There’s no surer sign that life has become too comfortable for the rich than when they try to buy immortality. The first Chinese emperor enlisted scholars in his search for the elixir of eternal life and, after none was discovered, had them buried alive, figuring that if any of them was a true alchemist, he would return from the dead to share his secrets. (None ever did, but the emperor’s penchant for drinking mercury—which he believed also had life-giving properties—probably didn’t end up helping him live a long life.)
There’s an early scene in Annihilation, Alex Garland’s cerebral sci-fi-horror drama, where the biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) examines a cluster of kaleidoscopically mutated flowers. “They’re growing from the same branch structure, so it has to be the same species,” she mutters to her all-female squad of researchers. “You’d sure as hell call it a pathology if you saw this in a human.” The team, led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is tasked with exploring the Shimmer: a sinister dome of iridescent light that has consumed the Florida coastline.
When I saw that the new character in the Clue board game was going to be a woman botanist with an affinity for poison, I thought it sounded very, tiredly familiar. This is not to say that the addition of a woman scientist to a board game should not be considered progress—even in a game with murder as its primary motif, a woman character defined by her career rather than her marital status is preferable. But far from instigating a “feminist coup,” Dr. Orchid is only the latest in a stereotype-rich line of women botanists and poisoners from mythology, detective stories, comics, and science fiction. Modern stories, including comics, are slowly letting women scientists be geneticists, engineers, hackers–even Iron Man. But botany, especially when it can be a front for a poisoning operation, is over-ascribed to women as a profession of choice.
There’s a myth about Marie Antoinette’s attempt to escape the guillotine I love retelling: In seeking to avoid the wrath of the Jacobin revolutionaries, the royal family escaped to the outskirts of Paris in disguise. When their coach was stopped by a mob, they were unrecognizable. They were found out, improbably, by the noble profile of the king (which perfectly matched a banknote), but also in the noble smell of the queen. After all, only royalty could afford such a sublime scent.