F for Fabulous Females and Feminism

On Saturday, my friends and I decided to watch Hidden Figures to celebrate the end of term. It’s perfect for me as I’ve been working on a feminist picturebook for my essay 2 and was still in the feminist-zone. It was a good two-hour spent; I left the cinema with a smile on my face. The film was humorous, heartwarming and empowering; shocking and saddening too as to how coloured people were being segregated and oppressed at that time. Set in 1960s Virginia, based on a true story, Hidden Figures centres around the trio of African-American female NASA scientists, Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).

I liked how each character gets her own arc – Katherine became the first woman to be part of the Flight Research Division, Dorothy became supervisor of the West Area Computing unit, and Mary became NASA’s first black female engineer. The costumes are simple yet elegant, making the girls stand out from the sea of white shirts and ties. I also enjoy the occasional jokes. Oh and that opening scene of  little Katherine solving quadratic equation on the blackboard, man I miss maths! I’m such a nerd lol

As mentioned earlier, my case study looked at children’s responses to a feminist story. Following is an excerpt from my essay on feminism:

Reading is a social practice within a culture; and as part of that culture, literature both makes and remakes its readers. Children’s youthful reading can be formative in that it sets an expectation to our future experiences, provides us with scales of value, and influences how we see the world in relation to how we see ourselves. Unfortunately, the world is a different place for girls and for boys. In a patriarchal society, woman is often seen as the Other and is marginalised, silenced and objectified.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, feminism is “the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power, and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way”. In other words, all people should be treated equally. When it comes to defining feminist children’s stories, I find Roberta Trites’ definition closest to mine; “a feminist children’s story is a story in which the main character is empowered regardless of gender. In a feminist children’s story, the child’s sex does not provide a permanent obstacle to his/her development”. Most protagonists in feminist children’s stories tend to be female because it serves the purpose of correcting the traditional images of feminine passivity and docility prior to the women’s movement. However, we should not forget that boys could also be victims of gender stereotype. Stories that transcend gender roles and embrace and celebrate femininity, despite the sex of the protagonists, should also be considered feminist stories.

Yet sadly, in real life, sex does happen to be a permanent obstacle to many people; this also includes those who do not fit into the binary of male and female. As the recent election of Trump shows that even a capable woman like Clinton is not judged by the same standard as a man, nor is she treated the same by the law. Social oppression can also be inflicted on a micro level – victim blaming, body shaming, and catcalling to name a few.

Marilyn French describes feminist power as having power to do what one wants rather than having power over someone else. Feminist power is not about controlling other people; it is the awareness of one’s agency that makes one powerful, no matter it is in fiction or in real life. Feminist children’s stories make girls realise how she can be in control and allow them to reposition themselves in the world. Often in stories or in real life, we would come across gender-related conflicts, but if we are aware of our own agency and our ability to assert our strengths, there is no need to sacrifice our individuality to conform. It is the overcoming of oppression that makes feminist children’s stories empowering and triumphal. When girls feel strong and equal to boys, their potential is unlimited. Let us not forget that it takes more than self-empowered women to transform the society. People, regardless of their sex, need to be educated to respect and treat women equally.

It doesn’t matter that Hidden Figures didn’t win any academy awards, what matters most is that their remarkable story is being heard and girls are inspired by them. “So yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses.” That’s my favourite quote from the movie. Girls with glasses rule! hehe

P.S. On a completely different note, here’s a bunch of great films about racial oppression that I really enjoyed watching: Finding Forrester (2000), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), Precious (2009), The Blind Side (2009), The Help (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013)