2012 has seen the rise of the ‘princess scientist’, thanks in part to a Huffington Post article on Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle, who hosts a children’s science show called The Dr. Erika Show. Dr. Erika appears on the show wearing the classic science-style lab coat as well as the tiara she won as Miss Massachusetts, leading young girls who watched the show to tell producers that they, too, want to be ‘princess scientists.’
Following this trend closely comes The Miss Rikei Contest in Japan, which pitted six science students and researchers against each other in a contest of intelligence and- yes- beauty. The contest purports to change the image of sciences to include women- but apparently only if those women are attractive.
Not long after, the European Commission launched a cringe-worthy campaign aimed at recruiting girls to the STEM disciplines. The Science: It’s a girl thing! video featured girls in high heels being ogled by a man in lab coats, and prominently featured lipstick, lip gloss, fingernail polish in contexts completely unrelated to science. The video was the subject of so much derision it was quickly taken off the official website.
These examples are generally well-intentioned, aimed at encouraging an interest in STEM disciplines in girls and women. However, the result is just tacked-on femininity and a familiar focus on the physical beauty of female scientists instead of their contributions to the scientific community. If nothing else the controversy surrounding them has drawn attention to the women- and frequent lack thereof- in these disciplines. However, they’ve left open the question of how to create a space in science where being feminine is acceptable. Is there anything in the ‘princess scientist’ idea that’s worth embracing?
The answer: Princess Bubblegum.
The popular Adventure Time character predates The Dr. Erika Show by about a year, and embodies both aspects of the ‘princess scientist’ idea, in that Princess Bubblegum, is literally a princess and a scientist. Adventure Time goes a long way to establishing her credentials in both roles.
In American pop culture, ‘princess’ is a title that has little or no meaning beyond fluffy dresses and a shining tiara. Indeed, in the ‘princess scientist’ concept, the princess aspect only surfaces with the addition of a tiara to Dr. Erika’s standard lab coat costume. However, in Adventure Time, heavy is the bright pink head that wears the crown; being a princess in the Land of Ooo is an important responsibility, and Princess Bubblegum rules over her people with kindness and strength. On multiple occasions, she even relinquishes personal happiness in order to fulfill her duties.
In addition to being a princess, there are several ways in which Bubblegum embodies traditional femininity. Her skin and clothing are all shades of pink, and her hair, also bright pink, is actually made of bubblegum. Her wardrobe is in constant rotation and she is frequently drawn wearing new outfits. The show often makes allusions that the candy people populating Bubblegum’s kingdom are, in fact, her own mad science creations, and she nurtures for them as if they were her children.
On the other hand, Princess Bubblegum is also a scientist, through-and-through. Just a few of the science-based activities she gets up to include creating a formula to raise the dead, curing diseases, brewing antidotes, inventing a myriad of gadgets, and manufacturing a living heart. Though Dr. Erika shows a ‘princess scientist’ doing real experiments, Princess Bubblegum may have her beat in the portrayal of a realistic scientific career; in several episodes, Bubblegum is shown hosting and attending scientific conferences.
Both the ‘princess’ and the ‘scientist’ aspects of her character get equal weight; they are inseparable from each other, and work in unison in everything Princess Bubblegum does. The ‘princess scientist’ idea so often commits the same sin in representations of STEM professionals that is common place so far; instead of welcoming all kinds of people into the disciplines, it falls hard on one side of a gender binary. The women held up as and represented as ‘princess scientists’ are feminine to the highest extent, so invested in physical appearance that they win pageants and are obsessed with makeup.
The way to encourage girls and women to enter the STEM disciplines isn’t bedazzling a lab coat or filling test tubes with pink and purple chemicals. Instead of taking science and decorating it with feminine elements, we need to embrace the possibilities of the princess and the scientist dissolving into each other to form a true ‘princess scientist.’ We should be holding up representations like Princess Bubblegum, a complex, intelligent, kind, girly, strong heroine that any science would be proud to have.