Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Stereotypical but Not Stereotypes

Left to right: Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson,
Dorothy Vaughan
Hidden Figures, a recent movie about the women “computers” at NASA who sent the first American into space, is one example of a new trend of gender stereotypes in media. Previously, a revolutionary female role consisted of the Ultimate Kick-A** Take No Shit Anti-Stereotype woman, but now media is beginning to show women who do stereotypical things while still on the whole defying stereotypes. In Hidden Figures, each of the three main female characters all have a story line revolving around her home life, as mother or wife, which is balanced with the story of their intelligence and their jobs. The movie attempts to show this balance with a few of the men, but unfortunately almost all of the male characters have male stereotype as their whole identity, making Hidden Figures portrayal of male gender roles far less progressive.

Early on in the movie, there is a transition scene in which the women drive home from work together, and then we are shown a snippet of each of their home lives. They are all mothers and wives (or widows). This scene demonstrates the domesticity that these women possess, the role of the mother and the wife that they all play. There is no woman in the movie who does not fall into these roles. However, given that the scene just before was them at work defying every feminine stereotype of submissiveness and non-ambition, the viewer is left with a stark contrast that only goes to show how women are multidimensional 
and can be both stereotypical and not at once.

Another place where the domestic stereotype is both proven and disproved is in one of the main storylines of Katherine Johnson finding a second husband, Jim. At first glance, this appears to reflect the age-old trope that a woman is nothing without a man. However, when her prospective love interest says something sexist, Katherine is immediately enraged and stops pursuing him. Jim is then left to win Katherine’s love, a complete role reversal of the trope originally hinted at. While the overall endgame of marrying off the woman is there, some credit is due in reversing the traditional gender roles and giving the woman agency over her love life, again showing both women and men defying stereotypes to an extent.

Jim is one of the few token men who treat Katherine and her colleagues with true respect. When Jim slips up and says the infamous line, “They [NASA] let women do that kind of work?”, he immediately regrets it and works to apologize to Katherine. The other man who breaks the mold is Al Harrison, the head of the research center where the women work. He commends her for her intelligence, takes her opinion into consideration, and works to make NASA a welcoming place for her and the other women.

However, these two seem to be the few token “good” men. The rest of the men working at NASA are rude and derogatory towards Katherine, because of both race and gender. Being the supposed epitome of STEM workers, they fall into the geek stereotype, where they think they are infinitely smarter than any woman and refuse to listen to any evidence that would convince them otherwise. Though there are a few defiant male roles in this movie, the majority of them do fall into a sexist and tired stereotype. 

Certainly in the past few years we have been seeing a lot of media with women who break the mold by departing from the stereotype as much as humanly possible. Hidden Figures takes a new spin in which women are allowed to fit stereotypes and still be unstereotypical. However, the movie also falls trap to the more broad trend that men’s roles have not changed nearly as much. Men in media are still subject to heavy stereotyping, and those who break the mold tend to be token outliers rather than the norm in any given work.

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