism” and “Madness” to his LinkedIn profile. Wilder intentionally tones down his natural charm because it undermines the bid (stupid) idea at the center of so many narratives: You can only be brilliant in one way.
This notion, which is pervasive in regular as well as pop culture, holds that, all things being equal, peoples’ strengths and weaknesses tend to balance out. Here’s the thing: All things aren’t equal. This simplistic (potentially self-serving) hypothesis isn’t backed up by data. Though certain personality traits — a myopic attention to detail, for instance — may be more common among scientists, there are plenty of researchers and Ph.D.s who have brains and a sense of humor and symmetrical faces.
Good looking scientists are finally making it to the screen. The Martian features a ludicrously attractive flight crew, everyone in Contagion was gorgeous, the Alien franchise replaced a space fighter with a vampy researcher, and, telling, James McAvoy is our new Dr. Frankenstein. What happened? Is the notion of genius being ugly finally falling away?
Not exactly. What actually seems to be happening is nothing. Time has simply passed.
Modern Hollywood came of age in the wake of WWII and it’s easy to see why scientists may have suffered because of that timing. Scientists experimented in the concentration camps, invented the atomic bomb, busily lobotomized the mentally ill as heroic, and went on campaigns of mass sterilization. Science was responsible for environmental degradation and personal pain. Polio was in the past, but DDT was everywhere. The future looked both promising and terrifying.
Today, we have a softer view of science. Science has brought about technological progress that has put us in a bit of an environmental bind, but science is — many people would argue — the natural way to slip the bonds on inevitability. And science has also been vilified by politicians and cultural critics in such a way that it’s easier to consider scientists as underdogs and, by the logic of narratives, heroes.
These days, movie scientists are sometimes literal superheroes: RDJ is a believable Tony Stark, Mark Ruffalo is a convincing Bruce Banner, and the Fantastic Four are around or whatever. Sure, the science behind the blockbusters is shoddy, but lab coats are getting filled out. That would not have happened three decades ago when Jeff Goldblum was looking into fly anatomy.
There’s always pressure to make leading men and women attractive, but even less prominent scientists in movies are getting better looking. The geologist in 2012 didn’t have to be sexy, but Roland Emmerich went ahead and cast the painfully handsome Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ditto the peripheral astrophysicist played by Donald Glover in The Martian, who is not only fucking adorable but an expert in draping summer scarves over well-considered outfits.
This is a key detail. Glover’s scarf is not a fashion statement but an emblem of the shifting attitude towards STEM people as a population. It communicates a arrogance, but not the goal-oriented arrogance of a man making an undead monster. It’s a sexy arrogance. Glover’s character seems like he gets laid.
In a sense, Hollywood’s new scientists are setting the bar too high for actual scientists. Sure, a scientist can be athletic and charming, but where is someone going to find the time to make breakthroughs and go scarf shopping? Hollywood’s next goal should be to reverse Frankenstein this thing, to create a living, breathing human using science as characterization. The Martian got close, but Matt Damon still feels like an outlier.