Future Tense

The Real Real Genius

Thirty years ago, I helped inspire the lead female character in the classic nerd movie. I finally understand why some critics disliked its portrayal of women.

The character played by Michelle Meyrink on Real Genius was inspired by Phyllis Rostykus, inset.
The character played by Michelle Meyrink on Real Genius was inspired by Phyllis Rostykus, inset.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. Inset photo provided by Phyllis Rostykus.

In 1984 two male classmates and I were invited to dinner in Pasadena, California, to talk with the producers and director of a movie that was going to be set in a fictional version of our school, the California Institute of Technology. David Marvit, a senior at the time who consulted on the film, had asked for a girl for them to talk to, so there I was—wearing a sweater I’d knitted overnight the night before, my bangs cut straight across my forehead, and speaking in a voice that people still mistake for a child’s. They asked us about how things worked, what we did for fun, what our schedules were like. Eventually the conversation turned toward what it was like to be a female student in a school with a 7–1 ratio of men to women.

The resulting movie came out on Aug. 7, 1985—30 years ago this week. Real Genius was about a 15-year-old prodigy, Mitch Taylor, entering the prestigious Pacific Tech to work with his intellectual role model, senior Chris Knight, and a devious professor on a high energy laser research team. Chris seems badly unmotivated and distracted to Mitch. Chris, in the party that had become his life, introduces Mitch to all the other genius kids in the school. Between high jinks, Mitch and his friends learn that to be a real genius, you have to realize that life is about a lot more than just your work, and that science isn’t just about what happens in the lab.

Among the students was the eccentric Jordan, one of the few girls in the film. She liked Mitch so much that she knitted him a sweater overnight. But she wasn’t just focused on landing a boyfriend—she tinkered, showed clear proficiency in the sciences, and had no trouble keeping up with Chris, Mitch, and their other friends. It was a great geek and nerd movie, but more importantly, it showed Jordan as an integral part of a high-performance educational institution. She belonged there, comfortably.

I think of Jordan as the sum of all the stories about the women of Caltech at that time. Classmates of mine will swear up and down that she was based on someone else, and I don’t disagree. I had the three-hours-at-a-time sleep pattern. Someone else made a “re-breather” apparatus that shows up in a Real Genius party scene. Another lady was quite proficient with a blowtorch.

We each had our own quirks, but we shared a few characteristics: We were all smart. We not only kept up with the boys in our high schools—we surpassed all of them to get into a college with just 200 undergraduates per class. And here we were treated just like the guys.

When the movie was released in 1985, my senior year, we went to see it and loved it. So did many critics—though a female reviewer complained that there should have been more women in it. (A Tor review of the movie by Emily Asher-Perrin for its 30th anniversary stated the same thing.) My male classmates and I laughed at how naive she was and how little she knew about our reality—but we may well have missed the real point.

Once it got around that I was connected to the creation of Jordan, I started receiving thanks from women who had seen Real Genius. Jordan is an inspiration for them. She is smart, keeps up with the boys, doesn’t conform to feminine stereotypes, rescues others, is nice, and still ends up as the romantic interest. All good things for the time, and a huge step up from when she wouldn’t have been there at all (before 1970). Still, like me, she had to be more like the guys to be one of the guys.

Recently, when I heard Neil deGrasse Tyson discuss his experience as a black man becoming a physicist, some of it resonated. Like him, I had always known what I was going to be—in my case, an electrical engineer—and I just ignored the people who said that I should be something else. Like him, I had a very successful career in my field. And like him, when I looked around when I was at the top, there just weren’t that many other women with me.

To my knowledge, no one I worked with in engineering has ever questioned my abilities to do the work to my face. I don’t recall anyone making a joke related to female engineers or asking me to make the coffee. No one has ever said to me that girls can’t do the math. I’ve been extremely lucky, and maybe I chose to ignore slights. But when I think about the real fights I have had over my decades in STEM careers, I can see why other women would quit. When I went to the University of Washington for my master’s in electrical engineering, I graduated as one of two women in a class of 200. My work life was so full I couldn’t think of having children until I was 35. I had very few women to talk with about my work. I changed careers, from hardware engineering to software programming, so I could work with a female manager two decades my senior.

And then there’s what happened when a small company I worked for was bought. I was married to another engineer on the team. The buyer had a bad experience with married couples working together; he said that men sometimes got their wives into a company to draw another salary, without doing the work. So without even talking to me, he decided to fire me. The entire engineering team told the buyer that if he fired someone with one-third of the system in their head, they would leave, too. And I got to keep my job.

Again: A whole team of experienced, excellent male engineers put their jobs on the line to defend my abilities. I have experienced sexism in STEM—but I have also been supported by my father, my husband, co-workers, fellow students, managers, HR people, teachers, professors, and TAs. Media articles about the gender gap in STEM seem to ignore those men, but they are the ones who help us get equal pay, equal opportunities, and equal access.

In many ways, I feel like I was treated equally with the men—which meant that I had to prove the same things they have to prove, keep in check the same emotions that they have always been told to keep in check, and adhere to certain standards of dress and behavior. That women (and men for that matter) in the field shouldn’t be held to those expectations never even occurred to me. At Caltech and beyond, I was one of the guys—and maybe it was a survival tactic.

Last summer, I fell in love with Big Hero 6, a movie also about a team of intelligent college students. Big Hero 6 reflects the values we want to have today: The team is made up of various races and has nearly as many girls as boys. And while I identified with the performance-driven character Go Go, the chemically creative and fully accessorized Honey Lemon made me think: Oh. OK. Smart and fashionable. So why not both?

A 2012 study from researchers at Yale showed unconscious and automatic bias against female scientists by professors of both genders. It gives grounds as to why, my whole life, I’ve chosen to not emphasize my gender. Even small things—I simply never wore makeup or dresses; I always went to technical conventions in our company uniform of polo shirt and khakis. Biases against these small indicators are just evidence for the underlying problem, and when I taught at an engineering camp for girls, a few of the girls would comment on my lack of what they thought were essentials. So Honey Lemon was an eye-opener for me about what I took for granted as just part of the job.

Since I saw Real Genius 30 years ago, I’ve realized that having more women in STEM makes it much easier to keep women in STEM. And that lot of the precautions I take automatically—like leading with my credentials, always having a relationship, and dressing like the men—shouldn’t have to be taken by women in order to do technical work.

Thirty years since Real Genius, the class of 2018 at Caltech entered with two women to every three men. And I now can say that the reviewers were right. There should have been more women at the fictional Pacific Tech.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.