Robert and I finally made it to see Hidden Figures tonight. It is one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. Excellent acting, great direction, and a compelling, inspiring story made for a wonderful date night movie. I cried a couple of times, which is par for the course. Mostly they were tears of happiness, triumph, and celebration for these women in particular and the great sisterhood of woman in general. However, I had twinges of anger throughout the movie and my weepiness during the closing credits was joy mixed with a tinge of anger that I felt as an undercurrent bubbling in my being throughout the movie. So how could a movie of triumph against the odds, the story of some strong, principled women overcoming the racist, sexist status quo of the early 60s make me angry? Here’s why:
- I am mad that I was ignorant of this story, these women, and their significant contributions to science. Why am I just now hearing about this? Now, I know that there is no way that I can learn and know about every great human interest story and every female contribution to science, the arts, the humanities, politics, exploration, etc. However. this is a big one. (Minor spoiler) The part about John Glenn waiting until Katherine Johnson rechecked the math before launch? That was accurate. That’s huge! We all know who John Glenn is, but why has the name of Katherine Johnson never been mentioned in his narrative? I have blogged before about my young obsession with strong women as a young girl and latent feminist. Sacagawea was a hero to me, along with Amelia Earhart, Elizabeth Blackwell, Susan B. Anthony, and Marie Curie. And there’s more…so many scientific trailblazing women that we never learned about in school. While we were focusing on Copernicus, Edison, Einstein, Newton, and Turing, no one ever mentioned Mary Anning (I previously wrote about her here), Grace Hopper, and Ada Lovelace.
- I am mad that there are so few movies that star and focus on women and so few movies with female actors in general that pass the Bechdel test. We just don’t see many movies that star a female posse like this one. Occasionally there is a Silkwood or Erin Brockovich kind of breakout female role, that usually results in an Oscar win. However, those types of roles for actresses are few and far between and when they occur it is usually in the context of a solo woman or a woman and her gal-pal sidekick. This movie was refreshing in that it was a trio of strong female leads representing three real women who did remarkable, amazing things. I also read an article about the movie that made a very valid point that not only was the movie about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, but also about a whole community. There was the whole “squad” of the West Computers, plus the greater black community in Hampton, VA. They stood in solidarity, they supported one another, and they acknowledged that advancement for one was advancement for all. And yeah, the Bechdel Test. If you’re not familiar with it, the gist is that a film passes the test if two women, usually named women, talk to each other about something other than a man. It is reserved for fictional movies and as you can probably imagine, most rom-coms fail miserably. Although this movie was largely true, it does pass the Bechdel test with flying colors, which begs the question…If women in real life frequently have conversation with each other that don’t include talking about men, shouldn’t art imitate life?
- I’m mad that math wasn’t taught in a more imaginative and tantalizing manner when I was in school. Although definitely the right choice, it is was very hard for me to change my major from biology/English (pre-med) to speech and hearing sciences for many reasons. One of those reasons that I had wanted to be a renegade of sorts and planned to go into a profession that was predominately male. My grand plan was to go to medical and not go into the more female-dominated specialties of pediatrics or obstetrics/gynecology. No, I wanted to be a neurologist or a neonatalogist. Then, what do you know, I went into an overwhelmingly female profession after all. It was the right choice as I love what I do and it is the perfect marriage of my love of language and science. For the same reasons, I wish I had been more interested in math and that would have been the case if I had had the right person to present math in a different way to me. Even though “girls aren’t good at math,” I always was. I enjoyed math and did really well in my math classes, with geometry and trigonometry being my two favorites. I was even on the math team for a year. Things went awry my senior year in high school when I took calculus. I did okay in the class , making As and Bs, but it was a tough class and even with those grades I didn’t feel like I had a good grasp on what I was doing or that I understood anything conceptually. I was so confused by positive and negative infinity. I think I learned enough of the rote mathematical manipulations to succeed in the class, but I didn’t know the whys and hows. I took pre-calculus as a review in college and then calculus again—same issues. I had no conceptual understanding. I now have friends who are math professors and their eyes light up when they talk about mathematical concepts, the consistency of math, and the imagination of math. I wish I had had an instructor who lit that fire for me. A teacher who, instead of lecturing me on formulas and theorems, had shown the unique and creative ways to use math to problem-solve, create, and compute. If I had to role play being Katherine Butler and figure out a mathematical solution to keep John Glenn from exploding or being lost in space, that’s a narrative I can get behind and gives me a real framework to start hanging and scaffolding a conceptual framework. It wouldn’t likely have changed how and where I ultimately ended up professionally, but it would have left me with a better taste in my mouth for math than I ultimately ended up with.
Okay. I think that typing all of this out has helped me to work out my angst. Seriously though…go see this movie. It’s a good movie and an important story, especially as we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We need to celebrate these women, we need to acknowledge a terrible time of racism, and we need to be reminded that civil rights work in this present political age is not done yet.