One of my weekend highlights is getting the newspaper, throwing most of it away, and settling down with the crossword puzzle and a cup of coffee. Our paper offers puzzles from the NYTimes, the Boston Globe, and the LA Times. They’re a good mental challenge, and I appreciate the hard work that goes into creating them (I tried my hand at constructing, and yeah, it takes talent. Talent I lack).
What I didn’t know is that crosswords are also bigoted, sexist, and racist.
Last month, Sally Hoelscher published her first crossword puzzle in The New York Times. It was Presidents’ Day; the theme was memoirs by first ladies. Like lots of nerdy subcultures, the crossword puzzle has a buzzing ecosystem, and it whirred into action. Hoelscher posted a photo of the newspaper her husband rose early on his day off to buy, and veteran crossword constructors, as they’re called, offered congratulations in a Facebook group that develops constructors from underrepresented groups. Some of the Times’ 600,000 digital-crossword subscribers finished Hoelscher’s puzzle with their thumbs, extending their solving streaks, and crossword bloggers (yes, they exist) favorably reviewed the puzzle’s theme, non-thematic vocabulary, and clues.
In comments sections on crossword blogs, alongside off-color jokes about hypothetical titles for a Melania Trump memoir, a debate raged. Jenni Levy, an internist and a writer on the review site Diary of a Crossword Fiend, applauded how Hoelscher’s puzzle “passe[d] the crossword Bechdel test.” But Levy bemoaned a “missed opportunity.”
“I went through looking for men’s names with mounting excitement: What if there weren’t any?” she wrote. Alas, 66-Across, DEE, was clued as “Billy ___ Williams,” not as the letter or the grade. Responding to Levy’s lament, a commenter wondered: “Why is it desirable/necessary to have women’s names predominate in crossword puzzles … I ignore the male/female body count.” Levy’s response was a perfect, full-throated call to arms for inclusivity in the crossworld:
Because women are underrepresented in puzzle content and creation. Clues and answers that are stereotypically masculine are “general interest;” clues and answers that are stereotypically feminine are “niche” or “obscure” … We’re so far from [parity] that a few puzzles with exclusively women’s names wouldn’t get us there … [and feminism here means] “we acknowledge the systemic forces that threaten women, we speak up when we see those forces represented in crosswords, and we call on our community to do better.”
Hoelscher appeared, replied to Levy, and said she’d submitted the puzzle with no men, but wasn’t surprised when the Times editors changed that.
The Times editors changed one clue, to reference a male? Oh the humanity…I mean, hupersonity! According to the article, crossword puzzles are “largely written, edited, fact-checked, and test-solved by older white men who dictates (sic) what makes it into the 15×15 grid and what’s kept out.”
This temptest in a teapot comes across as an issue in search of a problem, but what do I know? I’m an older white guy, so my opinion probably doesn’t count. But too bad. I do puzzles strictly for the enjoyment and the challenge, and I presumed most people feel the same way. Apparently that’s wrongthink, and I’m contributing to oppression, and supporting the patriarchy.
I’m not downplaying or disregarding the bigotry, sexism, and racism that takes place in the world. People suffer at the hand of those evils every single day, in myriad ways. But is lack of representation in crosswords puzzles one of those ways? No. Absolutely not. Silly faux outrage like this distracts from the serious, real, life-and-death instances, making them harder to address. Because if everything is bigotry/sexism/racism, then nothing is bigotry/sexism/racism.
Know what else? This is America – if you don’t like how some puzzles are edited, then construct ones you want to see, and find someone to publish them. Or find ones that align with your points of view. It’s that simple. Stop the moral busybody-ism.
Speaking of which – the article reminded me of a quote from C.S. Lewis, from his book “God in the Dock: Essays on Theology”:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”
Yeah, give me a robber baron any day. She might be cruel, but she’ll leave the puzzles alone.*
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