Gender and Racial Discrimination in Hidden Figures


“They let women do some things at NASA, and it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses”.

— Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson


        The women’s empowerment of the three characters Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Johnson (Janelle Monae) in the movie Hidden Figures, released in 2016 and directed by Theodore Melfi, over sexist and misogynist men leads their path toward combatting discrimination in the public but also private sphere. This essay will examine the film as a way to understand the perception of femininity in the sexist and racist scientific world of the fifties and sixties. Regarding the election of Donald Trump the same year as the release date of the movie, I would like to demonstrate the representation of the double battle of recognition of rights as a black woman in the sixties and the impact on the bipolar American society torn up by the increasing of migrant rights and feminist empowerment on one hand and the resurgent racist actions on the other. Sexism and racism are intimately linked in this movie and as a young female student and a feminist I couldn’t just let it pass and not study it more to understand the mechanism of racism and sexism. Hidden Figures is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s novel Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race and tells the story of three very intelligent African-American women who served as the brains at NASA during the Cold War. The movie is set in the early sixties during the space race between the USA and the USSR. At that moment our three protagonists helped in the preparation of one of the greatest operations in history: The launch of the astronaut John Glenn into orbit. In doing so, they were forced to encounter racism, discrimination, and sexism from their colleagues, superiors and compatriots. 

The sixties were not only a moment of war against another ideology but also a battle of races and genders. The post-World War II period was a moment of struggle for women who had, and still have to today (if we take into consideration the recent controversy over sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement), to face the glass ceiling reality and gender inequality concerning social status and housework. They have had to fight for their credit to occupy a social position equal to men, and to strengthen women’s empowerment movements and actions around the world.  The situation seemed to be less hard for white western women compared to women of color even if it was on the very same territory. The segregated period of the sixties not only placed black women in the difficult position of being women against men but also, and most importantly as shown in Hidden Figures, the everyday battle for being a black woman working in a white men’s world. The hegemonic masculinity of both white and non-white men seemed to be threatened by the work evolution and career aspirations of the three main characters. Sexism and racism are intimately linked in this movie. The three protagonist not only encounter racism vis-à-vis the white population of the NASA and in the city of Virginia but also sexism produced by men working en masse in the basement. Sexism in the context of the Cold War is not only put into practice by the white scientists working at NASA or the white policeman at the beginning of the movie, it also appears within the intimacy of the black community as we will see with the bold Mary Johnson who will not hesitate to go against her husband’s approval to take night class, or Katherine Johnson who will not let the well regarded Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) disregard the role of women in the space race.

The major issue in this story is how to make visible women’s intelligence in a world of misogynist white men who built up their hegemonic masculinity over women subordination and forced them into an inferior status. The objective of this movie is to “make visible the invisible”, in other words in the context of the movie the sexism and racism against black women in the sixties in the USA.

 Racism and sexism were encountered in their everyday lives and the threat toward those in the black community was omnipresent. To illustrate this statement I would like to point out how the first scene following the introduction of the childhood of one of the protagonists, Katherine Goble, with the meeting with a white policeman establishes the roots for us. The three women are discussing the way to resolve their car problem while Dorothy tries to fix it. Mary and Katherine are arguing until the arrival of a policeman calms down the three of them but also suggests a feeling of threat. “No crime of being a Negro either” is the response of Mary to the coming of the policeman. Bold for this time of terror, she talks back to the man’s interrogation regarding the need of identification, as if having a car breakdown was an action for which they would be at fault. After understanding that they all worked for NASA and had encountered famous astronauts the policeman relieved the tension by adopting a less suspicious tone and ask them if they need an escort since they are already late for work. Mary, noticing the male’s look at her friend posterior when she bent down, jumped on the occasion to take advantage of the situation in a comic tone. The male gaze of the policeman on the women’s physical attribute will not be the only reference to Laura Mulvey’s “look-at-ness” conception of the objectified women within the movie. We also encounter a ridiculous aspect of the objectification of women especially at that time in history: the stupid scene of Mary whose high heel is caught in the metal plate during a test for a rocket. She is blocked and tries to take her shoe out of the railing while men are watching without doing anything else than saying that no shoe would be worth her life. The result of this accident is that she had to stay barefoot all day long in her workplace. The grotesque aspect of this scene is not that she was wedged, but the fact that even though she is a qualified engineer she is still under the hegemonic masculine conception of the world and gender representation that clearly differentiates prescribed styles of masculinity and femininity and doesn’t allow her to wear more suitable and comfortable clothes such as a trouser and flat shoes, so she is stuck in her tight skirt and high heels. Ironically the same man who told her to leave the shoe behind is the one who is going to cheer her up and support her in order to become an official engineer and to obtain the official degree.

That scene also suggests the “American Dream” propaganda where outsiders can excel, in this context a Polish Jew and a black woman. The feeling of gender physical injustice is also recurrent when Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) introduces the rules of clothing to Katherine while she is brought to the Space Task group for her new assignment. Mrs. Mitchell is the perfect representation of the stereotypes of white beauty. She is tall, thin, blue eyed and has straight blonde hair which contrast with the black curly hair and the voluptuous figures of the three black protagonists. Not only are their physiques hierarchized but also the vocabulary and the title given. She never calls any of the black women working at the same function “Mrs.”, she uses simply their first name but they are not allowed in return to do the same, the scenes are particularly unequivocal with Dorothy Vaughan who keeps calling her “Mrs. Mitchell”. As mentioned earlier Mrs. Mitchell isn’t only the archetype of the white conception of beauty she is also a reference of the man’s system. She is the symbol of the submission of women who could only exist and be recognized by being married and having adopted their husband’s name.

The arrival of Katherine in her new assignment group demonstrates a number of prejudices and clichés. At the first moment she enters the room she is mistaken for the custodian, as a common established statement that black women in state and technological companies are only there for cleaning. It is well understood that most of the men in the group are sexist and racist but the epitome comes with the ambiguous character Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). The very choice of the director to hire the actor Jim Parsons as a misogynist man is interesting. Well known for his role as the weird but incredibly smart Sheldon Cooper in the TV Series Big Bang Theory, and also his private sexual orientation as openly gay, it is interesting that Jim Parsons as a queer figure has been chosen to play in a context when being homosexual was qualified as worse than being a communist and frequently the target of a witch hunt. How can we understand the choice of the director in this context? In the movie the character of Paul Stafford is obviously racist and sexist but the reasons are unclear of if he doesn’t accept Katherine at the beginning for being a woman, for being black or for being smarter than him. The movie tends to indicate that the three statements could apply in his case especially that she is the one has to correct his calculations. An inner war starts between the two, beginning with his refusal to share the results and blurring of the data and then it goes at a more racist and ignoble state when all the white men in the office are disgusted by the fact she uses the same kettle as everyone and to solve this discomfort they simply add an empty one with the sticker “colored”. The labeling of places and things is very disturbing and even if it’s a general acknowledgment of the past tendency it creates a sentiment of revolt and a frustration regarding the impossibility of removing these labels.

A sudden shift in people’s behavior and in the conditions of the three protagonists’ lives occurs right after the announcement of the success of Russian space operations, placing the USA in a second place in the space race. We follow Mary’s victory in court to allow her to follow a night class in an all-white school to pass her diploma and status as recognized engineer and furthermore with the greetings of her male teammates. Dorothy doesn’t let the modernization take her job and finds a solution to make herself and her team necessary for the processing of the IBM machine and avenges capitalism’s victims and the fear we have until now faced with the increasing computerization of labor. The case of Katherine is at the same time relieving, satisfying, and frustrating. After running again to the toilets she is being blamed and interrogated regarding her long absence everyday despite the crisis state the NASA and the government is at. She tries to first justify herself calmly and with control but then she finally (and we couldn’t wait any longer for her to do so—this is the film’s form of suspense), loses her temper and gets everything off her chest: “There is no colored bathroom in this building or any other buildings outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu jut to relieve myself. And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that Mr. Harrison. My uniform, skirt below my knees, my heels and a simple string of pearls.” Her voice trembling breaks and start resonating with anger, “Well I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay coloreds enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog, day and night, living off of a coffee from a pot none of you wanna touch!” she then tries to calm herself down, get her voice together and tears still going out continues softly “So excuse me if I have to go to the bathroom a few times a day.” This scene is heartbreaking and the tension is at its peak while she leaves the room with the sound of her heels resonating on the floor. Her long monologue is full of references to the conditions of black women, and the eternal and common sexism floating in the air. The dramatic aspect of her voice crackling and her tears appearing is touching because of the strong figure being weak for a moment and revealing the unfair and ugly truth of the world she lives in. Her gender situation of being a woman trying to be strong in a man world is touching and easily identifiable, so we do commiserate with her grief and nerves. It is also one of the only moment in the film when someone relieve tears and recalls for us the hard time of black people in a segregated society.

The attitude of her superior (played by Kevin Costner) is the subject of much critical debate. He stands as the “white savior” man who finally satisfies our need for justice by removing the label on the kettle and by bravely and cinematographically speaking courageous and strong way break the panel down which severs to naming colored bathrooms. The heroism of the character is lit up by his satisfying statement: “Here in NASA we all pee the same color”. But how do we understand this sudden act of heroism and justice? Is the fact that it happens after the revelation of the Russians technology advancement a coincidence or is it related? As spectators we would have to the tendency to believe there is always one good character and since he hasn’t shown any explicit racist behavior we are tempted to argue that he behaved with compassion and need for justice and not just because of the space race and the need to clear out any disturbance to the knowledge productivity to achieve to superior goal and surpass the USSR. The act of sympathy we want to believe in can nevertheless demonstrates the white privilege of making the decisions for everyone, and especially decide the status of those are not white. The battle for making visible the invisible is demonstrated in a comic way when Katherine adds her name on the report of Paul Stafford but she is erased and reminded to stick to her status. She takes her revenge over it thanks (again) to her superior who lets her attend the meeting about the rocket news, which was strictly forbidden due to her unauthorized and female status. She makes visible the invisible in the symbolic handover of the chalk to stand before the male committee to show and prove herself as a remarkable and legitimate mathematician of this program. She is visible to the NASA leaders and her work is recognized regardless of her gender or/and the color of her skin. 

America has a long and tumultuous relationship with racism toward African-American population and contemporary society is blurred concerning the division that lies within the very same territory. Following the same issue in the making of the movie Tangerine, the legitimacy of Theodore Melfi as a white director is relevant. As an outsider, how do we understand his political position and legitimacy to deal with the subject of racial discrimination and what representation did he want to highlight? Does he want to put the blame on white people and try to dissuade them from further aligning with the white supremacy movement that is trying to rise again, or does he try to lean on the riots around the movement to give the audience a different understanding of the movement by integrating the other trendy feminist and body activist movements? The choice of the time period is also not anodyne knowing that historical movies are a good support for the critique of the present, as it works to transform it enough to put the stress on particular aspects of the society. 2016 is the year of a new category of American movies based on racial discrimination, essentially oriented toward African-American people. In its own way Hidden Figures is an obviously fresh movie in the category of feminism and anti-racism. Unlike its predecessors 12 Years a Slave (2013), Django (2012) or Invictus (2009) the injustice of white people toward black people is not represented in a spectacularly violent way, with blood, death and torture, rape and other atrocities. In Hidden Figures mistreatment is shown comically, but it never mocked the fate of the black community. It tells their struggle in everyday life, in a simple but nonetheless cruel form.  In a context full of tension in the contemporary society humor can be an efficient weapon in the battle of self-recognition. Its success, and the fact that this movie treats the gender and racial issues differently, sets up the question of reception and how black spectators perceived this movie. 

To conclude we can argue that the award winning movie of Hidden Figures isn’t only about a story of counter-history that relates the untold story of three smart women, it actually told the difficulties of being a woman in the American society and until now the tension between African-Americans and white Americans isn’t solved regarding the terrible incidents that inspired the “#Blacklivesmatter” protests and the recent election of Donald Trump, a racist and misogynist man who will not ease the troubles. The choice of releasing both movies Hidden Figures and Moonlight are not pure coincidence and Hollywood society is not different from politicians when it comes to render visible social and historical injustices. It is precisely because of the rising nationalism among American citizens that Donald Trump could be elected, and by the same occasion, we can see the popularity of the subjects such as racism and gender issues in mass cultural production.




Works Cited

 Brody, Richard. ““Hidden Figures” Is a Subtle and Powerful Work of Counter-History”, The New Yorker, December 2016.

Day, Elizabeth. The Guardian, “#BlackLivesMatter: the birth of a new civil rights movement. How a new generation of tech-savvy activists made violence against African Americans into global headline news.” July 2015.

Hidden Figures, directed by Melfi Theodore, 20th Century Fox, 2016.

Mulvey, Laura (Autumn 1975). "Visual pleasure and narrative cinema”. Oxford Journals.

Shetterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race, William Morrow and Company, 2016.

Tate, Greg. “How Barry Jenkins Turned the Misery and Beauty of the Queer Black Experience Into the Year’s Best Movie, The Village Voice”, 2016.



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