A (really great!) portrayal of Rosalind Franklin

I know I said Sherlock, but last night in my advising seminar (I’m an associate advisor) we watched The Race for the Double Helix, a 1987 made-for-TV movie about the discovery of DNA’s structure. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Rosalind Franklin was well represented, and I’d like to talk about that.

For those unfamiliar, Franklin is a prime example of the forgotten women of science. She was an expert in x-ray crystallography and used the technique to try to determine the structure of DNA (she took the first actual picture of the double helix). At the same time, scientists like Maurice Wilkins, James Watson, Frances Crick, and Linus Pauling were also hot on the chase, and they generally used much more haphazard approaches. In the end, Watson and Crick were the first to build the correct model, but they got their key piece of information from Franklin’s work without her knowledge or permission. She died several years later, could not share their Nobel Prize (no prizes are awarded posthumously), and was largely forgotten.

In The Race for the Double Helix, Franklin was a major character, which I was pleasantly surprised to see. I’ve grown so accustomed to not seeing her represented that I assumed they would focus solely on the Watson/Crick work. The movie also did a good job of portraying the challenges of being a woman in science in the 1950s – the breakroom was men-only, her lab was in the basement, her coworkers called her infantilizing nicknames when she wasn’t present, and they openly discussed her relationship status and her physical attractiveness. The narrative almost always cast these slights in a negative light, which was refreshing to see in a landscape of romanticized rape scenes and normalized violence. Perhaps most importantly, the film portrayed Franklin as a multi-dimensional character – vivacious, guarded, angry, vulnerable, proud, and brave. No man came in to rescue her (she never married), her emotions did not make her weak, and her talent and hard work were considerable. She wasn’t glamorous, either! Her hair, clothes and makeup were plain and appropriate for lab work, and she was never objectified by the camera (i.e. gratuitous boob shots). This is often a problem in films with “strong female characters” so I was pleased that it wasn’t an issue here.

Also interesting was the portrayal of James Watson’s character, who is apparently a certified asshole in real life. While this was not overt in the movie, there were subtle examples of his unsavory nature throughout the narrative, especially with respect to how he treated the various women in the film. The way that these shots were framed suggest that these examples were deliberate on the part of the filmmakers, and all the scenarios are implied to be problematic. He is rather belittling to his adult sister, and takes on the role of wise guardian even though they are similar ages (and she may be older). He is often dismissive of Franklin and does not understand why she yells at him when he is being disrespectful. Perhaps most striking is his misguided quest for love – obsessed with the idea of a young foreign girlfriend, he visits boardinghouses, tries to learn French, and oogles random foreign women on the street. Aside from this disrespectful attitude towards the women, Watson is also guilty of exoticizing them and wanting to be with them ¬†because of their cultural background, not because he sees them as equal romantic partners. He treats them as interchangeable objects – he doesn’t care which French girl he gets as long as he gets one. The viewer’s discomfort is (or at least mine was) amplified by the actor’s protruding eyes and the numerous close-up shots of his leering face.

The movie was not perfect – not from a feminist or movie critic’s perspective – but it was one of the most refreshing takes I’ve seen on the DNA discovery story and I appreciate my advisor showing it to his advisees every year. Franklin was honored with a Google Doodle earlier this year and I think that her name is slowly becoming rediscovered. As a female scientist-in-training, I find her story is especially poignant and I’m glad that there seems to be a happy ending, even if it is under-recognized and very belated.


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