Crosswords as Pop Culture Shorthand?

In television and movies, there are a lot of different techniques for revealing character traits. While some shows spend time developing their characters and slowly revealing their traits to the audience, other shows rely on visual shorthand. You often see a letterman’s jacket for a jock, or glasses for a nerdy boy or a mousy girl.

The act of solving a crossword puzzle has also become visual shorthand in pop culture. Crosswords often serve as a universal sign of intelligence.

In an episode of Jimmy Neutron, Sheen is shown solving a crossword puzzle in ink. This is an instantaneous sign that his brainpower has increased. (And when Cindy points out that her dad does the same thing, Sheen one-ups her by saying the puzzle is from The Beijing Times.)

It could have been math or organization or memorization, but instead, they went with crosswords.

In The Wire, the show uses a scene with a crossword to reveal that there’s more to street-smart Omar Little than meets the eye. Before testifying at Bird’s trial, he helps the bailiff with a crossword clue, identifying the Greek god of war as Ares. The scene immediately punches holes in several stereotypes both characters and viewers might have about the character.

This also happens on Mad Men, where one of the founders of the company is solving a crossword, only to be corrected by one of the secretaries. For that brief moment, the playing field has been levelled.

And because crosswords are seen as this visual shorthand for intelligence, they’re also used as a intellectual measuring stick, for better or for worse.

Rachel on Friends struggled with a crossword for an entire episode to prove she didn’t need anyone’s help, but still has to obliquely obtain information from others to finish the puzzle.

In an episode of House, M.D., House goes speed-dating, and is initially intrigued by a woman who brought a crossword puzzle with her. But when he notices she’s filled in random words instead of actually solving it — in order to pass herself off as someone she’s not — he quickly bursts her bubble in typically acerbic fashion.

P.G. Wodehouse loved to reveal the intelligence — or lack thereof — of characters through the use of crossword clues as fodder for banter. And that’s because it works. The audience draws conclusions based on these interactions.

In a fifth-season episode of Angel, a doctor is shown asking his receptionist for random crossword clues, only to fail at answering several. This immediately colors the audience’s opinion of him.

Crosswords can also be used as a mirror to reflect differences between characters. On The West Wing, President Bartlet couldn’t get past his own presuppositions and assumptions to properly complete the puzzle, while the First Lady had no problem navigating the same puzzle because of her own diplomatic skills.

Similarly, the parents in an episode of Phineas and Ferb show off their dynamic while solving a crossword. The father implies that every answer is obvious, and then waits for his wife to actually provide the answer. It says volumes about him, her, and the two of them as a pair.

But all of this raises the question: is this fair? Is the one-to-one association of crosswords and intelligence in pop culture valid?

[Check out this stock image from Deposit Photo.]

Crosswords are, essentially, piles of trivia and information, crisscrossing vocabulary locked behind clever or vague cluing. But are intelligence and access to information the same thing?

I mean, we’ve discussed the issue of crossword accessibility in the past. Many female constructors, constructors of color, and LGBTQIA+ constructors are helping to change the language used in crosswords, but plenty of people still see them as the domain of older white men. Which implies it’s not actually intelligence, just what older white men deem to be reflective of intelligence.

For a long time, pop culture clues were considered unwelcome or verboten. Beneath the crossword, even. Different editors bring different definitions of what’s appropriate for the puzzle.

And if people associate crosswords with intelligence because of this visual shorthand, and they don’t see themselves reflected in the puzzle, then they suffer from that jagged flip side of the pop culture coin. They’re excluded because of the measuring stick.

I realize most of the examples I cite above are intended to be humorous. Bartlet’s wrong answers are meant to be funny, as is Rachel’s struggle or the dad’s inability to answer on Phineas and Ferb.

But it’s worth mentioning that anyone who feels like they’ve been rapped across the knuckles by the measuring stick carries that with them. I’ve seen it plenty of times when I tell somebody that I work in puzzles. If they “can’t do them,” they look down when they say it. They already carry that visual shorthand with them.

While it’s fascinating that crosswords are part of that immediately recognizable pop culture lexicon, I also kinda wish that they weren’t.


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