Ellen Gray: Girl geeks rule on TV shows

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Jasika Nicole stars as a junior FBI agent on "Fringe."

WATCHING TV might not make you smart, but unless you spend all your tube time keeping up with the Kardashians, chances are it's at least broadened your view of what smart looks like.

For more than 20 million viewers a week, it looks like Abby Sciuto, the pigtailed Goth girl Pauley Perrette plays on CBS' "NCIS."

A forensic specialist who's been known to narrow a list of suspects by analyzing the DNA in people's poop - a dirty job that happily occurred offscreen - Abby has a different skill set, but she's the glass-is-at-least-half-full version of Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), the grumpy CTU worker whose computer wizardry on Fox's "24" helped Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) survive some of his worst days.

Abby's so popular that when CBS was ready to spin off its No. 1 drama, it had Perrette help in the handoff to "NCIS: Los Angeles" with an early crossover.

Chloe's so iconic that including a woman who's good with computers and other technology - think Penelope, the Caltech dropout Kirsten Vangsness plays on CBS' "Criminal Minds," Jasika Nicole's Astrid on Fox's "Fringe" or Angela, Michaela Conlin's tech-savvy artist on Fox's "Bones" - is now more the TV rule than the exception.

"Bones," of course, is a geek-girl extravaganza, a romantic comedy (with, yes, corpses) built around a brilliant scientist/novelist named Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and her less cerebral FBI agent partner, Seeley Booth (Philly's own David Boreanaz).

"I think that for years we saw one thing, which was men and technology and math and science and women being the heart and soul and spiritual person, and I think that all of us eventually - the people who make TV, networks, studios and TV writers - look at that and get tired of that," said "Bones" creator Hart Hanson.

Conlin, an Allentown native whose character was initially less comfortable with science than most of her colleagues at Washington's fictional Jeffersonian, has seen Angela evolve into a tech-savvy member of the team.

"I think the thing about Angela is I think she thinks she's not a geek," Conlin said. "She kind of postures as this very cool kind of, you know, street-smart gal, but I think she's actually a real dork at heart. And I think that's why she's been at the Jeffersonian for so long. You can't have that sort of skill set and know how to do all those things that those people do there without being kind of geeky."

"Our hard shiny lab has had its effect on everyone," said Hanson, "except for Booth, who it should have, and Brennan, who just lived there always from the beginning."

The lure of the lab has also been felt in comedy. One of TV's most-watched sitcoms, CBS' "The Big Bang Theory," started out as a show about superbright male roommates (Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki) and their blond, less academically gifted female neighbor (Kaley Cuoco).

"Big Bang" has only gotten funnier as it's expanded the guys' universe to include women scientists, especially the two played by Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch.

In real life, "I revolve in the world of geekdom," said Bialik, who, like her character, Amy Farrah Fowler, has a doctorate.

(The character's doctorate is in neurobiology, while "I'm a neuroscientist," said Bialik. "It's a subtle distinction.")

Glammed up for a CBS press party this summer, the former "Blossom" star was barely recognizable as the fashion-challenged Fowler, but the red-carpet look was just a facade, insisted Bialik.

She may appear more comfortable socially than Amy - "I have a different sort of training as a performer, I guess" - but "I'm known in certain circles for being socially awkward. Socializing is hard for me, especially with a lot of trendy, hipster kind of people," she said.

"That's kind of actually why I like working on 'Big Bang.' Our writers are such interesting intellectual types that at any random party we have to go to, there's always a heavy philosophical discussion that I find myself in and I appreciate that. I'm much more comfortable competing on that level than at the 4-inch heels level," said Bialik.

Rauch plays the girlier of the two scientists. The Monmouth County, N.J., native said she borrowed the high-pitched voice for her character, Bernadette Rostenkowski, from her own mother, "without the New Jersey accent."

"What's really cool about the characters that have been brought to 'Big Bang' is that we're kind of geeks in our own way. I think we're seeing more and more of that on other shows as well," she said.

And if seeing is believing, some think having girls grow up seeing women on television with math and science backgrounds may lead to more women pursuing careers in those fields.

It's already happening, said "NCIS' " Perrette, who's participated in a public-service campaign to promote careers in science and technology.

"They call it the Abby Effect, actually. We've been on the show nine seasons and these girls started watching when they were young, and they're in college now," Perrette said.

"I get letters and stuff from people all the time, all over the world - parents, grandparents, kids themselves - that say this fictional character that I play" influenced them, "and now they're pursuing math and science . . . I went to college, I loved school. I love math and science myself. And to be able to play this character that has literally made young girls think that it's OK for them to pursue math and science is unbelievable," she said.

In terms of response to her "Big Bang Theory" character, Bialik said she gets "a lot from the geek male culture, an appreciation for this kind of female being presented and represented. But I think also for females in sciences, I've heard a lot from women who are either wanting to be scientists or who, you know, find it inspiring to see someone in science."

Jovana J. Grbic isn't surprised.

The creative director of Los Angeles-based ScriptPhD, Grbic, who has a doctorate in chemistry, specializes, by her own description, in "science communication in entertainment, advertising, and media."

"We're kind of in a really interesting time in terms of girls studying science," she said, noting that at one point in her graduate career, she was one of two women in her lab and "there were no female professors," but that in another program she was in, women were better represented.

"I think what we're seeing reflected in pop culture is a changing dynamic in terms of our belief that women can do this . . . and that it's sexy," Grbic.

She called the depiction of women like "NCIS' " Abby and "24's" Chloe both "aspirational and reflective."

TV, Grbic said, is showing change that's under way, but in a technical environment, "you're [still] not going to see a Chloe at every desk."

At Drexel, where women still make up less than half the student body, Alisa Morss Clyne, assistant dean for undergraduate affairs, said she'd never personally heard a girl say she was inspired to study science or engineering because of something she'd seen on television.

But "I believe it. I do think it's true," said Clyne, who teaches mechanical engineering.

"I've had girls say to me" that seeing that someone like Clyne herself is an engineer makes them think they can be, too, she said. "I have no doubt that seeing people who look more like them as smart, technical people . . . definitely inspires girls."

The key here might be "like them," suggested Grbic, who said she was always impressed that "24" writers allowed Rajskub's character, who grew more prominent as the show progressed, to be difficult.

"She was a little awkward, a little sarcastic," she said. "You're not seeing these hypersexed females who just happen to be astrophysicists."

For her part, Rajskub, whose pre-"24" background was mostly in comedy - she was a regular this season on CBS' short-lived sitcom "How to Be a Gentlemen" - sees women like Chloe as just another expression of TV diversity.

"I think the whole climate of shows right now, in different aspects, for women is fantastic. Because it's showing a lot of different angles and complexities," she said, adding, "Not that being a smart woman is complex."


 

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