To the editor:
We appreciate the Forward’s efforts to bring a fun perspective to Jewish intellectuals. Nevertheless, both of us have concerns about the third annual Sexiest Jewish Intellectuals list published Dec. 8.
While the author, Jenny Singer, wants to redefine “sexy” as intellectual prowess, that task is incomplete in a list that still emphasizes the physical attributes of each person. The appellation “sexiest” is used here in a way that focuses attention on physical bodies rather than bodies of work. For those of us who teach at universities, the stereotype of the “hot professor” brings inappropriate conversations about physical attractiveness and sex into our workplaces and our classrooms.
The word sexy remains tied here to ideas of beauty, sex, and power, in ways that often benefit men and harm women and nonbinary people. Men who are seen as sexy are generally viewed as competent, while women seen as sexy are often assumed to be brainless or manipulative.
One of us, Elias, knew in advance about his potential inclusion in this list, and accepted that possibility. As a tenured white, male, cisgender academic, he also knows that he occupies a space of tremendous privilege.
Rachel, however, was surprised to find herself on the list when it was published. While she appreciates that it was intended it as a compliment, she is concerned about the ramifications it could have for her career.
Elias and Rachel went to graduate school at Princeton together, but the prestigious institution is only mentioned in his blurb. There is one rather benign reference to Elias’s “lustrous hair.” The description of Rachel, in contrast, starts and ends with comments on her physical appearance.
A list like this is not helpful for any academic, but we think it is particularly harmful to women and minorities, especially those not tenured or outside of the tenure system. Female scholars like Rachel – who is tenure-track but not yet tenured – are in vulnerable positions. Many others, such as people of color, LGBTQ individuals, nonbinary individuals, and those who do not hold tenure-track positions, are often in even more precarious situations.
The framing as sexy can undermine a scholar in the eyes of potential employers, tenure committees and university administrators, who may view their colleagues as overly concerned with image rather than substance or even as sexual objects rather than scholars.
Descriptions of intellectuals as sexy enable gender-based harassment in academia. The 2018 #MeTooPhD hashtag brought to light stories of sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault that are all-too-common experiences for women in academia. In June, 2018, Rate My Professors eliminated its chili pepper “hotness” rating because of the harm that sexualizing professors did to female and nonbinary faculty members in particular.
In 2013, feminist writer Lindy West responded to a list of “Sexiest Scientists Alive” with “The Nine Hottest Reasons Why It’s Not Hot to Make ‘Hot’ Lists.” As West wrote, lists are fine. Like West, our concern is with lists that sexualize people whose work does not relate to the way they look.
A list that completed the work of shifting focus away from physical appearance to intellectual prowess or one that highlighted the most admirable, challenging, or inspiring Jewish intellectuals is one that we would welcome. We hope the Forward is up to the challenge.
Rachel B. Gross John & Marcia Goldman Professor of American Jewish Studies Assistant Professor, Department of Jewish Studies San Francisco State University
Elias Sacks Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies Incoming Director, Program in Jewish Studies University of Colorado Boulder