The scientist as sixties icon: cinema, politics and collective memory

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From the soaring rhetoric of the space race to apocalyptic fears of nuclear annihilation, scientific advancement found itself at the centre many US public debates of the 1960s. At times associated with the horrors of modern warfare, at others with positive developments in terms of environmentalism, community-building, wellbeing and spirituality, the figure of the scientist loomed large in the public sphere, embodying political and social tensions of the age. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that recent popular culture has turned to the scientist as a channel through which to explore the sixties’ impact and enduring legacy.

This essay examines the scientist as a symbolic centrepiece in broader cultural memory of the 1960s. As has been well-rehearsed, sixties remembrance has pervaded political rhetoric and popular culture since the late 1970s, with arbiters of various stripes shaping memories in line with their own ideological agendas (Marcus 2004; Von Bothmer 2010; Gruner 2016). Films released since the 1980s, such as The Right Stuff (1983), Gorillas in the Mist (1988), Contact (1999), Hidden Figures (2016) and The Shape of Water (2017) have positioned the scientist within broader narratives of political and cultural upheaval. Providing a close analysis of Gorilla’s in the Mist, Hidden Figures and The Shape of Water, I explore the ways in which these films use the 1960s’ scientist as a character that mediates contemporaneous issues pertaining to race, gender and environmentalism. Furthermore, these films portray the scientist as a figure who can give “voice” to those who, literally or symbolically, cannot speak and provide a vehicle for exploring marginalised histories.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Scientist in Popular Culture: Playing God and Working Wonders
EditorsRebecca Janicker
Place of PublicationLanham, MD
PublisherLexington Academic Books
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781793633040
ISBN (Print)9781793633033
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2022


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