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Why Cinema Loves the Marginalized Scientist

"Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge" joins the ever-growing genre of movies celebrating scientists who have triumphed against prejudice.

Photo illustration by Josephine Livingstone. Courtesy of The Weinstein Company, P'Artisan Filmproduktion GmbH, and 20th Century Fox.

The radium puns come early and they come strong in the new movie Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge. Our heroine is “radiant,” la reine du radium. Just as each element has a certain valence, every line spoken in the Curie lab contains multitudes. And indeed the actress Karolina Gruszka is radiant: She shines over her test tubes, lit up by the very substance that would ultimately kill her.

Marie Curie is the latest movie about unlikely heroes of science, joining Hidden Figures, The Imitation Game, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. While Curie’s life as a scientific pioneer in early twentieth century France was not very much like the three African-American mathematicians of Hidden Figures, nor the polymath Alan Turing, you wouldn’t know that from their biopics.

A new genre is forming at the movies, in which remarkable minds transcend their social context to achieve scientific renown. The effect has been to collapse the experiences of their marginalized protagonists (real or imagined) into a single struggle, one that perpetuates the notion that the triumph of a heroic individual is equal to real social change.

As part of an academic duo with her husband Pierre, Marie Curie (1867-1934) led a life of extraordinary scientific achievement. She won two Nobel prizes, the only person ever to do so in two different sciences (physics and chemistry). She also became the first woman professor at the University of Paris. Curie was born in Poland (her maiden name was Skłodowska), which she honored by naming her first discovered element Polonium.

Marie Curie shows Curie describing her science as the “chemistry of the unponderable.” The vagueness of that description is fitting for a movie that relies on the viewer’s general knowledge to understand why isolating radium was a big deal. Curie herself only speaks in poetic platitudes.

Instead of focusing on the intricacies of her research, Marie Curie focuses on the death of Curie’s husband (horse accident) and the scandal that followed her affair with physicist Paul Langevin. These emotional dramas play out against the backdrop of Curie’s struggle for recognition by the institutions of French science. These stakes are made extremely obvious, as Curie gives plucky speeches to evil-faced old men who are smoking evil cigars.

A Schubert-esque score and an extremely pretty, dappled cinematography make Marie Curie a compelling portrait of an undeniably important woman. But her victory over the oppressive French academy structures the plot, leaving the viewer stranded at the moment of Curie’s triumphant second Nobel. It is as if, after Curie’s lifetime, no other woman would ever suffer discrimination in science. It is as if public vindication were the only thing that ever happened in her life.

This format has become familiar in recent years. 2015’s Hidden Figures told a hybrid truth-and-fiction story about three black woman mathematicians who facilitated America’s forward bounds in the 1960s space race: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. That movie also ended on a note of triumphalism as all three geniuses earn their fabulous due, leaving the viewer with the strong impression that African-American women would from then on be immune to racism within NASA and, by extension, the great public scientific institutions of America.

Marie Curie and Hidden Figures both rely on extremely watchable female protagonists. Karolina Gruszka, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe are women with personality, able to extract human specificity from their boilerplate roles. Both movies show women standing in front of a blackboard doing cool math with chalk, a cliché that each and every actress transcends through her performance. Both movies show women who know that they deserve a seat at the scientific table. Those demands, and their redemptive fulfillment—the flight of the rocket, the second Nobel prize, the name on the payroll—represent the beginning, middle, and end of these movies’ concerns.

Both movies tell the story of a wrong, righted. But the righting of the wrong—the triumph of academic ability over racism and sexism—only lasts for the length of the movie. Of these women’s lives after the movies, there can be no representation. This is because the victory of scientific discovery and subsequent peer recognition function to blast the movie into narrative fulfillment, which is not the same thing as justice.

Hollywood movies about people from the past who triumphed over discriminatory structures have become big business in recent years. And the basic plot principles that animate Marie Curie and Hidden Figures apply to them all. They apply to the vocal disability of The King’s Speech; to the aristocratic trans parable The Danish Girl; to the historical redemption of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game; to the unjustly forgotten legacy of Henrietta Lacks; to the pharmaceutical activism of Dallas Buyers Club.

Close your eyes and let these movies layer in your mind, however, and you’ll feel the vibrations of old, mediocre movies rippling up through fin de siècle American culture. Erin Brockovich, Forrest Gump, Pretty Woman, A League of Their Own, Good Will Hunting—the template is dusty and inelegant. The hero triumphs against adversity! Except now she’s something other than a cis hetero man, so: well done us.

The scientific method is the principle with which Western modernity has defined itself. The process of hypothesis, research, and analysis is at the heart of intellectual endeavor, but it is also metaphorically at the heart of that great American fantasy: meritocracy. Just as objects that are less dense than water float, the greatest minds will rise to the top of science. Since scientific ethics are so strict, and the very principle of scientific inquiry defines the meaning of objective in our dictionaries, science is the perfect place for brains to prove that the body that houses that thinking machine has no bearing on its quality.

Unfortunately, this is not how education works. It is not how money for supporting the young minds of African-American children is distributed; it is not how employers and teachers and tenure review boards function. Perfect objectivity is an idealization of reality, since it cannot take place within the human mind but only outside it. It is perfectly good as a civilizational principle, but only when continually interrogated and recalibrated to fit the world as it is, rather than a fantasy of the past.

Popular cinema has chosen to celebrate outliers within the history of science, because their stories are the most glorious and least complicated. Indeed, in the end they perpetuate the racist and sexist myth that science is a meritocratic field in which any searing mind can blister through discriminatory ceilings. That wasn’t the case in Marie Curie’s lifetime, nor is it the case in the public scientific institutions in our lifetimes. These movies represent as pleasant a laboratory experiment as any, but the results, unfortunately, are null.