Girl Geniuses

On New Year’s Day, I went to see Hidden Figures with my aunt and my sister.  We had to go to Arundel Mills Mall, because it wasn’t playing anywhere near us, and we had to get there over an hour early to park.  That might seem like a lot of trouble to go to just to see a movie, but you’ve got to understand: I’d been waiting for months to see Hidden Figures.  Strong female characters and NASA?  Sign me up!

In case you’ve been spending 2017 under a rock, Hidden Figures is based on the true story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monaé), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), three black women who worked as “human computers” at NASA during the 1960s and played a crucial role in sending John Glenn into space.  The movie follows the three women as they face sexism and racism, kill the STEM game, challenge segregation, and generally kick ass, all against the backdrop of the Cold War and the Space Race.  It’s currently #1 at the box office, and with good reason.  It’s an incredibly good movie.  It’s also an incredibly important movie.

Before Hidden Figures, I’d never heard of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, or Dorothy Vaughan.  I was completely unaware that women worked as “human computers” even before the Space Race, and that black women, though they did the same work as their white female counterparts, were segregated into the West Computing Group at NASA.  That’s where Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary all work at the start of the movie.  Though they’re undeniably smarter than the white men they work with, they’re kept in low-level jobs because of institutionalized sexism and racism.  At one point, Mary’s supervisor asks her, “If you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?” and she responds “I wouldn’t have to.  I’d already be one.”

That exchange is pretty much Hidden Figures–and sexism and racism–in a nutshell: Women and people of color have to work twice as hard as white men to achieve the same things, and women of color have to work three times as hard.  All three of the movie’s protagonists went on to accomplish some pretty amazing stuff, but they had to fight like hell to get the same opportunities that were just given to white men.  Dorothy Vaughan became an expert in computer programming and NASA’s first black head of personnel.  Mary Jackson spent two decades working as NASA’s (and quite possibly America’s) first black female engineer before changing careers and taking a pay cut to become an Equal Opportunity Specialist, helping other women and minorities advance in the overwhelmingly white male field of engineering.  Katherine Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist and calculated the trajectory for the first moon landing.  She also co-authored 26 scientific papers and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.  Oh, and she graduated from high school at the age of 14 and graduated summa cum laude from college at the age of 18 with degrees in both math and French.

There’s a word that’s often used to describe white men who are as intelligent, capable, and determined as the women of Hidden Figures: genius.  Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy are all just that–geniuses.  But Hidden Figures is not your average “genius” movie.  Think A Beautiful Mind, think The Imitation Game, think Good Will Hunting–these are your typical “genius” movies.  And what they have in common is that the “genius” in question is one singular white man whose genius makes him removed from the world and inaccessible to us non-geniuses.  That’s not the case with Hidden Figures.  The brilliant women of Hidden Figures don’t exist in a vacuum, and they don’t participate in the isolation and white male individualism that defines the traditional “genius.”  Instead, their genius is humble.  Katherine Johnson, the only member of the trio still alive, talks about her time breaking down barriers at NASA and contributing to amazing scientific achievements, and you get the sense she doesn’t think that makes her special in any way.  She knows she’s smart, sure, but a hero?  According to Katherine, she’s no hero; she was just doing her job.

The Hidden Figures style of genius also stands out in how community-oriented it is.  Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy know that it’s not enough to be the smartest one in the room when the smartest person in the room next door is silenced because she’s black and a woman.  At one point in the movie, Dorothy says of Katherine’s prestigious new work assignment, “I know any upward movement is movement for us all.  It’s just not movement for me.”  But these women aren’t content to just let that be the way it is.  When Dorothy is finally offered a position programming the new IBM computer that none of the men know how to use, she refuses to take it unless she can bring “her girls” with her.  In real life, Mary Jackson fought for smart, qualified women and people of color as an Affirmative Action Program Manager and Federal Women’s Program Manager.  Because unlike the white male geniuses of traditional “genius” movies, the women of Hidden Figures know they’re not the only geniuses around.

That’s one of the most powerful things about Hidden Figures–the idea that genius itself can be a hidden figure.  The genius of Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy is no longer hidden, but how many other geniuses spent their days in the West Computing Group and didn’t make it into the movie?  And how many geniuses, for whatever reason, couldn’t even get to the West Computing Group?  Throughout history, the genius of women and girls has been ignored, suppressed, and pushed to the sidelines.  Even today, when girls in developed nations are given access to public education and Title IX works to guarantee equal opportunities, society still discourages girls from entering into STEM fields, and the concept of “genius” is still heavily male.  And that’s precisely why we need to tell the stories of girl geniuses.  We need more movies like Hidden Figures so that the intelligence of women and girls isn’t hidden anymore.

Image from A Mighty Girl

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