The Movie Hidden Figures Through the Lens of Feminist Criticism

clara
8 min readAug 18, 2021
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This is the paper that I wrote for my Literary Criticism mid-exam, analysing Hidden Figures using Feminist Criticism theory.

Explanation of Feminist Criticism

The feminist movement started as a reaction to gender inequality in society. The movement in the 1960s was a renewal of the old feminist movement. It was pioneered by the predecessor of this movement — some literary icons, such as Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Olive Schreiner in Women and Labour (1911), Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949). Not only female authors, but some male authors also contributed to feminist writing. There are John Stuart Mill with The Subjection of Women (1869) and Friedrich Engels with The Origin of the Family (1884).

However, the feminist movement was influenced by feminist literary criticism from the start, with the realisation of women’s portrayal in literary work. The major highlight of the feminist criticism in the 1970s was to expose the mechanisms of patriarchy, the cultural mindset of perpetual sexual inequality between men and women. In the 1980s, the criticism used other approaches. The first one was more eclectic, using the findings and approaches of other kinds of criticism. The second one switched its focus from attacking male versions of the world to exploring the nature of the female world. The last one was about the need for women to rewrite the history of the novel and poetry so that the ignored female authors will be given the spotlight they deserved.

To conclude, feminist criticism and the feminist movement are the means of society to fight for gender equality in this male-dominated world. Feminist criticism should not be seen as an off-shoot or a spin-off from feminism which is far from the ultimate aims of the movement. But as one of its most practical ways of influencing everyday behaviour and mannerism.

Movie Synopsis

Hidden Figures is a book adaptation movie based on true events. With three main characters, namely Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), this movie depicts the struggle of three African-American women working at NASA in the 1960s, in which racial issues were happening along with the second wave of the feminism movement. They work at the West Computing Group with other Black women, before being moved to other groups at NASA. Because of their bright minds, they helped NASA to fly their rocket during the Space Race between Russia and the United States of America.

Analysis

Starting with the title, Hidden Figures, it exactly describes how this movie will be. Three Black women provide their knowledge to NASA and are not being recognised or appreciated. Those women are the hidden figures of NASA. Being overworked, underpaid, and discriminated against. Hence, it can be said that all of the inequality comes from discrimination and segregation.

The first gender-based problem shown in this movie is when the three of the women, Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary had car trouble on the side of the road and a police officer comes to help them. The officer doubts that NASA employs women to work there. The problem here is that a white male police officer thinks a woman is not capable of doing hard work that is mostly done by men. Unconsciously, he assumes that all women are weak and unreliable. Through feminism, both females and males have the same standard.

As the movie goes on, more inequality appears. Katherine, who is a mathematical genius, is chosen by Dorothy to work for the Space Task Group to handle analytic geometry. She then moves to another building for the job. There are only two women in the Space Task Group, Katherine and Ruth, the secretary. As a woman working in a male-dominated workplace, Katherine proves her ability in working on tasks that are mostly done by men. With her intelligence, she knows which method would be useful and preferable in finding a Frenet frame at the minute: 18:35. Al Harrison, the head of Space Task Group, expects Katherine to get her work by the end of the day and she fulfils it. However, he told Katherine to throw her work away and put it in the trash can. Katherine, as the new girl in the department, can only obey him. Feeling threatened that she would be dismissed or even fired from her job. From that, a male’s superiority of holding a high position in a workplace can shut a woman from expressing her opinion.

In the next scene, Katherine is seen as a loving daughter to her mother. Despite her job in a “masculine” place, she still appreciates her mother’s support. Also, another side of Katherine being a mother is shown in this scene too. She can balance her life as a worker, daughter, and mother. To her daughter, she can be an assertive yet gentle mother. Thus, Katherine’s character is seen as a strong and independent woman. She breaks down the gender roles of women that should be good housewives and not expected to be smart or educated.

Charming as she is, Colonel Jim seems to fancy Katherine. Later, those two have a little chit chat about Katherine’s work at NASA. Being a mathematician at prestigious workplace results in Katherine’s huge responsibility. Colonel Jim was surprised that NASA trusts women to handle the heavy stuff. That is the misconception that has been planted in the human’s mind. Degrading women’s standards by not allowing them to do the ‘masculine’ job. Especially Black women. They have to work harder to get a decent job, like in NASA. Proven in America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences: Volume II.

In 1960, more than 33 percent of all Black women worked as domestic servants (“private house-hold workers”); only 3.2 percent of White women held these jobs (statistics cited in this paragraph are from the 1960 and 1980 Censuses). In 1960, of all women with 12 years of schooling, less than 20 percent of Black women, compared to an estimated 54 percent of White women, held jobs as clerical workers; and White women were 1.6 times more likely to be employed as blue-collar operatives than were Black women.

(Cecilia A. Conrad, 2001)

After all the discrimination and racism Katherine has received, she manages to hold an important role in NASA. She is the only one who solves the exact-landing-point problem. The only white male who sees her quality is John Glenn, the astronaut who will be inside the spaceship. With her help, the United States of America succeeded to send the first American to the Moon.

Next, the scene shows Mary and her husband, Levi, arguing about Mary’s dream to be a female engineer. Mary, as a Black woman, indeed has a wonderful dream to be an engineer. Her husband’s first role is definitely to support her dream. However, Levi shows not only his inner sexism, but he is also bringing up the race card. Saying that they are Black and are not able to fight for freedom. Men are indeed constructed as people who are stronger and have more power than women (Febrianti, 2019). In the earlier scenes, Mary was needed to help with the testing for the Mercury Seven prototype, as requested by Mr Zielinski. Just like Katherine, Mary is the only woman in the room, surrounded by men who are working at NASA. Zielinski sees Mary’s potential in engineering and he encourages her to pursue her career in engineering despite being the computer for NASA all of her life. Concerning her background, Mary was hesitant at first. As stated during the dialogue:

Zielinski : Let me ask you… if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?

Mary : I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.

The discrimination towards women is showing. Women are not trusted to be what they want, regardless of their skin colour, women are still feeling oppression until now. From Mary’s dialogue, she implicitly says that living as a white male would be easier since they have the privilege and are treated properly. Discrimination based on race, gender and class will not end if there is no strong ideology for the existence of Black women (Ikhsano & Jakarudi, 2020).

Mary Jackson finally decides to go for the Engineer Training Program from NASA. However, Vivian, the supervisor, said that Mary is not qualified. Even though she has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physical science. Feeling obliged, she then attends the engineering class at Hampton High School. Her struggle does not stop there, she has to have permission from the court to join the class because Hampton High School is segregated, which means it is a white-only school. Mary is determined to be an engineer at NASA, due to her skin colour, the facilitation served in Virginia is limited to her. But, with her powerful advocacy, the judge finally let her join the course but only the night classes. In this scene, Mary shows her persistence and determination in fighting segregation, racism, and gender inequality. Still, after being permitted, she is the only woman in the training, surrounded by white men. But she succeeded to demand her rights and prove that women can be engineers too.

Mary’s struggle paid off by being NASA’s and America’s first female African-American aeronautical engineer.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the African-American women in NASA finally got recognition for their hard work. After all years of fighting for gender equality, however, there are still a lot of people who are unaware of the inequality around them. Through Hidden Figures, the depiction of racism and gender inequality is crystal clear. The representation of people of colour is nowhere to be seen around NASA. Those who are in charge of higher positions are white males. Margot Lee Shetterly, as the author of the book, did well on portraying the figures and working together with the movie director to produce this film.

Katherine, as the highlight of this movie, has a strong determination to fight for her rights as a human, woman, and citizen. The separation between black people and white people is a product of racism and discrimination that was considered “normal” in the 1950s. As a mother of three children, she has to make sure that her children will not suffer from the same thing their mother did. Being a Black woman in a segregated state of Virginia does not stop her from thriving. She proves herself qualified although she is a minority. As a result of being educated, she fought inequality and racism. It is not only caused by her determination but the support from her family also. As a child, she was offered a scholarship and her parents positively supported her. As an adult who fought for discrimination, she decided to achieve her dream regardless of her sex and skin colour.

Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are one of the hidden figures of NASA.

Even after decades of their hard work, racism still still exist in our society.

Bibliography

Barry, P. (2017). Beginning Theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory (J. McLeod, Ed.; 4th ed.). Manchester University Press.

Febrianti, T., H., A. S., & Widisanti, N. M. (2019). The Struggle of the African-American Female Character in Margot Lee Shetterly’s Novel Hidden Figures. Journal ALBION: Journal of English Literature, Language, and Culture, 1(2). https://journal.unpak.ac.id/index.php/albion/article/download/1316/1109

Ikhsano, A., & Jakarudi. (2020, September). Representation of Black Feminism in Hidden Figures. NYIMAK: Journal of Communication, 4(2), 169–180. http://jurnal.umt.ac.id/index.php/nyimak/article/download/2358/1891

Melfi, T. (Director). (2016). Hidden Figures [Film]. 20th Century Fox.

National Research Council. (2001). America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences: Volume II. DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/9719.

Shetterly, M. L. (2016). Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. William Morrow Paperbacks.

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