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Problems of portrayal: Hidden Figures in the development of science educators

Abstract

The framing of characters by mainstream films can affect viewers’ perceptions of social groups, their histories, and their contributions. Using critical media analysis, I explore the film Hidden Figures and its portrayal of Katherine Goble Johnson, an African American mathematician employed at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the United States’ Civil Rights Movement. First, I rely on womanist methodology to examine the film’s portrayal of Katherine’s professional experiences and then Black Feminist Thought (BFT) to interpret the film in relationship to the book from which it was adapted, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The themes in Hidden Figures’ portrayal of Katherine were as follows: (1) compliance with the sexist and racist norms of the organization (NASA), (2) reliance on narratives of exceptionalism and omission. These themes constitute the major finding, which was that whiteness was expressed through Katherine’s academic and innovative, perfection as an ethical and disciplined (work/er), and belonging and leading. Additionally, through omission, the film is a cultural product that reflects whiteness as a cultural norm. Implications of these findings are discussed in connection to the use of critical media analysis to build critical media literacy in the preparation of African American women dis/interested in fields such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

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Correspondence to Tara Nkrumah.

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Nkrumah, T. Problems of portrayal: Hidden Figures in the development of science educators. Cult Stud of Sci Educ (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11422-021-10021-3

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Keywords

  • Black feminist thought
  • Mathematics
  • Media
  • African American women
  • Science education leadership