To close off Women’s History Month in Canada we’re doing a special edition of the Media Depictions of Women in STEM series, depicting a woman in science from a classic movie. Women in movies in the 1940s and 1950s were often depicted as housewives or occasionally secretaries, especially in musicals. Last year we profiled a woman from the 50s B-movie The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms to see how old B-movies depicted women in STEM. This year we thought we’d go out of the box a little and see how a big 40s musical did it. On the Town, starring legends Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, was a big hit in 1949, when it first came out. It was a fun and slightly silly movie about three sailors on their one day of leave from the Navy in NYC and the three intelligent women they end of spending the day with. One of these women is anthropologist, Claire Huddensen, portrayed by Ann Miller.
Depictions of Women in Media: Claire Huddensen
Written by: Alicen Ricard
Spoilers for On the Town.
We first meet Claire in the Museum of Natural History when she notices how similar one of the sailors, Ozzy, looks to a statue of a caveman. She immediately pulls out a tape measure and starts comparing measurements between the two. When he assumes that she’s hitting on him she tells him that she’s a “cold-blooded scientist”. She further goes on to explain that she’s an anthropologist and that she decided to study mankind as a way to become immune to men so she could learn to resist them. She then bursts out in a song called “Prehistoric Man” which was filled with more sexual innuendos than actual anthropology.
After that scene there is no other mention to Claire being an Anthropologist. She does continue to call Ozzy specimen for the rest of the movie, but that’s the only hint at her career. At the end of the movie, they must convince the cops that they didn’t commit a crime earlier in the movie by accidentally breaking one of the dinosaurs in the museum. Claire probably could have talked her way out of it using what she does, but instead she talks up the boys and makes it seem like they were so excited to see the dinosaur that they accidentally broke it—instead of the truth, that they accidentally broke it while chasing women.
It isn’t all negative. Despite the fact that the movie is all about hunting down a specific woman one of the sailors saw on a poster, the film was surprisingly ahead of its time in some aspects. Two of the three women in the movie knew what they wanted and weren’t afraid to take it. Hildy, the cab driver that volunteered to drive them around on their adventure, made it clear she wanted to get together with Chip, the third of the sailors, in a delightful gender reversal that was rare at the time. Claire also wasn’t shy that she wanted Ozzy.
Musicals aren’t typically where you see women in STEM careers, especially back in the 1940s so even the mention of a woman scientist in this genre of movie, was a big step for the time. It wasn’t a very big step, but it was a step nonetheless.
DOES ON THE TOWN 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.
1. Include diverse STEM role models (past and present): Claire is the only character in STEM in the movie. Since the movie has nothing to do with STEM careers and the only person in STEM in the film is a woman, it somewhat meets this goal.
2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: Claire being an Anthropologist is great, but they never get more specific than that. She says she studies "man" but that's about all she says about her job. We also never see the impact of her job. This film does not meet this goal.
3. Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: Being a woman scientist in the 40s debunks some STEM misconceptions but she introduces herself as a "cold-blooded scientist" which just plays up the stereotype. The movie does not meet this goal.