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Portrayal of Professions

August 1, 2022

As a young recipient of a commercial radio operator license (A First Phone; but, more accurately, a General Radiotelephone Operator License, First Class), I had a summer job at a major television station as a control room engineer. My responsibilities were to manage the flow of program material from many sources that included the NBC television network, commercials stored on videotape and film, and the afternoon movie. As a benefit, I got to watch color television at work in 1967 on an expensive Conrac monitor when color television was still rare.

The benefit wasn't all that great, since daytime television fare was soap operas, most of which involved the personal lives of professionals such as medical doctors and lawyers. The antics of such people were thought to be more interesting than the lives of common people, such as broadcast engineers. What impressed me most was the fact that all these people seemed to have a lot of money and do no work at all. As they say, "It's nice work if you can get it." Some of my high school classmates became lawyers, possibly being influenced by the media depiction of this profession.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) became a cultural icon of science in the 20th century, but scientists were portrayed quite differently in early films and television. Mad scientists and evil scientists were predominant, and there were the occasional eccentric and nutty professor types, such as the Fred MacMurray (1908-1991) portrayal in the 1961 film, The Absent-Minded Professor,[1] the Cary Grant (1904-1986) portrayal of a corporate research scientist in the 1952 film, Monkey Business,[2] and the Jerry Lewis (1926-2017) portrayal in the 1963 film, The Nutty Professor.[3]

Promotional photo for 'The Nutty Professor,' a 1963 film.

Jerry Lewis (1926-2017) and Stella Stevens (b. 1938) in a promotional photograph for "The Nutty Professor."

A popular film is often remade, and this was the case when Eddie Murphy (b. 1961) starred in the 1996 version, The Nutty Professor.[4]

One difference in the films is that the Jerry Lewis character is Julius F. Kelp, and the Eddie Murphy character is Sherman Klump. However, in each case their suave alter ego is Buddy Love.

(Cropped Wikimedia Commons image.)

In some cases this fictional portrayal of oddball scientists wasn't far from the truth. One of my undergraduate friends had a popular stand-up routine in which he parodied the behavior of some of our professors. This was good training for me in later life when I was a lecturer to chemistry undergraduates and I often caught myself in such bad habits as talking to the blackboard and not to the students.

Another bad habit was omitting some obvious steps of a process. Obvious, perhaps to me, but not to a freshman chemistry student. And, yes, marking "on the curve" was indeed necessary, the "curve" being quite accurate even in those days before ubiquitous computing because of my mathematics training. As I explained to my students, a bad test is one in which too many students score close to 100%; so, the tests are difficult, and statistical grading is necessary.

Three computer scientists from the Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory of the University of Southern California (Los Angeles, California) have recently published an open access paper in PLOS One in which they use computational text analysis to examine the portrayal of professions in entertainment media, including their frequency of appearance and sentiment trends.[5-7] In their analysis of 136,000 films and television shows, they found that mentions of manual labor and military professions have decreased, while mentions of sports and entertainment occupations have increased.[5,7]

As the authors explain, conversations with their research funding agency, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, revealed the need for an analysis of how professions are depicted in the media.[8] It's acknowledged that such depictions influence beliefs, actions, and behaviors, and that includes career choice.[8] As examples, Mad Men prompted many to enroll in advertising courses; the movie, Top Gun, led to a 500% increase in US Navy recruitment; and the Dana Scully character on The X-Files inspired young women to enter STEM fields.[5,7]

STEM Girls logo

A STEM Girls logo submitted for a 2019 contest about Ukrainian Women in STEM.

As of 2021, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 58 women, but only 25 of these are in STEM fields.

Seven (3.7% of 188) have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, four (1.8% of 219) have won the Nobel Prize in Physics, twelve (5.4% of 224) have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and two (2.2% of 89) have won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

(Wikimedia Commons image by Elizabeth Gaphich.)

The number of film releases increased by 4% in 2019, and people in the US watched television for around 4 hours a day.[5] It's no wonder that media influences our view of life, including career choice.[5] A survey of 1,005 employed people in the US found that 58% of these attributed their career inspiration to some book, TV show, movie, podcast, or video game.[5]

This study was limited to US and United Kingdom media with subtitles, since these were most easily searched.[7] The study authors created a searchable taxonomy of professional groups and developed a corpus of 4,000 mentioned professions spanning more than 136,000 Internet Movie Database titles over nearly seven decades from 1950 to 2017.[5,7] The frequency and trend in sentiment for these different occupations was examined, as well are their correlation with actual employment statistics.[5]

Analyzing these many decades of television and film subtitles revealed that sales-related professions were least regarded, whereas architecture and engineering were the most positively portrayed professions.[7] The frequency of media mentions of job titles was correlated with real-world employment statistics of their corresponding professions,[5] but there were decreased mentions of manual labor and military occupations and increased mentions of sports, arts, entertainment, and STEM occupations.[5,7]

Medical doctors, lawyers, and police showed increasing negative trends over time, whereas astronauts, engineers, detectives, therapists, musicians, and singers had more favorable mentions.[5,7] Specialized medical professions, such as cardiologists, gynecologists, and neurologists had increased mentions, while generic terms like doctors and nurses decreased.[7] Gender-neutral terms, such as flight attendant instead of stewardess, became more frequent (see figure).[7]

Still images from 1971 National Airlies 'fly me' commercial

Still images from a 1971 National Airlines 'fly me' commercial. Left to right, Dianne, Kerry, and Marissa. This commercial was part of a controversial National Airlines advertising campaign that featured airline stewardesses and the suggestive tagline, "Fly Me." Several airlines used this "sex sells" approach in the 1960s and 1970s. Interestingly, National Airlines was forced to shut down for several months in 1975 due to a strike by flight attendants. Fly Me was also the title of a 1973 film with the tagline, "Stewardesses battle kung fu killers."[10] (National Airlines Commercial: "Fly Me" (1971), YouTube video from the The Pan Am Museum Foundation.[9])

Says study author and University of Southern California professor, Shrikanth Narayanan, "AI provides a quick and fast way to quantify social trends in movies and TV over time. In this particular study, we are able to understand sentiment towards a host of professions. It is interesting to note that the careers on screen dovetail with real-life trends in employment."[7] Support for this research came from an award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.[7]

Top ten positively considered professions and the seven most negatively considered professions.

Top ten positively considered professions (red) and the seven most negatively considered professions (blue). (Created using Gnumeric from data in ref. 7.[7] Click for larger image.)


  1. The Absent Minded Professor (1961), Robert Stevenson, Director, on the Internet Movie Database.
  2. Monkey Business, 1952, Howard Hawks, Director, on the Internet Movie Database.
  3. The Nutty Professor, 1963, Jerry Lewis, Director, on the Internet Movie Database.
  4. The Nutty Professor, 1996, Tom Shadyac, Director, on the Internet Movie Database.
  5. Sabyasachee Baruah, Krishna Somandepalli, and Shrikanth Narayanan, "Representation of professions in entertainment media: Insights into frequency and sentiment trends through computational text analysis," PLoS ONE, vol. 17, no. 5(May 18, 2022), Article no. e0267812, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267812. This is an open access paper with a PDF file here.
  6. Code and data repository for "Representation of professions in entertainment media: Insights into frequency and sentiment trends," ref. 5.
  7. How on-screen representations of professions have changed over 70 years, PLOS Press Release, May 18, 2022.
  8. Interview with Sabyasachee Baruah (PhD Student, Computer Science, University of Southern California), Krishna Somandepalli (Software Engineer, Google), and Shrikanth Narayanan (University Professor and Nikias Chair in Engineering, University of Southern California), authors of ref. 5 (3 page *.docx file).
  9. National Airlines Commercial: "Fly Me" (1971), YouTube video from the The Pan Am Museum Foundation.
  10. Fly Me (1973), Cirio H. Santiago, Jonathan Demme, and Curtis Hanson, Directors, on the Internet Movie Database.

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