Hidden Figures - representation, flaws and imperfection

22 January 2017

I went to see Hidden Figures last week after being excited about it for a long time. There are a lot of reasons I loved it. Loooooved it. Go and see it. But it also made me think about the harder-to-tell parts of that story - insecurity, uncertainty and flaws.

First things first, it was incredible to see so many black people on the screen. Representation matters, and in all honesty it surprised me how much it surprised me to see such a diverse cast. Not with black people as the best friend, or the sidekick, or the nerdy kid in class. It was refreshing, and made me so, so happy.

The film did a fantastic job of bringing the small indignities that black people suffered to the fore, too. Things that it was very easy for the white characters to simply not notice because it didn’t affect their lives in anything like the same way, played important roles in the plot. Those little indignities get called “microaggressions” these days, but if anything, the complete lack of intentional emotion attached to them in the film really hit me. There was almost an intentional barrier to seeing and understanding the consequences of what they were doing, and of course there was, because not seeing that injustice leaves the white people in a position of power and authority. There’s a great scene where the white supervisor of Dorothy Vaughan says to her: “You know, I have nothing against y’all” and Dorothy replies “I’m sure you believe that.” Later, her supervisor finally starts calling her Mrs. Vaughan instead of just Dorothy, and that tiny change signifies a huge step.

It also struck me how the three main characters just kept on fighting for more rights, more access, more responsibility and recognition. They knew they deserved better on all fronts. When they were turned down, they didn’t get discouraged, they just kept going. I wonder how many people would have done that, and how many people do the same today. I know I’ve given advice in the past along the lines of – well, if they don’t realise how great you are, they don’t deserve you. Though it’s a wildly different scope of course, this film made me rethink that. Is that advice helpful, or harmful? Should I be saying – no, keep fighting until they give you a chance. If these three women hadn’t done that, this story wouldn’t exist. But it’s also incredibly exhausting.

With the women I know who are blazing a trail, being the first to do something, or being one of very few, there’s always an underlying thread of deep uncertainty and doubt. Is it that progress isn’t happening because of systemic inequalities, or because the person isn’t good enough? How can you tell? Sometimes it really is very clear, but in many cases, it’s blurry by design. There are excuses made, and the bar is set higher and higher. And with that comes the labour of representation, and what that means. For example, when Katherine is battling to be let into briefings – as the only woman, as the only black person - she holds a huge burden of representation on her shoulders. She knows that when she’s asking to be let in there, she’s being judged not just for her, but for the demographics she represents.

In Hidden Figures, there were very few moments of uncertainty, but I appreciated them all the same. One, where Mary asks her husband: do you think I can do it? He says yes, of course you can. They supported each other, too. That deep belief is powerful, but I can’t help but wonder - did they always know they were bound for greatness? Did they have doubts, too? I can only guess that they did, but I guess it makes for a less powerful plot line.

Despite that, this film gave me hope and inspiration and I loved it. That said, part of me also wants to see stories about ordinary women. Perhaps this came out more strongly for me because in two books I read recently (Snowcrash, and Babel-17), the sole women characters in both are extraordinary, literally the most intelligent woman on the planet, and beautiful, funny, charming, all at the same time. They’re the one extraordinary woman on the entire planet. They’re super women who don’t exist in reality, and it’s so frustrating to see this sole woman character always have the same impossible traits.

And so, part of me wants to read and hear about mediocre women, women who are flawed, and imperfect, who maybe don’t make it to the very top, but just to the middle ranks.

It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for, given the number of films on our screens about imperfect white men who struggle in life. Surprise, the rest of us struggle too, and those stories deserve to be told. I’m incredibly grateful for Hidden Figures, but I also want to see women who I can empathise with for their imperfection, as well as be inspired by.


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