Movie Review: The Imitation Game and Paving the Way for LGBTQ+ People in Tech

The Imitation Game is a period drama film based on the real life of Alan Turing, a British mathematician who cracked the code of the Enigma, a machine that was so unbreakable that no one during World War II could solve it. German forces made the Enigma so difficult to solve, but that didn’t stop Alan Turing from working long hours to solve it.

At first, Alan doesn’t want to work with his teammates, and they find it hard to work with him because he is closed off from them. He fires most of the people on the team, but then recruits new people by putting out a difficult crossword puzzle in the local newspaper (sort of like fliers for talent show auditions) to recruit anyone to join the Enigma-cracking team. Joan Clarke, played brilliantly by Keira Knightley, is the only woman in a room full of men, taking the test for recruitment. When she first walks in, a gentleman at the door tells her that she should join the other women in another room (women at the time were secretaries) and that she shouldn’t be here. But then Alan tells her to stay so that he can go on with the test without interruptions. At first, Joan looks at the test while everyone has their heads down and is lost, but then she works hard at it and finishes under the six minute mark. She is the first to turn in her test, and the only woman to make the team.

When I first saw Joan, I was like, “Yessss! Women are killing it in tech!” But then, soon after, Alan goes to Joan’s house, where she lives with her parents and doesn’t have a husband, and she tells him she doesn’t think she can be around so many men when she is the only woman on the team. However, he tells her that he doesn’t care if she is breaking social norms. What he cares about is that she helps him crack the Enigma code because he is short of team members. Joan’s role as one of the code breakers really showed me how important it is to have women on a team, and moreover, how important it is to encourage women to pursue tech. Before watching the film, I was skeptical about whether I would ever pursue JavaScript again, but then I just decided to resume my Codecademy learning and just pace myself. I found that not being hard on myself and not giving up was what got me through the first lesson of JavaScript, because before that I said I would continue coding, but then thought about how it seemed everyone was more qualified than me. In a later scene, Alan gets frustrated because he is being spied on and pursued (homophobia was prevalent at the time, and Alan Turing, as a gay man, faced serious discrimination and married Joan just so that they could continue working on the team together and so that her parents wouldn’t make her come back home to them and quit the project). He comes out to Joan and tells her that she doesn’t have to be on the team anymore because in his mind, he’s thinking she doesn’t want to work with him because he’s gay. She then slaps him and tells him that it is preposterous he would try to get her off the team, telling him that she worked incredibly hard with him and the rest of the team to break the Enigma code, and that she was not ever going to leave the team.

While of course Joan’s story isn’t the same as Katherine Johnson’s story in Hidden Figures, her determination reminded me of when Katherine has to run back and forth between classes because the science buildings at NASA are separated by gender. Even when dealing with the worst kind of sexism and racism, Katherine and her fellow black female programmers never gave up on themselves and continued to persevere, paving the way for so many young women of color in tech. Of course, sexism and racism are still a reality in the tech world, and women and people of color in these programming industries still endure a lot of prejudice and often feel like they don’t belong. But that’s why we need movies such as Hidden Figures and The Imitation Game to remind us of how women’s involvement in computer programming shaped the course of history. In several scenes of The Imitation Game we see women in naval computer offices punching out code like nobody’s business; seeing this was so cool. πŸ™‚ It reminded me of the incredible legacy of Grace Hopper and her service to the Navy as well as her service to computers. Joan’s legacy isn’t often talked about much but I wish our history teachers in school included her in the textbooks (this brief but fascinating bio gives some background about her role as Enigma code-breaker).

This film also is important when we think about the legacy of LGBTQ+ individuals in the field of technology. This film is unique from other films about men in tech because Alan, while he was a white male, was gay. Hollywood movies about men in tech often featured straight white men who treated women like props and spent all day doing computer and video games. Alan’s sexuality plays a huge role in the film because, as I mentioned earlier, LGBTQ+ people faced severe discrimination during the 20th century and often faced severe punishment at the hands of homophobic government officials. We flash back to Alan’s childhood, him being severely bullied by his straight male classmates, and Alan making friends with a guy who rescues him from being trapped under the floorboard. Alan falls in love with the guy, but he is called to the principal’s office and told that his lover died of a serious illness (bovine tuberculosis). We then flash forward, and Alan’s fellow team member, John Cairncross, threatens to tell everyone Alan is gay if he tells everyone that Cairncross was a spy for the USSR. He also tells Alan that he can’t come out to Joan because it is illegal for him to be openly gay. When Alan comes out, the government forces him to shut down the project and gave him two equally brutal options: time in prison or chemical castration. At just 41 years old, Alan committed suicide after enduring an entire tortuous year of government-mandated hormonal therapy. The movie also reveals that from 1885 to 1967, 49,000 gay men were convicted of “gross indecency” under British law. As a queer person seeing this movie, I literally had to stop the film and just sit and cry for five minutes.

Even though Silicon Valley is known for perpetuating a straight white male “bro” culture that often excludes LGBTQ+ people, there are several resources and programs for individuals in tech who identify as LGBTQ+, such as Lesbians Who Tech, and several prominent LGBTQ+ people working in tech, such as Apple’s Tim Cook. The chairman of Linux Professional Institute, Jon “maddog” Hall, for instance, came out as gay in 2012 in honor of the 100th birthday of Alan Turing, saying that

“Most of the people in my world of electronics and computers were like the mathematicians of Alan Turing’s time, highly educated and not really caring whether their compatriots were homosexual or not, or at least looking beyond the sexuality and seeing the rest of the person.”

“The 23 most powerful LGBTQ+ people in tech”, Business Insider

Indeed, in the film, Alan’s fellow coders remain with him until the end of his life even when he faced anti-gay discrimination because he showed them how hard work and perseverance really pay off in the end and helped them crack the Enigma code and thus save many lives during the war. Overall, this film taught me to have perseverance as an LGBTQ+ woman in the tech field and to find creative ways to express myself when working in tech, such as finding ways to incorporate my tech learning with my musical learning.

Overall, incredible film that I highly recommend seeing.

The Imitation Game. 2014. 1 hr 54 mins. Rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking.

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