No Props for ‘Bones’ Because #notanactuallivingscientist

No lie, I totally bought this t-shirt.

Bah it’s the end of the term so I’m grumpy. I’m surviving on chocolate, popcorn twists, Dr. Pepper, tylenol, and coffee. Most of the archaeologists I know or want to know are at the Society for American Archaeology meetings in Vancouver and I’m dealing with end of term insanity. I’m also bombarded by students in my office (which gives me joy and life) who have questions about what classes to take next year, what a career in archaeology or anthropology looks like, and what they need to do if they want to be a forensic anthropologist (!!!) when they grow up. I mention all of this not to solicit your pity nor to brag about how overworked or tired I am because I hate that ideology too but just to provide context for the rant that follows.

Fuck ‘Bones’. Yes some anthropologists love that damn show and there is even an excellent blog by an actual anthropologist (this will become important shortly) that posts on each and every episode breaking down the good and the bad of the forensic anthropology depicted, but I’m not one of those anthropologists. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) recently shared a story by CNN commemorating the vital role that ‘Bones’ (and other shows) have played in encouraging females to become scientists, referred to as the “Scully Effect“. Before you get all ragey with me know I am not angry about female scientists (nor about X-Files because no, I love the X-Files) but I’ve decided in my current ragey state to take a stand against encouraging and promoting stereotypical representations of who a female scientist is and what scientists do as if the ends (people becoming a scientist) justifies the means (misrepresentation to the extreme of depicting really bad, unethical science).

Hell I admit that Indiana Jones sparked my interest in archaeology BUT so did the Nova specials I used to watch with my poppa as did the stories of anthropologists I read about in National Geographic. See I’m getting old and I’m starting to become concerned, even as a huge popular culture consumer, about representations of my discipline and of science more broadly.  Why do we need to make science palatable in the form of popular culture? Why are there not enough real science shows with real scientists? Do NOT tell me that it is because people won’t watch them, that they have to be dumbed down or sensationalized for people to watch because where have we heard that before? Oh yeah – people won’t watch films with female leads or with people of colour leads or with LGBQTA* people in them… but are you kidding me WE DO! *cough* Rogue One, Hidden Figures *cough* We are begging for diversity on our screens! I bet if you gave us shows with actual living scientists we would consume them greedily too and beg for more.

This concern around actual living scientists is a thing; I know it’s a thing because it has its own hashtag #actuallivingscientist. It became a thing on social media in response to the growing anti-science/science-as-elitist position of the populist movements in the United States, Canada, and Britain (among others), which were inflamed by the re-circulation of the results of a 2013 survey that found most Americans could not name a living scientist. So scientists on social media began using the hashtag to introduce themselves and their work, to challenge stereotypes, to humanize science, and to connect with the public. This response and associated hashtag is widely accepted because of how it integrates with intersectionality – a clear demonstration of who a scientist is in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, etc but not only or simply one of those things. Teachers picked up on this creating #actuallivingscientists boards in their classrooms to show their students they too could do exciting, interesting work in science – that science is not what they see on their screens, it is not just what they learn in their classrooms, and it is certainly NOT only done exclusively by the “old, white dudes” textbooks celebrate.

I know that there is a whole organization devoted to ensuring the use of accurate science in the entertainment industry, which is great in combating pseudoscience. This is great but my concerns around representation remain – pat on the back for consulting an #actuallivingscientist but have you actually written a role or cast an actor who represents what a scientist is or are you just doing it because you’ve realized that people get more out of their experience when it is real (a huge motivating factor driving the use of conlangs. Ed: another post!?)?

Why then am I so angry about ‘Bones’? Because I’m told by CNN and the AAA that I should celebrate (mis)representations of people in my field (broadly) because it gets people interested in the field. Sure, I love that people think anthropology or archaeology is cool because they saw something about it somewhere. I love that students take anthropology courses because they saw something they connect with. But I struggle with the let down, the reality check that being a forensic anthropologist isn’t what ‘Bones’ promised it would be (i.e., more bones, poor access to cool tools, and very few explicit “forensic anthropologist inquire within” job opportunities). And listen I’m not saying we can’t have our wonderful shows or movies or books, I will not give up my Dr. Dana Scully. I guess I just want my students to be inspired by #actuallivingscientists like Dr. Kristina Killgrove (who won an award for her public outreach) as just ONE example instead of the fictional Dr. Temperance Brennan even if she’s “based on” Kathy Reichs.  This means we need to not only make sure that we have real science in our shows or celebrate portrayals like the token representations they are but argue for actual scientists doing actual science too. And don’t tell me no one wants it – Bill Nye is coming back!

2 thoughts on “No Props for ‘Bones’ Because #notanactuallivingscientist

  1. I’m a little late to the post, but I was actually just talking about the sometimes ridiculous portrayal in Bones with a friend of mine. She was watching the show and in one episode they look at an ear and just whip out an age and sex estimate from it, and she was shocked. She was sure that wasn’t a thing, and frankly I find it unlikely that you could say anything with any confidence about an ear, or its internal components, regarding sex or age after seeing first-hand how hard it can be with a cranium! Don’t get me wrong, I find the idea and topic of Bones fascinating, but the portrayal could use some work. Now Bill Nye, though! I loved watching his videos in school; they were honestly a highlight of my education. I love when movies or shows do their homework and bring realism to the screen.


  2. Sarah Colman

    I like the post because I feel it is inviting for introductory students to find examples of anthropology in popular culture being debunked. This post demonstrates anthropology generally and the anthropological perspective in a way that is relevant and interesting to science, pop culture, and students of anthropology. This post gives insight into “actual” anthropology and the career paths and types of work done by anthropologists while comparing and contrasting the information found in the media. This post is relevant to the course themes because it looks at women’s roles and how stereotypes within the media and our culture more broadly misrepresent women and science. Within this post, it addresses the lack of representation of female leads, LGBTQ individuals, and people of color in mainstream media. This is important because it looks into the norms our society perpetuates about gender and sexuality in our culture and the media, linking it explicitly to our course. This Post sparks interest for me because it incorporates the perspective of real anthropologists alongside the pop culture, which draws me in and makes it applicable to my everyday experiences. I specifically connected with this post because it addresses the rarity of women in strong roles and the reality of those women being represented fairly. I connected with this topic because I am hopeful to see women educated women of color represented clearly in the media one day.


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