SubScribe: A modern fairytale of New York Google+

Friday, 1 March 2013

A modern fairytale of New York

The following article appeared this week in the Opinionator section of the New York Times website.
 I offer it without preamble:

The story of how Danny and I were married last July in a Manhattan courtroom, with our son, Kevin, beside us, began 12 years earlier, in a dark, damp subway station. Danny called me that day, frantic. “I found a baby!” he shouted. “I called 911, but I don’t think they believed me. No one’s coming. I don’t want to leave the baby alone. Get down here and flag down a police car or something.”
By nature Danny is a remarkably calm person, so when I felt his heart pounding through the phone line, I knew I had to run. When I got to the A/C/E subway exit on Eighth Avenue, Danny was still there, waiting for help to arrive. The baby, who had been left on the ground in a corner behind the turnstiles, was light-brown skinned and quiet, probably about a day old, wrapped in an oversize black sweatshirt....

Three months later, Danny appeared in family court to give an account of finding the baby. Suddenly, the judge asked, “Would you be interested in adopting this baby?” The question stunned everyone in the courtroom, everyone except for Danny, who answered, simply, “Yes.” ...
My first reaction, when I heard, went something like: “Are you insane? How could you say yes without consulting me?” Let’s just say, I nailed the “jerk” part of knee-jerk. In three years as a couple, we had never discussed adopting a child.
A caseworker arranged for us to meet the baby at his foster home in early December...and told us that the process could take up to nine months. We’d have ample time to rearrange our lives and home for a baby. But a week later, when Danny and I appeared in front of the judge to officially state our intention to adopt, she asked, “Would you like him for the holiday?” ... Our nine-month window of thoughtful preparation was instantly compacted to a mere 36 hours. We were getting a baby for Christmas...
We often wondered about the judge....Would she have asked him to adopt if she knew Danny was gay and in a relationship? At the final hearing, after she had signed the official adoption order, I raised my hand. “Your honor, we’ve been wondering why you asked Danny if he was interested in adopting?”
“I had a hunch,” she just said. “Was I wrong?” And with that she rose from her chair, congratulated us, and exited the courtroom.

This is a slightly edited version of the article, which you can read in full here. As you'll have gathered from the intro, it all ends happily ever after with the judge who first suggested the adoption officiating at our couple's marriage ceremony.

So here is the challenge: what assumptions did you make about the people involved, and did they change as you read on?

I'll come clean and say that I first thought that the narrator was a woman, although  I was mildly surprised that the man should be the more eager to take on the challenge of a baby. Then I thought Danny might be  short for Danielle and the narrator her husband. Only when I reached the word 'jerk' did I stop to look at the byline. By Peter Mercurio.
I also confess to the tiniest 'ah' when Mercurio takes us back to court where they tell the judge they want to adopt and she asks if they'd like to take the baby  home for Christmas.

Even in the 21st century, we are programmed to think of parental couples as consisting of a man and a woman, and of judges as being men. 
In Britain, our press and often broadcasters seem incapable of escaping the stereotypes. Can you imagine how this story would have been reported here? I would bet almost everything I own that the intro would have started 'A gay couple...' and wager only slightly less that it would also have included the phrase 'a woman judge'.
But did this story have any more or less charm because we were not given that information upfront?

Sometimes it's essential, as in the killings of Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes in Manchester last year, but even then we seem to delight in using the biggest hammer to ram home a simple point.
Two policewomen were lured to their deaths....
would seem to me to do perfectly well, yet most papers and the BBC went with the formula 'Two female police constables'...

We have also been treated to female policemen (!), male and female head teachers (usually where the school is single-sex but of the opposite gender), male nurses, female band name it, anyone who doesn't conform to our idea of the norm has to be branded from the word go.
[The SubScribe blog was actually started because of a Times intro about a 'female restaurant owner', whose name appeared in the same paragraph and whose picture was above the story.]

The same applies to sexuality, religion and age, and while we have been legislated out of the gratuitous 'black', there are still those who feel it vital to put Romanian, Pakistani, Afghan, Somali etc into stories, not for the readers' enlightenment but to pander to their prejudices.
Apart from the closet racism, the insistence on spelling out such details tends to be the result of formulaic writing against the clock - just as most papers/websites had the Tories suffering a 'humiliating defeat' at Eastleigh last night. It is the first law of by-election reporting that the ruling party must suffer a  humiliating defeat  - unless it shocks everyone by clinging to the seat.

If a reporter or sub stops to consider why it is necessary to say that the doctor they are writing about is a woman, they usually justify it as being in the interests of making the story clear and easy for the reader to understand. Sounds laudable.

Peter Mercurio waited until the 12th par to tell us subtly that the judge was a woman and until the 15th to use the word 'gay'. The clarity of the tale was never in doubt - that a day-old baby was rescued from an underground station and put into the care of the finder by a wise - or reckless - judge. It would probably make a more believable film if the adoptive couple were heterosexuals and the judge a man, though whether it would be better is another matter.

It is the journalist's job to question, to challenge the status quo. Stereotypes and cliche are the enemies of good journalism; they encourage lazy writing and, even worse, lazy thinking.

I like to think of myself as egalitarian,  feminist,  open-minded.
I like even more that this story challenged my assumptions and forced me to re-examine  my mindset.

I salute Mr Mercurio and the New York Times If only the British press could trust its readers in the same way.

*The photograph at the top is from The Infant Moses in the Bulrushes by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
The line drawing is from the New York Times.


  1. You are so right. When I read this first time, I even misread the key quote and took it in as, "Would she have asked him to adopt if Danny was gay and in a relationship?" Goes to show how many assumptions I make without even realising it.

  2. Wow! That was fantastic analysis. I wanted to say how impressed I was by your insight. Keep going. We need to challenge stereotypes, especially in the media. PM

  3. Cool, as is the author's response. That's why I read only the NYT these days and my Kindle subscription is worth every penny. JK

  4. Not realising that same-sex marriage was now legal in some parts of the US put me at a disadvantage but curiously, I'd guessed the judge was a woman almost as soon as she was mentioned. Maybe it was the reference to a "family court". If the reason for being in court was more stereotypically masculine - relating to a violent crime, for example - I suspect I'd have fallen into the trap too.

    Mind you, had a newspaper run a similar story about a gay couple with the word "fairytale" in the headline, I do wonder whether you might have wagged an admonishing finger at them.

    1. Very good point on the fairytale fact i changed to that on the basis of a friend's tweet and thought it much better than my dull effort. but you are quite right. as i was told when i was 19 'you have to have a dirty mind to keep the paper clean'...and so you have to think of every possible connotation of every word. would have been nice if you'd given just a first name or initial, but thanks for taking the time to comment....and well done (if that doesn't sound patronising) on not falling into the gender trap on the judge.

  5. Going off topic, I've suggested to Dom Ponsford at the Press Gazette that he asks you to contribute. It would probably double PG's (at least on-line) reach, and make a certain other superannuated blogger look to his laurels. But are you up for it?

  6. Back to the point. You speak of 'the British press', but is there such a thing? I gather that you are 'broadsheet' (Times?) oriented, from which standpoint (I presume) you speak to your assumed readership. As does the NYT. Neither address the downmarket 'tabloid' mindset, which actually tends to think in stereotypes and cliches (if that doesn't sound patronising).

    Meanwhile, the 'the British press' is not what it was. Lazy writing and lazy thinking are now the accepted standards of mainstream 'churnalism'. Your voice -- seasoned, thoughtful, articulate, professional -- has a register that appeals to those of us a who appreciate journalism for what it once was, not what it is now.

  7. Just read the full piece. Not sure if it's 'journalism', but a great read and finely crafted, particularly the grammar and punctuation, which alone set it apart from most of 'the British press'.