By Blake Neff
The New York Times is being denounced as “hateful” and sexist after its Tuesday crossword had the temerity to include the word “harem” as an answer.
A harem refers to a group of females who all share a single male as a sexual or romantic partner. Historically, a harem was the retinue of wives, concubines, slaves, and female relatives who were kept in wealthy Muslim households (most famously, the Ottoman sultan had a vast harem). The word itself derives from the Arabic word meaning “forbidden,” and refers to the fact these women were generally kept in a separate quarters most men were forbidden to enter.
In Tuesday’s crossword puzzle, the Times alluded to the harem’s historical role, with a clue describing it as a “decidedly non-feminist women’s group.”
And that little joke has some people outraged. People on Twitter denounced the clue as “hateful,” “clueless,” and somehow dismissive of victims of sex slavery.
— Rex Parker (@rexparker) June 28, 2016
@rexparker It was unnecessary and awful while also managing to be demeaning to both sex workers and women in sex slavery. That’s impressive.
— Whitney Cox (@ProfWCox) June 28, 2016
— Diane Firstman (@dianagram) June 28, 2016
Despite the wave of outrage, it’s not clear exactly why the clue is so offensive. Harems, at least historically, are strongly associated with placing women in a subservient position to powerful males, which certainly isn’t very feminist. The Times’ clue, then, is quite literally accurate.
But the outrage ball is rolling regardless. At Slate, writer Ruth Graham found a predictable reason for the brouhaha: Crossword constructors are too white and too male, and that’s a problem.
“[O]f the 47 most recent constructors for the Times, just 11 are female,” Graham complains. “The author of today’s puzzle is male, and so is [puzzle editor Will] Shortz. The constructors are also overwhelmingly white.”
Graham says it isn’t the first time the Time crossword has mistakenly become a bastion of white male privilege.
“In 2012, the answer ILLEGAL was clued with: ‘One caught by the border patrol,’” she says. “The offensive use of illegal as a noun set off a brouhaha that made its way to Univision. In 2013, a national puzzle syndicate apologized for using the clue ‘Shylock’ for the answer JEW. And in November, Shortz issued a mea culpa for the clue ‘Exasperated comment from a feminist.’ Answer: MEN.”
Another crossword constructor, Elizabeth Gorski, told Slate the natural fix is that the Times simply has to hire more non-whites and racial minorities.
“The problem with tone-deafness is the person who’s singing (or writing clues) doesn’t hear the sour notes,” said Gorski. “If newspapers want to improve their crosswords, the solution is simple: Hire people who aren’t tone deaf.”