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Q&A: Gillian Jacobs On Directing Her First Film And The Myth Of The Male Computer Geek


This week, FiveThirtyEight launched its documentary film about Grace Hopper, a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and the driving force behind the first compiled programming language. Her legacy went largely unnoticed alongside the other early computing geniuses, but as her intensely endearing appearance on Late Night With David Letterman in 1986 showed (during which she taught the young, tousled-hair Dave about nanoseconds and military time), Hopper was a brilliant and blisteringly unique character in computing history.

Now, thankfully, her story is being told. Best known as Britta, the resident subversive ditzy blonde on “Community,” Gillian (hard G, everyone) Jacobs is directing for the first time. Last week, I spoke with her about the forgotten women of computing and why the “computer geek” is always male. The transcript of the interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Allison McCann: This the first film you’ve directed?

Gillian Jacobs: Yes, I had been talking to ESPN’s “30 for 30” about potentially directing one of those, and none of the ideas were quite right. When they created this series for FiveThirtyEight, they approached me and said, “We want to make a film about Grace Hopper.” I have to confess that I didn’t know who Grace Hopper was or anything about the early computers like Mark I, so I had to educate myself about all of it. And through the process, I really fell in love with Grace. I also discovered all these other women that were some of the first programmers, and that really blew my mind.

AM: That’s OK! I studied math and computer science, and I’d also never heard of Grace Hopper. There’s a part in the film when someone says, “She’s not in the history books with Edison or Turing,” which I’d never considered but is true. Did you find this to be the case when you were making the film?

GJ: It was sad because she is one of the most famous women in the history of computer science, and even still, a lot of people don’t know anything about her. I went to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing to film, and I expected that everybody there would be encyclopedic about her. And I was shocked when we asked not just younger women but really established women in the field [about Hopper], and a lot of them knew nothing about her. I think there’s so much we can do to educate people about her story and the other women of ENIAC [Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer] and really fill in that part of the history of computer science and restore women to it.

AM: What was it like at the Grace Hopper Celebration?

GJ: It was great because some of the younger women knew more about Hopper than the middle generation of professional women in their 40s and 50s, who didn’t really know anything about her. I think there was sort of a time period there after Hopper passed away and she wasn’t being talked about in historical context yet, but now you have the youngest generation who are starting to learn about her. So it was interesting to me to see those different generations — those who had met the woman firsthand and those who are now learning about her in class.

AM: I noticed that you open the film with a lot of female voices. Did you make a conscious decision to primarily feature women in the film?

GJ: Part of my desire to go to the Grace Hopper Celebration was to have a lot of women in the film talking about her. We were lucky to have people like Megan Smith, the chief technology officer of the United States, and Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College — these really established and important women in the field of computing. But we also had to balance it out with someone who could really fill in the details about Grace Hopper, and it just so happened that one of those two people was a man. I’m so glad that there are so many women in the film, but we were also really luck to get Kurt [Beyer, her biographer] because he knows so much about Grace. I feel good about the ratio of men to women in the film.

AM: The most striking thing about her story, for me, is that she wasn’t this feminist fighting to be included — even after the war ended and they wouldn’t let her teach at Harvard — she just went along to the next thing. This seems really different from the whole “lean in” situation today, where it’s like, “Sit at the table and speak up.” She seemed very opposite from that. Was that something that you noticed, too?

GJ: That was something some of the girls at the celebration mentioned to me, that Grace Hopper wasn’t a feminist. She’s being held up as this icon for women in computing, but she never considered herself a feminist. She had some contradictions in her personality, which we touch on in the film — and that makes for an interesting, rich person — but was also kind of frustrating to hear her say, “I don’t know anything about the women’s liberation movement because I was in the Navy.” The reality was she did seek out women to hire when she was at Remington Rand, but she didn’t call herself a feminist.

AM: Later in the film, Beyer says something about Hopper being a “very vibrant, beautiful young woman that was super charming.” I felt conflicted about this, like why we needed to talk about her looks or her charm. Why did you choose to put this in?

GJ: It was because of my desire to create a more full picture of her than I had been able to grasp from either watching interviews of her or reading books and articles about her. She’s almost exclusively talked about as this elderly woman wearing a naval uniform, so it was interesting to me to understand how she navigated the various cultures that she was in when she was younger. Why she was, as a woman, able to succeed in the Navy and in private industry, and why she had such a long career when a lot of the other women she started out with in World War II left the field. Regardless of how you or I personally feel about that, her personality and charm seem to be part of the puzzle as to why she was so successful. I wanted to talk about Grace Hopper in the entirety of her life, not just as an elderly woman.

AM: I wish there was video footage of her from Harvard during the war. What were her interactions like, what did she say and do in that room — I’m so fascinated by this period in her life. Do you know any more than what’s in the film about what it was like for her then?

GJ: She had some very difficult superiors working on Mark 1, men who were very demanding and not initially open to the idea of women as colleagues. There were other women who worked on Mark 1 who had a very difficult time dealing with the men, but Hopper seemed to have an easier time of it. Whatever that was, the alchemy of her personality, enabled her to move through that environment easier and become considered a valuable asset. I think that was a pretty remarkable thing — for her to become an important part of that team — when the women of ENIAC were dismissed at the same time.

AM: I think that her particular contributions to computer science are really incredible because they were designed to make programming more readable and accessible. Why do you think she chose to design COBOL?

GJ: I think it was a philosophical belief and also a savvy business decision because these computer companies were fighting for survival at this point. The company she worked for was really an underdog to IBM, and I think Grace Hopper knew that in order to keep Remington Rand’s UNIVAC out there in the market the employees at the companies purchasing these computers needed to be able to use them. So I think that was some of the thinking behind creating the compilers and later COBOL, and it was a really different idea than a lot of programmers at the time had. They viewed it as an elite profession to be a programmer, and she wanted to democratize it.

AM: Recently NPR had a great piece that tried to pinpoint exactly when women started dropping out of computer science. They found that the way personal computers were marketed in the early 80s played a huge role in why men began to dominate the field when women like Hopper had been so successful in the ’40s and ’50s. Had you heard about this phenomenon before doing the film?

GJ: There’s this writer Nathan Ensmenger who wrote a book called “The Computer Boys Take Over.” He collected images of women in computing, and there’s a lot of pictures from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that chart how women are depicted in advertisements for computers. One of the first images depicted computers as a home aid for housewives, showing a woman operating it, but eventually those ads shifted.

I also read that initially people thought that hardware was going to be the really prestigious and hard aspect of computing, and software was seen as less important and less difficult, So the men wanted to build the physical computer and the women would program it. When they realized it was actually the opposite, men became more interested in becoming programmers and they started to design recruiting aptitude tests that were geared more toward men. Nathan talks a lot about how it was during this era that they created the myth of the computer geek.

AM: The computer geek is always male. It’s so frustrating!

GJ: It was almost a created idea in that era, and I think that was another thing that drove women away because these ads said things like, ‘To be a programmer you have to be antisocial and solitary,’ all these things that stereotypically women are considered to not be as good at. Women are thought to be more social, better in groups and be more empathetic — you know all these stereotypically female qualities — and they really cut against this early notion of what a programmer was supposed to be.

AM: What about the title of the film? I kept going back and forth on whether I hated it or liked it, and I felt like you did, too, because of that last quote in the film. Why did you decide to go with “The Queen Of Code,” knowing that Hopper would’ve hated being called that?

GJ: I wanted to play with the tension of it; that’s how people see her, but that’s not how she saw herself. That difference between this static image we have of her — an 80-year-old rear admiral — and the woman herself. I loved it when Kathy [Kleiman] said she would’ve hated that title; that made me really happy when she said that, and I thought, “this has to be in the film.” It’s what Grace Hopper herself would do in these interviews — they’d present her as “grandma COBOL” or “ the queen of software” and she’d take a pin to it and deflate that balloon, and I think we were trying to do that, too, with the title.

AM: Was there anything else you learned making this film that you didn’t get to include?

GJ: I learned in working on this documentary that the UNIVAC computer that Grace Hopper worked on was actually used to predict election results to shocking accuracy. It was so accurate actually that Walter Cronkite didn’t report the results because the computer’s prediction went against what people thought was going to happen in the election, but it turned out the computer was correct. I was like, “Oh, my God, that’s so similar to FiveThirtyEight!”

Allison McCann is a former visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.