The problem with “strong” women

Weaponized: Emily Blunt in Sicario (photo from Lionsgate)

Weaponized: Emily Blunt in Sicario (photo from Lionsgate)

In a late-September comment about Emily Blunt’s role in Sicario, I asked whether women taking up arms alongside men in TV and film is the kind of equality we really want. This form of strength isn’t a new concern for me. A few years ago, one of my friends answered my question about this by saying that, as long as so many of our movies and TV shows involve action heroes, she wants some of those heroes to be women. Sometimes I’ve avoided the issue. In a recent post about the work of a playwright (who happens to be a woman), I omitted this exchange:

How important is it to have strong female lead characters like Rosalind [Franklin]?
Hugely important! And it’s also important, I think, to show scientists (and female scientists) as human beings.

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Woman in a man’s world: on Anna Ziegler’s play about Rosalind Franklin

An uncredited composite image of Rosalind Franklin, from a French website

An uncredited composite image of Rosalind Franklin, from a French website

Most of us, if we encounter the names “Watson and Crick,” instantly think of them as the discoverers of the double helix. We might not recognize the name “Rosalind Franklin” at all, yet she made critical contributions, including an X-ray photograph, to the groundbreaking research on DNA. In fact, the fair thing might be to say that common perception is wrong and that the structure of DNA was deciphered, not by two people or even three, but by four: James Watson, Francis Crick, Franklin, and Maurice Wilkins (with whom Franklin worked, in a manner of speaking). But the paper announcing the discovery, published in Nature in 1953, was authored only by Watson and Crick[1], and the 1962 Nobel Prize for the discovery included Wilkins but not Franklin[2]. Early on, for a variety of reasons, she quite simply became the odd woman out. Watson, writing a highly personal account of the discovery in 1968, began to set the record straight but also added to the distortion: his book The Double Helix included her but in derisive terms. (An equal-opportunity offender, he was also critical of Crick, his own collaborator.) Nowadays, Franklin is better known, but the story of her work on the structure of DNA is still fascinating, complex, and marked with uncertainties and controversies. Considering that many professional fields are still dominated by men and that we must often speak separately of women film directors, women scientists, women playwrights, women executives, and so forth, Franklin’s tale continues to be relevant as well.

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