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“Hidden Figures” Through a Feminist Lens

Updated: Mar 19

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I have been feeling like a re-watch of one of those thrilling NASA movies, where you are at the edge of your seat, even though you're aware that everything will eventually fall into place. So, I decided to watch “Hidden Figures” (Again!).

Despite the positive changes in the movie industry regarding the portrayal of women protagonists, there are very few movies that truly portray (or at the very least try to portray) women, who are intelligent and are not the age-old male-pleasing damsels in distress.

The 2016 movie “Hidden Figure” portrayed three of the most iconic minds in the world of science and technology- Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, who were quite the opposite of damsels in distress.

It is remarkably profound to see three different women with essentially different approaches to life going through the same sort of misogyny and racism in a white male-dominated field. They stand up for themselves in their unique way.

The premise of the movie is set in the 1960s, a time when NASA was under huge political pressure to put a human, more precisely an American, in space. Russian Sputnik had already launched and the whole country (America) was anxious to demonstrate its strength over Russia. Three human calculators at NASA, Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary, from their expertise, contributed to the task and, along the way, pioneered the path for many women in countless dimensions. The discriminations and exploitations these three women faced in their workplace and social life were vividly expressed in the movie. However, the struggle that they went through in their domestic lives or the lack of support from the glorified men in this movie was subtle or maybe even ignored to some extent.

Today, I’ve decided to scrutinize specifically the celebrated men in this movie. Because, duh! We already know that Katherine and her bunch moved heaven and earth to achieve what they’ve achieved and they are awesome. Come on!

Let's first delve into the character of Levi Jackson, Mary's husband, a passionate activist in the Civil Rights Movement. He was known for his conspicuous protests against racial discrimination against African Americans. However, when he learned about Mary's aspiration to become an engineer, his initial response was to express how absurd he found the idea of a black woman aspiring to be an engineer. This stark contrast between his stance on racial discrimination issues that directly affected him and his reaction to Mary's dreams is concerning. The movie ultimately portrays him as a supportive husband, when Mary accomplishes the seemingly impossible on her own. Yet, it left me pondering about the alternative scenario:

What if Mary had faced rejection? Would Levi have stood by her side, or would he have been the first to say, "I told you so"?

My cynical mind keeps leaning towards the latter. While Mary did indeed triumph against all odds, it’s important to acknowledge that she had to overcome not only societal barriers but also the resistance from someone she loved – her husband. Unfortunately, the film does not explore the consequences of his opposition to Mary's aspirations, leaving his character development somewhat incomplete. Nonetheless, I do appreciate that Levi eventually recognized his faults and admitted, “Nobody dares stand in the way of Mary Jackson’s dream, myself included.” This acknowledgment reflects his willingness to confront his role as a barrier in her path. But I choose to approach with caution when praising him for this gesture, as I want to emphasize that offering empty words without corresponding actions can also amount to a form of exploitation.

Now, if we turn our attention to the great Katherine Johnson’s husband, Jim Johnson, we observe a similar trait. I would go as far as to say that his behavior was even more troubling than Levi's. His actions reflect those of a blatant misogynist and ignorant individual, who believes women are not smart enough to “handle” science. The calm and confident Katherine called out his ignorance in the best possible way. As the movie progresses, he eventually offers a feeble excuse, where he attributes his misogyny to being out of practice on how to talk to women. If we think about it, this explanation, itself, raises more concern as it casually brushes off the gravity of his earlier prejudiced remarks. The film seems to find this apology sufficient and swiftly moves on.

From a feminist perspective, Jim comes across as one of those men who thinks telling a woman “You are not like other women” is a compliment (He did say this to Katherine as a compliment at one point during the movie). There is no doubt that he is amazed by Katherine. Yet that amazement disappoints me because he only finds her to be unique for having such an intellectual capacity DESPITE (eye roll) her gender. Although the key takeaway here is of course, that she is amazing, not because she is a talented FEMALE scientist but because she is a talented SCIENTIST.

I fear (solely based on what the movie depicted) that these amazing feminists did not get the partners they deserved but rather settled for men, who are merely a slightly better version of traditional patriarchal men.

To be honest, I wonder if the same is true for us as well, today’s amazing feminist women (sigh)! 

In the string of glorified men in this movie, the most significant among them and also most learned among them was Al Harrison. The scenes where he destroys the colored women’s room sign or calls everyone out on their racist behaviors make him the most progressive man there and give me goosebumps like every other person who watched the movie. But if we look at his actions with a deeper perception what we find is a leniency towards a selective sense of justice. From his office, he held a vantage point over all his employees, yet he never cared to notice these racial discriminations or sexist attitudes of his employees towards Katherine. It was only when these issues directly affected the productivity he expected and were brought to his attention by Katherine (repeatedly and loudly) that he finally took those so-very-necessary steps that he should have taken as a manager anyway. Despite the laxity in his actions, I loved his insights, and his albeit delayed, appreciatively bold actions.

Undoubtedly, 'Hidden Figures' is an inspiring movie that remains highly relevant to this day for women striving to succeed in male-dominated fields. It showcased real women, who were not afraid to be ambitious and did everything in their power to turn their ambitions into reality. The denouement, where the patriarchal antagonist finally concedes and serves Katherine coffee with a respectful smile speaks volumes. 

I loved this movie. I love it every time I watch it, every dramatic scene, where they pull off impossible tasks out there (I get literal goosebumps watching these scenes, however dramatic they may be). However, I also find myself wondering every time, did they just fail to understand that the male characters did not deserve the whole-hearted appreciative tone they received in the movie or did they make another movie, where holding men accountable for their actions is not a concern?


By Iffat Troyee.

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