Woman and Energy on Film

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 7, 2011 9:51 am

In three days–and just in time for SXSW!–the film event I’ve been planning with colleagues at UT hits the historic ACL stage! Energy at the Movies will navigate through 70 years of energy on the big screen as we explore cultural perceptions of oil, coal, industry stereotypes, renewables, and much more. Best of all, you can watch via the livestream.

As a panelist, my role will be to discuss the portrayal of women in these films. To introduce the subject, let’s start with the Bechdel test. Heard of it? Here’s a great explanation:

There are lots of examples to discuss, from Leslie Benedict in 1956’s Giant to Kimberly Wells in 1979’s The China Syndrome. More coming soon, but for the time being, I’m interested to hear readers’ thoughts…


Comments (4)

  1. Hi Sheril… ltns! I see you’re about to pop open a big can of worms here. Or is it the elephant in the room? No matter the metaphor, the Bechdel test is only going to scratch the surface. We have a long history of women in film fawning over technology. Apparently, we are supposed to adore guys who drive expensive, loud cars. We can’t live without our dishwashers, our microwaves, our irons, and vacuum cleaners… we are seen using them all the time. Apparently, men in movies don’t usually know how to work these strange devices. But why should they? In film, the dishwasher is a mother’s luxury; it makes her life easier.

    In movies, women are never the producers of energy, but we sure are consumers! In movies, we are obsessed with shopping. The woman is sad? She should go shopping. The woman is mad at her man? She should go shopping. Take public transportation? Never! She needs a minivan for all those packages, or at the very least, a taxi.

    This focus on the world of men, showing women silently (but happily) using energy-consuming products, driving, and shopping, deliberately avoids certain situations. Women in movies never have to deal with rising energy bills. They never talk about efficiency or try to reduce their carbon imprints (let alone reduce the amount of clutter created by endless shopping trips!) Women in movies never use recycling bins or CFLs. They never have problems with brownouts, or water contaminated by fracking. All of these things would break the illusion that movies create: women as the blissful consumers of energy, energy magically bestowed upon them by men.

    Good luck with your panel!

  2. Karmen,
    So nice to see your comment! We were neighbors on ScienceBlogs long ago :)

    Mostly, you’re right, but there are definitely exceptions in history. One example that stands out is Tulsa. And then there’s Silkwood. The China Syndrome too.

  3. Indeed! I’ve been a little nostalgic for the old Sb days lately, and hunting everyone down. It’s good to see all this success. :)

    I’ve never seen any of the films you mentioned… I’m adding them all to my netflix queue and looking forward to seeing the subversion of this trend!

  4. Matt B.

    I wonder how many of the movies listed would fail the Bechdel test for male presence. I know it wouldn’t be many, but I had the feeling on a few that they might fail because of small casts. E.g. The Terminator.

    As a hetero guy I would rather see a movie or TV show with female presence. And I haven’t figured out why network programmers haven’t thought of that. I watched NBC’s “Must She TV” rather than Monday Night Football (of course I don’t care about football in the first place, so that wasn’t much of a contest). But they put those sitcoms on Monday so women, not men, would have something to watch.

    I detest shows where the woman is merely a zero-dimensional object of affection for the man, or where the only personality the writers could think to give the woman is clumsiness.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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