Hidden Figures: Unpacking the Inequalities
Written By: Reema Dudekula
Edited By: Ria Chia & Abigail Goh Su-En
Hidden Figures (2016) is a film that explores not only a story of brilliance, but also the indelible ramifications one’s social circumstances can have on their ability to exercise and gain recognition for that brilliance.
Set in Virginia in the early 60s (1961 & 1962 to be precise), the film attempts to capture the incredulity of the discriminatory practices that put three gifted women at the mercy of their male counterparts, regardless of their superior abilities. It teaches us why intersectionality is so poignant in every possible context.
The ‘hidden figures’ in question are Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who are beautifully brought to life by Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae respectively. In the 1940s, NASA had opened its doors to African-American women, hiring them as “human computers”. As Black women trying to make a mark in a predominantly male and white setting, the unremitting insults and constant attempts at humiliation were imperative in capturing the essence of a minority’s experience.
Having to wade through layers of racial prejudices whilst out-thinking their male and white colleagues, the barriers of entry in STEM for women with intersectional identities are much higher. In fact, up until the 1980s and 90s, women were denied entry as a whole. Job listings for positions in STEM fields would read “women need not apply” (The Scientist, 2013), because these professions were considered far too advanced for a woman’s intellect to bear. According to the US Census Bureau, women only held 7% of STEM jobs in 1970 (US Census Bureau), that is roughly 1 woman to 13 men hired. So one can only imagine how slim the opportunities were for women of colour. Hence, male-dominated professions like these left no space for women in general, let alone Black women. Just like Mary solemnly tells her colleague when pushed to try for higher ranking positions as an engineer, “I’m a negro woman. I’m not going to entertain the impossible” (Hidden Figures, 2016).
Each of the film’s protagonists bears the brunt of being ‘coloured’ in a world that only respects the white. They fight relentlessly for the opportunity to be recognised for the work they do. For instance, Paul (played by Jim Parsons), the resident ‘genius’ at NASA, is indignant about being one-upped by Katherine’s talent and abilities. How can a black woman outshine a white man? Apparently, it’s blasphemy.
Segregation between the powerful and powerless manifests in humiliating practices that the latter have to tolerate. For instance, having to drink from a coffee jug labelled ‘coloured’ and relieving themselves at toilets intended only for ‘coloured’ people. In a monumental scene, that one can dub as the turning point of the film, Katherine’s supervisor Mr Harrison admonishes Katherine for disappearing from her work station for 40 minutes a day as she is busy travelling to a ‘coloured’ bathrooms, which were technically illegal, considering the executive order that President Roosevelt had signed in 1941, banning discriminatory employment practices due to demand for people in the workforce post WWII (Ourdocuments). In response, she explodes in a fit of pique, setting forth a maelstrom of degradations she is subjected to because of the colour of her skin.
In reaction to this, Mr Harisson takes on the role of the heroic ‘white saviour’ and eradicates the system of ‘coloured bathrooms’. The problem with this trope is that it empowers the powerful, and gives them the opportunity to absolve their guilt. Additionally, this response is fathomable because Katherine is indispensable in this project. The same cannot be expected for other coloured women, who are capable but replaceable.
Racist and sexist remarks and characters abound, this film forces audiences to confront the deeply ingrained flaws in our systems.
Hidden Figures shows the value in understanding the importance of intersectionality. Womenkind, in general, was and continues to be the target of systemic inequalities and oppression. It would be safe to assume that the white women who worked at NASA were cognizant of how fragile their place was. Considering that their jobs were limited to clerical tasks that did not have a substantial impact on the field they were in. According to a Harvard Business Review study, research shows that women are more likely to volunteer for ‘non-promotable’ tasks and more routinely asked to do grunt work for men. Even though white women who worked at NASA were aware of the “office housework” they were tasked with, they pulled down those who wanted to rise above that (Marketwatch).
However, they did little to uplift those whose civil liberties were taken at a higher cost. Be it the relationship between Dorothy and Vivian (Kristen Dunst) or Katherine and Ruth (Kimberly Quinn), the callous lack of support between the women in technical fields clearly proved to be destructive. Vivian, being Dorothy’s manager, reacts apathetically to the latter’s desire to work at NASA and tells her that she would become obsolete once a mechanical computer is installed. It is possible to be oppressed by people who are oppressed as well. Because when one marginalized community targets another marginalized community in hate crimes, only white supremacy wins.
The significance of intersectionality can also be realised during Katherine’s conversation with Colonel Jim Johnson, a Black man, where he reacts to her work at NASA by saying, “They let women handle that sort of…taxing (work)” (Hidden Figures). One can glean that even though they are two individuals who are discriminated against by society, one’s gender factors into how one is treated by another. Therefore feminism and championing rights for women in STEM has to be intersectional.
It is possible to be oppressed by people who are oppressed as well.
Hidden Figures highlights how equality between the sexes is beneficial for all. The film does exactly what it sets out to do. Unlike other biopics, we do not merely follow the story of an individual but rather that of a community that strives to have its brilliance recognised.
There is no time wasted in exploring unnecessary jargon or in the pursuit of aesthetics. The film shows brevity in how it tackles a pertinent problem and does so while evoking all the right emotions. However, it would be remiss of me to not call out the problematic “white hero” narrative that suggests a myopic view of Black female empowerment. The uplifting and soulful emotional background music that accompanies Mr Harrison’s virtuous speech about how “(here) at NASA, we all pee the same colour” and Katherine’s facial expression of sheer adulation and gratitude do little in empowering the powerless. Outside of this, the film accomplishes its aim of having audiences rejoice in the triumphs of brilliant women who fought against the odds and outshone white men who were once deemed to be the only ones in the spotlight.