A beard is an instant sign of masculinity—and perhaps also a throwback to a time long past, when whiskers were the norm among adventurous paleontologists (almost all of whom were male). In a new documentary, filmmaker Lexi Marsh ponders how beards can act as a “membership card” into the scientific club, allowing men to bypass the many issues female paleontologists face daily, from fighting for recognition to feeling responsible for “representing” their gender. The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science shows how leading women paleontologists, including collaborator and the film’s main subject, Ellen Currano, dealt with gender bias—intentional and unintentional—to achieve professional success. The film, which premieres tonight at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, will be accompanied by a touring photo exhibit showing black-and-white shots of some 40 female scientists donning beards, by photographer Kelsey Vance. Science spoke to Marsh this week about her new film; the following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Tell me about how you came up with the idea. What’s so significant about the beard?
A: Ellen and I went out for dinner. We’d been friends for about 8 years, and Ellen had become this kind of superhero in my mind. I would hear about her adventures in Ethiopia and her research, and I was so fascinated, as someone coming from the arts. Like most kids, you want to be a paleontologist and then that never happens—and then to meet someone who ended up in that same place where all the 7-year-olds hope to be. She’s someone who has been spectacular, worked at Smithsonian [Institution], hired for tenure track, all before 30. She’s a pretty brilliant individual.
[But then] she kind of shattered this image I had of her. She said, “I don’t feel like I belong; I don’t feel like I’m seen as one of the community.” It was this shocking moment. And then she said, “It’s this weird situation where I can’t just do my work: I’m either celebrated and pushed to do outreach, to be representative for women … and simultaneously, I go to faculty meetings and I’m spoken over and ignored, not treated as one of the group. There are days when I wish I could just slap a beard on my face and go to work.”
And I felt the same way. I’m a filmmaker; I have similar issues breaking into the world of directing. If I could just put a beard on—my looks wouldn’t be commented on. We shared this cathartic moment.
Q: And that was the basis for the film? It’s not just a statement, either—the photos of bearded women have a wry humor to them.
A: Yes. I was thinking that would be really funny, Ellen with a beard on her face. That’s such an easy fix. It’s that 2 a.m. moment of inspiration: What if you did put a beard on? That’s how the ball got rolling. It’s a testament to [Ellen’s] humor.
Q: But the film is about more than just that visual. How did it become about telling female scientists’ stories?
A: It was going to be an online thing, 5 minutes showcasing Ellen. [Then] she invited me into the field, and it evolved for me. We really don’t see women at work. We see women as success stories, but we don’t see the backbreaking part of it. A lot of women will start in one direction, or they’ll take time off, [but] there’s not an understanding of the behind the scenes—so I said, “Let’s see the day, let’s see what the 12-hour days are like.” To see women in a light where it’s uncomfortable.
Q: You’re exhibiting the short documentary today. What are the plans for it?
A: We’re going to make two versions of the film – the Laramie one will be a short, 20-minute documentary. Ellen is the main subject, but it includes half a dozen other women who have participated in the project, discussing what their experiences have been working in paleontology. We want to show that it’s not always a direct path. Universities are bragging that they have a 50-50 split in science classrooms, but they’re all undergraduates. Especially in the world of academia, there’s a fear and belief that if you take any time off, your career is over. We really have to change the assumption, encourage young girls to pursue science. We’re aiming for film festivals and classroom showings. Our goal is to finish the short film, which was our original proposal, first.
We also thought it was important to make a feature-length film, to understand more of the inner workings of building a career as a woman, [for which we now had such] a variety of examples. Our editor is going to take a break, and then I’m guessing summer 2017 we’ll have that finished. It’s been going really well—getting the short film together is helpful for building the feature, because we know the core story now.
Q: How have Currano’s current and former employers—the University of Wyoming and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio—responded?
A: They have been supportive. Miami University will be hosting the [photo] show in 2018. The University of Wyoming was fabulous from the beginning of the project, before we had the numbers.
Q: How did you recruit other scientists to participate?
A: We were expecting when we wrote the proposal that we would get 10 scientists, max. The second shoot was with Cynthia Looy [at the University of California, Berkeley]. Her lab is made up of mostly women. [In] another nod to what kind of person Cindy is, she said, “Come to my lab and photograph me wearing a beard.” By the time we got [there], she had recruited over 30 women to participate. It just kind of blew up.
Q: Did they get to choose their own beards?
A: Some [did]. Cindy specifically is a huge The Big Lebowski fan—she named a fossil after it. So she put a request in to look like the Dude.
Q: And what about the photo series?
A: Ellen and I wondered what more we could do—I said, what about doing a photograph? A film does not allow audience members to fit [themselves into] the images. I approached [Vance], and she brought in this historical perspective we hadn’t conceived of originally. Whenever you look at textbooks, there are no women. You’re continually eliminating women from the story. We said, “What if we use this as a way to challenge what is essentially a lost legacy? What if women could have been in these photographs?”
Q: How many portraits do you have at this point?
A: The full exhibition will be 40 portraits. We had to curate, so we did eliminate some. All of the portraits taken will be included in the feature film.
Q: You exhibited some last fall, at the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) meeting and at the Geological Society of America (GSA) meeting. What sort of reception did you get?
A: One woman at SVP said she glanced at the exhibition and thought it was just another old photograph showing of paleontologists. Then she walked by again and said, “Oh my god, these are women.”
I think that what this project does really well is that it’s weird and quirky enough [that people respond differently than] if we said, “Let’s discuss gender issues in science.” That’s what art does really well—everyone will read into this in a different way.
Q: Are there different responses from male and female scientists?
A: Overall, it’s been pretty positive on the male end. There’s some confusion, which I think is really interesting and important: Why does my colleague whom I respect feel the need to wear a fake beard? There’s this slow understanding that there are issues at play that aren’t being discussed and acknowledged. The goal is to showcase women at the height of their career, and because of that there haven’t been a lot of those horrible discrimination stories; these people may have some scars, but it didn’t permanently damage their careers. For a lot of these women, the first recognitions of a [professional] difference [from men] were usually as postdocs, when they were competing for jobs. Before that, there may have been little things [that they were willing to overlook].
We had one person at GSA say that he was horrified to recognize so many of the women, because he didn’t realize how deep of an issue it was.