Herstory on Film

Each month, the Herstory Club curates a selection of films that complement our monthly theme. This collection will be female-focused – both in front of the camera and ideally behind too – and range from fiction to biopics of real women in history. The films we’ll be recommending aim to both entertain and educate, showcasing cult classics, new hits, and movies you may never have heard of.

There’s no end of fabulously inspiring female characters in STEM on screen. Most prominently is the highly popular depiction of NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) in Hidden Figures. Heading off into space itself, Sandra Bullock carries Gravity on her shoulders as medical engineer and astronaut Dr Ryan Stone. As part of large ensemble cast, The Martian features women in a variety of STEM roles: as mission commander and geologist Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), system operator Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Mission Control satellite planner Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis), and a director of media relations at NASA, Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig). 

Similarly, Interstellar boasts Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), a NASA scientist and astronaut, and Murphy Cooper (Jessica Chastain), a Plan A scientist at NASA. Staying off the ground for a moment, astrophysicists seem to be primed for scientific greatness and roles as love interests: Kelly McGillis partnered up with Tom Cruise’s Maverick in Top Gun, and Dr Jane Foster turned Thor’s head in the Marvel films while also advancing her career and reputation as a foremost astronomer and expert on Asgard.

It may feel a little too timely, but the real-world application of female scientists has featured in two films about pandemics. In Outbreak, Rene Russo is an army doctor trying to find a cure for a deadly virus, and in Contagion Marion Cotillard stars as an epidemiologist with the World Health Organisation, Kate Winslet as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, and Jennifer Ehle as a research scientist for the CDC. Then there’s the more random: Dr Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) is a Bond girl and nuclear physicist in The World is Not Enough; Helen Hunt stars as Dr Jo Harding, a meteorologist and storm-chaser in Twister; and then there’s the iconic paleobotanist Dr Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) in Jurassic Park.

Women appear on screen in ensemble casts as hackers, code breakers and masters of technology. 16-year-old Shuri (Letitia Wright) may be the younger sister of the king, but she’s better known for designing all of the amazing technology in Wakanda in Black Panther, and Go Go Tamago (an electromagnetics expert) and Honey Lemon (a chemistry enthusiast) play key roles in animation Big Hero 6. Enigma and The Imitation Game highlight the role of women in the WWII code-breaking at Bletchley Park, with Kate Winslet and Keira Knightley taking the helm. 

Nine Ball (Rihanna) is a talented hacker in female ensemble heist comedy Oceans 8; Lisbeth Salander (played by Noomi Rapace, Rooney Mara, and Claire Foy) is a freelance surveillance agent and hacker in the series of films in both English and Swedish, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; and Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) is a programmer in Black Mirror: USS Callister. For those more interested in a documentary, CodeGirl looks at global high school girls trying to improve their communities through technology and collaboration.

Our top five films for this month feature a sci-fi horror, 90s Jodie Foster in space, a biopic of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, an Oscar-nominated tale of a primatologist, and what is probably the most hated reboot of a franchise of all time (how dare they cast women?!). Without further ado…

Annihilation

(2018, Dir.: Alex Garland)

Annihilation sees a group of female scientists and explorers, led by biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), embark on a mission to a mysterious quarantined zone called “The Shimmer” that houses mutating plants and animals as a result of alien activity. This sci-fi horror is thrillingly scary, with strong performances from the female cast at the heart. 

Annihilation is available stream on Netflix

Contact

(1997, Dir.: Robert Zemeckis)

This classic 90s space movie consistently sits high on lists of films showcasing women in STEM, and it’s easy to see why. SETI astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) finds evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence after years of searching, and is chosen to make first contact. Dr Arroway was based on real-life researcher Jill Cornel Tarter. Foster was expected to be nominated for an Oscar for her performance but was snubbed, with many citing the stigma from her reluctance to name the father of her unborn child – which was viewed as an unofficial admission of lesbianism – as the reason for Hollywood overlooking what is now recognised as a highly praised performance.

Contact is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video

Ghostbusters

(2016, Dir.: Paul Feig)

Is this the most passionately hated (by a very vocal and very sexist corner of the internet) new instalment of a franchise, ever? I’d wager so. Existing in a separate canon to the beloved series, Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters sees a new all-female team answering the call. Paranormal researchers Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) join forces with engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and lifelong New Yorker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones, who was subjected to horrendous racist abuse following her casting) to hunt down the paranormal apparitions swarming Manhattan and stop an apocalypse. The film’s IMDb page and official trailer were targets of “review bombing” as so-called ‘fans’ of the original series took offence to the cast and director. Ignoring the sexist and misogynistic criticism, it is a funny and decent film.

Ghostbusters is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video

Gorillas in the Mist

(1988, Dir.: Michael Apted)

Gorillas in the Mist charts the true story of Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver), a scientist who travels to Africa to study endangered mountain gorillas and goes on to fight to save them. Weaver was Oscar nominated for her role as the famed naturalist. The film is an adaptation of Fossey’s account of her scientific research which was published 2 years before her brutal murder in 1985. As a highly respected primatologist, she was a member of the ‘Trimates’, a group of 3 prominent female scientists who studied apes in their natural habitats: Fossey, Jane Goodall and Biruté Galdikas.

Gorillas in the Mist is available to buy on Amazon Prime Video

Radioactive

(2019, Dir.: Marjane Satrapi)

This biographical drama tells the true story of Marie Sklodowska-Curie (Rosamund Pike) and her world-changing Nobel Prize-winning work. It is based on the 2010 graphic novel Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, making this director Marjane Satrapi’s first graphic novel adaptation where she did not also author the source material. The film was due to be released theatrically in 2020 but due to the COVID-19 pandemic it reached audiences digitally via Amazon. Geraldine McGinty of Cornell University criticised the historical accuracy of the piece, claiming that it misrepresented Curie’s character. 

Radioactive is available to stream, rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video


About the Author: Emma Forth

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I’m a first year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. My research combines my passions for the First World War and film by exploring the development of early cinema, 1909-1918, across all four nations of the United Kingdom. For the last six months I have been producing the first database and maps of British and Irish cinemas in 1914, showcasing the position of cinema at the outbreak of the Great War. In a four-year hiatus from education prior to postgraduate study in 2018 I worked as a risk analyst; ran the admissions department in a high school; and was a receptionist and volunteer at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. I am an avid reader, theatregoer, and cross-stitcher, and when not frantically Marie Kondo-ing my possessions and renovating my flat and during a pandemic, I can be found watching superhero films and dreaming of museums.

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