Problematic gendered stereotypes, or “Who was that actress?”


One of the (positive) reviewers asked me who was the actress in the “How to explain number theory” episodes, and even hazarded a (wrong) guess, but what difference does it make?  The whole incident could have been made up, like the dialogues.   Or, just as the image above is a composite of several (real and imaginary) faces, the incident could have been a composite of (real and imaginary) incidents when, as happens to so many mathematicians, someone I just met asked me — “out of politeness, or perhaps desperation” as Tim Gowers accurately reports — to explain just what it is we do.  In other words, out of my many experiences of being put on the spot by strangers of various genders from various walks of life I could have concocted a fictitious ideal-typical incident in order to enliven the narrative and as a pretext for meeting my personal challenge of making the Birch-Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture meaningful to someone who knows nothing about mathematics.

But there really was such a dinner party, and I really was seated next to an actress, and the conversation really did touch on the topics mentioned, and the actress really did, unexpectedly, ask “what it was you number theorists do.”  I can now reveal, however, that I did make up one detail and alter another, in exercise of my newly-acquired literary license.  First, I have no idea whether or not the actress asked her question about number theory when dessert was served, or at some other point in the meal.  I must confess I was at first horrified when my editor told me early on that readers expect an author to be affirmative, and don’t want to read that “maybe it was around the time dessert was served, I honestly no longer remember.”  My editor was extremely lenient, perhaps excessively so, but she did instruct me to spare the reader apologies for my faulty memory.  Either I should say the fateful question was asked at the time of dessert, or I should find a way to frame the question without referring to the meal.  It seemed to me (reading the fine print on my literary license) that the story sounded better with a sideways glance at the meal, and that number theory goes better with dessert than with soup or salad, so dessert it was to be.

More momentous was my authorial decision to have the actress address her question to me directly, when — this I remember perfectly well — she had posed the question not to me but to my host, who is an admirable mathematician but not a number theorist.  He answered something along the lines of, “you should ask Michael” (or maybe he said “the person sitting next to you”), “he’s the number theorist in this room.”  It vastly improves the story to streamline the exchange between actress and author, but it is dishonest and frankly reprehensible, because it implies that the actress asked the question not out of politeness to her host, who was sitting across the table, but because she was fascinated and intrigued by the charming yet enigmatic number theorist seated to her right, and was perhaps looking for an excuse to prolong the conversation beyond the meal’s final course and… so it turns out the dessert was not such an innocent detail after all.

The episode, which serves as a prelude to Chapter α, was rewritten several times, to respond to criticism, but before I explain how that came about, here are three hints that won’t help you guess the actress’s identity.  First, I wrote that

She talked about the trials of being an actress, hinting that not all her peers suffered quite so much as she did

I can now reveal that she specifically speculated that she might do better by moving to France, where (the much older) Kristin Scott Thomas had made a fine career for herself.  (The woman at the dinner party is also doing quite well now, on the stage rather than in film, having left Britain, though not for France.)

Next, it’s not at all difficult to find her name on the internet, and she is sufficiently prominent that readers are invited to provide answers to the following questions (her name has been replaced by P.A.):

How much is English stage actress P.A.‘s net worth? How much does she make per week for her theatre work? Has P.A. done any endorsements or commercials? Does she have any other income sources beyond her acting career? Has she done any modeling?

Finally, I actually managed to track her down a year or so after the dinner party:  I wrote to tell her that her question had inspired me to write a twelve-page answer to the question (a first draft of what became the four chapters of “How to explain…”).  She invited me to send it to her; I did …and that was the last I heard from her.

Three years later, I mentioned to an academic couple I had just met that I was writing a book about mathematics that I hoped could be read with interest by non-mathematicians.  Since they insisted that they had no interest in reading a book about mathematics, I tested their resolve by showing them the first draft of the description of the dinner party encounter, which was as follows:

During the spring of 2008 I was invited by the Columbia University mathematics department to deliver the Samuel Eilenberg lectures — a perfect illustration of the Matthew effect described in the previous chapter.  The appointment involved living away from my family for several months.   Working late in the department one Friday evening, I must have looked even more forlorn than usual, because a colleague passing my open door decided on the spot to invite me home to dinner.  Several other mathematicians had been invited, along with a neighbor from another department, and the neighbor’s visiting friend, a pale young blonde British woman of medium height who turned out to be an actress between jobs — a real professional actress, with an agent and a long string of film and TV credits as well as a steady and successful career on the stage.  She talked about the trials of being an actress, hinting that not all her peers suffered quite so much as she did.  The younger mathematicians alluded to their own career anxieties, while their tenured colleagues offered reassuring but noncommital replies.  The actress glowed enigmatically during this part of the conversation, but when it came time to serve dessert, she turned to me without warning and asked, “What is it you do in number theory, anyway?”
The other mathematicians looked at me in unison, holding their collective breath.  I had stumbled into the awkward moment every mathematician dreads, my predicament highlighted by the questioner’s quiet radiance.*
*Theater and film reviewers feel obliged to use the word “beautiful” in connection with certain female roles.  The actress sitting opposite me that evening specializes in such roles.

Do you see what’s wrong?

It turns out that these particular academics were curious about many things but really did have no interest in reading a book about mathematics.   But as an act of friendship, they did make an effort to get into the text.  They encouraged me to make changes, starting with the story of the square root of 2, that for various reasons were impossible.  But their first comment was critical:

you need to explain in the first page why math problems continue to seduce you and other mathematicians over and over again and not use problematic gendered stereotypes to do so.

What was problematic about the gendered stereotypes?  They explained that the scenario of a woman asking questions of a male authority figure is itself a stereotype.  Why did I have to mention that my interlocutor was a woman?  Couldn’t I have just said that I was sitting next to an “actor” — after all, the Guardian uses the same word for female as well as male thespians — and leave the gender (or absence thereof) to the reader’s imagination?  (An “actor” who specializes in roles like Nora in A Doll’s House, or Masha in Three Sisters…)  But, I objected, it really was a woman who asked that question at the dinner party!  Nonsense, they replied, you’re telling a story, you can make any changes you want [and here I turned red and stammered, because I had indeed made the two changes mentioned above].

To make a long story short, the very next day I went to the colleague who had introduced me to the couple and asked what to do about those gendered stereotypes.  She read the passage carefully and observed, astutely, that the passage contains a physical description of the actress, and only the actress.   This is indeed the most insidious of gendered stereotypes:  to presume that a woman can only be mentioned in a story if accompanied by a description of her appearance.   So I took the hint:

1.  I removed “pale young blonde” and “of medium height”;

2.  I also removed the pointless footnote (though it was a literally accurate report on the reviews I read of her theatrical performances);

3.  I replaced “The younger mathematicians” by “The younger men and women among the mathematicians,” which was not altogether inaccurate;

4.  Most importantly of all, to allow for any conceivable gender coupling in the dialogues (and thus to avoid pernicious and problematic gender stereotypes), the character named “ACTRESS” became “PERFORMING ARTIST,” or P.A., while the gender of N.T., the number theorist, is never specified.

In spite of this last change, several reviewers believed the dialogues were between an actress and a male mathematician.  They were not wrong, because the reviewers who read this into the dialogue were all men, and there is no question that, in the later dialogues as well as in the initial encounter, I used my newly-minted literary license, and some strategic word placement, to attempt to heighten the dramatic tension by the merest hint of erotic tension.  The reviewers’ reactions prove that this attempt was at least moderately successful; but one question remains.  I wrote explicitly in the preface that N.T. is “one of the author’s alter egos,” but I intentionally gave the best lines to P.A., the other alter ego. So why did the reviewers identify with N.T. rather than P.A.?



2 thoughts on “Problematic gendered stereotypes, or “Who was that actress?”

  1. Nqabutho

    I read this all the way to the end of your draft paragraphs without thinking of the gender angle. The observation I had was that instead of questions like “what is it you number theorists do anyway?”, I wouldn’t mind it so much if non-academics (non-scientists more specifically) were to ask me questions like, “What questions are you pursuing these days? What puzzles you about what you’re working on?” However, I remember asking a biologist (at a party) questions like this, and although I understood hardly a word of what he said, he responded with a very passionate and animated ten- minute and open-ended account of what was on his mind. He at least suddenly seemed to be having a good time.



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