Depictions of Women in STEM: Dr. Temperance Brennan, Bones

June 22, 2018

Written By: Alicen Ricard

This post contains spoilers forBones.  
Source: CharacTour

Bones was a crime procedural on FOX from 2005 to 2017. The show was ambitious in its subject matter and had a diverse cast. It wasn’t afraid to go places that other shows wouldn’t go, despite it being on a network that wouldn’t allow them to do as much as they wanted to. One of the two protagonists of the show, and the subject of this month’s depictions of women in STEM, is Dr. Temperance Brennan. She has been influential to women going into forensic careers and often appears on lists of the top women in STEM on television along with the other outstanding women of the show.

Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan (portrayed by Emily Deschanel), the leading forensic anthropologist in the world has three doctorates (anthropology, forensic anthropology, and kinesiology) and is the lead forensic anthropologist at the Medico-Legal Lab of the Jeffersonian Institute (a fictionalized version of the Smithsonian Institute). She got involved with the FBI after working a couple cases with Special Agent Seeley Booth, and helps them solve murders by studying forensic evidence on the bones of the murder victims. On top of being a forensic anthropologist, Bones is also a best-selling novelist. Bones is based on real-life forensic anthropologist, Kathy Reichs. Kathy wrote novels about a character named Temperance Brennan, which later became inspiration for the show, although Bones is based more on Reichs than she is her book counterpart.


Source: Irish Times

The character of Bones breaks stereotypes of how women are supposed to act. She doesn’t have the “social graces” that women are “supposed” to have. She doesn’t understand pop culture references or sarcasm, which Agent Booth often teases her about. She’s often seen as cold or unfeeling and had no maternal instincts that women are expected to have until she had a child of her own. She’s extremely intelligent--a fact that she makes well-known--and is extremely good at her job, earning respect from everyone else in the lab and the FBI. She is often the reason they are able to solve the case of the week, and no one doubts her ability to do her job because she is a woman. Her lack of social graces makes her dealing with the families of murder victims interesting, as she has no tact. Her parner Booth is the people person and he generally speaks to the families while she uses her skills to examine the bones and find evidence.


Source: Chicago Now

There has been debate on whether Bones is on the spectrum for ASD. The show was hesitant to label Bones as having autism due to the network not allowing it for fear it would make the show less appealing to the public. However, both the writers and Emily have said that they thought Bones does have Aspergers Syndrome, even if they couldn’t say it. Whether or not they were able to say that she has ASD, she has been able to inspire other women with the condition. Network tv wasn’t ready at the time to explicitly diagnose a woman with ASD, which is disappointing. It is so important to see diversity in people in STEM careers on television, and seeing an extraordinarily smart woman scientist with Asperger Syndrome would have set the show above and beyond.


Source: Fearlessly Feminista

We’ve mentioned the Scully Effect before, but Bones had her own effect known as the Jeffersonian Effect. There has been an influx of girls going into forensics because of shows such as Bones and CSI showing women doing these jobs. When I took a forensic anthropology course in college the professor asked us how many of us took the class because we’d watched Bones. About ninety percent of the class put up their hands and when she asked us why so many people said seeing women as role models in the show made them feel as if they could do it too. Three people out of the show's main cast (half the cast) are women in STEM. Two of which are women of colour, and one of which is bisexual. Dr. Camille Saroyan, a forsensic pathologist, is in charge of the lab and everyone respects her, and never doubts her ability to do her job because she is a woman. Angela Montenegro is a forsenic artist as well as a computer engineer, who developed advanced technology to help them solve cases. Having not one, but three lead characters who are women in STEM fields (there are more women than men in these fields in the show) have inspired girls and women alike to go into these types of careers.


Does Bones 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):  On top of three of the main characters being women in STEM, the show also has scientists from all different backgrounds. Dr. Hodgins, one of the scientists in Brennan's lab, is also in a wheelchair in the final season of the show, which does not affect his ability to do his job. This show certainly does meet the goal as three of the most intelligent and competant characters in the show are all women.

2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: The show combines people from multiple STEM fields such as forsensic anthropology, forsensic pathology, computer engineering, forsensic art, entomology, botany, and psychology and uses their skills to solve crimes. Bones does meet this goal.

3.  Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: Agent Booth (a middle-aged, white, male FBI agent, who is a protagonist of the show) has a tendency to call the people who work under Bones in the lab "squints" because "they squint a lot while looking at things". He makes a lot of comments about how scientists don't have lives outside of the labs, despite the fact that he is married to one of them. This makes it hard for this show to meet the goal. Also Bones being bad with people is a common stereotype of being a super smart scientist.They could've handled that better by having the character be autistic like they wanted to instead of just making her awkward because she's smart.  However having characters that mix art with their science is refreshing and gets the show closer to meeting the goal, but it still falls flat.  

Let us know if you had a fictional character inspire you to go into a career by giving us a shout-out on Twitter or Facebook.