Hidden Figures Response

Both the film and the “Calculated Responses” reading address an issue that has been brought up before in this class (and in other leadership classes). It is the question of how one should resist oppression: by operating within oppressive systems, dismantling them from the inside, or by tearing down those institutions and attempting to rebuild them from scratch. Hidden Figures seems to favor the former option, as its heroes all make strides towards equality from within NASA and American society at large.

Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy must face several institutions that are discriminatory against their race and gender. The most obvious of these institutions is NASA. Although the task to advance their careers is a daunting one, all three women eventually succeed at their positions at the organization. Other institutions and systems in the film, however, are more difficult to dismantle for these characters. As the reading discusses, all three women must also deal with established notions of the “proper” family. Katherine in particular does not fit the mold, as she is a single mother. However, she “fixes” this in the film by marrying. In this way, the film seems to take a conservative stance on family and gender politics. Not only does Katherine succeed in her career, but she also “succeeds” at obtaining a more “complete” family.The film seems to equate these two “successes,” signaling that Katherine’s marriage is just as important as her success at NASA.

This brings me back to the question of how best to resist oppression. The film seems to take a firm stance: that, at least in this case, the right course of action was to operate within the confines of the system that was already in place in an attempt to undermine that very system and create a more equitable world. The women are considered heroes in the film for their willingness to endure racism and sexism at work in order to achieve a higher goal.

One last thing to consider is the fact that before this film was released, hardly anyone knew the story of Katherine Johnson. The film argues that she made considerable progress for Black women at NASA, but what does it say that no one actually knows this story? It reminds me of the issue of how history is written that Miranda brings up in Hamilton. Does remembrance of history’s heroes matter? Or are the institutional and cultural changes they inspire more important? (Obviously they are, but how much more important are they than the stories we tell?)

2 comments

  1. I was also interested in how the directors sought to portray the characters’ defiance of oppression. Like the reading mentioned, the film did seem to include a lot of the White Savior trope, complimented by compliant black women operating within the system. With the relative lack of violence, Hidden Figures seemed more like a “feel good” film depicting black women’s struggle against oppression in the workplace and the home. While this can make the story more easy for (white) audiences to swallow, you’re right to question how we depict the stories of these hidden figures. Did the film take too much of a focus on nice men who saved these women? Or did it adequately acknowledge their groundbreaking efforts to change the systems in which these women operated?

  2. I think that in many cases, the women adhered to the expectations of the institutions that ruled them, and yet they managed to modify the treatment that they received through their own willpower and cleverness.
    For example, when Katherine was courted by Lieutenant Johnson, she refused his advances after he made his sexist comment about the women of NASA until he apologized. For the next instances of their meeting, Johnson brought her soup and repeatedly made things right on his end– things that were traditionally submissive roles and not expected of men.
    Similarly, when Mary was told to get a court approval allowing her to go to night classes, rather than protest for her right as her husband Levi seemed wont to do, she adhered to the rules of the court and researched the judge so that it would be practically impossible for him to refuse her.

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