It’s okay to be smart, Joe Hanson. It’s not okay to be offensive.
On November 11th, Joe Hanson published this video, produced for PBS Digital Studios, that prompted a collective eye-roll from the scientific community so strong it may have altered Earth's orbit. In the video, Hanson has a conversation over Thanksgiving dinner with six legendary scientific figures at Thanksgiving dinner — Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Nikola Tesla, Isaac Newton, and Galileo.
Watching the video, it was immediately apparent to me how much potential this had to go poorly when Marie Curie’s first comment in response to being introduced was “It was nice to be included.” The only woman at the table, and also a two time Nobel Prize winner in her own right, thanking the men around her for remembering that she existed. In contrast, the male scientists each took the opportunity to highlight major scientific accomplishments. Unfortunately, things went from bad to much, much worse.
Einstein spends the entire video sexually harassing Marie Curie, cheered on by Hanson and the scientists. When Einstein tells Curie “I find myself gravitating toward you,” Hanson congratulates him with “That’s a good one.” Einstein asks Curie to wear him “like a parka.” While we hear about the other scientists’ contributions to science, we only hear about Curie’s role in inspiring girls to play science. All of the scientists are hailed for making a meaningful contribution. Curie is in the video as a comedic foil and, at the end of the video, is sexually assaulted by Albert Einstein.
Many women scientists (myself included) were offended by the depiction of attempted rape in the video, sponsored and paid for by one of the most respected media outlets in the country. Many demanded that the video be removed. In response, Hanson offered this non-pology (emphasis mine):
One of the many points I was thinking about when I made this piece was that woman are under-represented and don’t receive the respect they deserve in science today, well after Marie Curie’s time. I say this directly in the video and had intended the outrageous behavior of the Einstein doll to speak to this idea, as well. It doesn’t seem to have come through the way I had hoped and I apologize for that.
In producing this video, we guided improv voice actors to create caricatures of dead scientists so we could lampoon the most extreme aspects of their personalities. Then we made dolls act out those extremes, flaws and all. We tried to present the way in which these characters might actually act, in their own time. Galileo doesn’t get evolution. Tesla is obsessed with Edison. And Einstein reflects the dark reality that many men in his time acted inappropriately toward women.
In his non-pology, Hanson implies that this video was meant to be an over-the-top caricature of the challenges faced by women in science. He intended to use comedy as a device to highlight social injustice. The problem is that the behavior portrayed in the video is neither “outrageous,” nor does it reflect the “dark reality” of days gone by. It is a realistic portrayal of the types of interactions that women in science currently face. Not in 1913. Today in 2013.
I’ve written before about a very Marie Curie-like interaction I had at a scientific meeting in 2010. I was at a social event after the scientific sessions and an older male scientist approached me, wrapped his arms around me, firmly grabbed my rear end, and kissed me. I’d like to tell you that this is the only time something like this has happened and I’d like to tell you that I am the only victim of such treatment. That would be untrue. Since I began writing my blog in 2008, I have collected a volume of stories from women who have been harassed, groped, and propositioned by their male scientific colleagues. This isn’t something that used to happen. This is what is happening right now.
Hanson’s video isn’t funny. It’s painful. It’s painful because 1) it’s such an accurate portrayal of exactly what so many of us have faced, and 2) the fact that Hanson thinks it’s “outrageous” demonstrates how many of our male colleagues don’t realize the fullness of the hostility that women scientists are still facing in the workplace. Furthermore, Hanson’s continued clinging to “can’t you take a joke” and the fact that he was “trying to be comedic” reflects the deeper issue. Not only does he not get it, his statement implies that he has no intention of trying to get it. That makes me question the sincerity of his motives.
I still think there is an opportunity to make this right. As a professional scientist for the last 15 years, I have so frequently been the Marie Curie at the table, although not nearly as accomplished. I’ve been the only woman. Sometimes I’ve been at the table, harboring the secret that the man next to me had made an inappropriate pass at me. Sometimes I’ve known that the other men at the table had seen it happen. That doesn’t need to continue to happen.
I encourage Joe Hanson and PBS Digital Studios to remove the video. Then, consider using your incredible film-making talents to highlight the actual accomplishments and and challenges of women in science. Let’s see six real women at the table and hear their real stories. Treat them respectfully and with dignity. As a start, consider women like Neena Schwartz, Joan Lafuze, Virgina Miller, Antonia Novello, Ellen Ochoa,and Dorothy McClendon.
Sure, Einstein, Tesla, Galileo, Darwin, Newton, and Curie are names that people know. Sure, Marie Curie inspired generations of women scientists, but these women have actually changed the landscape of science for women like me in a meaningful way. Granted that women have a long way to go, but they’ve also accomplished so much and have contributed as meaningfully as their male counterparts.
I’d like to see these women around the table at Thanksgiving table because, more than Marie Curie, they are the types of women that have inspired a generation of women scientists.