Netflix’s new show Brainchild offers a refreshing take on science “edutainment,” but with a twist: The lead is a woman of color.
In the 13-episode first season, released November 2018, the show’s Indian-American host, Sahana Srinivasan, explores STEM-focused topics, ranging from the science of selfies to the rationale behind the widely held “five-second-rule.” Created in partnership with hip-hop mogul Pharrell Williams, the show features a diverse cast that’s intended to appeal to girls and minorities.
Srinivasan, 22, understands the gravity of her highly visible role, one in which she discusses STEM, a field where women and people of color have historically been scarce.
“It’s important, at a young age, to see a role model who looks like you, especially for kids who want to go into STEM,” she says. “When people don’t see themselves represented, they think, ‘What’s the point of even trying?’ and it becomes a cyclical thing with no real progress.”
Mounting evidence suggests that early exposure to STEM drives continued interest into adulthood. As a result, minority on-screen representation can have a strong impact on how children view their future career prospects.
Thanks to the success of Hollywood blockbusters and television programs that feature diverse casts, representation of women and minorities in leading roles has increased over the years. Yet these communities remain underrepresented in media across the board, according to the 2019 Hollywood Diversity report released by UCLA. Though minorities constitute nearly 40% of the U.S. population, they represent roughly 21% of broadcast scripted leads, cable scripted leads and digital scripted leads.
With STEM-forward shows, in particular, women of color leads are few and far between. The two most renowned science education shows for children, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Beakman’s World, feature older white men; popular cartoons like Dexter’s Laboratory and Jimmy Neutron follow the adventures of white, boy-genius inventors; and science-oriented sitcoms geared to adults, such as Silicon Valley and Big Bang Theory, have white, male leads. When women and people of color are introduced, they often adhere to clichéd cultural tropes, such as the nerdy, virginal Asian-American male or the socially awkward, unattractive female.
Relatability is at the heart of Brainchild, Srinivasan says, and her depiction on the show is very much intentional. She eschews the conventional white lab coat in favor of quirky hipster glasses, bold lipstick colors and a changing array of hairstyles—sometimes pigtails, sometimes an updo. The same goes for her castmates, who sport hoodies, skinny jeans and afros.
“A show like this reminds people that science is pretty cool, and it’s not at all nerdy or lame to be curious about these topics,” Srinivasan says. “It tells kids that you don’t have to embody this specific version of what a scientist or researcher should look like.”
Still in college—she’s a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, studying radio, television and film—Srinivasan wants to dismantle the conventional idea that art and science are mutually exclusive. When she was growing up in Dallas, she took part in local talent shows and performed skits, comedy routines and classical Indian dances. But she never saw STEM fields as a viable career option. “I was so focused on the creative endeavors that I thought that’s all I’ll ever be able to do,” Srinivasan says. “And it’s totally a myth and not true.”
Initially, Srinivasan didn’t realize the impact her role could have on young women of color—and indeed was concerned about being pigeonholed because of her ethnic background and gender. “The show doesn’t really stereotype me. The fact that I’m quirky, funny and passionate stands out more than the fact that I’m Indian and a woman,” she says. But for fans of the show, its diverse representation serves as a source of inspiration, both in the arts and in science. “The feedback, especially from young girls of color, has been awesome,” Srinivasan says. “The cast is very much a true reflection of what we see in real life.”