Sexism and DNA

I’ve just read The Double Helix (1968) as it’s the freshman book at my university. I must say that, having been warned that I would hate its sexism, I did not. In fact, I loved the book. It’s a kind of nonfiction Lucky Jim, I thought, and I found the whole thing fascinating, riveting, and hilarious.

I did like Lucky Jim and was interested to see that Maureen Corrigan did, too. She writes with some disappointment that no woman has yet written an academic novel as hilarious as Amis’. That is the kind of challenge that gets me going, for at least an hour or two on thinking that perhaps that will be my next book.

In any case, my enjoyment of Amis and Watson and Corrigan’s of Amis got me thinking about what it means for feminists to like openly sexist books. Where is the line? (One kind of answer might lie in the apparently appalling enfant terrible behavior of Harlan Ellison, groping the breast of a woman introducing him. I found Ed Champion’s accounts of this event while I was composing this post.)

Brenda Maddox’s biography of the great scientist Rosalind Franklin, whose photographs of DNA were central to Watson and Crick’s discovery, is a necessary project. I’m grateful that it exists and applaud her for uncovering the history of a woman who appears in The Double Helix as someone who leads Watson to daydream “how she would look if she took off her glasses and did something novel with her hair”! I read that and am momentarily aghast. But then I think about what it’s like to be 24 and in a lecture hall, expecting to be bored, and I’m fascinated by the transition, too, “Then, however, my main concern was her description of the crystalline X-ray diffraction pattern.” This seems like grad school to me: I remember sitting through one seminar and alternating between intense thoughts about the legal status of free speech and peering under the seminar table to see if I could figure out how expensive my chic male professor’s shoes must be. Did his fancy lawyer-wife buy them for him? Now, that’s different for all kinds of reasons of history and power, I know, and perhaps these reasons of history and power make me willing to grant Watson a pass. There is no doubt that Watson is a jerk. He is not very smart about women and he is particularly cruel to Franklin—as he himself seems to dimly recognize in the somewhat ham-handed epilogue.

But the overriding feeling I had in reading The Double Helix was delight. The account of what it feels like to find a really interesting problem—the structure of DNA is certainly that—fascinated me. I am less troubled by his lack of ethics than I am interested in the eager, rapid, magpie mind that saw the virtues in both the x-ray photography of Franklin and the model-building of Linus Pauling. And I find the account of Crick’s error at a fancy dress party—he came dressed as G. B. Shaw, realizing only too late that no girl wants to be kissed by that scratchy beard—hilarious rather than upsetting.

Why, I wonder, is this so? When I read some accounts of people passing off their bad behavior as charming, I’m offended and appalled. But, reading this, I was very willing to give Watson a pass.