Bias in crosswords: how women, people of colour and LGBTQIA+ communities are overlooked

Puzzle-solvers and constructors showed me why the push to update the world's favourite puzzle is so important

Puzzle-solvers and constructors showed me why the push to update the world's favourite puzzle is so important

Crossword constructors and solvers are fighting for representation in the beloved puzzle. (Lake Tide Media)

Crossword puzzles can be creative; they can be funny; they can exercise your brain. Margaret Farrar, the first editor of the New York Times crossword, said, "You can't think of your troubles while solving a crossword." And yet, this black and white grid, which has provided entertainment and comfort to people for over a century, has also been a barrier to inclusion and diversity.

How can a crossword puzzle, a simple grid of squares and letters, possibly be excluding people? This is a concept I set out to explore in Across and Down, a documentary for The Passionate Eye.

A new perspective on inclusivity

My first real encounter with exclusion came after my partner was diagnosed with ALS and his disability began to change the way the world saw him. The experience of watching him being treated differently, simply because he no longer looked and communicated in ways that society has incorrectly judged as beautiful and competent, rippled through my life and into my work. 

Witnessing how the world changed its perception of my partner reformed my worldview. It was clear that I, too, was guilty of misperceptions. I became much more aware of and engaged in discussions around diversity and equity that occupy the zeitgeist.

I believe that I would have never seen the larger conversation about inclusivity that was unfolding in the crossword community without this experience. Through my partner, I saw my own bias and understood that, until that time, my sin was one of omission.

Demanding change in the 'crossworld'

About a decade ago, I was field producing a five-minute story in Lunenburg, N.S., on cruciverbalist Walter Feener. The name of his vocation is as intriguing as the vocation itself. A cruciverbalist is a person who has a deep affection and skill for solving and/or constructing crossword puzzles — and Walter was a whiz at building them.

When I saw how his brain used words and grids as a means to understand the world, I was struck with the idea that crossword puzzle constructors would make a great subject for a longer documentary.

The notion resurfaced in my mind in 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum and crossword puzzle creators began taking a stand to demand change in their industry.

My curiosity was piqued. Their world of words, grids and math is not where my own strengths lie (I mean, sure, I can spell with the help of a dictionary and answer trivia questions — if they're easy … or about The Muppets), but the idea of meeting more passionate cruciverbalists, and shining a spotlight on their goal of inclusion, was captivating.

Crosswords are full of stereotypes and non-inclusive clues | Across and Down

11 months ago
Duration 1:14
Crossword clues can easily be more inclusive and diverse, reflecting all the people who solve them.

Rethinking my own life's 'grid'

Every single crossword puzzle constructor I had the pleasure of speaking with for Across & Down generously accepted me into the "crossworld."

"The crossworld is a weird, twisted niche community, a collection of intellectual misfits who get off on wordplay," expert constructor Ross Trudeau told me.

"[It] comprises people who make puzzles, people who solve puzzles, people who get wordy tattoos, people who wear crossword watches. It's a strange place. It's a welcoming place. You don't need any letters of transit or introduction. And you can find yourself in crossworld just by wishing it — or opening up the arts section."

In the crossworld, everyone I met was open, kind, funny, compassionate and incredibly intelligent. They pointed out the biases that turn up in crossword puzzles; how women, Indigenous people, Black people, people of colour and the LGBTQIA+ communities are overlooked in the game (from the way clues are written to the constructors who get published); and why it's important to make the grid reflect all facets of society.

It was remarkable to witness them working together to remake their corner of the world. Publications they've created, including The Inkubator, Women of Letters, Crucinova and Queer Qrosswords, are making the grid more inclusive, open and, of course — as crosswords are always meant to be — fun!

They're also pushing for more diversity in the editorial teams at major publications. New hires at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and USA Today suggest a true dynamic shift is happening.

And even though there is a lot more work to be done, there is hope and healing in that work for many cruciverbalists. They can celebrate what they've accomplished while understanding that the work will continue until the day that we, as one cruciverbalist told me, "don't have to navigate these minefields of human identity" any longer.

As for me, I will take the lessons these puzzle-makers taught me and use them to break open my own life's "grid," recognizing my own biases and aligning myself with more openness, understanding, compassion and acceptance.

My hope is that this is the effect that Across and Down will have on you as well. 

Rachel Bower is a director, writer and editor of documentaries based in Nova Scotia. She is the director of Across and Down.

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