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Depictions of Women in STEM: Lee Hunter

October 30, 2017

October is Women’s History Month in Canada. What better time to examine how women in STEM were depicted decades ago in film? The 1953 B-movie, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, offers an opportunity to do just that.

Source: Gary's "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" Page

Far north of the Arctic Circle, a nuclear bomb test, dubbed “Operation Experiment,” is conducted. The explosion awakens a 30-foot tall, 100-foot long carnivorous animal known as "Rhedosaurus," thawing it out of the ice where it had been held in suspended animation. Professor Thomas Nesbitt, a physicist, is the only surviving witness to this event. Professor Nesbitt visits Dr. Thurgood Elson, a paleontologist, and his assistant, Lee Hunter. Dr. Elson predicts the Beast is moving down towards the Hudson River (where fossils of Rhedosaurus were first found). Sure enough, the Beast comes ashore in Manhattan and destroys the city.

Source: At the Movies with Bryan the Struggling UWM Film Student blog

Lee Hunter was played by Paula Raymond, an actress whose career spanned from 1948 into the 1970s. She played opposite leading men such as Cary Grant and Dick Powell, and developed a horror film reputation later in her career, but also made appearances on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. While websites such as The Internet Movie Database, and articles upon her death, list her as a leading actress, she never reached the stardom of Marilyn Monroe or Grace Kelly.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is a foray into not just the depiction of women in STEM in 1950s films, but the depiction of an idealized 1950s woman in general. Jessica Freame of the University of Melbourne points out that there are “intrinsic relationships” between Hollywood film stars, their social and political context, and the dominant ideologies of their time. Says Stephen Heath, “What is held in ideology, what it forms, is the unity of the real relations and the imaginary relations between men and women and the real conditions of their existence” (cited in Freame’s article). In 1950s B-movies, there was actually an abundance of women scientists, however, this does not reflect the reality of women in the sciences off the silver screen at the time. Therefore, the actual environment in STEM fields for women in the 1950s can be seen in these imaginary relations in film – in how they are spoken to and regarded by the men in these films, and the positions in which they are placed in the overall storylines of these films.

Source: Christina Wehner blog

Linda Levitt, in her article “1950s B-Movie Women Scientists: Smart, Strong, but Still Marriageable,” writes, “We could argue that including female scientists enhances the moviegoing experience by creating 'eye candy' for male audience members. If the moviegoer identifies with the heroic male lead, [...] then the film’s satisfying conclusion includes winning the heart of the ‘leading lady’ and enabling the ‘happily ever after’ for the heroic male scientist who saves civilization from deadly creatures, nuclear meltdown, or another apocalyptic scenario.” She observes that there has been a long history of women working quietly in the background in science fiction, while at the same time, shown as women who have it all – they maintain respect afforded to them as scientists, but also win romantic partners, without sacrificing their professional interests to assume domestic roles instead. (Indeed, Lee Hunter is often shown in the background or slightly behind the male scientists, especially when they are taking part in an intellectual discussion or argument.) However, the domestic expectations of these “eye candy” woman characters is sprinkled throughout their narratives, which focus on their looks, and their existence alongside the men.

It is true that Lee Hunter is the only woman with any substance in the film (the other woman characters are a nurse, a nun, a telephone operator, a screaming mother, and a bank of phone operators handling calls as the monster destroys Manhattan), shown (to use Linda Levitt’s adjectives) as poised, confident, and smart. But Professor Nesbitt's secretary informs him that Hunter has come to visit, and she describes her as being “very pretty,” putting emphasis on her femininity and sexuality. Professor Nesbitt doesn’t recognize her at first, as she was a passive background figure when he first met her in Dr. Elson’s lab.

While Hunter ties her identity to science (“I have a deep abiding faith in scientists,” she says, “otherwise I wouldn’t be one myself”), Professor Nesbitt remarks, “It’s funny, a girl like you, a paleontologist.” Her response is, “What’s wrong with paleontology?” Perhaps her response should actually be, “What’s wrong with a woman being a paleontologist?” Professor Nesbitt then asks how she became Dr. Elson’s assistant. She replies, “By antagonizing him. I was one of his students.” She was given a job not because of her hard work or her dedication to her studies, but by “causing someone to become hostile” (the dictionary definition of “antagonize”). This exchange takes place just after Hunter has prepared sandwiches and coffee for Professor Nesbitt and encourages him to take a break from their search for the Beast and eat – very nurturing indeed. They then share a lingering look over their coffee, an obvious indication that they are now love interests.

Source: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

Sprinkled throughout the film are more questionable actions and remarks that in 2017 would be regarded with some suspicion and disdain. Just before Dr. Elson is lowered into the ocean in a capsule to look out for the Beast, Hunter leans over and kisses her boss quickly on what appears to be very close to his lips. Soon thereafter, once underwater, he remarks to his colleague, “Lee was right, I should have brought the Dramamine pills" - because she's more of a caregiver than an assistant scientist. Then, when the military arrives in Manhattan with Professor Nesbitt and Hunter to attack the Beast, Hunter offers the information that the Beast’s skull must be at least 8 inches thick. But it’s a man who figures out the bazooka they have been using in an attempt to kill the Beast will not work, and that shooting it with a rifle grenade loaded with a radioactive isotope is the best solution. The woman scientist contributes to the Beast’s demise, but she is only allowed to go so far with her suggestions. In the end, Professor Nesbitt and Hunter are not shown as expressly falling in love, but they share a long embrace after the Beast has been eradicated.

Lee Hunter is shown as a character who sees herself as a scientist, an intelligent woman, who exists on the periphery of the main, male characters of her story. She assists the male heroes and never gets quite close enough to a victory of her own. She is a woman with a career, while simultaneously a woman with a strong nurturing instinct - as Levitt says, marriageable. Hunter could have easily been extracted from the story, and the male characters would have gotten along just fine. Even Paula Raymond agrees: "I was just filling space. I was not given many acting roles. [...] I wasn't trying to be a glamour movie star."

Does The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms 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. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was produced in a time when meeting the Obama Administration's goals wasn't even a possibility, but nevertheless, we can examine the film's place in these goals.

1.  Include diverse STEM role models (past and present): There is one woman in the film who is a scientist. The rest are empty supporting characters with little to no lines. The other scientists are white men. This film does not meet this goal.

2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: Paleontology is not a profession that is seen often in films - Google shows a list of 12 films under the category of "Paleontology" (as opposed to dozens more about medicine or space exploration), so this film does highlight a STEM career that is not often portrayed.

3.  Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: The scientists in this film are all shown as level-headed, intelligent people, who save the world with their knowledge. But, as stated before, 2 out of 3 are men, and they are all white. This film doesn't quite reach the White House's goal.

Want to see some better depictions of women in STEM? Check out our coverage of Dr. Ryan Stone (of the film Gravity) and Cosima Niehaus (of the series Orphan Black).