Engineers are interesting to observe. They love problems – it’s what keeps them occupied, they enjoy arguing and thrive under pressure. That is how most of the engineers I spoke to at school perceive themselves. When the same question was posed at high school students, their responses were far more humorous. Their feelings can best be summarized through this joke:
How do you know someone is an engineer?
Don’t worry, they’ll tell you every time you speak to them
The high schoolers’ thought engineers were arrogant, sarcastic, logical and quirky. They’re also seen as asocial and boring to a certain extent. When asked why they thought of engineers that way, the majority of them said that it was how engineers were portrayed in TV and film. Most of them hadn’t actually met engineers before, they were influenced by pop culture artifacts. While these points might seem negative, people thought it made engineers seem “cool”. Engineers were portrayed as lame nerds in the 80s and 90s, but being a nerd is not a bad thing at all according to the current generation – the arrogance is earned, sarcasm is funny, and logical and quirky is entertaining.
Through this blog post, I hope to uncover why engineers are perceived the way they are – through popular film portrayals of engineers. The point is not to demonstrate that films get engineers wrong/right or they portray the act of engineering incorrectly, it is to just explore and analyze the primary sources I have selected to see how they are applicable to the world of engineers and engineering.
Iron Man (in the MCU)
Tony Stark is the quintessential engineer of modern times. He builds the fancy suits, drives the fast cars, has the attitude and also doesn’t get much sleep. The effect of Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of Tony/Iron Man over the last 10 years has greatly influenced today’s youth. He also inspired me to join the field – I kid you not the only reason I wanted to be an engineer when I was 13 was because I thought I could end up working on the cool stuff I saw in the film. As did many others.
Effect on engineers
Needless to say, the films are exaggerated science fiction. It is highly improbable that someone could build the Mark 1 suit with a box of scraps in a cave, but it is a demonstration of how hacky engineers can get. In many cases, we actually end up repurposing techniques and hardware for purposes they weren’t meant for. The films have many other such technical marvels that so many people hope were real. Who wouldn’t want a miniature arc reactor and access to clean energy? Thanks to Iron Man, the representation of engineers went from shy and nerdy to badass.
The typical engineer
Iron Man brings with him the engineering persona. If the common perception of engineers today is “arrogant, narcissistic, cocky”, Tony Stark has had a major role to play in that. He starts off as a reckless genius and evolves into someone reliable and level-headed. His underlying persona stays constant throughout, with an emphasis on sense of humor, sarcasm and the ability to stay calm in dire situations. Both these cases speak to engineers like myself. The evolution is very similar to an engineering student who’s going through college life. We start off all high and mighty and (hopefully) end with the wisdom that makes us good contributors to society. The persona is also something seen in many engineers. A good engineer is good at pushing tasks to the last minute and coming up with an innovative solution during the 25th hour, thus the “calm under pressure” tag.
Iron Man brings out an engineers’ emotional make-up truly well. It is what has made engineers seem cool and we have oh so many Iron Man-Engineer memes and references.
Mark Watney is actually a botanist, but an engineer at heart. A major veil this character lifts off the engineering lifestyle is that one needs an engineering degree to be an engineer. Watney’s feats throughout the movie are an example of true engineering – repurposing everything at your disposal to survive. Apart from being an excellent book and film, it is also realistic. While watching the film with my buddies, there were many moments where we thought “that could actually be possible”.
In the Martian, Mark Watney has a fantastic understanding of applied engineering. His knowledge of the basic sciences paired with a mathematical mind is a depiction of an ideal engineer – one who can “overcome overwhelming odds by sciencing the s**t out of it”. His usage of duct tape reminds me of how much duct tape we actually use. I spent a few hours using about 100 meters (yes, the metric system rocks!) of duct tape in my capstone project to shield some circuitry from RF signals. Another innovative idea in the movie is the usage of a radioactive apparatus as a heating system. That is both genius and incredibly stupid at the same time, and it is exactly what engineers do when they need to get stuff to work in the last minute.
The way Watney attacks his dilemma and goes about planning to survive on Mars is characteristic of the engineering method we are taught in almost all our 100 level classes. Identify the problem, acknowledge it, spend 30 minutes freaking out about it and then accept your fate/start working on a solution. The solution itself is broken down into an order of priority, planning for future contingencies and events and flawless execution/sticking to the plan. It was refreshing to see this method in action and watching it work so well was special. Watney’s demeanor throughout the film was also accurate. He did all the freaking out in the beginning (albeit subtly) and stayed calm till the end. He even managed to stay optimistic and funny given his situation. Making fun of oneself is something I have seen in a majority of my engineer friends. In fact, most of the downright funny engineer memes and cartoons are created by engineers.
Mark Watney highlights the average engineer’s attitude towards their work.
The message in this film is of utmost importance to engineering and I have to slightly deviate from the theme I’ve set in the post so far to discuss it. This is relevant not just to engineering, but to all STEM fields. Hidden Figures is inspired by true events and the three main characters in the film were really NASA employees in the 1960s, when segregation was at a high in the US. This should serve as an inspiration for all those who feel out of place as engineers due to their gender, race or some other factor no one should care about.
Hidden Figures shows the resolve of these three women and how their efforts brought about change in NASA. While some of the situations were fictionalized and the racism was a little bit subtler in reality, it was still uncalled for. All that matters in engineering is one’s mind, not one’s skin or appearance. Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae show how STEM women have to overcome social obstacles to fit in and focus on their work. They have to put in more effort compared to the others because they aren’t taken seriously when it comes to their job. Because they did it in those harsh times, it is our duty to carry their ideals forward.
Being an engineer does not have anything to do with appearance. It has to do with the mindset. 80% of engineers are male, but this does not mean that it isn’t for others. There has been a steady rise in the number of engineers of other genders. This is due to films and other media portrayals similar to Hidden Figures. Why is it important to encourage girls to take up STEM fields? This is because they are usually diverted to other female-centric careers such as medicine, nursing, teaching, etc by their families. If someone’s interested in STEM, all they need is a mentor to introduce them to the field and to support their passion. We don’t (and probably won’t ever) have enough engineers. It is crucial that someone with the talent and mindset to become an engineer actually becomes one.
Hidden Figures shows us that anyone with the mind for it can become successful engineers.
Conclusion, Learning Moments
From Iron Man and The Martian
When I started my research, I was under the assumption that pop culture would portray engineers in the wrong light. I actually hoped to find some stereotypes that solidified how they misunderstood engineers. As I was going through potential artifacts, I found some erroneous examples. However, I chose to ignore them and talk about Iron Man and The Martian instead because these reflected how the public perceives engineers now, not 30 years ago. Positive reinforcement trumps negative reinforcement in my opinion. I mentioned before that these films get almost everything right about an engineer, and the portrayals actually make engineers look good. If people are inspired by these characters and end up going into a STEM career, it’s to our benefit. More engineers/scientists = more problem solvers.
Before I actually studied the characters on Hidden Figures for my essay, I didn’t understand how important it is to spread STEM awareness to those who don’t take up the field. I thought that anyone with the desire and competence to study engineering or the sciences would just find the way to do so without the need of coaxing – I was mistaken. Competence knows no race or gender, but competent people could be discouraged due to those factors. Hidden Figures was just a film, but it prompted me to speak to the women engineers in my classes and workplace to realize their challenges and understand the situation. I decided that I was going to do something about it. I signed up for volunteering opportunities at work which involve getting middle schoolers excited about STEM and letting them consider STEM careers. Female participation in these events is on par with male participation, which is nice to see. If we as a community can keep that fire in them going, it’s going to benefit us all on the long run.
- Portrayals of Engineers in “Science Times”; F. Clark; D. L. Illman; IEEE Technology and Society Magazine (Volume 25, Issue 1, Spring 2006, pp. 12-21)
- The portrayal of the network in the popular media, or what the non-techie person-on-the-street must think of us!; C. Kessler; S. D. Shepard; IEEE Communications Magazine (Volume 35, Issue 5, May 1997, pp. 114-118)
- Cultural Representations of Gender and Science: Portrayals of Female Scientists and Engineers in Popular Films; Jocelyn Steinke; Science Communication (Volume 27, Issue 1, September 2005, pp. 27-63)