Why are test tubes and lipstick a dangerous combination?

Written by Heather. Posted in News

Three years ago the European Union launched a now-infamous video to promote Science called ‘It’s a Girl Thing!’ This 45 second promo looked like a cross between a cosmetics ad and a girl group music video. Within days, the EU responded to the flood of criticism by withdrawing this video from YouTube and rewriting much of the rest of their campaign. Recently, Heather decided to use this video to spark discussion among participants in a science and equity workshop. After scouring YouTube she found just one version of the video remaining. Yet two weeks later it too had been taken down. In this short post she wonders why bubbling test tubes and lipstick propellants remain such a dangerous combination that they need to be censored from our internet commons.

You can view most of the original ‘Science – It’s a Girl Thing!’ video below in the only way it remains visible – embedded within a critique. It begins with a young good-looking lab-coated male scientist looking up from his microscope to the sight of three attractive young women dressed in very high heels and short skirts. These women giggle their way through the ad, intercut with overflowing test-tubes, models of molecules, lipstick and other girlie and scientific ephemera. At the end their fashionable shades transform into equally fashionable safety goggles. The music, with its single lyric, reminds us: ‘Science – It’s a Girl Thing!’

At the time there was much anger directed at the video for stereotyping and sexualising women and for presenting unrealistic images of female scientists. Blogs and vlogs rapidly appeared to voice this anger and as I said, it was rapidly withdrawn. At the time I was one of a few dissenting voices as I expressed some ambiguities at the video’s near-universal rejection:

What’s disturbed me in the reaction is how sure everyone seems to be that they know what works to attract women into science. It’s true that there’s some recent research evidence that hyper-feminine science role models can put off those very girls who are most enthusiastic about science. But actually what we know, as catalogued in the UK context by Alison Phipps, is that past efforts to promote science, technology and engineering to women have been profoundly unsuccessful. So why not try something new? Also, one of the things we are pretty sure about is that our Western image of science is strongly associated with masculinity and at least this advert can’t be accused of reproducing that cliché.

I remain perplexed as to why the response to the video was so vehement, so definite, so consistent. There are a lot of bad videos out there, perhaps especially among those promoting science and engineering (Engineering Happiness really makes me cringe). So why did this particular one have to be removed?

I am even more perplexed as to why three years later, there are apparently still people censoring its presence online.

Perhaps as a society we are threatened by its mixing of science and hyper-femininity.


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