For better or for worse, movies and celebrities play a huge role in the lives of teen girls. Romance movies, for example, leave girls with the expectation of what true love looks like. They may see a certain relationship in a movie and strive to find, and ultimately, attain that love in the future.
Unfortunately, as adults we know that these portrayals of “love” are mostly unrealistic. However, young girls still have that hope and naiveté that what they are watching is absolutely possible. While these girls may not be able to take control of how their romantic future plays out, they can make the choice to go after what they want as a career. This is where movies come back into play.
With the current gender gap in STEM fields (80% male to 20% female), could powerful, on-screen representations of women in STEM careers help tighten that gap? Could actresses aid in planting the seeds of a successful career plan in young girls? Absolutely!
Take a look at our top five picks of STEM and STEAM heroines on the big-screen below…
Katherine Goble/Johnson, Hidden Figures
Katherine Goble/Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, is a mathematician who made a huge impact at NASA. She succeeded in calculating the correct trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth.
At a time when segregation and sexism were widespread in the state of Virginia, Katherine proved that women belong in every profession. She is the definition of humble intelligence and her calculations were crucial in getting NASA to where it is today.
There are also two more remarkable women in Hidden Figures to be inspired by. Dorothy Vaughan, played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, heads up the computing department for NASA at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. She exudes confidence and does not give up on her dream of being Supervisor. Dorothy is committed and persistent and that perseverance pays off in the end.
Mary Jackson, portrayed by Janelle Monáe, started her career at NASA as a research mathematician. After two years, she was promoted to the Compressibility Research Division focusing on high speed flight. Her dreams were to become an engineer, however, in those days it was completely unheard of for an African-American woman to be in a “man’s field.”
Despite the backlash Mary received from her colleagues and family, she was passionate and strong and went for it. She enrolled in night classes at the local high school to advance her degree, which she had to fight for in court because the school was an all-white campus, and after three years she became one of the first African-American women with the title of Engineer.
This film is based on true events, which is even more empowering. The real Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2015, at the age of 96, by President Barack Obama.
Murphy Cooper, Interstellar
Interstellar starts with a young Murphy Cooper, played by Mackenzie Foy, claiming to have a ghost in her room sending her messages. The intelligent 10-year-old tries to decipher these coded messages.
From the very beginning of the movie, you can tell that Murph is smart beyond her years, but also very tough. She gets picked on by her brother and classmates for being fascinated with space, but she doesn’t let it bring her down. Ultimately, the codes (sent to her in binary) lead her and her father to NASA headquarters where they learn that the world is dying. Her father must leave on a space mission to look for another sustainable planet for humans to live on.
As Murph grows up, now portrayed by Jessica Chastain, she goes to work for NASA to help with a solution for the equation of gravity. She starts to discover that the gravity equation had inconsistencies that others did not believe were apparent.
As the movie progresses, Murph realizes that she was chosen to save the world. To do that, she must decipher the Morse code of quantum data sent to her in her father’s wristwatch. Murph is brilliant, fearless, and tender-hearted. She exudes confidence in her love of mathematics and space travel early on in life and does not let others dictate her life.
Shuri, Black Panther
The 16-year-old girl genius behind the Black Panther suit, and basically every high-tech innovation in Wakanda, is the role model we’ve all been waiting for. Princess Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, is the younger sister of King T’Challa and is smart beyond her years. She’s an expert in all things science and technology and manipulates vibranium in ways no one has before.
Shuri is a huge asset to Wakanda and her brother’s throne. She can heal people with her technological advancements and create indestructible weapons. Definitely not your typical Disney Princess, Shuri proves that being intelligent is cool. Her quick-wit, playful attitude, and courage are quality traits we all wish to have.
In an interview with Huffington Post, Wright shares her hope that her character will inspire more girls to pursue STEM. “Just seeing that there’s young kids in Shuri’s lab, teenagers, and people coming together to create technology. That’s beautiful,” she says.
Princess Shuri will return in Avengers: Infinity War this May.
Ellen Page portrays Inception’s Ariadne, an architect called upon by Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) to help his team with an important mission. The team can tap into people’s dreams to retrieve information or, in the case of the Fischer mission, plant ideas into the dreamer’s mind in a process known as inception.
Ariadne is curious, but hesitant. She is wise beyond her years but also fearful that Dom’s subconscious will get the best of them all. She decides to join the team to be their architect. Her job is to create the dream world. Everything in the dream MUST add up so that the dreamer doesn’t realize they’re in a dream. Each detail must be correct, or they risk being found out.
Mazes are also a huge part of the dream world. The team must know exactly how to get out of certain scenarios, where they can hide, etc. Ariadne creates these mazes so that they are complex, but appear simple.
Ariadne’s STEAM skills make inception possible. Without her detail-filled mazes, the team would not have been able to succeed. She is courageous, focused, and committed to the team and the mission. So much so, that she goes out of her way to help Cobb deal with the issues in his subconscious mind.
Jane Foster, Thor
Natalie Portman portrays Jane Foster, an astrophysicist who discovers Thor during an investigation of a wormhole. Jane is not just brilliant, she is also incredibly determined and will do whatever it takes to further her research and investigations. She shows young viewers that perseverance and hard work pay off in the end.
Not only is Natalie Portman’s character inspiring, but the actress herself is a powerful role model. In 2003, Portman graduated with her B.A. in Psychology with honors from Harvard University. It has been said that her IQ score is an astounding 140, which is considered near genius.
Portman can speak six languages including English, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Japanese, and German. She has even been quoted saying, “I’m going to college. I don’t care if it ruins my career. I’d rather be smart than be a movie star.” Does it get more empowering than that?
We can start to inspire the next generation of girls and boys alike by introducing them to these powerful on-screen role models. Walt Disney once said, “Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood.”