This is a post that my girlfriend Megan suggested I make after I told her about one of my favorite characters from Marvel’s Black Panther film, which I saw a few days ago. Both Megan and I have the Asperger’s trait of having extremely focused, almost obsessive interests in learning about technical things. Even when I was little, I loved to collect and categorize information about geography and astronomy, while Megan would study a specific period of history or the grammar and syntax rules of an unfamiliar language. We both enjoy video games and working with computers.
When I was growing up, I had the niche of being “nerdy” to fit into. I didn’t know anything about Asperger’s, but I knew it wasn’t that unusual to be nerdy and into technical things. But until recently, the “nerd” stereotype seemed to only be applied to boys. There wasn’t much of a “niche” for Megan to fit into aside from being the “shy girl.”
But that seems to be changing! I’ve noticed a number of examples of technically-minded girls in recent popular movies and other media. I think that’s a great trend– hopefully examples like these can inspire more girls to have fun learning about the technical side of things.
The earliest example of a character like this that I remember watching on TV is Penny from the Inspector Gadget cartoon. It was a simple show for kids with the same basic formula every episode: Inspector Gadget is given a mission to solve with the help of his endless supply of voice-activated spy equipment. He invariably misses the most obvious clues but good-naturedly bumbles toward the solution thanks to luck– and the fact that his dog Brain and his niece Penny are working behind the scenes to actually solve the case.
Penny always figured out the bad guys’ true evil plan using her computer book, which combined all of the functionality of a laptop, a smart phone, and the Web about a decade before they were invented. The show really made me wish I had a computer book!
Even though Inspector Gadget was a silly show and the writing was never deep, I liked Penny for always being able to figure out the solution to the mystery but never feeling the need to take credit for it. It’s not like the show was a huge influence on me, but perhaps it’s part of the reason why the idea of a girl being a technical genius never seemed surprising to me.
Another neat example of a “tech girl” character is Lucca from the 1995 Super Nintendo game Chrono Trigger, which tells a vast, complex story about a group of friends who try to use time travel to prevent a catastrophe from taking place in the near future.
Ever since she was young, Lucca has studied all she could about science and has proven herself to be a talented inventor and mechanic. When a teleportation device she and her father built malfunctions, Lucca is able to deduce that she has accidentally discovered time travel.
I really like the way the game establishes Lucca’s personality early in the game by contrast with other characters. You start the game from the point of view of a boy named Crono. Crono has no spoken lines throughout the game, which is a storytelling device commonly used in games to make it easier for the player to imagine themselves in the place of the hero. (Link from the Legend of Zelda series of games is another example of a silent protagonist.)
The first major character that Crono meets is a girl who introduces herself as “Marle.” She has long yellowish hair styled in a ponytail and wears a color-coordinated pale blue outfit. Marle asks Crono to show her around the Millennial Fair, teasing him in a flirty way while not revealing who she really is– Princess Nadia, who has sneaked away from the castle in order to enjoy a day away from the watching eyes of the palace guard.
Then we meet Lucca, Crono’s childhood friend, who is setting up her teleporter to demonstrate it at the fair. Her outfit is a clash of colors– a teal shirt with an orange tunic and yellow scarf. She wears a utility belt, work boots, and a thick pair of glasses that make it hard to see her eyes. Her hair is cropped short under her green helmet with an antenna on it.
She is very friendly and sweet– it just doesn’t seem like she is overly concerned with her appearance– she wears the clothes she does because they are the most comfortable and useful for working with machines. Maybe it’s because I’m a nerdy boy myself, but I always found Lucca a much more interesting character than Marle.
Lucca quickly refines the machine’s ability to create time portals and figures out some of the rules by which they operate. She is also the one to explain to the game’s protagonist Crono that there is a danger inherent in creating a time paradox that can erase a person’s own existence.
Chrono Trigger is only winnable if its cast of characters, with different personalities– and from different time periods– can each find a way to contribute to the team’s quest. But without Lucca’s technical knowledge, the quest couldn’t even begin!
Disney’s Big Hero 6 movie had a team of superheroes who developed their abilities as part of a college science lab, so all of them consider themselves “nerds.” One of them is Honey Lemon, a chemistry major who has discovered all sorts of useful chemical reactions that manifest themselves in rapid changes of temperature, state, and consistency.
Her crime-fighting gear is a really clever idea. Honey Lemon carries a mini-purse with a grid of buttons on the side of it labeled with a section of the periodic table of elements. By pressing these buttons, she can dial up whatever combination of chemicals she wants to use. The purse injects the chemicals into one of the polyethylene shells that make up the purse’s arm strap, giving her mini-grenades that can freeze an enemy in ice, give off a bright flash of light, create soft foam to cushion a fall, or do whatever else she can imagine.
It’s an oversimplification of chemistry, but I think it’s an especially clever storytelling idea because it conveys her extensive knowledge about her field (she is able to dial up whatever she wants to create without even needing to look at the buttons) while expressing her personality in a traditionally feminine way (along with her bright pink costume). I’ve seen it described as “the purse that holds everything.”
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi gave us Rose Tico, a maintenance worker on the Resistance cruiser Raddus. She wears a drab mechanic’s jumpsuit with pockets and straps for carrying tools.
We get a glimpse of her world in the way she’s introduced. She works on the lower decks of the ship, and isn’t part of the meetings on the bridge where the senior officers decide what course to take, or the plans of a few junior officers to defy their orders to undertake a desperate mission. When we first see her, she is weeping because of the death of her older sister Paige in the Resistance’s last battle.
But Rose doesn’t consider herself any less a part of the Resistance just because her job is behind the scenes and doesn’t get a lot of glory.
At first, when she meets Finn, who is considered a hero for abandoning the First Order and helping the Resistance in the previous movie, Rose seems star-struck, unable to get any words out. But then she realizes that he is trying to sneak off the ship in an escape pod– something she has caught other Resistance members trying to do because they have lost hope– she stuns him with an electric prod! Because of her technical knowledge about sensor systems, she ends up getting swept up in Poe Dameron’s plan to infiltrate the First Order flagship in order to sabotage its sensors so the Raddus can escape to safety.
Throughout the movie, we see almost every character waver in their convictions. At the start of the story, Finn really doesn’t care as much about what happens to the Resistance as he does about finding his friend Rey. Poe distrusts his superiors and disobeys their orders. Admiral Holdo distrusts Poe and doesn’t tell him that she really does have a plan they all need to follow. Rey is tempted by the Dark Side of the Force because the pain caused by her parents’ abandonment of her has created a desperate, insatiable need to find someone who can tell her where she belongs. Luke Skywalker has shut himself off from the Force because of his horror over losing Ben Solo, his sister’s son, to the Dark Side. Even Leia says that “the light has gone out” when the Resistance’s final call for help goes unanswered.
But Rose never loses hope. She refuses to give up, and is steadfast in her belief in what the Resistance stands for– it is a symbol of hope recognized by the oppressed throughout the galaxy. And despite the heavy losses throughout the story, despite all of the plans that fail, the ending of the movie shows that Rose was right– the core of the Resistance lives on.
All of this discussion of the plot and structure of The Last Jedi may seem a bit off-topic from this character analysis of “tech girls” in popular fiction, but I wanted to include it for a couple of reasons. First, I know that despite the positive reviews the movie received from critics, a lot of Star Wars fans intensely disliked it. For my part, I thought it was the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back (released the year I was born), and I wanted to at least try to explain what I liked about it.
A lot of the criticism has been directed at the character of Rose, with fans saying she contributed nothing or had no reason to be part of the story because the mission she and Finn undertake ends up failing. I couldn’t disagree more. One of the central messages of The Last Jedi was contained in something Yoda tells Luke Skywalker: Failure can be a good teacher. The Last Jedi was a movie about failure– often painful, costly failure. But in each case, the characters who were confronted with failure changed: they were different people at the end of the movie from who they were at the beginning.
At the beginning of the movie, the Jedi and the Resistance are two separate ideologies pulling in separate directions. At the end, their fate and their goal is one and the same. At the beginning of the movie, the main characters are looking for and trusting in different things depending on what is important to them. At the end, their hope for the future of the Resistance and the Jedi is identical to the hope that Rose expressed throughout the movie. It’s an intricately structured story that I found really satisfying.
The second reason I went into all of this is that Rose is a bit different from the other “tech girl” characters in this post because she has a reason for being there far beyond just being the “tech girl.” The choice to make Rose Tico a maintenance worker was a good one, because the movie benefited from the point of view of an “average” member of the Resistance, as opposed to Rey, who spent most of her life isolated on the planet Jakku, and Finn, who spent most of his life indoctrinated as a Stormtrooper. Rose, meanwhile, came from a planet that had been oppressed by the First Order since she was young, and has just lost her sister, who was a Resistance gunner. Her addition to the cast makes the plight of the Resistance a lot more relatable to the viewer.
Most recently, we have the character Shuri from the latest Marvel movie, Black Panther. Shuri is the sixteen-year-old sister of T’Challa, who is the superhero Black Panther and the king of the hidden African nation of Wakanda. Wakanda is full of technological marvels made possible by its rich supply of vibranium metal, which is the material that makes up Captain America’s impenetrable shield and the Black Panther’s claws.
In the film, though, we see that a lot of Wakanda’s most amazing gadgetry was invented by Princess Shuri. From what I remember, Shuri’s innovations include field generators that make it possible to transport vibranium safely by underground bullet train, virtual reality systems for controlling vehicles remotely using an interface tailored to the user, and panther-shaped gauntlets that fire energy bolts.
Shuri is also constantly coming up with upgrades for her brother’s Black Panther suit, playing a role similar to Q in the James Bond movies. In one scene, she excitedly offers him three different choices of suit design that she has miniaturized to the point that each one can transform into a necklace for T’Challa to wear. She has designed one of the suits to absorb and store the kinetic energy from punches, collisions, and even bullets, so that the Black Panther can release it all at once in an explosive shockwave.
The film’s executive producer, Nate Moore, described Shuri as “the smartest person in the world,” and this is a universe that includes prodigies like Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and Stephen Strange! But her ability to imagine and create so many society-changing machines at the age of 16 bears that out. During the course of the movie, she shows proficiency in the fields of medicine, education, and diplomacy as well.
Shuri is still very much a teenage girl, though. She repeats popular memes she learned on the internet (and is scolded by her mother for repeating some un-princess-like behavior she probably learned there too). She enjoys teasing her brother, setting him up to learn about the suit’s kinetic energy storage ability the hard way– and recording it on her phone. And she doesn’t enjoy having to dress up for T’challa’s coronation, interrupting the solemn ceremony to make her feelings clear!
I thought Shuri was a really likable character. She may joke a lot, but she loves her family. She uses her knowledge and skills to help people who are hurt, even when they are strangers. When Wakanda falls into crisis, she shows a lot of strength and courage as she fights to restore the true king. I’m interested to see if Shuri will have a part to play in future Marvel movies.
As I said to start with, I think it’s great that we’re seeing more female characters who are into science, technology, and computers. And one of the neat things about the characters on this list is how diverse they are in other ways. Penny is a little girl; Shuri and Lucca are teens; Honey Lemon is in college; and Rose is an adult. Their areas of expertise range from computer programming to mechanical repairs to chemistry and physics. Some, like Shuri and Honey Lemon, are really into fashion, while others, like Lucca, aren’t particularly interested in it. Even within a particular category, no two people are alike.
I hope this was an interesting read. I have to admit that I was a little bit nervous as a guy writing such a long post about female characters I admire, but my girlfriend thought it would be encouraging for others to read about. That’s my hope too.
So, what influential examples of “tech girls” in popular media did I miss?