The idea of “objectivity” gets floated around a lot in our lives, and how we should not let our personal biases and beliefs/traits get in the way of the truth. The idea of a meritocracy also co-aligns with this: we should pick the best and brightest minds to lead society, judging them for their work ethic and personality, not by their appearance. On paper, this is a great idea; we should work to get rid of barriers holding back unprivileged and nondominant viewpoints. Unfortunately, this common sentiment does not exist in real life. A meritocracy can only exist if everyone is on equal footing already, and “objectivity” as a result is simply the cultural hegemony of those in power, i.e. those that control the Overton window on what is deemed the truth or not. This is precisely what Oreskes gets down to in her work detailing scientific credit and achievement not attributed to women, even though the work they did was done in a scientific matter and was crucial to the development of said research. To quickly summarize the paper, Oreskes states that scientists were largely pursuing heroism rather than objectivity in the early 20th century; calculations that were of imperative importance to the science was routine and repetitive under the view of heroism in science. This is a large reason why many women who did perform “objective” work were never to be heard in the public sphere and are not remembered today. Objectivity is described as the separation of research and observer to achieve cold, calculating figures and research for the purposes of advancing science. With objectivity, it does not matter who dons the lab coat; just the material and machinery worked. It is empirically proven that women have contributed substantial and large amounts of research deemed as “objective”. However, objectivity is largely a gender linked ideal, and what is actually practiced is heroism. What is heroism you ask? Well, allow me to give you an answer: Heroism is an alternative to the lifeless, metallic approach to science; rather, heroism attempts to view science and scientists through the lens of mighty heroic protagonists and their quests of passion for discovering the “truth” of the natural world! It sounds right out of a children’s book. Heroism views scientists as individual people who risk bodily harm in their pursuit of science, drawing on old tales of the Greeks, and heavily being influenced by the dominant view of European masculinity. These people are detached from normal life and emotions, and only they themselves can complete their quest. This type of framing is important as it allows science to be viewed in a much more favorable and personal light to the public. While “objectivity” is not linguistically male, “hero” is (Oreskes 109). The ideology of science has a stronger relationship toward the belief structure of the scientific community and the public, rather than the science itself (Oreskes 104). What this means is that not only can women not be these traditional heroes because of their gender alone, they are denied the external and internal connections brought about by heroism and thus the false belief that science is for men continues to spread. Even someone like Marie Curie, who did dirty and dangerous work for years collecting radium was raked in the coals by the media and her work called gruesome and boring. Women have done and are capable of doing enormously important scientific research; it just simply is not in the right framework to be recognized as an achievement by the greater public. Although not about gender, we see heroism intersect with race in the movie Hidden Figures, a story about three black women mathematicians responsible for the flight trajectories of numerous NASA space programs, but who are routinely ignored because of their skin color. Because of its European colonial roots, heroism is largely based in white supremacy culture as well, meaning the upholding of segregation in the 60s was a just cause to separate the “inferiors” from the “heroes”. We see human computer Katherine Johnson, like Marie Curie, do long, repetitive, but critical problems needed in order to continue the Space Race, but is not promoted and not given the credit deserved by the head of engineering Paul Stafford. This recognition of intersection allows us to see that if work done does not meet the criteria under heroism, then it is not considered objective and valid work. In film, we can see heroism affect how movies are written and produced where many people will not question it, since it is the dominant system they live in. One trait of heroism very frequently seen in movies is the white savior narrative, a trope where a white person, usually the protagonist, rescues a person of color from trouble. We can see this in recent movies such as 12 Years a Slave, Green Book, and even abstractly La La Land on the topic of “saving” jazz, a historically black artform. Hidden Figures has good intentions but ultimately is purposely skewed to make white audiences feel more comfortable at home, guaranteeing they don’t have to ponder and wonder about if they might have been one of the “bad ones” at the movie’s historical origin.. I know my parents loved the movie; I wasn’t as sold on it. For example, the character of Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, is not actually a real person, and thus never smashed the colored bathroom sign, or singularly was in control of the space task group. This character was specifically created so that white people have a traditional heroic figure to look up to, pushing attention away from the black scientists that were responsible for the work done.
- Melfi, T. (2017, January 6). Hidden Figures [Biography, Drama, History]. Fox 2000 Pictures, Chernin Entertainment, Levantine Films
- Oreskes, N. (1996). Objectivity or Heroism? On the Invisibility of Women in Science. Osiris, 11, 87–113. (PDF)
- Thomas, D. (2017). Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures” was whitewashed — but it didn’t have to be. Vice News. https://www.vice.com/en/article/d3xmja/oscar-nominated-hidden-figures-was-whitewashed-but-it-didnt-have-to-be.