Big Hero 6 & the Science problem

When a family movie features science and technology I look forward to taking the eldest to see it as much as she looks forward to going to the movies. We loved Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Unfortunately, there’s a core problem with these movies and the latest one I took her to see was no exception.

These movies send the message that you have to be a genius to consider a job in certain fields, like physics or engineering. I’d like to see my girls grow up to be the first sisters on Mars so this message turns out to be a serious problem.

It’s everywhere and Big Hero 6 is no exception.

Screenshot 2015-01-16 13.26.20

The story centers around Hiro, the young protagonist pictured in the middle. His brother is a robotics engineer and those other characters are his colleagues at the university.

Hiro’s brother, Tadashi, convinces Hiro to stop wasting his engineering genius on back alley robot fights and study at the university. There’s a great deal of talk around Hiro’s natural gift as a genius and the movie rests on his ability to create amazing technology along with the help of his fellow university wunderkinder.

If you consider most depictions of scientists you’ve experienced you’ll realize that almost all of them are presented as naturally gifted. It makes sense because this is entertainment; it’s enjoyable to watch people who are excelling in their field. This is how we make hard work entertaining: make it look easy. However, I can’t think of movies, TV, or books that feature other jobs where this is always the case. Is no one in the sciences merely good at their job?

I spent a few years working as the science communicator for a large university, explaining career pathways to aspiring scientists in high school and considering their future studies. One of the biggest misconceptions among students is that they can’t have a career in science if they’re not naturally gifted in it. It really pained me to see good, hard-working students give up on the mere idea of a career because they sometimes struggled to understand algebra.

After these movies, I have to debrief my kid the same way I used to do with the students, “Remember, you could be an engineer, too. It’s hard work that makes you a robotics engineer, not genius.” She rolls her eyes. That’s not what the movies say. The movies say you have to finish uni by the time you’re fourteen.

Screenshot 2015-01-16 13.36.57

I’ve met a fair number of people who are naturally gifted in their chosen field, but very few of them graduated university as kids or learned to read before they could walk. In reality, you won’t spot the “natural-born” geniuses from the people who were merely smart and worked hard to become leaders in their field.

And who says you have to be the top practitioner in a field in order to find it satisfying or enjoy a good career? Do we hold this same standard for other jobs? Do we tell kids that only people who have been cooking gourmet meals for their families since they were in grammar school can expect to have a future as a chef?

I hope my message cuts through the noise because I know the girls will struggle with calculus and physics, as almost everyone does, and I don’t want them to give up on these career options if it’s something they might enjoy.

Feel free to leave a comment about other movies that make science look glamorous. I love recommendations.

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