The Importance of Being Abby
For Halloween this year, despite the fact that I’d been on my new project for less than three months, I dressed up as Abby from NCIS at work. The responses were about evenly split between a short pause when someone first saw me, then an exclamation of, “Abby!” and, after a full explanation of who I was, the comment, “Oh, I don’t watch TV.” With one of these latter folk, I got into a discussion of just who Abby was, and was really caught off-guard by his question, “Is it a comedy?” The comment distressed me, so I’ve been thinking a lot about it ever since, and I have come to the conclusion that Abby’s work here is not done.
When I was a kid, the roles women played on TV were pretty limited: mom/wife, nurse, school teacher, nun…and that’s about it. Maybe bank teller and crime victim, screaming and needing to be rescued. After a while, we made progress: there were women as cops (in an evolutionary spectrum from Charlie’s Angels to Police Woman to Cagney&Lacey to Law&Order), lawyers, doctors; usually a small, but present percentage. SF/F shows have had a little more scope, ranging from Uhura, to Willow and Buffy, to Xena, to Captain Janeway and Belanna Torres from Voyager, and Zoe on Firefly. But in looking at Abby, and why she appeals to me as a technical woman, it occurred to me that she is pushing a boundary I’ve been battering for years: what is a smart, technical woman allowed to look like?
For years, I’ve given technical talks at SF cons in a variety of outfits, from a saloon hall girl to Victorian underwear to a silver lame Star Trek gown to alternate universe Star Trek characters. I’ve heard that it can be very surreal to see one of these talks; one friend likened it to seeing the picture from one TV channel and the sound from another. The important thing is that every time someone saw one of these talks, their idea of what a technical woman looks like was broadened. And that’s not just important for people who deal with technical women—it’s vitally important for the little girls, and not so little girls, who may one day grow up to be those technical women.
If the only role model you saw for a scientific/technically ept woman was Scully or Bones (of the show of the same name), some subset of girls would be very comfortable with that. (I know I would have been, had they been around when I was impressionable.) However, more of them would feel that that sort of career wouldn’t be good for them because that’s not how they see themselves, nor how they want to see themselves. Abby is important, not because I think all little girls with a technical bent should grow up to be goth forensic scientists, but because that should be within the realm of possibility. Because what music you listen to, the color and style of your hair, and what clothes you wear do not affect your abilities in logical/deductive thought and thus should not keep you from a technical career. Because you shouldn’t have to always be serious, always be straitlaced; you should be allowed to have fun, to enjoy your job; to be enthusiastic and perky without having to fetch the coffee.