There are generally two Hollywood-approved ways to show people who are actually good at math and science in movies and TV shows. The first is to make them into reclusive, brilliant, comic book super-villains hell bent on dominating the world that misunderstands them. The second is to show them as socially inept, lanky, and completely sexually inexperienced dweebs whose only solace is their experiments with robots, beakers, and mathematical derivations. A normal, well-adjusted, productive member of society that just so happens to have a knack for the sciences is such a rarity in the entertainment realm, I find myself wondering whether the any of the writers employed by Hollywood studios ever had any exposure to a world beyond that of the middle school gym locker room, or the typical high school where the social hierarchy of nerds and jocks was preserved at all costs, lest the football team’s fragile egos and NFL ambitions be overshadowed by the school’s academics.
I still remember that when I graduated from high school, almost half the principal’s speech was focused on a good year for the school’s football team, despite the fact that her institution was also known for its competitive academic environment. The math, sciences, and the arts all received just a brief mention from administrators because, well, who cares about anything other than football and a review of the school’s policies? And far too many screenwriters follow the same script as my high school principal, seemingly unable to imagine that the contributions of academically strong individuals need to be acknowledged, or even represented as anything other than comic relief. It’s not just sitcoms I have in mind here, although The Big Bang Theory is probably one of the biggest offenders in this category. It’s true that in a sitcom, everybody is reduced to a stereotype and the executives in charge of the project seem to think that the audience is so mentally deficient, it needs to be told when to laugh with an auditory cue. Here’s a hint. If you need to tell an audience when you deliver a punchline, your joke probably isn’t funny in the first place. If it was, they’d be able to figure it out.
But even serious shows don’t dare to violate the nerds-as-comic-relief protocol. Bones, for example, turns its brilliant female scientist into a running gag, the goofy, socially awkward sidekick of the suave FBI investigator who fulfills the stereotypical requirement that street smarts are always supposed to trump book smarts since in the Hollywood universe, you’re not allowed to have both. In fact, almost half the CSI experts on the show are explicitly stated to have some form of autism. Holy crap! Since when are you supposed to be autistic to have a good grasp on computers, chemistry, physics, or math? And the episode of Bones involving the murder of an accomplished scientist? Don’t even get me started. Hands down, one of the worst portrayals of scientists in a research institution ever. I’ve never met a single scientist or researcher who acts anything like you see on TV, and I’m in the computer science program, supposedly the last refuge of all greasy, awkward nerds who could never deal with other human beings and watch way too much anime and porn (much of which is supposed to be anime porn). And yet, if you were to observe a typical comp sci class, you’d see primarily well adjusted and normal people who just happen to understand math and computers.
Amazingly, as far as Hollywood writers may be concerned, nerds are normal people who use their interests in the academic realm to make money, like to hang out with their friends, and yes, even manage to have sex with other, real, live human beings. And meanwhile, as high schools salute the jocks and Hollywood insists that a proper scientist must suffer from Asperger’s or have the social graces of a mediocre alien anthropologist who came to this planet on his first assignment, we keep wondering why we have shortages of STEM grads. Who would’ve thought that portraying math, engineering and science as fields only the socially inept, or perpetually dateless, acne-ridden dorks would ever pursue could possibly discourage people from applying themselves in these disciplines? I mean, come on. Is more than that one rare, fleeting portrayal of a scientist as a socially adept and normally functioning human being on TV or in the movies too much to ask?