by Elise Hempel
Did you catch it? Right before that commercial (or, if you have TiVo, right before your thumb plunged down on the double forward-arrow on the remote) on the NBC Nightly News on July 3rd. A little report on Chief Justice John Roberts' commencement speech at his son's 9th-grade graduation last month from Cardigan Mountain School, an elite boys' boarding school in New Hampshire. And after that report, a light-hearted little comment from Peter Alexander, the anchor replacing Lester Holt that night.
John Roberts' June 3rd commencement speech to a class of 14-year-old boys and their parents/guardians is being described as "extraordinary," "a quiet rebuke to Trump" and "the best thing" he "wrote this term," is being praised for "bucking tradition." You may or may not have seen or heard any of the Chief Justice's speech, but here is a portion of what has gotten so much attention:
"Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I'll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don't take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either."
Nice words. But soon after these words, within his remarks giving both "deep" and "simple" advice to the class – including not to act like the "privileged young men" that they are – quickly, snuck in between the serious stuff, there was this: "You've been at a school with just boys. Most of you will be going to a school with girls. I have no advice for you." (Laughter from the audience.) And, on the July 3rd NBC Nightly News, just after the video of Roberts making his joke, just before the cut to a commercial, this comment from Peter Alexander: "On that you will get no dissent here."
I almost didn't catch it, because I was enjoying my stir-fry dinner and a glass of wine as I watched the nightly news, enjoying the 4th of July holiday "zone." I almost didn't catch it, because for most of my life I've heard "jokes" like the one Justice Roberts made, and "light-hearted" comments like that of Peter Alexander, so I'm used to them. I'm also used to being told that if I don't find them funny I'm being "too serious," that I need to "lighten up," so I've learned to accept them unquestioningly.
I almost didn't catch it, because the "women-are-inscrutable" cliché/joke was spoken in an acceptable manner (no Trumpian menstruation-blood or facelift-blood involved) by an acceptable person – a Supreme Court Chief Justice. I almost didn't catch it, because saying that women are enigmas seems to be a universally acceptable thing to say. Heck, even Stephen Hawking, when asked "What do you think about most during the day?" in a 2012 interview with the journal New Scientist, replied, "Women. They are a complete mystery."
I almost didn't catch it, because it doesn't really seem … that bad. Until you start to think about it. I don't really feel like much of an enigma myself; in fact, I think I'm the opposite: I always seem to say too much about about my feelings, my opinions, my tastes. And I can't think of any women I know who are a complete mystery to me, at least not any women who are any more of a mystery than any man I know. If I think of a current female political figure – say, Elizabeth Warren – does she seem like someone who, for the life of me, just can't be figured out? No. In fact, she's pretty damn explicit about everything she thinks and believes in.
What is this "women-are-inscrutable" thing, and where did it start? With some pimply-faced, love-struck adolescent boy of ancient times? I don't know. But I do know that John Roberts could have given even more good advice to his son's graduating class last month, and he didn't. Instead, he went for the joke, for the cliché, for the big laugh. He went for something somewhere between benevolent and hostile sexism, at a time when we're somehow still talking about equal pay for equal work, when our female candidate for president last year was supposed to have smiled more and not raised her voice, when we've elected a male president who has admitted to pussy-grabbing. John Roberts, who holds one of the highest positions in our country, could have done the higher thing but didn't. He could have told that group of soon-to-be men, "You've been at a school with just boys. Most of you will be going to a school with girls. Listen to them. Respect them. Treat them as the equals that they are." And Peter Alexander could have decided not to second the joke that John Roberts went for instead, could have simply cut to the commercial.