In “Love on Campus,” William Deresiewicz’s 2007 American Scholar piece, he made a fleeting yet apposite comment: in the popular media, professors—however moral or corrupt, sexually predatory or endearingly oversexed—are invariably male. He pointed to characters played by Michael Douglas and Jeff Daniels in the films Wonder Boys and The Squid and the Whale, respectively, and named Saul Bellow’s Herzog as just one literary antecedent. As a typical research scholar trained to detect gaps in existing scholarship and blank spaces on the map of knowledge, I immediately began to ask: Where were the female scholars? Why were they hidden?
The vast machine we call Hollywood shouldn’t be set up as a conservative straw man: the spectacles it offers us tend to be on the progressive side of the political spectrum. Racism, sexism, and classism are deplored; the underdog outsmarts the top dog; those unwilling to think outside the box are proven gloriously wrong; elderly teachers are outdone or tricked by young, hip students with the sense of humor and experimentation their desiccated educators lack. There’s also a different type of teacher, the good kind: not past his prime, not socially conservative, eager to share ideas, liable to drink or smoke various substances, not abstinent from the sensual pleasures of life. Indeed, sometimes he partakes rather freely, sharing more than ideas with his attractive students. But he’s always a he.
Maybe I should be careful what I wish for. The anti-intellectualism and sexual fixation Deresiewicz accurately brings to light would only swing against female professors if we suddenly found ourselves hot in Hollywood. And to be ambivalently represented is, after all, what so many women tired of the saint-or-sinner binary do ask for. Let’s also not forget that bad guys are rarely just that. They often provoke fantasy more than their virtuous counterparts, and our amusement at lecherous professors belies an attraction to them that is not well repressed. Granted, the stereotypical professor has grey, disheveled hair or no hair at all, and often shows a propensity for clearance-rack getups or bowties (The Paper Chase). Knowing that knowledge equals power, we are attracted to him either because of the power he represents and the desire he apparently has for us—especially if we’re younger than he (Elegy and many others)—or the thrill of transgression (it could get him fired). He possesses both the ability to educate, to make us smart like him, and to exercise a resolutely unintellectual magnetism (see the young mathematics professor of the former CBS drama Numb3rs). Because his attractions are considered unconventional, our desire is enlivened by the mild thrill of nonconformity.
The real shock, of course, would be if he were a she. Granted, there have been female professors shown on television and in film. The unconventional HBO series Six Feet Under elicited chuckles at the expense of self-absorbed, politically over-correct female faculty—who were not, I should add, particularly desirable. Yet the overwhelming tendency is to portray academics as male. Recent statistics, meanwhile, have confirmed that more women are receiving university degrees than men. A gender imbalance still exists in the upper reaches of academia, but it may disappear sooner than we think. If the women receiving degrees enter graduate school en masse and successfully navigate the perilous seas of the job market, there could be a huge influx of women into the faculty pool. This is purely hypothetical, but just imagine: what if most professors were female? Hollywood’s portrayals of the hallowed halls would soon appear quaint.
There are many well-documented reasons why women aren’t as likely to attain permanent faculty positions as men, and they’re often the same reasons used to explain the infamous pay gap between male and female workers. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of subtle evidence that male and female academics are perceived differently by their students. Women are more apt to be addressed by their first names (sometimes even nicknames), to receive comments regarding their appearances (or at least top-to-bottom body scans, often while lecturing), to be contradicted, and to have their qualifications doubted. Most female academics would, I suspect, be happy to oblige with illustrative anecdotes. I remember my own speechlessness when a male student asked me after class if I was “a real professor,” because, according to him, I just didn’t look like one. I felt myself go cold inside my wool blazer. It was okay, he explained: he’d heard that there were lots of teaching assistants leading classes at our university. My extensive academic training hadn’t equipped me to answer him. Short of handing him my CV, I wasn’t sure what would be convincing. Perhaps a witty repartee was in order. But life rarely mirrors a Hollywood script.
His doubt may have deeper reasons: consider how we insist on gendering the mind. Rationality is stubbornly allied with masculinity, even though abstract qualities—reason, justice, hope—are traditionally personified as feminine figures. When we apply these qualities to human personalities, though, we associate reason with men. Women’s virtues typically center on social morality—temperance, patience, mercy, and so forth—not intellect. The stereotype is that women make good teachers because of their gentle natures, their compassion and, of course, their feminine intuition. The antisocial qualities associated with genius are rarely seen as feminine. Again, this is a double-edged situation: while it may be flattering to be considered socially apt, compassionate, and intuitive, there are plenty of female scholars who realize how closely the excellence of their work depends upon sequestration, selfish allocation of time, and the use of “cold” rationality.
We don’t have to replace our ambiguously positive image of woman as social being—the hostess with the mostess—for one of woman as hermit, crouched in her lair, scratching out esoteric insights by the light of a tallow candle. Nor must we lament that contemporary women have traded conventional human relationships for happy marriages to their laptops. A spate of articles has recently appeared on the rise of single-family households, the changing face of long-term relationships, and the consequences of women’s mass entrance into the workplace. The most convincing present an impressive array of statistics, and the least convincing either lament that the nuclear family may stop being our basic household unit or celebrate the author’s own lifestyle. Such reading can be great fun. The danger that these “state-of-society” articles pose, though, is a strengthening of our self-righteousness, as readers will feel compelled to defend their own choices. Self-satisfaction can narrow the mind and blind us to other phenomena. For instance, despite the fact that large numbers of adult women are currently living alone, lots of people are still uncomfortable with the idea that these women are content—or that this is a choice, not a tragic fate. What if such women are professionally and emotionally fulfilled, resembling neither the old woman who lived in a shoe nor her recent doppelganger, the crazy cat lady? Why do we dislike the sight of a woman dining alone, treating herself to a meal outside her own kitchen?
These questions may seem far from the original topic, but I believe they’re part of the same social quandary—namely that we’re still made uncomfortable by the idea that women’s independence might be, well, real independence. Beyond hoping that the woman sitting alone might be joined by a nice man, we don’t quite know how to cope with the idea that women might out-earn men in many households. We worry about a possible crisis in masculinity and are loathe to admit that the qualities of mind necessary to doing good intellectual work—logic, rationality, organization, perseverance, ambition—might be equally distributed between the sexes.
When will we stop gendering abstractions? The question is neither utopian nor idle. When my first academic article was accepted by a scholarly journal, I was a grateful graduate student in her mid-twenties who was thrilled to be praised. “This article is admirably structured and written,” the report claimed. “The author writes in a strong, masculine style.” My virtues were clarity, strength, and masculinity. I believe the word “virile” was used. Scholarly articles are supposed to be evaluated anonymously, so how would they know.
I felt irrational self-doubt: should I aspire to virility? I had never thought of my writing as masculine. But then, I hadn’t thought of it as feminine either, unless you connect femininity with my weakness for long, byzantine sentences. I had been roundly reproached for them in school, whereupon Operation Short Sentence was launched (and later abandoned). But then, what did stylistic particularities have to do with gender? Is there anything inherently feminine about, say, an exclamation mark, and anything masculine about a period? What about a colon, the mark of equivalence? Is it gender-neutral? What about question marks (so ostentatiously on display here)? Psychological linguists have suggested that self-interrogation is practiced more by girls and women than by boys and men. More women than men place an “interrogative lift” at the ends of spoken sentences, making statements sound like questions. And what about writers who consider themselves transgendered—where do they fit in?
Language, whether we see it as an innate or a learned capacity, operates by rules that are learned by all of its users. We cannot make and break them at will to imbue our language with femininity or masculinity. We do, however, have a glorious amount of leeway within the containing structures of language, and people can craft a style to accord with a certain personality type. If they couldn’t, then literary critics would have little to do. But are stylistic personalities gendered? If we were to remove all references to sexual psychology and lifestyle from a piece of writing—say, an article about inflation—then it would be tricky to determine the sex of its author. And yet, we keep trying to make such determinations. If the author lamented the high price of steak, we might assume he were male; if the author wrote about diapers, we might assume she were female. Yet men change diapers. And women like steak. What gives? Wordy or emotional writing is often seen as feminine; terse, laconic sentences are considered masculine. But what if content and style appear mismatched?
It all sounds a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it. Trying to ascertain the sex of an anonymous writer puts us face to face with the arbitrariness of our assumptions about sex and gender. There’s also no reason why it should matter in many cases; good writing is good writing. Or, going back to my original point about female academics and film, good characterization is good characterization. We might assume that it’s easier to identify with a person of our own sex, but this is often untrue for readers and for spectators. When I watch a spy movie or a crime drama, my sympathies are with the puzzle-solvers, never the beauties who help or seduce them away from their work. Hollywood has done well to fracture these stereotypes of male problem-solver and female seductress—which is merely a pop-cultural version of the classic division of mind and body—but they are merely fractured, not totally broken. Perhaps having more female directors would make a difference.
A far deeper issue, though, is what’s sometimes called “gender-othering”—seeing the other gender as an extreme instance of otherness. In other words, the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” idea that popularizes and often perverts serious science in order to make a splash. It would be ignorant to deny that real differences exist between men’s and women’s bodies and minds (not to mention those who don’t identify with the sex assigned to them by their inborn characteristics). It would be equally ignorant to deny that such differences have a deep impact on the way people live their lives. But it would be enormously damaging to insist that such differences must be present at every level of human endeavor: the way we love, the way we work, the way we write, the way we spend money, the way we entertain ourselves.
The greatest danger, I believe, lies in gendering the way we think. How many girls have been brought up with the notion that math and science are male abilities, that girls just aren’t as good at them, and that it’s unfeminine to be good at them? There are task forces that dedicate time to studying exactly why women go into certain professions and not others. Many parents wonder whether single-sex schools would help or hinder their children. I also wonder how many male students feel reluctant to, say, write an essay on so-called women’s issues (feminism, sexism, discrimination against women, and so on) because they feel it may be politically incorrect, or that it’s not their territory. If a male scholar writes a study of a female novelist, does he fear allegations of sexism, or mutterings that he just can’t understand? I don’t know, but I’m curious. There is plenty of informal gender policing that goes on.
It would take a lot of work to neutralize the most pernicious gender-othering that has already taken place. And it isn’t all so bad: there are countries that had or have female leaders, women are zealously pursuing their educations, and they’re not afraid to live alone in dwellings they pay for themselves. We can be entertained by tales of women fighting crime and solving mysteries in the popular media. We don’t have to discuss the work of female writers, artists, and musicians in gendered terms in order to see their art as inherently feminine, whatever that might mean. But the tendency to essentialize persists. Perhaps it always will. The corollary tendency to depict things that are easy to understand, such as a brilliant Einstein look-alike, disheveled and elbow-patched, must be reckoned with, as entertainment must necessarily avoid being too challenging (though I would love to be contradicted on this score). It’s challenging enough to admit women of a certain age onto the silver screen. Given the time it takes to acquire a high-level degree and an academic position, if female scholars were depicted in film and television, they couldn’t very well be twentysomething nymphets. If we involved them in amorous adventures, we would have to show the controversial spectacle of a mature (yet) sexual woman. Our horror at the notion that women over, say, thirty-five have sex at all is another topic altogether.
Achieving gender neutrality might be one of the hardest advances that we have to make. I am tentatively optimistic that we can ungender the concept of rationality itself. There are many female scholars already. But the issue is not simply that more women should accede to positions of intellectual power. The issue is that we may refuse to see them if they do.