When I heard that Amy Poehler's Smart Girls at the Party was making a show about science, I couldn't wait to see what was in store. Smart Girls is one of my favorite tumblrs, with content that encourages young girls (and anyone, really) to value themselves. Their tagline is, "Change The World By Being Yourself!" The description on their website explains further:
Smart Girls is the brainchild of Amy Poehler and Meredith Walker, two best friends who support each other and want to share that support with teen girls from around the world. Support that they share with the teen girls who are ready to move against the crowd. Funny, focused, and powerful, Smart Girls seeks to help future women channel their intelligence, imagination, and curiosity into a drive to be their weird and wonderful selves.
Before I begin my formal critique of this show, let me tell you a few things I'm deliberatey not going to do:
Grade the funniness. This show stars a comedian named Megan Amram who I think is quite a funny woman. And even though this show is aiming for comedy, I'm not going to critique its comedic merits because I don't want anyone chiming in with "Well I thought it was funny." Comedy is completely subjective, so I'm not even going to tell you if I think this show is funny or not, because frankly, we have bigger fish to fry.
Critique the creators. As a person who creates content for the interwebs, I know how horrible it is for people to go from critiquing your creations to attacking you. I'm not going to do that. I am absolutely positive that everyone working on this show has nothing but the best of intentions and simply wanted to make a fun science-y show. And it's easy for any creator to get lost in the process and wind up blind to the end product.
Issue 1: There's, like, no science.
This is a science show that has very little science in it. I'm genuinely bummed about that. Each of the episodes so far has begun with a science demo that never gets done. There's a link in the description that leads to a downloadable PDF of the unfinished, unexplained activity, but these are really basic, don't have pictures of the steps, and don't explain what is going on.
If this show were on late night Comedy Central as a sort of meta, science-without-science show like Tim and Eric's Carl Sagan skit or a Look Around You spoof, it would be more appropriate. I'd be on board with a fake science show where the gag is that the experiment never happens. I happen to love that type of absurdist comedy. But this was supposed to be an actual show with actual content—at least, that's what I expected from Smart Girls given their track record.
Issue 2: There's so much alcohol.
As a reminder, Amy Poehler's Smart Girls has a teen girl audience. Why this series features alcohol so prominently is a huge mystery to me. Shows frequently end with Amram imploring viewers, "To watch more, click my gimlet. To subscribe, click my mimosa." After a moment she takes a sip of each and says, "Oh my God, I'm feeling a buzz. I'm such a lightweight."
Then it got worse. In the fourth episode, "Acids, Bases, and Talking about SCIENCE" the drinking takes center stage.
Instead of her standard spunky intro, Amram is in a hoodie with darkened goggles and delivers her opening lines, "Hi, I'm Megan Amram. I love science, but I also love looking good," as if in extreme discomfort and then adds, "But I also am super hung over right now."
And the fun doesn't stop there! She also takes a vomit break in the middle of her acids vs. bases demo, and since she uses wine as one of her litmus paper test subjects, she chugs from the bottle for a solid 10 seconds, citing a need for some "hair of the dog."
The bottle follows her into the interview portion of the show, this time with Cara Santa Maria. Amram announces that she will take a drink every time she learns something new, so she drinks throughout Santa Maria's interview, and every time she does, a little counter appears on the screen with the caption, "Learning!"
I don't know how to best to describe my horror at this level of binge drinking being portrayed in a show with a teenage girl audience. It made me incredibly uncomfortable, like taking a bath in a tub full of tuna casserole. As someone who has lost loved ones to alcoholism, I think it's a downright terrible idea to feature irresponsible drinking in a show intended for young people.
Issue 3: The heavy-handed girliness undermines the message
This show is not peppered with but rather slathered in jokes about "girly" things like the desire to be skinny, needing a sexy man to help you, and constantly wanting to know if people like you. I know that this was an attempt to be approachable and funny, but the result is that it makes femininity seem synonymous with ineptitude and shallowness. There are plenty of ways to be "girly" without being incompetent.
This leads to my main dissapointment in this show. It could be a show starring an unapologetically girly, silly, fun, and witty host doing science demonstrations and interviewing brilliant scientists and engineers. I would love that! It could be like Felicia Day's Flog for science, or a cousin of Emily Graslie's The Brain Scoop. But it's not. It's a show starring a hapless character who takes pride in not being able to do anything.
And I know that the standard defense will be. "It's satire! She's doing the opposite of what people should do." Yes, I know. I'm saying that it's not working. Negatively portraying a subset of people, such as women in science, doesn't get a pass if you say, "But it's a joke." (And whether or not it's actually funny is a separate issue entirely.)
This defense of ineffective satire reminds me of the It's Okay to Be Smart bobblehead video two years ago that showed Albert Einstein sexually harass Marie Curie. Again, despite the best of intentions, that didn't work either.
Besides, if she is saying the opposite of all things that scientists "should" do, that means scientists shouldn't enjoy shopping, doing their nails, or watching The Notebook. But guess what! Women can do those things and still be competent, productive researchers. So what is the crux of the satire here?
In the end, whatever message the team at Experimenting was trying to send is lost in the shuffle of jokes at women-culture's expense. It ends up saying an enormous amount of nothing.
You can be feminine, silly, and fun while hosting a science show or being a scientist. I hope in the near future Experimenting can more clearly illustrate that. It's a valuable thing to add to the discussion at this point in time where some people still talk about "women in science" like it's an aberration or a phenomenon that does little more than introduce crying into the laboratory setting.
In conclusion, girl power.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.