Happy Ada Lovelace Day! If you live under a rock, on Ada Lovelace Day you’re supposed to blog about women who’ve inspired you in STEM careers. And so you might be asking yourself, why the fuck are we talking about Angelina Jolie?
The answer, of course, is the seminal American film Hackers. Angelina Jolie plays Acid Burn, a 1337 h4x0r living in New York City. It was the first movie I’d ever seen Ms. Jolie in and thus, for me, she ever since has remained Acid Burn. I felt scared for Acid Burn when she was in the mental institution, and I was like fuck yeah when Acid Burn had to fight those mummies or whatever, and when Acid Burn settled down and stopped marrying strange men and became a UN ambassador and started adopting kids as a single mom cause fuck it, she wasn’t gonna wait around for some dude to help her live her life, I was like clearly this is what cool hacker chicks grow up to do. Not really. But kind of. Angelina Jolie’s career or life choices is not what I want to talk about, though. I just want to talk about that one role.
Here’s the thing about Acid Burn: she’s different than the female geeks we normally get in these movies. The first thing her character does in the movie is meet the nominal protagonist on a server they’ve both hacked into and completely pwn his shit. Ergo, she is the better hacker. But does that mean she’s some delicate little wallflower in a lab coat? Fuck no. She’s socially outgoing, an opinionated feminist, effortlessly cool, and (obviously) totally bangin’. She’s the type of high school girl who dates older dudes with motorcycles and throws killer parties in her mom’s apartment where she’s torn between wanting to make out with her dude and wanting to show her nerd friends her crispy-in-the-dark new laptop. Which is to say, a type of high school girl who has probably never existed, but the great thing is that as a high school girl watching the movie, you would not be aware of that.
The first rule Acid Burn breaks is being the smartest. The group of hackers featured aren’t even in the same league. Zero Cool, the protagonist, is ok, but he’s rusty, and he’s a total baby where Acid Burn is a grown-ass woman. In other geek classics, The Girl might be smart, but she’s never playing on the same field as the male protagonist. She’s at technical college, but she knits sweaters. She wears a lab coat, but she’s a psychologist who works with fuzzy bunnies. Not Acid Burn. She plays the same game and does it better.
The second rule she breaks is not being a victim. At the end, when the time comes to hack the Gibson, she’s right there with her nerdbros in her phonebooth. She is not the helpless executive with the easily-guessed password. She is not the foolish n00b who attracts the attention of the FBI. And, in contrast to Zero Cool, she didn’t spend her childhood banned from using a modem cause of some arrogant bullshit. She’s fully fucking profesh and she comes to the rescue of others, not the other way around.
The third rule is the most problematic, to use the vernacular, but is also central to the success of this character as a role model: she’s desirable. In Real Genius the hero is after some science groupie. In Revenge of the Nerds we’re supposed to root for the dude who tricks a hot cheerleader into having sex in a bouncy castle. If a nerd girl is going to be sexy, she has to fully realize the hot librarian stereotype, take off the glasses, shake out the updo, and shockingly reveal herself as physically beautiful. Acid Burn doesn’t get a makeover. She puts on a dress for some dude, but goddamn if he is not going to be subject to the same uncomfortable outfit. I think this is huge. Not only is she good enough the way she is, but she gets to be smart and capable and mature and the hottest girl in school. Teenage girls are full of little hormones. Telling teenage girls that to be a badass hacker you have to sacrifice your chance to get with Johnny Lee Miller loses you at least 85% of your potential audience, by my scientific estimation.
Is it shitty that we ask girls to consider their desirability before any of those other traits? Yep. But we can’t override years of social conditioning with a reasonable argument about a teenage girl’s inherent value as a person and right to respect herself. I think anyone who’s ever been a teenage girl, even one with a subscription to Sassy, can verify that for you. It sucks that the difference between Acid Burn and all those other nerd girls in those other movies is just that Angelina Jolie is gorgeous, and that it reinforces the idea that only beautiful women can do what they want. Ultimately, though, I’ll take one beautiful woman doing what she wants over lots of ordinary women being mostly ignored. And, frankly, the insinuations of the latter about women’s value is no less problematic.
The fourth rule Acid Burn breaks is being flawed. Though teenage girls might want to date someone in college, we in the audience all know it’s a mistake for Acid Burn to be with some motorcycle-riding douchenozzle who merely sees her as his little cheerleader when she could be hittin’ it with Zero Cool, who thinks she hung the damn moon. She’s the best hacker in the school, true, but she’s also pretty fucking cocky. And throwing parties while your mom’s out of town might make you feel cool for that evening, but come on. Those kids aren’t your real friends. She’s not the main character, but she still gets a real human personality, and even though the character is played by an adult, the mistakes she makes are ones a lot of kids could easily recognize as their own (although seeing them as actual mistakes might require the benefit of hindsight).
So those things. I was 14 and sitting in a small-town movie theater with a creepy older guy seeing those things and thinking to myself, I want to be this woman. Learning computer science will make me cool and boys will like me. It will give me some control over the world around me. If I become a 1337 h4x0r I will, in effect, become Angelina Jolie. At 14 I didn’t have any of the real, awesome role models I do now. I didn’t know one other girl who was into computers. I only started considering it many years later, but Acid Burn, in all her flagrant ridiculousness, was crucial in helping me envision a place for myself in this world.
These posts are, I think, supposed to be about real women, balancing real lives with often unglamorous work. I think I’m supposed to say that someone inspired me to find a noble purpose for myself and my talents (or, as I’d put it, my proclivity for breaking things down into sets of instructions). So this may be a little more real than I’m supposed to be, and it is not the most progressive thing I’ve ever written. But it’s honest. There are real women who did hard, under-appreciated work who instilled in me a belief that computer science was noble and beautiful and that I could be a part of it. They came later, though. I found them only because of an absurd fantasy of a female programmer. One that, at 14, I very much needed. She seemed like the right place to start. I’d like to thank Angelina Jolie for not portraying her as a passive sex kitten or a helpless wallflower, but as a Bitch Who Runs Shit. It’s legitimately possible that I wouldn’t be here without her.