The Beautiful Scientist Problem

By J.K. Ullrich

Indie authorship seems to have exacerbated my penchant for masochism: I can’t help looking at the bestseller lists, even though it only leaves me sad that my books aren’t on them! Browsing the top titles a few weeks ago, the blurb for Dan Brown’s latest novel Origin caught my eye.

After reconnecting with one of his first students, who is now a billionaire futurist, symbology professor Robert Langdon must go on a perilous quest with a beautiful museum director.

I ground my teeth. As a teenager, I’d gone through a pulp fiction phase where I devoured adventure novels of this sort, where experts unravel ancient mysteries or track crypto-zoological beasts through the jungle. Their book jackets almost invariably chose the word “beautiful” to describe the female lead: “a beautiful scientist/journalist/detective.” Publishers’ obsession with this adjective made it feel like a code word. “A brilliant scientist,” “an ambitious journalist”, or “a wisecracking detective” could be anyone, but since “beautiful” is generally reserved for females, it implied the character’s gender…and that comeliness was her most notable trait. This demeans not only the character in question, but the other characters (and readers) who are presumed to value aesthetics above all else. It bothered me then. Almost twenty years later, it still does.

Read the full article at J.K. Ullrich’s blog.

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