Thursday 8 March 2018

Heroine Fix: The Ground Breakers of Hidden Figures

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature looking at characters that I admire and who influence my own writing.  (Warning: this article will contain spoilers.)

I can't pretend to fully understand the full impact that Margot Lee Shetterly's book and the movie Hidden Figures had on the African American community.  I'm thrilled that the real-life contributions of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and many others are being recognized but I know it didn't have the same impact on me.

But what did make an impact on me was watching three brilliant and determined women fighting against prejudice and expectations.  It reminded me that only a few short decades ago, things were much more rigid.  It reminds me that as difficult as things seem now, they have actually improved and part of that improvement came because of the efforts from the women who refused to be defined by their gender or skin colour.  They had to fight so that they could make necessary contributions.

Both the book and the film are full of powerful scenes.  One that struck me from the book was a scene from the lunch room.  There was a sign to indicate which table the coloured computers should sit at.  Every day, one of the women took that sign, crumpled it up and stuck it in her purse to throw away later before she and the others sat down to eat.  Every day it was replaced and every day she got rid of it.  Eventually, the sign disappeared.  It was a small gesture, but it eventually wore down the prejudice behind it. 

To me, that scene is far more powerful than Kevin Costner's smashing down of the bathroom signs.  That was one dramatic gesture of frustration from someone in a position of privilege.  To fight back on a daily basis from a position of vulnerability is a far more potent demonstration of strength and determination.  It was more than a momentary commitment.


I'm not sure how true to life the portrayal of Mary Jackson was, but the spunky, smart woman in the film certainly matched the description in the book.  Her cynical, insightful wit is something that I've admired in many heroines.  She is angry at the prejudice she sees around her and doesn't hesitate to call attention to it.  But she's also ready to fight, whether its convincing a state trooper to give them a police escort to work or a judge to allow her to attend classes at an all-white high school.  She's proud, smart, and earns the credentials needed to become a NASA engineer, an impressive achievement in any individual but doubly so when you consider the obstacles she had to overcome. 


Dorothy Vaughan's career seemed to be defined by fights.  She fought to be recognized and paid as a supervisor, despite doing the work.  Then the women that she supervised began losing their jobs as computers.  She recognized that the machines were going to replace human computers and taught herself how to program them, so that she would continue to be a valuable NASA employee.

Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson both fought hard for their own achievements, but Dorothy Vaughan brought others with her.  In the film, she teaches the computers how to program their mechanical counterparts, ensuring their future jobs.  It would have been easy for her to set herself up as a sole expert, but she recognized the work needed more than one person and saw an opportunity to help others in her community.


The main focus of both the book and the movie is with Katherine Johnson.  I'm not an expert in mathematics, but clearly math didn't hold any secrets from her.  I had heard the story that the astronauts trusted her calculations over the machine's and if the performance was true to life, then it's easy to see why.  She seems effortlessly brilliant, almost a savant in her mathematical skills.

She took on an incredibly difficult job, creating the equations necessary for the space program.  She fought to gain access to the classified information she needed (I love the scene in the movie where she realizes she can see the information behind the blacked out portions).  And she really did run a half-mile every time she needed to use a restroom, until NASA disposed of segregated bathrooms.  Her angry speech about the limitations placed on her by society's prejudice is a brilliant bit of acting by Taraji P. Henson.  The audience can feel the frustration that's been piling up, the fear of repercussions that has held her back, and the refusal to give up her dignity.

And she fell in love, which is always a bonus cherry and sprinkles for any story to me.  And she didn't do it by playing dumb or by building up her husband-to-be.  She gives him hell for underestimating her and he comes around to understanding the benefits of being married to a brilliant bread-winning woman.

All three of these women are strong but they show their strengths in different ways.  Mary is defiant, a scalpel slicing through barriers.  Dorothy is practical, focused on improving the here and now.  And Katherine's mind is already in space, reaching out to touch the stars.  Their story reminds me of the importance of showing different kinds of strength in my own heroines.  It reminds me of all the different barriers that women face and to never underestimate another just because her approach is different from my own.

Most importantly, it reminds me that stubbornness can make a big difference through small actions.  Water will wear away the strongest stone.  All it needs is time and persistence.

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Next month, I'll be looking at one of my new favourite heroines, Letty from Good Behaviour.

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