The sexism of the circus

By Guest Author 22/09/2014

Emma Timewell 

Earlier this month, I went to see Cirque du Soleil’s Totem show, currently doing a month’s run in Auckland on its way around the world. It was, as ever, an amazing show, but one act really disappointed me. Not due to a lack of skill or amazement, but purely because of the way it depicted scientists.

In this particular act, there is a scientist and a scientist’s assistant. Sounds good. However, fulfilling all stereotypes, the scientist was….that’s right, a grey-haired man (played by a young man, as we saw when he removed his wig at the end of the act). The assistant was, you guessed it, a young female.

To give Cirque credit, I think it was great that they not only made an entire show essentially about evolution, but they also included a character that “dazzles us with his amazing physics experiments.” However, it demonstrates once again that in popular culture a “serious” scientist is often depicted in the traditional mould of an aging male, whilst a scientifically-inclined female hangs in the background wearing her short lab coat and stockings (has anyone ever entered a lab similarly attired anywhere in real life?).

Cirque du Soleil is an amazing scientific feat – from the engineering of the sets to the way some of the performers seem to defy the laws of gravity. The Totem show has been on tour since April 2010 and has been seen across the USA, Canada and Europe before coming to New Zealand on its way to Australia for 2015. That’s thousands of people, including a large number of children, who will have seen the science of the circus. But their lasting image of “a scientist” will be that of the traditional middle-aged man.

There are major issues globally around the number of girls, and in New Zealand the number of Maori and Pacific girls in particular, entering the science workforce. To ensure the industry has balance – of views, cultures and skills – it’s imperative that we continue working to increase the number of females in science. One of the key actions to support this is to ensure there are ample mentors visible to students coming through the education system, to inspire them to continue studying science. One way that modern culture can help is by ensuring that the depiction of scientists – by the media, on TV and film, and in shows like Cirque du Soleil – includes females in positions of authority, not just the stereotypical older male.

Emma Timewell is Communications Manager at Plant & Food Research, an executive member of the Science Communicator’s Association and National Convenor of the Association for Women in the Sciences. The views expressed in this blog are personal and should in no way be construed as those of any of the organisations Emma represents.