Hidden Figures: Girls and Pearls

Hidden Figures, written by Allison Shroeder and Theodore Melfi based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly and directed by Theodore Melfi, has been receiving a lot of press. The film highlights the work that women of color have done for NASA, and how they have been nearly erased from history despite their importance. From fabulous performances by everyone in this great cast to the great story being told, and its important message, the film rocks, but let’s take a look behind the important jewelry that plays a major role in the film: pearls.

Caution: May Contain Spoilers!

Right off the bat we see that the black women in this film dress very differently from the white women. The white women wear all neutral colors in shades of blues, grey, and black. Their dresses are one piece, and they only are allowed one accessory: one string of pearls, which “Katherine G. Goble” (Taraji P. Henson) learns when she is finally appointed as a member of the Space Task Force “computer” in the US-Russian race to space. The black women wear many colors and they aren’t afraid of patterns and bold accessories. Most costumes consist of two pieces, a dress and matching sweater or blazer, and they aren’t afraid of a bold matte lip color.

Before Katherine is given the assignment with the Space Task Force, she works alongside her best friends, “Dorothy Vaughan” (Octavia Spencer) and “Mary Jackson” (Janelle Monáe). Dorothy is a supervisor in every sense of the word except in title and pay. She provides the girls she oversees with the knowledge to provide them with job security and is a support system for both Katherine and Mary. Mary wants to be an engineer with NASA, and goes to court to defend her right to study at an all white school in order to get the remaining credits required.

All three of these women are fabulous, incredibly intelligent, and never afraid to point out when sexism and racism affect their abilities in the workplace. They are smartly dressed and proud of the bright color in their outfits, in their makeup and the color of their skin. They defy the odds in terms of what a black woman is capable of, and turn heads all along the way.

But back to the pearls. We see, throughout the film, various earrings and necklaces all of which are big statement pieces, but pearls are particularly important as the story continues. As “Vivian Mitchell” (Kirsten Dunst) explains, skirts must hit the knee and no jewelry is permitted… the exception being, of course, a single string of pearls. This leaves the black women scratching their heads and saying ummmmmmm?

As Katherine points out, in a beautifully written and performed monologue, NASA does not pay the black women nearly enough to be able to afford pearls and they are so busy fighting on every other front who has the time to argue? She’s so busy running from her new building to her old building to pee, since it’s the only colored bathroom, and furiously trying to keep up with the ever changing data, the pearls seem a moot point. Not to mention the blatant racism and sexism she faces from her all white all male employees over a cup of coffee that she has to make herself even though the boys have coffee made for them. So fighting for the right to wear her own jewelry must seem a little foolish, especially when you take into consideration that they are fighting for claim on the final frontier.

Let’s examine the pearl for a moment. First of all, as Katherine points out, they are expensive, and with husbands and children at home, who has the money to spend on a string of pearls for work? It seems much easier just to not wear a necklace at all. Next, a pearl is a metaphor for something rare or valuable, but in this instance it also means white. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are being asked to give up their skin color to assimilate into work place. To fit in, one must be more white.

Also, the pearl comes from a living organism, it’s created within the soft tissue of a mollusk. The pearl is created because of something else, and in 1961 Hampton, Virginia the pearl represents the woman, and the mollusk is the man, shaping and protecting the pearl.

NASA is a male dominated terrain. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary clearly have their work cut out for them, but they refuse to be deterred. And here is the thing, despite the many references to only pearls being allowed, and their high value and price tag, what do we see in the middle of the movie? Let’s look closely at Dorothy’s earrings. They appear to be a cluster of pearls! And look at her necklace!

Pearls galore! There are several times throughout the film where there are pearls in their earrings. They don’t stand out right away, you have to look for them, but they are there. Dorothy is the motherly leader of the group, and is seen with the most pearls throughout the film. She empowers the other girls as an unofficial supervisor, and when IBM comes in to replace the women computers, she learns the new machines codes so she can train the girls to be valuable assets to NASA and keep their jobs. Mary defies the odds and enrolls in an all white night class program in order to become an engineer. And after “Colonel Jim Johnson” (Mahershala Ali) proposes to Katherine, “Ruth” (Kimberly Quinn) presents her with a wedding present from the entire office, and of course, it’s a string of pearls.

The women in this film are intelligent, confident, and incredibly fabulous. They are not afraid to flaunt their style even when it means standing out, which it always does. If you haven’t already seen the film, get out there and see Hidden Figures and keep an eye out for those pearls!

© Lindsy M. Bissonnette FF2 Media (2/24/17)

Top Photo: Dorothy, Katherine, and Mary wait to see the astronauts.

Middle Photo: Katherine, an outsider in the white man’s world of NASA.

Middle Photo: Dorothy, Katherine, and Mary introduce themselves.

Bottom Photo: Katherine has an idea.

Photo credits: Hopper Stone

Tags: FF2 Media

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LB has worked in nonprofit administration, marketing, and development since 2015 and has been writing, performing, producing, and directing since 2010. She’s an experienced fundraising and strategic planning administrator interested in social justice and gender equity with a passion for bringing people together and making them laugh though shared experience and performance. She loves combining her passions in unique ways and collaborating with like-minded folks. Whether in administration or sketch, LB loves pushing the needle forward and fighting for equitable space for historically and systemically oppressed identities. As an FF2 Contributing Editor from 7/16 thru 3/18, Lindsy's responsibilities included: writing/editing 5-10 pieces weekly; monitoring, publishing, and formatting the FF2 website; managing 3-4 interns per semester and developing their artistic voice and critical thinking skills; attending and coordinating film panels and festivals; interviewing and composing articles about film writer/directors including Ava Duvernay, Angelina Jolie, Deborah Kampmeier, Kirsten Tan, and more; and supporting the Editor-in-Chief, Executive Editors, and Business Manger in administrative tasks.
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