Sunday, February 05, 2017

Beautiful Minds and Beautiful Bodies

As a counterpoint to my post on a scene from Cannonball Run 3, which was not nominated for any academy awards, consider a scene from the Best Picture of 2001, A Beautiful Mind. John Nash is at the pub with his colleagues. A girl at the bar is watching him playing pool. They encourage him to go talk to her, and he does. He sits down on the bar stool. She's obviously interested in him, but he is awkward and doesn't say anything. She breaks the uncomfortable silence by suggesting that he buy her a drink. He explains that he's not very good at this sort of thing and perhaps, since it's all just about an "exchange of fluids" anyway, that maybe they should just go straight to the "intercourse". She calls him an asshole, slaps him, and walks away.

The scene is intended to be comical and mainly sympathetic to Nash. His eponymous "beautiful mind" is both brilliant and schizophrenic. The "harm" done in the scene, at least according to the director, is done to Nash not to the woman, who walks away with her dignity in tact. He is just an ordinary socially awkward man who lacks the charm to win an otherwise perfectly available woman for an evening's "exchange of fluids". Neither the filmmaker nor the audience, I suspect, feels any particular sympathy for the mentally ill person who is here subjected to violence for saying the wrong thing to the wrong woman. (He gets away with saying something similar to his future wife later in the film.) This is all considered perfectly amusing, if a little tragic, especially in the late 1940s, where the scene is set, but also in 2001 when the film was made. We understand what happened here.

Sixty-five and fifteen years later, many things have changed. In my upcoming posts I want to look at two examples in which the men are known, and had their careers ended as a result of engaging in behavior roughly similar to that demonstrated by Russell Crowe in his portrayal of John Nash. One of them is the case of Geoff Marcy, which I've already written a great deal about. The other is the case of Bora Zivkovic, which I haven't yet looked at closely, but which seems worth investigating. The cases as such are only loosely connected. But I think they are bound together after being caught up in a sort of dragnet. There has been a lot of activism on the sexual harassment front, and it seems to have started within the science writing community with Zivkovic.

I think this pressure from the media side is telling. But I'll also try to unpack that in a later post. What I want to do here is highlight the curious case of Nicole Cabrera Salazar, who wrote a post for the Women in Astronomy blog back in 2015. I think it's best that you simply read that post before reading my take on it. It's not very long and I don't want to be accused of misrepresenting the facts.

As I read Salazar's story, she was not at all the victim of sexual harassment. Rather, a man met her at a conference and took a fancy to her. In an attempt to impress her, he talked about her science, unsurprisingly making sure to do so in flattering terms. He waited until an appropriately social function to make an overt move, and his advances were rejected. He respected her rejection, and nothing further happened.

Before you make too much out of that hand he put on her knee, let's acknowledge that it was probably a result of his misinterpreting a physical cue from her. And let's further compare it to how you feel about a woman slapping a man for asking her to skip the preliminaries and go straight to the sex. If you want to ban the unwanted hand on a knee at a party, you're going to have to ban also the no less desired slap to the face in a pub. There are versions of each that should rightly be considered assault, and in those cases we rightly call the police. But do we really want university bureaucracies to adjudicate the "professional" appropriateness of these actions and reactions?

"Boundary issues" are always issues on the boundary between minds and bodies, or even hearts and minds. Back in 2001, it seems, it was understood that scientists were somewhat awkward in matters of the heart. By 2015, they were losing their jobs because women were feeling uncomfortable with that awkwardness. Surely there is some cause for concern here?


Anonymous said...

I agree, not sexual harassment. I think it can legitimately go under "sexism" or "inappropriate behavior in the work place" (if one considers that party also the work place, which is debatable). I also empathize with women that get too much of this too often.

As the AAS takes an interest in this, perhaps it should allow people to check a box when registering for each conference, "Potential romance? [ ] Y [ ] N [ ] don't know, depends, ask me." This could be printed on each name tag, or they could have a color code. ( This satirical concept is not funny, but AAS and similar corporate organizations are aiming for it, although they instead specify that everyone must be in the N category. Not even N by default, but N period. I'm referring to Marvel's commentary in 2016 - "enough is enough")

The full name of the person is "Nicole E. Cabrera Salazar" and I am sure that you will correct your blog accordingly.

Thomas said...

Thanks for catching the name thing. I noticed she calls herself "Nicole C." on Twitter so I assumed that was her preference. But having googled around a little I can see that it would be more natural to call her by her full name in the first instance, and Salazar subsequently. (I've never quite mastered the Spanish naming conventions, obviously.)

I must say I don't see the sexism. (Unless sexual attraction is by definition "sexist", which I guess could be argued.)

Your name tag idea made my laugh. Thanks.

As for empathizing with these women, yes, I get that. But I think it's important to remember that many of these women are not suffering merely because they are women, but because they happen to be beautiful women. As Salazar humble-brags in her TED talk, she's tired of hearing "men in bars" express surprise that she's a scientists. Beautiful women suffer many indignities, I'm sure; but beauty also has a number of advantages. Salazar does not seem to downplay this dimension of her being, so I think it's in poor taste when she asks all after-hours activities at AAS events to be cleansed of romance. It's simply not fair to plainer woman who was in fact hoping that quiet guy she thinks warmly of will drink himself to the courage to tell her how he really feels.