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A good deal of cultural studies is centered on questions of representation. That is, on how the world is socially constructed and represented to and by us in meaningful ways. This essay will explain how the concepts of representation and gender performance can be applied to the movie Hidden Figures (2016). (2000, pp. 8)
What is misunderstood by the vast majority of people is the fact that representations are real, accurate and indisputable depictions of different elements. Representations get their validity from the belief that they are just statements about something that was already there. Actually, they are nothing more than our own interpretations of what we see, our distorted perception of reality. Our minds decode the information they extract from our environment and they allocate meaning to the received data creating in this way a biased representation of reality. (Morgan, 2019)
It has been shown time and time again the significant impact that the media can generate amongst the public. Through its representation and depiction of people, this powerful tool of expression and communication is able to adhere to and/or alter the way people perceive others. The power of the media carries the expectations and hopes of many underrepresented minorities. Hidden Figures is the movie of the true story of three African-American women working for NASA during the Space Race, a historically significant time for astronomy. Its impact lies in its portrayal of black women in America, which in the media has previously been shown in extremes: as women who are aggressive and irrationally angry, or as objects meant to be hyper-sexualized and inhumanly defined solely by their sexuality. Most forms of representation have been dehumanizing and based largely off of stereotypes. (Islam, 2017)
Luckily, the 2010s have garnered a renaissance of black representation in transatlantic cinema. We’re witnessing narratives in which black people are neither slave nor savage, and the characters are cast fairly and accordingly. Hidden Figures simply presented black women as the heroes of their own story, not as aides to a white hero, but simply as pioneers in their STEM careers. Furthermore, they are also presented as black feminists. (Fajemisin, 2018)
We can see totally different narratives from 2010 onwards because, nowadays, presenting people in a discriminatory manner, as a result of ignorant perceptions accumulated over time, is becoming less and less socially acceptable. Such attitudes towards certain groups because of stereotypes are being more and more frowned upon and they are fading away from TV, as well. In other words, people are discouraged from nurturing such stereotypical ideas and therefore, from being tempted to portray disadvantaged groups according to historical understandings of those groups. We are becoming more socially aware by the day that we have to look beyond old representations and create refreshed ones more in tune with reality. I believe that this shift in social attitudes towards black people and discriminated social groups has forced Hollywood directors and screenwriters to set aside these stereotypical portrayals and depict black characters more posivitely in the last years.
Classism, sexism and racism systematically oppress the three protagonists. But they do all they can to fight against all social inequalities and injustices they are exposed to in order to improve their status which is reduced to being black and being females and therefore, they are presented as black feminists. They raise people’s awareness about the extent of their self-value which is way above what the society recognises.
In 1961, mathematician Katherine Goble works as a human computer in the gender and racially segregated division West Area Computers of the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, alongside her colleagues, aspiring engineer Mary Jackson and their unofficial acting-supervisor Dorothy Vaughan. (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, no date)
The women are represented as fierce fighters against the injustices and sexism blacks and women were subjected to, be it either through defiance, self-empowerment or through the power of persuasion. The beginning of the movie presents the three women in their broken down car near a field with Dorothy trying to repair it on their way to work. Suddenly, they panic at the sight of a police car. A policeman comments on the unfortunate place they were having car trouble. Mary is defiant in her reply saying that it was not she and her friends who chose the place, the place chose them. A bold answer towards the authority, taking into consideration that it came from a black woman and that alone was suspicious enough to the white population in 1960s. The policeman is impressed after seeing their identification that they work at NASA. He is the proud American who wants his nation to be the first one to send a man into space (before the communists). Mary manipulates the situation in the black women’s favour suggesting that there is no way they can be of service if they do not get to work. With the car successfully repaired, the officer offers himself to at least escort the women to work.
Because there was an opening in the engineering program, the team leader, Mr. Zlelinski, a Pole whose Jewish parents died in the Nazi death camps, encourages Mary to apply for it. She is told that females are not accepted at NASA’s Engineering Training Program. When Mary cites the job’s requirement, namely any qualified individual, Ms. Mitchell replies that in order to be successful, applicants now require additional courses at the University of Virginia, but she is never going to attend university there because of the colour of her skin. Dorothy has a dismissive attitude towards the obstacle Mary is facing in the pursuit of advancing her career because she thinks that Mary must be practical and file a petition and fight for her dreams instead of complaining. Therefore, Mary is encouraged to be the hero of her own story. Once in the presence of the judge, Mary uses her wit to manipulate the situation in the favour of black women once again. She manipulates the ego of the judge, suggesting that he could go down in history if he rules favourably in her case. The judge is impressed by her plea and allows her to attend the night classes. She later becomes a pioneer in her STEM career by becoming the first American woman to be part of NASA’s aeronautical engineering department.
In the meantime, Dorothy defies the racist rules by entering the public library of Hampton to look for a book that is not supplied in the library for the coloured people. She previously found out from Ms. Mitchell about a machine that was being built in the technological wing and that supposedly did any calculation in a fraction at a time and she learns anything she can about this new technology so that she is not made redundant once the machine is ready to be put in use. She is given the opportunity to work with that machine for John Glenn’s trajectory, but finds out that the girls she supervises are to be fired because of the new technology. She refuses to accept the reassignment unless they work by her side. Therefore, she is represented as a person who knows how honourable the sense of sisterhood is.
Katherine is now part of Al Harrison’s Space Task Group working on analytic geometry. Because black people have no coloured bathrooms in the building she is currently working in and the nearest building with coloured bathrooms is half a mile away, Katherine has no other choice than to spend 40 minutes a day outside her official place of work. Being questioned about her daily whereabouts by Mr. Harrison, she speaks out and condemns the oppressive actions imposed by the institution she works for. Apart from the lack of coloured bathrooms in the building she works in, she criticizes the standards she has to abide by as an African-American woman. Black women’s working appearance is different to the one of white women. The skirts of black women must be above knees and the jewellery must not be fancy. The oppression of discriminated social groups also manifests itself in the pay gap between blacks and whites. Consequently, Mr. Harrison takes the matter into his own hands and brings down the sign for coloured ladies’ bathrooms.
We see Katherine as a defier of the expectations of the misogynistic society she lives in by speaking up against the sexist views she hears during her discussion with colonel Jim Johnson. He is quite surprised with the fact that women are allowed to do such ‘taxing’ activities at such a prestigious institution, NASA. To prove him wrong, she lists her jaw-dropping credentials that allow her to work there in front of the colonel.
While doing her daily job, Katherine works on a report with classified information and, driven by curiosity, she uncovers enough data from that report that she ends up calculating correctly the numbers others before her have got wrong. Seeing the potential in her, Al Harrison allows her to work on Shephard’s trajectory. Consequently, we see blacks represented as persons worthy of trust, not as worthy of suspicion as they are often portrayed in the media.
With persistence and self-confidence, we see Katherine becoming the first woman to attend Pentagon briefings about John Glenn’s trajectory even if there is no protocol which allows women to attend such meetings. By standing her ground in front of Al Harrison and asking for her right to be present at events on which her work depends, she is permitted to attend those briefings.
Black feminism also includes self-empowering attitudes. A clear example of self-empowerment is when Mary has a heated argument with Levi, her husband, regarding her dream to become an engineer. He thinks that his wife’s pursuit to become an engineer is futile because the oppressed are not granted rights, they must take them violently. But she takes the matter into her own hands, files a petition and after persuasion, the judge rules in her favour.
Another concept from cultural studies presented in this movie is gender performance. According to Judith Butler, gender performance means the ways in which people stylise their bodies, their demeanour in order to give the impression of ‘an abiding gendered self’. Those stylisations are actually social constructs of how male, females and anything on the spectrum should behave. As in the case of representations, there was nothing there to begin with in order to be considered the source of gendered behaviours. They are expectations imposed by society on individuals and, with time, they become historical understandings of what it means to be a man or a woman. (Carruthers, no date), (Morgan, 2019)
Colonel Jim Johnson has a very rigid view on how a woman should perform her gender. When he hears that women are allowed to do such ‘heavy stuff’ at NASA, he is astonished because his perception of what it means to be a woman is actually borrowed from the collective understandings of countless generations before him and it has nothing to do with a career in technology at a reputed institution. The society before him and the society that he is part of held and holds traditional views of what is socially acceptable as a woman and he absorbed these beliefs over time without questioning them. Now, they have become part of his reality with regard to what normal behaviours of women look like.
Another form of gender performance that women have to abide by in this movie is their appearance. Black women are expected to wear skirts above knees and jewellery that is not too extravagant. What they are required to portray at work is not the reification of some ‘abiding gendered self’, but actually the society’s own concept of what a woman should look like.
Representation and gender performance are linked because a lot of gender performances come from seeing representations of what it is to be male or female. (Morgan, 2019)
To put it briefly, the protagonists from Hidden Figures defy the stereotypical views on blacks and women, showing people a positive and more in tune with reality portrayal of them.
- Barker, C. (2000) Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
- Carruthers, A. (no date) ‘Queer Theory’ [PowerPoint Presentation]. SML1021: Introduction to International Film. Available at: https://blackboard.ncl.ac.uk/bbcswebdav/pid-3867221-dt-content-rid-13434990_1/courses/K1819-SML1021-SML1121/Feb%2020th%202019%20FINAL%20PPT%20Queer%20Theory.pdf (Accessed: 30 April 2019).
- Fajemisin, O. (2018) THE CHANGING FACE OF BLACKNESS IN MODERN CINEMA. Available at: https://indie-mag.com/2018/02/blackness-modern-cinema/ (Accessed: 20 April 2019).
- Islam, I. (2017) The Importance of Hidden Figures. Available at: http://www.herculture.org/blog/2017/8/25/the-importance-of-hidden-figures#.XOUyoMhKhPY (Accessed: 20 April 2019).
- Morgan, N. (2019) SML1022/L02/01 Tue Apr 30 14:05:00 BST 2019 . [Vodcast]. Available at: https://blackboard.ncl.ac.uk/webapps/ppto-PanoptoCourseTool-BBLEARN/Content.jsp?course_id=_86010_1&mode=view (Accessed: 30 April 2019).
- Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia (no date), Hidden Figures. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidden_Figures, (Accessed: 20 April 2019).
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