Thoughts on Hidden Figures

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I went to see Hidden Figures last night. It was one of those inspiring, “I want to live my life better” movies. And I had a few thoughts I wanted to put down on the symbolic paper of my blog.

To me, the movie was a testament of what can happen when women support each other. I am in no way discounting the role that their husbands played, because they could not have done what they did without the support of their families, but ultimately it was a movie about women lifting and encouraging each other. Of not just looking out for themselves, but getting the colored women’s restroom sign removed for all the women, seeking to cross train the the west computing group so that they wouldn’t be out of a job when the IMB got up and running, and convincing Mary to not give up on engineering school even though she had to the petition the courts. Being a woman in a man’s world is intimidating and no one else quite understands it like other women, which is why we need each other.

It reminded me that sometimes you have to ask for, and even demand, more opportunities for growth. I like to think that I can keep my head down and work hard and that’s enough, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes people have never even thought about why you’re not invited to the briefing and they never will unless you convince them otherwise.

The film inspired me to be more confident. I was blown away by how confident the women were in their own abilities to literally get a man to space. I have no doubt that women are capable of being just as smart and talented as men in whatever field they choose, but sometimes, I don’t think that principle applies to me. I wish that every time I doubted my abilities I could channel Catherine when she meets her future husband and tells him off for underestimating what a woman can do.

It reminded me that societal rules sometimes exist to be broken. So much of the racism and sexism they faced was subtle. Their culture had built a system of societal norms designed to keep women, people of color, and others separate from the people with power. The choices people made that were often so hurtful were justified by a desire to keep the status quo. They only cared that she drank from the same coffee pot because their society had taught them that it mattered. Kirsten Dunst’s character didn’t feel like she was racist for never pushing for Dorothy’s promotion, but didn’t realize that it was built on the idea that we can pay women of color less for equal work.

But we can’t just keep the status quo. We have to look at all of our rules and norms, and sincerely ask ourselves why some of them exist. We have to read about them and see if people feel like they are being hurt by the norms (because those who are not negatively effected are usually oblivious to the damage they’re doing on others), and then we need to advocate and deliberately go counter to what our society would dictate.

Hidden Figures reminded me that I have so much privilege. I can relate to the challenges of a woman trying to succeed, but I have never had to deal with racism. I have never had to petition the courts to take classes. I have never worried when I was pulled over by the police. I have never been kicked out of the library because I wanted a book in another section. And so my response should be to listen and support those who do have to deal with the challenges of race. To be humble enough to not think that I am perfect of that I have all the answers. To be willing to make changes to my behavior and my beliefs when I realize that they’re wrong.

I loved that the film showed good people feeding into these flawed and destructive systems of oppression, and their ability to change. That it doesn’t always have to be us versus them, and racist America is evil… that although good people sometimes fall prey to following and defending the status quo, they don’t have to be destroyed to destroy the system. Even Catherine’s biggest critic on the task force, eventually became her ally. I can’t help but think that there are thousands if not millions of good people who fit into this category in America. It’s not fair that it takes time. I understand the desire to shake them and make them realize what they’re doing, but in my experience that doesn’t really work. I’m not sure what does yet, but I have hope in America. I have hope in good people who can change their minds, behavior, beliefs, and thoughts.

One of the highlights of the movie to me wasn’t even the movie. It was the little girl sitting right behind me. You see, at one point the protagonist, Catherine, grabs a cup of coffee from the communal coffee pot, putting the cup underneath the nozzle and pulling the lever to start filling, and then going back to her calculations while it fills. Everyone in the room stops to stare at her for the audacity of using their coffee pot.And the girl behind me, trying to understand why everyone’s so anxious in the scene, determined it’s because she’s not looking at the nozzle and her coffee is going to spill. That was her only logical explanation about why these men might be upset. And it struck me, we have sooooo far to go in regards to racism and equality in America, but the men and women of the Civil Rights Movement have moved the needle, because a little girl in Salt Lake City, UT had no idea why a white person would be upset that a person of color was drinking from the same coffee pot as them. It’s not everything. We shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back and say we’ve arrived at racial equality by any means, but still, I am so grateful for that little girl’s innocence.

More than anything, that was the reoccurring thought I had during the movie. I couldn’t wait to watch it with my children someday. To make sure that they know the hidden figures of history. To make sure it’s not just a story about John F. Kennedy and John Glenn, but it’s also a story about Catherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson.

As the credits started rolling, the audience clapped. I haven’t been in many films where the audience clapped, but it was difficult not to. As much as we all loved the film, I think most of us were clapping for these women. These incredible women who faced almost insurmountable obstacles and didn’t let it deter them. Who thought, “I want to be in the room where it happens, and you know what, I’m going to get there.” Who did amazing things because they dared to dream. Despite the difficult things I read on the news every day, it was a good reminder that humans are amazing creatures who have incredible potential and it reminded me not to give up hope.

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