GHC Reflections: “Why Are We Still Geeks?” Panel – Part 1

One exciting Friday panel was on the topic of “Why Are We Still Geeks?” (we being Computer Scientists – especially women), and more specifically, how we can remedy this perception. The three speakers present were Maria Klawe, Brenda Laurel, and Kim Surkan. Their diversity of backgrounds in computer science, gender studies, and media really brought a depth of discussion to the table.

First to speak was Maria Klawe, and she discussed her personal attempts to remedy this stigma. Much of the discussion came back to media – we don’t see many computer scientists (let alone female ones) in media so we subconsciously disregard that they exist as more than the stereotypes that surround them (geeks, antisocial, etc). Her idea was that a television show following the life of a computer programmer (albeit dramatized in some fashion – not unlike criminal justice in NCIS, anthropology in Bones, behavioral psychology in Criminal Minds, or academia in Big Bang Theory, to list a few) would give public media a more ‘stylish’ concept of the computer programmer. This would allow for a broadening of the stereotype, and through character development in the show, do away with notions of what a computer scientist’s character “must be”. She has poured resources into a nice script, but has so far gotten nowhere – it seems even media is wary to take a chance on something “too fringe” or “too geeky”.

Of course, by this token, there are shows that do showcase computer scientists. Though the lack of media attention may be due to the fact that they either fall into stereotype (Big Bang Theory, the IT Crowd) or the computer scientist is not the main focus. For example, Chuck Bartowski of the NBC series Chuck is the main protagonist and is actually a Computer/Software Engineer – however the caveat is that the show explores his “spy life”, not his life as a computer programmer. Granted, episodes showcase his “hacking” talents, but his real world job beyond the spy life consists of IT service desk help at a Best Buy-like chain store – he is shown as nerdy and over-qualified but stuck until spy work finds him. The depth of character Chuck explores could certainly give a fresh media model for computer scientists – if only they had explored his programming talents more than a backstory and “feature” of his personality.

One of the few “saving graces” to women at least being represented as computer scientists comes from a surprisingly mainstream source: CBS hit series Criminal Minds. For nine seasons, Penelope Garcia has been the “tech goddess” of her BAU unit. Of course, she cracks up to the stereotype of being eccentric and ‘nerdy’ – but she’s loveable and human. She’s incredibly social, she cares deeply for her teammates, and in every regard except for her dress and collection of brightly colored toys she breaks the stereotypical image of a computer scientist on its head. One could even argue her dress, while “different” is still professional – not the ‘typical’ stereotype of hoodie/t-shirt and jeans. And she’s a woman.
Garcia exemplifies why broadcast stations should NOT be afraid to air computer scientists and crack open those stereotypes with a heart melting character.  She makes an amazing role model – but of course the caveat is that on a show with as sensitive of material as Criminal Minds discusses, children can’t be exposed to her and thus their notions remain unchanged. Also, she is part of a show with many characters from many backgrounds, and sometimes her story can be a bit “lost in the shuffle”. However, in my eyes she gives hope that the computer science stereotype – even from the perspective of women in field, can be overcome gracefully.

Klawe makes a strong point that was echoed by the speakers after her – paying attention to media representations is critical to changing interest and stereotypes in our field. We may find media to be poor representations or at times superfluous – but they are what is in the public eye and their perception alters the societal perception as a whole. Hopefully change in TV media will come with efforts like Klawe’s and existing strong character models that already work in hit network shows being able to give an extra push to the initiative.

In the meantime I’ll cheer on Garcia every Wednesday night and relive my DVD series of Chuck – hoping for some new computer programmers to show their face and a depthy character archetype that will make me fall in love with not only their profession – but their personality.

“Well, I figured since I’m gonna have to interact with the massĀ  populace, I should dress in the traditional costume of a mere mortal.” – Penelope Garcia, Criminal Minds

GHC Reflections: Brenda Chapman Session

This reflection is one of the harder ones for me to write.

One of the highlights of the Grace Hopper Celebration was Friday’s panel with Brenda Chapman. For those who are not familiar, Chapman has worked at Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks. She is most famous for concieving the idea and directing Brave (Pixar’s first female director, it should be noted). She was also Head of Story on the Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, and designed the iconic Little Mermaid scene of Ariel arching over the rocks with the waves crashing as she sings “Part of Your World”. Of course, Chapman has a slew of other credits to her name on projects both big and small – but I thought I might share the ones that were the most iconic to me for a general overview.

Chapman’s session was an overview of the projects she’s worked on in her career, and the skills that helped her to get there. Passion and tenacity were chief in this list. Interspurced clips from her works kept the audience engaged with nostalgia and wonder while highlighting some of her proudest moments.

And yet. And here is where the blogging becomes hard to do.

If I may be so bold, Chapman seemed so sad through the entire session. She spoke of doing what she loves, of passion and dedication, and yet there was a weariness in her that, despite trying to show a smile, it appeared she could not shake.

And honestly, in hearing her panel I would not blame her in the slightest if my perceptions were accurate. She was initially denied entry to Cal-Tech, only to finally get in the next year. When she was hired at Disney, it was only to meet a necessary female quota, not because it was believed she had talent. She was fired from directing the dream movie of her own design.

She embodies so much of the undertone that became apparent at Grace Hopper.

Chapman is a successful woman and her talent is not to be trifled with. She had many great roles, great mentors, and great opportunities because of her skills and her hard work. Yet something always seemed to go awry for her. Despite her obvious qualification she continues to, like so many professional women, not be believed in and to have her amazing accomplishments all too often dismissed. At least, this is how it felt in hearing her.

I hope that in saying these things it does not dismiss the validity of her accolades, or seem to state that no one has ups and downs in their career – far from it. But it seemed as though Chapman was sober to the sad truth that settled over the conference: women still aren’t trusted to do the job well, even when they have proven their worth. For a panel entitled “I Do What I Love to Do…and I’m a Girl” – it seemed as though the title was trying to affirm this as truth in a world that still sees otherwise. And I do hope that these reflections are of course, taken as what they are – reflections. Chapman’s panel was still enjoyable, and she is a lovely woman worth looking up to – I guess I could not help but feel like there was something more she wanted to say, but could not.

I think the hardest pain – and again, hitting the point home, probably lay in Brave. Merida is modeled after Chapman’s own daughter. This was, as she put it, her passion project. The story was her own, and it must have been amazing to have Pixar take interest. But then to be removed from the project and watch another finish your passion work – that must have been awful. I am surprised in all honesty that she has the strength and resolve she does to continue working, continue inspiring, continue telling stories and speaking up. If for some reason you find nothing else worthy of Chapman to look up to, look up to that. I know I do. She stared into the face of something that for a creator must have been heart wrenching and came out on the other side still in love with the creative process and her work. That is magnificent.

Along the same point of Brave, I had the opportunity to pose a question to Chapman regarding Merida’s redesign by Disney. For those unaware, Merida was stylized in marketing to look “more princess-like” – taming her hair, giving her curves, putting her in the dress she so hated in the movie, and removing her signature bow. We could speak again to the assumptions of women in our culture – but that topic seems tangential and bludgeoned to death.

Chapman publicly spoke out against the redesign as Merida was, in essence, an embodiment of being truly yourself – which the redesign stripped her of. For a while it seemed as though the public outcry had been heard, and the issue waned. Of course though, Halloween costumes rolled out – and when Disney princesses hit the shelves, the Merida redraw was back – after the issue seemed to have boiled over. I posed the question to Chapman if she thought all the efforts to get Merida’s design back had made a difference.

However, as I had seen the new product releases already I knew the answer was no before she replied. I was more interested in how she planned to move forward – would she continue to fight? Disney is of course, a force to be reckoned with – and at the end of the day, they are a company and need to be concerned with their marketing and advertisement. The fight may be a losing battle – but it is one Chapman intended to keep fighting. She stated she was planning to continue speaking with MightyGirl and other awareness campaigns for next steps. I applauded that despite being knocked down yet again, she was still hoping to continue on and keep trying.

One of the final somber points Chapman made was that she is going to move forward keeping her passion projects a little closer to herself. I think this point is the saddest part – the world needs people coming alive in their passions. Of course, Chapman can work on them herself, but sometimes the best way to bring passions to life is being able to work with others on them. Someone with such wonderful and inspiring ideas as her should be able to share them and help them grow through the assistance of others into whatever beautiful thing they can become. There is no limit to our capabilities – but sometimes we expand them through work with others. And it is sad that past offenses have caused her to lose some trust in that – like so many other genius, creative minds.

Despite all of the sobering undertones felt in this presentation, Chapman truly inspired me to continue to trudge forward despite falling. To continue to prove to the world what I am worth even when the world doesn’t want to listen. To ignite my passions even if I must do so alone.

Not to be corny, but Chapman truly taught me how to be brave.

For more information on Brenda Chapman, visit http://brenda-chapman.com/
For more information on the original controversy over Merida’s redesign, among other news websites you can visit http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/may/13/brave-director-criticises-sexualised-merida-redesign

“If you had the chance to change your fate, would you?” – Merida, Brave