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Depictions of Women in STEM: Patty Tolan

February 24, 2017

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

This post contains spoilers for the 2016 movie Ghostbusters.

In this installment of our "Depictions of Women in STEM" series, we focus on Patty Tolan of the 2016 film Ghostbusters. I would like to preface this article by saying that I appreciate all of the women of colour who have contributed to the discussion over the importance of Leslie Jones and her portrayal of Patty Tolan. These women's voices have been included here to ensure a nuanced analysis of why Patty as a character should be celebrated, as well as critiqued, so we can all aspire to better representations of women (and women of colour) in our media.

The original 1984 Ghostbusters team. Source: Nerd Stash

For those reading who are not familiar with the Ghostbuster franchise, it began in 1984 with its first movie. Ghostbusters II was released in 1989, and an iteration was released in 2016 featuring an all-female Ghostbusters team. The Ghostbusters investigate paranormal activity, and in each movie, the team is made up of mostly academics in STEM fields. The 2016 movie has been vilified by the alt-right, praised by others, and seen as a “missed opportunity for feminism” by some.  It should be pointed out that the screenplay for this movie was written by a white man and a white woman – Paul Feig and Katie Dippold – who can hardly be expected to accurately portray a black woman’s experience, whether she works in a STEM field or not.

In the 1984 original Ghostbusters, black actor Ernie Hudson's character, Winston Zeddemore, was also the only member on the team who was not an academic. Hudson, thirty years after the original Ghostbusters release date, wrote about his “bittersweet” relationship with the franchise, saying his character was introduced at the beginning of the movie and had an “elaborate background” as an Air Force major. However, when he arrived on set, Hudson was given a script that introduced his character, Winston, on page 68, after the Ghostbusters have been established as a team. Winston responds to a help-wanted ad the team has posted, and says, “If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say.” Not only has the single black character’s history and authority been reduced, but he also is shown as money-grubbing.

The issue is not whether or not Leslie Jones kicked butt in the film, because she did... Source: Ghostbusters Fans

We see the same narrative with Patty Tolan. She is also introduced into the film after the all-white Ghostbusters team has been established. She witnesses a ghost in a subway tunnel while on duty as a New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) worker and meets the Ghostbusters to consult with them. She then joins the Ghostbusters, and says the line that has been quoted countless times: “You guys are really smart about this science stuff, but I know New York.” She knows the streets, but is not shown as educated enough to know “science stuff.”

This portrayal may seem innocent enough, but looking at statistics shows that there is a real lack of women of colour in STEM fields. Statistics Canada reports that more visible minority men than women studied in scientific and technical areas. Only 12% of visible minority women studied architecture, engineering, and related technologies, and in math, computer, and information sciences. But, visible minority women were more likely than the rest of the female population to earn a postsecondary certificate, diploma, or degree in the STEM fields.

In the United States, where Ghostbusters takes place, the National Science Foundation reports that in 2010, just 2% of those working in science and engineering occupations were black women. It could be argued that Leslie Jones’ character is just a reflection of the reality that a low number of black women work in STEM fields. But in the movie, the only Ghostbuster who does not work in a STEM field is a black woman, which reinforces the message that black women do not belong in STEM fields. The entertainment industry and the media, so ubiquitous and influential in our society, reinforce these stereotypes and, at least partly, keeps these statistics low. How can black girls feel that they are able to enter STEM fields without seeing more positive representations of women like them, working in the fields that interest them, in the media? (Read our blog post, "Why it's important to see 'people like me' in STEM" to learn more about the importance of positive role models for girls interested in STEM.)

Racism within STEM fields is a vicious cycle, and often quite subtle. In 1976, a black American researcher named Shirley Malcolm led a study entitled “The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science.” Malcolm’s team found that science education programs were run mostly by white men and often excluded minorities. Those programs that were set up to include minorities favoured men. In the study, Malcolm documented that minority women were the victims of racism and sexism. She acknowledges that by 2008, there was a rise in the doctorates in STEM fields that were awarded to minority women, especially in social and behaviour sciences, but in computer science, engineering, and other math-intensive STEM fields, the numbers are lagging. Malcolm contends that these small gains in comparison is due to the fact that “many of the barriers faced by minority women pursuing science and engineering degrees are department- and discipline-specific and originate from rigid cultures, structures, and lack of faculty diversity in these fields,” as Malcolm and her daughter, Lindsey Malcolm (associate professor of higher education at George Washington University) write in an article in the Harvard Educational Review. Because of this systemic lack of support, phenomena such as “stereotype threat” and “microaggressions” begin to appear. The former is the concern with being viewed through the lens of a stereotype, and for non-white women in STEM, can increase psychological stress and reduce performance. Microaggressions are subtle, mundane exchanges that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to individuals based on group membership. As seen in our White Paper on this often unconscious practice, college students of colour experienced an average of 291 microaggressions over 90 days. Microaggressions create a negative impact on mental health, decrease productivity and problem-solving skills, create hostile work and institutional environments, and perpetuate stereotype threat. Both of these experiences continue to be a huge problem for women of colour in STEM, who experience a true double bind – they are women, and they are not white.

Source: E! Online

Leslie Jones came out on Twitter against the critics who pointed out the problematic fact that her character, a black woman, was the only character not working in a STEM field. She tweeted, “Why can’t a regular person be a ghostbuster. [sic] […] Regular people save the world every day so if I’m the sterotype!! Then so be it!! [sic] We walk among Heroes and take them for granted.” She also shared that an MTA token booth clerk said to her, “the fact that my position as a clerk is the most abused by society, I feel [Jones’ Ghostbusters role] may give us a semblance of humanness.” This is, of course, a fair perspective, and while it is important to recognize how valuable the "anyone can be a hero" message is, we also must recognize the institutionalized racism that persists in the media and in STEM fields.

While Jones defended her character's portrayal in the film and discussed it in a positive light, other women of colour have been, at the very least, on the fence. Complex, an online pop culture magazine, interviewed four black comedians to gauge their response to the film. Two of these comedians, Akilah Hughes and Monique Moses, acknowledged there were problems with the film, but did not see eye-to-eye on the particular issue of Patty Tolan's portrayal. Moses acknowledges, "Not seeing representations of black women in higher-status positions is a problem," but then goes on to say, "but I refuse to discredit this one blue-collar voice as something without merit...Does it really matter if she works for MTA or NASA? As long as she's not a two-dimensional character, I think little girls of all races can look up to her as they do to the women of Shondaland just as equally." Hughes contests, however, "I don't know if some role is better than no role. And it sucks to even have to address that, frankly. It's 2016, not 1956; why is it that we have to settle for roles that demean our entire race just to be allowed in a blockbuster film?"

A thoughtful piece by Jamie Kingston, a woman of colour who writes about diversity issues in the media on the site Women Write About Comics, agrees that Paul Feig and his team tried, but fell short. After scrutinizing the film and the production, she found that Leslie Jones' role was trimmed in favour of Chris Hemsworth, who had his role enlarged early on in the film making process, just as Bill Murray's role was extended into a larger role at the expense of Ernie Hudson's character in the 1984 version of Ghostbusters. She also draws parallels between Leslie Jones' character and the "mammy," or, the archetype originating from the Southern United States for a black woman who worked as a nanny or general housekeeper and often nursed a white family's children. While Patty is urban and chic, she is also the "den mom" to the rest of the Ghostbuster team. She brings them the outfits that become their uniform, and after a messy situation with a ghost in a subway tunnel, they barely thank her for the uniform, as if it had been a gift that was expected. Kingston also points out that Patty "fusses over them" having low blood sugar, initiates their hugs, and hits on Kevin (Hemsworth) the least, because "mammy doesn't get to be a sexually aware being."

When looking at whether or not film executives chose not to create a black woman character who works in a STEM field, it is hard to see that there is any blatant racism there. However, when looking at the bigger picture and taking into account the views and reactions of women of colour who have viewed the film, as well as the "Double Bind" phenomenon studied by Shirley Malcolm, it is clear that there is an institutionalized problem. Media portrayals of women of colour should be expanded to include women in diverse roles. It starts with screenwriters and other producers creating positive roles for all actresses of colour, and insisting they become more commonplace on the silver and big screen. This will create a space for these actresses to shine as characters in the STEM fields, just as much as their white counterparts.

Did Ghostbusters meet the goals set out by the White House for better representation of women in STEM fields?

The former Obama Administration's White House fact sheet lists 3 goals for fictional representation of women in STEM. We are noticing a trend in the movies and television shows we have reviewed - they meet some of the following goals better than others. Ghostbusters is no exception.

1.  Include diverse STEM role models (past and present): Ghostbusters included 3 wonderful woman characters who work in STEM fields. As a whole, this movie is a good representation of women in STEM, but it clearly missed an opportunity to feature a woman of colour as a woman in STEM.

2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: The Fact Sheet indicates: "Effective depictions emphasize social impacts and exciting aspects of STEM work." One could argue that the film highlighted a unique career in STEM - that of designing weapons to fight ghosts - and that the Ghostbusters have an "exciting" job...but the career path is fictional. However, while the Ghostbusters' jobs cannot directly translate out of the world of film and into reality, it does send the message that women and girls can save the world with STEM.

3.  Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: The Fact Sheet also suggests, "STEM is often perceived as boring, too difficult, and 'not for everyone.' [...] Tactics to overcome stereotype threat, in which members of underrepresented groups may fear that their performance will confirm negative stereotypes about their group, can also be addressed." The film blatanly does not address this issue, and in fact, contributes to the pervasive notion that there is little space for women of colour in STEM. This does, indeed, reinforce the idea that STEM is "not for everyone," even if Ghostbusting is.

There are some outstanding groups out there which create positive, inclusive spaces for women of colour in STEM. Check out Black Girls Code and consider donating to them, volunteering with them, or attending their events. Also, the Society of STEM Women of Color is a great resource for networking, support, and learning opportunities, and features an annual conference. Also, make sure to watch the film Hidden Figures for a positive depiction of real women of colour in STEM!

What did you think of the Ghostbusters depiction of Patty Tolan? Get in touch on Twitter or Facebook! Look out for the next installment in this series, and don't forget to check out The White House Fact Sheet on STEM Depiction Opportunities.