I own two copies of the epic sci-fi western television series Firefly. (Because for a true fan, one copy just isn’t enough.) With my regular viewings and Browncoat t-shirt fashions, you could say that I think about this one-season wonder quite often. However, it’s been on my mind even more lately – because last week was Engineers Week.
Engineers Week is a seven-day celebration for those who make things work for a living. And since engineering still skews heavily male, I am thrilled that there is also a STEM-awareness focus that goes along with the festivities. (Bonus tidbit: Toy companies, such as LEGO and Goldieblox, are owning up to the powerful influence they have on STEM education and are doing something about it.)
Ladies & Gentlemen: Your celebrated pop culture engineers
As fortune would have it, my consultant and geek worlds collided when I was asked to help a well-known aerospace company put together an internal slideshow honoring engineers. My greatest coup? They accepted my pitch to include famous pop culture engineers.
I know you’re waiting with bated breath for the final list, so here ‘tis (answer key at the bottom of this post):
Since Firefly’s Kaylee Frye is my most favoritest of female engineers, she obviously made the list. Now, before any of you go all River Tam on me, I understand some may argue that a) Kaylee is more of a mechanic than an engineer, and b) she got her job on a Firefly-class transport ship via unconventional methods. All those things are true, but she evolved well beyond them as the series went on. Forced to keep the ship in the sky in against-all-odds situations (Crazy Ivan, anyone?), this scrappy, clever, and down-to-earth problem solver makes things work.
Is this really the future we want to imagine?
Initially, I was excited to put together this list and was determined that at least half the nominees be women. For me personally, it was a chance to brag about how progressive our futuristic, sci-fi worlds are – filled with role models for young girls of today (hence why Kaylee is awesome and on the list).
But you can see the list for yourself. Yes, there was culling involved, but when it got down to it, there really weren’t many female engineers to choose from. This made me sad for sure, but even more sad is this: a part of me wasn’t surprised at all. I’m so used to women being underrepresented in the sciences that the fact that it has leaked into the fictional stories we create is par for the course.
Since I was hard-pressed to find fictional female engineers, my husband and I decided to try to list other prominent sci-fi female scientists, just for funsies. However, the trend we noticed is anything but fun. It turns out that to be a woman in the sciences on a sci-fi show isn’t extraordinary enough. In most cases she also has to be … something else.
I was fortunate to grow up under the influence of the Star Trek era, so what I’m about to say isn’t because I want to downplay these characters’ importance or change them in any way. I was exposed to a handful of strong, female leaders, and for that I’m forever grateful. But for some reason they never helped me cross the divide into the sciences. They never made that leap feel attainable for me. For some reason, I just couldn’t truly relate.
And it’s no wonder, because most of these female characters aren’t. even. human.
I’m sure this is to make them more well-rounded with an interesting backstory. But what it communicates to me is that a woman, with her own human DNA, isn’t enough to break that shiny glass ceiling.
She must be:
half Klingon, which helps her be more aggressive and physically imposing in a male-dominated field
a Borg, which gives her an eidetic memory and the collective knowledge of the Collective
an alien, which in this case also allows her to possess the personalities and experiences of many lives before – male and female
“These things reflect cultural attitudes, and they have power in regard to what we encourage and discourage in women.”
We are already more than enough.
I am a human female, and I’m really glad about that. (And so is my husband.) I had no trouble finding 100% human male engineers for my slideshow. Is it so crazy that I should expect to find plenty of 100% human female engineers as well? As social media expert Olivia Roat so eloquently sums up: “These things reflect cultural attitudes, and they have power in regard to what we encourage and discourage in women.”
This is why I adore Kaylee Frye so much. She loves strawberries. She has a bubbly personality and sometimes carries a parasol. She reacts to things in a very human way. And she fixes things really, really well. She’s real, or at least I don’t have to suspend my disbelief so much to imagine that she could be real.
As much as I love the B’Elannas, Sevens, and Daxs out there, I am a Kaylee girl. And I want my niece (who happens to share Kaylee’s name) to have more role models like her and to know that she truly is enough.
Because if we can’t imagine that human women excel in all fields in our idealized worlds, then how can we expect positive change in our real one?
Answer key with image sources: Professor Farnsworth, Tony Stark, Samantha Carter, Henry Deacon, Rodney McKay, Montgomery Scott, The White Mice, B’Elanna Torres, Anakin Skywalker, Emmett Brown, Angus MacGyver, Kaylee Frye, Howard Wolowitz, Sam Beckett, Lucius Fox