The 1960s were a time when African-Americans and women were restricted by societal structures. African-Americans and women had lower positions in academia, social, and political circumstances. Access to amenities, services, and opportunities was differential and segregated by race in the United States. More than 17,000 African-Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968. This form of commercialized racism was preserved openly in law.
African-Americans first started working towards eliminating discrimination in 1964. Space exploration was just becoming increasingly relevant during the time when Virginia, a state in the southeastern United States, was in the spotlight for all the civil rights cases over the past two decades. “Hidden Figures” is set during this important time period when many mathematical minds were needed to work on NASA’s missions.
A biographical account of three African-American women who are all innovators is narrated in the film Hidden Figures. This film is set circa 1960 in Hampton, Virginia, and depicts African-American women as they cope with racial and sexist discrimination. It’s hard to imagine what life was like in the early space race days. They participated in the Air and Space Competition of the 20th century and were the brains behind NASA’s Space Race.
In Langley Research Center, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) are mathematicians who are working to send an American astronaut into space.
This film takes the viewer inside a segregated building space where African-American women experience discrimination and racism. As Katherine’s story and Dorothy’s story progress, Mary and Dorothy struggle as they try to overcome similar racialized experiences. The film also touches on disability, classism, ageism, and sexism in relation to how these women contend for representation based on who they are instead of what they do.
Though Hidden Figures does not explicitly address how these intersecting oppressions reinforce one another through their tactics for marginalization, it nonetheless represents the theory of intersectionality in a way that is engaging and immersive.
Kimberle Crenshaw is a well-respected professor and civil rights advocate. Therefore, she created many social norms that focus on women from minority groups and pioneered the theory of intersectionality. Kimberle discusses how society overlooked racialized and gender-based violence victims in her book, “The Gender And Media Reader.”.
The concept of intersectionality refers to the oppression of social groups by taking into account racial, gender, and other factors. The idea is that their effects vary depending on whether they are experienced by an individual who identifies as belonging to more than one category.
These perspectives are especially important in discussions about sexism, homophobia, religious persecution, and sexual violence because they can identify different oppressions as overlapping factors. Three African-American women identify with multiple oppressions in Hidden Figures, a poignant story about oppression. The film shows how the intersectionality theory reveals this complexity at work.
Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary stopped to help an officer driving down the highway. After exchanging pleasantries, they attempted to move on only for their car to break down. Mary argues that there was no crime committed because both women are black (Melfi) while Katherine claims that a broken-down car did not commit a crime. While investigating a disturbance, Katherine is speaking to the cop when an old man interrupts and inquires about her badge. His demeanor quickly changes once he recognizes she works for NASA and expresses his excitement. One officer recognized the African American women’s socio-economic class and academic level after they had been racially and/or gender discriminated against. After learning some surprising facts about them–that they work for NASA as mathematicians–the cop changes his mind and escorts them to work. As an example, this specific incident illustrates how racial, gender, and economic class all influence social interactions in a society such as ours, with the departmental discrimination that took place after the interaction with their fellow police officer.
The African-Americans are targeted by potential employers mainly because they cannot control their emotions – referencing Katherine Goble’s anger at being refused the job. When Katherine is moved to a different branch of NASA, she’s warned by an older white colleague, who tells her “They don’t have anyone from your group in this office.” Katherine tries to justify walking into the new office with her kids and insists that it will not make her look bad. Even though Katherine is working for NASA as a female engineer, some people still assume that she is just a custodian, because she doesn’t always meet the standards set by their culture. Several examples of stereotypes at work can be found in an article written by Michael Omi and Howard Winant in “Racial Formations.” They describe how people who are different may perform different tasks as a result of stereotypes at work.
Stereotypes reveal a series of unsubstantiated beliefs about who and what these groups are. In the book, Omi and Winant discussed how white male employees at a company were uncomfortable when they learned that the person they thought was one type of role actually did things quite differently. One example came from Katherine, whose colleagues assaulted her at work once she revealed she worked as an engineer and not as a custodian. When Katherine explained this, her white co-workers became speechless and bewildered. Bear with me on this one. So, Katherine is an employee at her workplace. She has to work with rude and demeaning coworkers who treat her differently based on her race and gender. In this case, she was only allowed access to the “colored” coffee pot that was the furthest away from her desk. In contrast, while sexism exists in both working communities, cultural stereotypes suggest that it’s a more serious issue for women than for men.
Katherine experiences sexist prejudices and limitations on gender roles within her community. At a community barbecue after church, Katherine shares with an African-American National Guard Lieutenant, named Jim Johnson, some of the difficult obstacles women face in pursuing careers in science. Katherine is interrupted by Jim, who says, “They allow females handle those… taxing all the work” (Melfi) and shows sexist remarks to her. Adding yet a dimension to how much discrimination she faces, this interaction only strengthens how much oppression she experiences within her community. As a result of his preconceived notions about women, Jim often challenges societal gender roles. There are a limited number of references to pre-marital sexual orientation, but gender roles are present, as Mary’s husband becomes angry when she serves junk food to their children during a barbecue, despite the limited references to pre-marital sexual orientation in this film.
Hidden Figures illustrates intersectionality as it penetrates multidimensional oppression leading to marginalized social and political perspectives through the theory of intersectionality. As a result of their similar subordinate identities, the oppression experienced by the three main characters took on multiple dimensions. Sexism, which represents the intersecting perspectives of race and gender, was used to treat women unequally. At its heart, the film depicts the intertwined identities of all those who come from minority groups.
A central theme of the film is how members of these groups have to deal with identity due to their differences. During the course of viewing this movie, I noticed that often typically mistreated people would change when they got to know one another better and culture was embraced.
Jim Johnson apologizes to Katherine for underestimating her and other women like her when he destroys the “colored” coffee pot and bathroom sign. People have been struggling for decades trying to change the things that are wrong in America and Omi and Winant believe it’s not fixable.
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