Physics undergraduate Katie Masters looks back at noughties science show Brainiac and finds a limited and alienating portrayal of women in the programme that does nothing to help our underrepresentation in science.
Brainiac: Science Abuse was a TV staple in my house during my early teens. And as much as I’d love to credit the programme with inducing an epiphany in my 13-year-old mind and sparking my ambition to embark on a physics degree, I’m not sure that’s quite what happened.
Brainiac was the show that made science cool. Seemingly popular with everyone, I even remember watching an excerpt where caravans were blown up using acid/alkali metal mixes in science class.
So what’s my gripe? Well, looking back, now older and hopefully a little wiser, I’m not a great fan of the programme’s depictions of women. Indeed, one of Brainiac‘s own introductions synopsises rather nicely:
This is Brainiac, the show… That’s a bit like GCSE Physics, but with more girls in bikinis… And less physics.
So let us take a look at Brainiac‘s ‘girls’. The first who comes to mind is the buxom Brainiac Nurse, to whom Jon Tickle pays a visit to ask: “I’m bored – what things can I do with my body?” The nurse, in her miniscule uniform and plunging neckline, suggests something which either feels weird, or which one cannot ordinarily do with one’s body, to keep him occupied.
Next in line is the addition to recent series, ‘How Hard is your Thing?’ where a high-heeled Thaila Zucchi, also sporting rather fitting clobber, proclaims that she loves “hard things.” She then proceeds to drop said hard things from a height to see just how hard they are. One instalment‘s hard thing is a radiator, to which Zucchi puts her licked finger, with accompanying “hsss”. This could almost be a spoof, but I suspect the program is not indulging in self-satire.
Both Thaila and the nurse are in the minority in that they have speaking parts. One in the non-speaking majority is Rachel Grant donning a bikini (as promised!) and grass skirt as Professor Myang Li. When Grant is on-screen, a narrator asks viewers whether a “juicy” fruit (e.g. a melon) will sink or float in water. Of course, that’s the funny bit, because the camera slowly pans over her ample bosom before reaching the fruit she’s holding.
The Brainiac logo used on the cover for the DVD collection comprising all six seasons of the programme. This shows a skull wearing protective goggles, with crossbones, inside a triangle. This is drawn with black lines, along with the ‘BRAINIAC’ title underneath, against a bright yellow background.