Monday, June 7, 2010

alleged sexism

A man and his son are driving and get in a terrible car accident. Both are rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. When the boy goes in for surgery, the doctor says "I can't operate on him, he is my son." How is this possible?

Now try it this way:

A man and his daughter are driving and get in a terrible car accident. Both are rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. When the daughter goes in, the doctor says "I can't operate on her, she is my daughter." How is this possible?

You've probably heard this riddle before, in the first version. The answer is that the boy's mother is the surgeon, not father. People tell it to point out how inherently sexist we all are because it's not immediately obvious. It's shockingly powerful: my honest first thought was "the boy has two gay fathers." Ridiculous... (or maybe I'm just really sexist.)

But I think that at least part of the source of the trouble is that we mentally confuse gendered familial nouns as referring to either the self or the relative. Aunts and Neices, Mothers and Daughters, Grandfathers and Grandsons; like the scene in Friends where Ross doesn't know the sex of his baby yet and Monica says "I'm going to be an aunt," to which Joey adds "or an uncle." Joey isn't the brightest crayon in the box, but it's an honest source of confusion in general (unless I'm just as dumb as Joey and am a false basis for generalization...) When the riddle refers to the son, we impose a male identity on both the father and son.

If you haven't heard the riddle before, was the second one more obvious?

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