Do You Feel Represented in Crosswords? (Study)

BIPOC women crossword puzzle graphic

Created for WordFinder

A standard in newspapers since 1913, crossword puzzles are a word nerd’s favorite game. An intellectual challenge loved by many, crosswords have increased in popularity over the past few years during the COVID-19 pandemic. And since the October 2021 creation of the web-based game Wordle, searches for crosswords have increased by 34% (according to data from Keyword.io).

The popularity of crosswords also lies in its accessibility to players of all ages, genders, and races. Anybody with a pencil and a few spare minutes can work on a crossword. Unfortunately, many crossword clues fall short in the diversity of the people they reference. Crossword puzzles are accessible to many but representative of few.

To examine this, we analyzed puzzle clues and answers and tallied puzzle creators’ genders. With this data, we’ll appraise crossword representation and identify the groups most often pushed to the margins of these letter-filled grids.

Key Takeaways

  • Men were the creators of 78% of crossword puzzles over the last 10 years. 

  • The Jonas Brothers are in 9x more crossword puzzles than Priyanka Chopra.

  • The Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, but Obergefell has yet to be in a crossword.

Not Created Equal

Like starting a crossword at 1 ACROSS, the first place to look when examining representation in media is the source of creation. Who constructs most crossword puzzles, and how diverse is this group of creators

Infographic - who is creating crossword puzzlesInfographic - who is creating crossword puzzles

Despite being enjoyed by all genders, crossword puzzles have primarily been created by men – ever since Arthur Wynne designed the first one in 1913. Over the past 20 years, men have dominated crossword construction at a ratio of 3:1. In the past ten years, this gender inequality has only increased, with men constructing 78% of crossword puzzles and women only 22%.

Where Are the Women?

Underrepresented among those constructing crossword puzzles, women are also underrepresented in the puzzle content itself. Clue and answer references have highly favored men, even when there were opportunities to reference a woman within the same clue.

Infographic - women clues in crossword puzzlesInfographic - women clues in crossword puzzles

Since men have constructed the majority of crosswords, is it surprising that women have been pushed aside in favor of their male counterparts in the clues and answers as well? Take Judy Blume: a world-renowned author who is as prolific in writing children’s novels as Dr. Seuss was in his writing of picture books. Dr. Seuss, however, appeared as a crossword answer 1,950% more often than Judy Blume. “Are you there, crossword writers? It’s me, Judy. Time to upgrade me to Thing 1.”

We found another imbalance within the answers for “Chopra,” a popular recurring clue. Priyanka Chopra, superstar Hollywood actress, megastar Bollywood actress, and former Miss World, was the answer to this clue only 10.5% of the time. Deepak Chopra, a wellness author boosted to popularity by Oprah Winfrey, was this clue’s answer the other 89.5% of the time. Even Priyanka’s husband, Nick Jonas, outperformed her; the Jonas Brothers were featured in nine times more crosswords than Priyanka was. Forget “What a Man Gotta Do” – what a woman gotta do?

Intersections On and Off the Grid

In addition to the marginalization of women in general, Black women have been even less represented in crosswords. We focused our analysis of marginalized women to zero in on notable Black women who have been kept off the grid. 

Infographic - BIPOC women in crossword puzzlesInfographic - BIPOC women in crossword puzzles

Speaking of influential Black women, Gabby Douglas, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics, is an undeniable force unfathomably absent from crosswords. Since her 2012 Olympics domination, “talkative” has been a recurring crossword clue for the answer “GABBY,” but no clue for GABBY has ever referred to the Olympian. The name “Douglas” has been a crossword answer multiple times with the clues “Lincoln’s debate opponent of 1858” (Stephen Douglas, a long-dead white man) and “Justice with the longest Supreme Court tenure” (William Douglas, also a long-dead white man). The clue has never referred to Gabby Douglas (a very much alive Black woman).

Two powerhouses in music, Alicia Keys and the late Aaliyah, have also been underplayed by crossword creators. Keys – a 15-time Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, producer, actress, and author – was outplayed in crossword appearances by controversial rapper and reality figure Kanye West by 657%. Aaliyah – the “Princess of R&B” with five Grammy nominations, 14 major music awards, and 32 million album sales – was outnamed by musician-turned-convicted racketeer and sex trafficker R. Kelly by 367%. Apparently, being a bad boy gets you more puzzle prominence than being an accomplished woman.

Puzzled by Pride

Of course, women aren’t the only group underrepresented in the crossword grid. Members of the LGBTQ+ community have also been largely missing from these neatly numbered rows and columns.

Infographic - LGBTQ+ underrepresented in crosswordsInfographic - LGBTQ+ underrepresented in crosswords

One of the most notable LGBTQ+ omissions is prominent gay rights activist Jim Obergefell. Obergefell was the lead plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the U.S. Even though the court decided on Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, Obergefell has yet to appear in a crossword.

Johnny Weir is a two-time Olympian and three-time U.S. National champion figure skater and currently one-half of a favorite Olympic commentator team. His commentating partner, Tara Lipinski, is a figure skating icon herself whose public career lasted about one year. Despite the pair’s equal popularity and name recognition, Lipinski appeared in 63 times more crosswords than Johnny Weir. Considering Weir’s achievements (not to mention his distinct sense of style), this omission earns a major deduction.

A Call for Crosswords Outside the Box

With social movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OscarsSoWhite calling for more representation across all forms of media, crossword puzzles should be no exception. These fun word games created to pass the time and relieve stress have a boundless audience, so they should include and celebrate all communities. Crosswords offer the opportunity to broaden players’ knowledge by filling each row and column with diverse people, places, and history. It’s time to bring more color to the black-and-white grid and let everyone in on the game.

Methodology 

WordFinder by YourDictionary referenced a database of underrepresented names in crosswords and a database of public crosswords to analyze crossword puzzle content. We also utilized AI tools to code the crossword constructors’ genders. 

About WordFinder by YourDictionary

WordFinder is a free word game helper tailored to improve your skills and knowledge. Whether unscrambling letters or looking up winning Scrabble words, WordFinder helps you find the best way to express yourself with words and beat your opponents.

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