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Why is there a gender bias in the depiction of pharmacists in fiction?

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“Merlin” recently observed that pharmacists in fiction tend to be represented as scruffy, untrustworthy, cowardly or otherwise undesirable (PJ, 13 December 2008, p713). I am inclined to agree with him, but only so far as male pharmacists are concerned.

In my experience, when a male pharmacist appears in a novel, a  play, a movie or a television drama he is likely to be depicted as a sad, cynical or sinister middle-aged man who is bogged down unhappily in community practice.

Perhaps the best known example is the apothecary in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, who is so impoverished that he is prepared to risk a death penalty to sell Romeo the poison he asks for. In contrast, female pharmacists in fiction tend to be attractive and conscientious young women enjoying a fulfilling career in hospital pharmacy.

A good recent example of the latter is the main character in an epistolary (look it up) novel that reached the 13-strong longlist for the 2008 Man Booker prize. The book is by John Berger, already a winner of the Booker prize for his novel ‘G’ in 1972.

His offering last year (2008) concerns a small-town pharmacist called A’ida and her husband Xavier, who is serving a prison sentence for terrorism. The book takes the form of a series of letters (OK, so now you do not need to look up “epistolary”) from the pharmacist to her jailed husband. It has the self-explanatory title ‘From A to X: a story in letters’.

Although slated for the Man Booker prize, the book was also slated by some critics for its “deep phoniness”, its “gross sentimentality”, its “fusty politics”, its “lack of narrative drive”, its “intoxication with its own portentousness”, etc.

However, other reviewers praised it as “beautifully imagined”, “exquisite”, “tender and poignant”, etc. I must hold up my hand and confess that I have not yet read the book, although do I intend to (honest!), but the reviews all suggest that, whatever the overall merits of the novel, the pharmacist main character is an intelligent and likeable young woman.

But why should there be such a gender bias in the depiction of pharmacists in fiction? Answers on a postcard, please.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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