On Thinking, Feeling, Art, and Disney


AiC Community Member Blakeley Hoffman is a Computer Science and Mathematics major at the University of South Carolina in Columbia who, after seeing Disney’s Zootopia wondered if a little Disney magic might help shed some light on the issue of imposter syndrome.

Something I struggle with as a human being, but often as a computer scientist, is separating how I feel from what I know. As a computer scientist, I’m an A-grade example of this thing called imposter syndrome. It’s a real phenomenon where you feel like you don’t belong to a group even if you do.

For example, I often feel – in both my classes and my work – that I am a fake computer scientist. As in, I’m still in the process of “faking it until I make it” and hoping no one important notices. I feel this way for several reasons, but an easy reason to examine is that not many of my classmates are like me. Most of them are men which means they are far more likely to have been doing computer science-y type things for longer, are more likely to be confident in their abilities (and to vocalize this, making my nerves seem all the more out of place), are more likely to have their superiors (teachers, bosses, whatever) automatically think that they are capable. Note: I’m not saying this is true of all men in my field, just that it is more likely. These things make me feel like I do not belong, like I am somehow “behind” in my computer science knowledge, or that I have to work harder or be some kind of prodigy in order to prove my worth to the field.

But this is how I feel. But it is not what I know. What I know is that I am a computer scientist (I’m about a semester away from having a legitimate, expensive piece of paper that says so) and that computer science isn’t a gendered role. Being a woman is a prerequisite for some roles (like mother), but being human is the prerequisite for being a computer scientist (at least until we discover the aliens, that is). So I am a real computer scientist. I know this. I just don’t always feel like it. And sometimes this feeling is incapacitating. The thought is so pervasive in my head that I can’t study because as I study I feel like I am pretending to learn the material rather than actually learning it. I feel that a real computer scientist understands linear algebra whereas I am a fake computer scientist and therefore I just have to be able to solve the problems on the test. And, even if I am capable of doing well on said test, I feel as if my performance isn’t real or valid, it’s just some photocopy of the knowledge I am supposed to have painted myself. Even if I do well on a test, it is not because I am a growing computer scientist, it’s because I’m a good actor or have an easily fooled professor.

So what has been difficult to me of late is building a bridge between how I feel to what I know.

Enter Zootopia, Disney’s latest animated feature. I will be honest: there were tears about fifteen minutes into the film. But not the same tears I cried when I saw Up for the first time (and second time, and third time… you know). About fifteen minutes into the show, Judy Hopps, the protagonist, makes her way into the heart of Zootopia as the first ever bunny police officer.

The premise of the story is something like this: Judy, a rabbit from the rural town of Bunnyburrow, aspires from a young age to be a police officer. However, before Judy, there has never been a bunny police officer. But, with some hard work, Judy finishes as valedictorian of her class at the police academy, and is assigned to the heart of the neighboring metropolis, Zootopia. Of course, upon arrival, none of her peers or parents take her seriously, and she has to prove society wrong by solving the case of the year. (Spoiler alert: she does.)

The film then goes on to tackle some pretty serious and relevant issues of our day: the combination of prejudice and ignorance in society, how thoughtless, hateful rhetoric can uproot a society, the portrayal of police, etc. This is perhaps the most nuanced and relevant Disney film to date and while I have some questions with the telling (did Judy really have to be valedictorian of her class to get the message across?), the film is almost entirely a win and you should go see it and take the women in your life. Especially if you like poking fun at Frozen.

But I’ve gotten a bit derailed here – let me explain the aforementioned waterworks. About fifteen minutes in, Judy takes a train into Zootopia, there’s an upbeat Shakira song in the background, and she’s made it. Judy graduated from the academy and even though her unconsciously (maybe even consciously) biased boss and peers are about to question her ability as a police officer, we, the audience, do not. At fifteen minutes in, I am convinced Judy is a real cop.

And this is the bridge I needed. And I cried. For the first time in forever (har, har), I felt like Disney was telling my story as a woman in tech (or as an algorithms princess in training, if you will). Judy’s journey through the academy was so relatable to my own journey in college (and I think, the journeys of many women in STEM fields) that by the time she was on the train heading towards her well-earned job in Zootopia, I did not have the time or means to distance myself from the animated character and I had an emotional reaction. The plot of the movie at that point read: Judy is a cop. I am a computer scientist.

And here I’d like to interject a small defense of art: although numbers and research and science provide me with papers on papers showing that I am a computer scientist, the thing about logic and reasoning is that you can find counter arguments or persist in believing that counterarguments and counterexamples exist. Art makes you feel, and it’s much harder to shake a feeling that it is a fact. We’re used to shaking facts (okay, fine, Pluto isn’t a planet anymore), but shaking feelings is a much slower process. Art however, might be the best shortcut we have to doing so, though, and we should fund it. Empathy might not be measured in our nation’s GDP, but I’d be willing to bet money that amounts of the two correlate positively.

Imposter syndrome is something I still manage today. Unfortunately, a little bit of Disney magic won’t make the issue disappear. But like I said, I’m working on building the bridge between how I feel and what I know. There are other ways this bridge is being built – having encouraging friends, parents, and teachers, gaining practice in areas I feel anxious about, and connecting with women who share similar experiences. My hope is that you, my reader, will take away at least one of the following items: you will realize that you are not alone in your own struggle with imposter syndrome, you will be more empathetic to the struggles of minorities in your own field, or you will go buy tickets to see Zootopia and you will love it just as much as I do.

This post was cross-posted with permission from Blakeley. The original post can be found here.

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