Depictions of Women in STEM: Ms. Frizzle & Fiona Frizzle

November 01, 2019

Written by: Vanessa Hennessey

This post may contain spoilers for The Magic School Bus.

Ms. Frizzle, the loveable, often called “whacky” science teacher, has been a source of knowledge and entertainment for kids (and adults) since The Magic School Bus book series was first published in 1986. The books were created and written by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degan, the latter being the illustrator as well. In 1994, on September 10th, the Public Broadcasting Service released the Canadian-American television series, based on the books and featuring Lily Tomlin as Ms. Frizzle and a theme song performed by Little Richard. And recently, in 2017, Netflix released 26 more episodes for a series titled The Magic School Bus Rides Again, in which Lily Tomlin makes appearances as Ms. Frizzle, but features Kate McKinnon as the main character, Ms. Frizzle’s sister, Miss Fiona Felicity Frizzle. In both series and the books, Ms. Frizzle and Fiona Frizzle take their students on exciting field trips on the titular yellow school bus. These field trips are not just any field trips – the students are taken into the human body, to outer space, and to the Arctic (to just name a few destinations!).

Source: Netflix

The Magic School Bus franchise and series has been remarkable simply because it features a main character who is a woman in science. While Ms. Frizzle is portrayed as eccentric, especially in the 1990s television series, she also is independent, from her fashion choices to her teaching style. (A big difference between both Frizzles is the sister, Fiona, has a more conservative clothing and hairstyle.) She is unattached to any male character, a fairly radical choice for the 1980s. And, as suggested by Lyndsay Kirkham of Gender Focus, one could take this a step further by “by suggesting that [Joanna] Cole allows Frizzle the freedom of an ambiguous sexuality.” Some have even gone so far as to call Ms. Frizzle an LGBTQ+ icon, especially because Lily Tomlin, who is public about her marriage to her wife Jane Wagner, voices Ms. Frizzle; and because Kate McKinnon, who voices Fiona Frizzle, is also out in the public sphere as lesbian. There is no indication in the Magic School Bus, however, that Ms. Frizzle or Fiona Frizzle are part of the LGBTQ+ community.  

Source: Entertainment Weekly

Ms. Frizzle and Fiona Frizzle may be eccentric, but they take their field trips with their students very seriously. While they are always there to save the day when there is trouble, they both encourage their students to think for themselves and come to conclusions on their own. There is no coddling in a Frizzle classroom – both Frizzles require their students to think their way out of (sometimes literally) sticky situations. But, Ms. Frizzle and Fiona Frizzle always put a positive spin on their experiences. They never shame the students for making mistakes – instead, they encourage them to think more deeply. In addition, both Frizzles are supportive of all of their students, but the creators of The Magic School Bus made it a point to sway the classroom in the direction of girl-centric – 51% of the students are girls, their teachers are women, and even Ms. Frizzle and Fiona Frizzle’s pet lizard Liz is female.

Source: CBC

The first television series of The Magic School Bus has been cited in countless articles as being a source of inspiration for women and girls in STEM, and while the 2017 Netflix series received a more lukewarm response, both Ms. Frizzle and Fiona Frizzle are depicted as positive role models in STEM. And their motto encourages kids to think outside the box: Take Chances, Make Mistakes, and Get Messy!


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): The first Magic School Bus series and the new Netflix series do include diverse role models. Not only are the teachers who lead the kids on their adventures women, but there are multiple girls in the class who are excited about science, and even the stereotypical "jock" kid is involved and excited. This goal is met by The Magic School Bus.

2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: The series does not often highlight careers in STEM aside from teaching, however, once in a while, Ms. Frizzle and Fiona Frizzle do call on scientists to provide more information about a given subject. The Magic School Bus meets this goal...sort of.

3.  Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: Ms. Frizzle and Fiona Frizzle are unfortunately characterized as eccentric, as many scientists have been depicted in media (think the "mad scientist" trope), but the fact that they are women leading their classes through adventures and experiments to excite kids about science is still a positive representation of women in STEM, which we cannot have enough of, so the goal is met on that fact alone.

Which inspirational characters in STEM did you like as a kid? Let us know on our Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram!