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, 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 Cabrera'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?

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