Top 5 Female Scientists in Natural Hazards Movies

More lists! Girls on Film!Image

Disaster Movies are a fabulous genre and there is all sorts of fantastic potential to be very rude indeed about the silly bits. Rather than try to top some of the excellent critiques of the science already out there I got kind of interested in how the female scientists get along. There are, infact, also some really fascinating (proper) analyses of female scientists in movies(*). So my top 5 is a little more personal – and of course, restricted to natural hazards. Did I miss any out?

(1) Dr Jo Harding. Twister. Jo is the ultimate field scientist; to indicate this she wears beige trousers that need to be held up with a rope, a white vest and a digital watch (see picture). Nonetheless she is a great hero; it’s her brylcreemed husband who has succumbed to a  misguided ‘fatcat career’ as a TV weather presenter. Instead Jo constructs daring tornado-measuring instruments out of duct tape, tennis balls and some diodes. She also shows remarkable forbearance in the face of having to hang around with a lunatic bunch of walking mad amateur scientist clichés; and even seems to like them.

 In the end Jo sees off her husband’s new makeup riddled girlfriend by continuously showing off her superior knowledge of such things as the need to ‘go pee’ in diner restrooms whenever possible if doing fieldwork in the Great Plains. Just as it should be.

(2) ‘Nancy’ Squared. In both Dante’s Peak and the BBC’s Supervolcano there is a female member of the team called Nancy. The absolutely remarkable thing about ‘the Nancys’  is their lack of remarkableness.  They are just quietly part of the team and good at getting on with doing the science without feeling the need to be showy, extra-super nerdy or unbelievably babelicious. Yay girls! In Nancy Scienceworld you can be however you like just as long as you have some science to bring along. Result!

Supervolcano Nancy pays ‘the ultimate price’ for getting into a car rather than a helicopter in the face of a ‘pyroclastic surge’ but it does save her from having to do the docudrama mansplaining stuff about how volcanoes work in the aftermath. Why they are both called Nancy, however, is a complete mystery.

(3) Dr Sara Hughes. Superstorm. Another one fond of indicating her ‘fieldyness’ by wearing vest t-shirts. Sara favours khaki however and has a nice line in headphones, essential work kit for any self-respecting meteorologist.  ImageShe loses points for succumbing to the obsessive dedicating life to science but fighting in a slightly charged way with the male PI cliché. She loses even more for carelessly sending her PhD student out to cloud seed the eye of a hurricane on a whim; with the inevitable plane crash resulting. She does, however, spend time wrestling with hazard versus risk and worrying about the societal implications of her research. Dilemmas in this instance involve choosing to divert a hurricane into North Carolina in order to save Miami and worrying that having research funded by a bizarrely cloud-seeding crazed military will tempt you to mis-report your results. Deep.

(4) ‘Rachel’ (Volcano) and ‘Marianne’ (Dante’s Peak). Another duo; this time joined by ‘paying the ultimate price’ rather than a shared forename. Rachel is punished for the rooky error of straddling a fault line that has recently been emitting superheated steam. Marianne’s fundamental error is trying to stay behind and run ‘one more model’ while well within the ballistic zone of a newly erupting volcano. Whoops. We’ve all been there, Marianne, distracted by those scrolling screens of numbers rolling past us at just the wrong moment.

(5) ‘Dr Amy Barnes’ (Volcano) I’m running out of scientists now. Mayors, FEMA Officials and fighter pilots don’t count and ‘Contact’ and parks full of dinosaurs aren’t natural hazards. So I have to use Amy Barnes; even though she is annoying. In her defence she is wise enough not to straddle faults that have recently had superheated steam flying through them.

 Image  Amy Barnes explains how to spot a fault in order to avoid any nasty accidents.

This is all a bit of a con however as my ultimate favourite ever scientist in a natural hazard movie (SuperVolcano) is in fact Billy Elliott’s slightly angry Scottish dad reprising his role in the form of a slightly angry Scottish seismologist. Harmonic tremor makes him cross! It makes me a bit twitchy too but not up to ‘my-son-has-just-put-on-ballet-shoes-to-go-down-the-pit-during-the-miner’s-strike’ levels. I love that man’s temper tantrums irrationally and liberally applied. Can’t think why. Obviously this in no way implies I’ve even seen people getting irrationally angry about data or science before, ever.

Image Even mansplaining on Discovery is a little annoying.



(*) one of the headline pieces of good news is that females scientists are more recently reasonably well represented; tend to be much more senior and  are less likely to be portrayed as a socially inept lunatic than male equivalents.  Great start!

3 thoughts on “Top 5 Female Scientists in Natural Hazards Movies”

  1. Brilliant – I think Nancy-Nancy is my favourite! But what about Samantha Morrison from ‘Flood’? Ok she is an engineer not a scientist, but she is in charge of the Thames Barrier and she gets to wear an outfit saying defiant engineering! There is also Nikki Fuller, also in Flood, science advisor from the Environment Agency who is not afraid to give the worst case scenario to Poirot, er I mean the deputy prime minister!

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