When I think of the word ‘genius’, the first image that comes to my mind is that of Albert Einstein; specifically those black and white posters with the photo where he’s sticking out his tongue, and with an inspirational quote underneath it. I’ve come across such posters in my school, a doctor’s chamber, and on the cover of a notebook someone once gifted me, among others.
When I think a little harder, I think of all the literary geniuses I’ve had the opportunity of reading: most of them dead and white. I blame this solely on the English literature degree I pursued in a nation still grappling with its postcolonial identity. But what’s worse is that it takes me even longer to think of a genius who isn’t a man. Chances are, this little thought experiment yielded similar results for you too.
Caroline Criado Perez calls this the ‘brilliance bias’. In her book Invisible Women, she writes that this bias exists partly because of a data gap: we have written so many female geniuses out of history that they don’t come to mind easily. Criado says, “The result is that when brilliance is considered a requirement for a job, what is really meant is a penis.”
But who is a genius, really? While there isn’t any universal definition of what a genius should be like, it is usually understood that a genius must be exemplary in their field, making groundbreaking contributions that change our understanding of the world. However, the term is loaded with biases that have accrued over generations, and it is these biases that inform our present understanding of who a genius is.
We tend to associate the term ‘genius’ predominantly with fields like physics and mathematics where innate intelligence or ‘brilliance’ is valued over perseverance and hard work. Incidentally, research shows that fields that are culturally understood to require heavy analytical skills (like mathematics, philosophy, physics) have a very low percentage of women. On the other hand, women are perceived to be more hard working and make up a larger percentage in fields like psychology because it requires more hard work and less ‘raw intelligence’. This is where the male bias in the term ‘genius’ comes into play.
The traits that we associate with the epithet of ‘genius’, especially in the field of science, are traits that have traditionally been associated with masculinity: pure rationality, intellectual prowess and brilliance. Consider this: a study conducted for decades has shown how a majority of school children, including girls, will draw a male scientist when asked to draw a scientist. The highest percentage of children drawing female scientists only recently went up to a measly 28 percent. We have socialised even children as young as six to imagine certain professions as predominantly masculine, and when they do that, they’re automatically associating the qualities needed to excel in that profession with masculinity.
So, what then becomes of the female genius? Does she find a place for herself in the fields of art, music, and literature? If history is anything to go by, then no. My hypothesis of the male bias in genius finds legitimacy in Christina Battersby’s seminal book Gender and Genius where she traces the “gendering of genius” back to the 19th century. Battersby says that this somewhat ambiguous term ‘genius’ was being evoked by European men to ‘explain the difference between civilised man and both animals and savages’.
Battersby’s analysis of 18th and 19th century discourse on genius tells us two contradictory things. First, that much of the traits then associated with genius: emotion, intuition, imagination, etc. are now considered feminine traits. Second, while this rhetoric praised feminine qualities in male creators, it simultaneously believed that women could not or should not create. This understanding of artistic genius consequently acted as ‘a deterrent to female ambition in the arts, and in some ways even caused a deterioration in the position of creative women’. There is a reason Nannerl Mozart is virtually unknown while her brother is considered one of history’s greatest geniuses.
Alongside viewing the concept of genius as inherently masculine, pop culture portrayals of the male genius have also taught us that geniuses are supposed to be in complete ‘control’ of their emotions, displaying a kind of stoicism which gives the impression that they are completely above such human frailties. On the other hand, their obnoxious behavior and eccentricities are simply chalked up as a byproduct of their genius. Think of every Hollywood movie ever made about Silicon Valley tech geniuses. Another example would be the caricature of the mad but brilliant scientist, a trope that directly plays into the masculinity of genius.
As a society, we also tend to be a lot more forgiving of geniuses. One has to only turn to Hollywood to find proof of this. Despite the allegations of sexual abuse against Woody Allen made by his daughter Mia Farrow, the film industry still holds an uneasy fondness towards Allen that it simply can’t let go of. Through it all, he remains one of the most influential filmmakers in the West. He continues to make movies in Europe and they continue to do well at the box office: his 2019 film A Rainy Day In New York has earned $22 million outside of the US. Allen’s continued success and his unwavering reputation as a great filmmaker are proof that the ‘genius’ tag allows men to evade accountability for their actions.
Battersby, in her book, writes, “The sexual antics of the male genius are thought of as causally related to his art. They are also, therefore, redeemed by that art.” When I read this, I thought immediately of Pablo Neruda, a celebrated poet whose writing resonates with people even today; and who had admitted to rape in his own memoir. Neruda describes raping a maid in Ceylon, where he occupied a diplomatic position in 1929. It was only in the late 2010s that people took notice of Neruda’s complicated place as a literary genius in Latin American history.
We put geniuses up on a pedestal and celebrate their greatness, while completely turning a blind eye to the pain some of them inflict on the people in their lives. Sofia Tolstoy, wife of Leo Tolstoy, had filled pages after pages of her diaries, writing about the deeply unhappy marriage she shared with the genius. Reading Sofia’s diaries, one realises how the same man who wrote some of the greatest novels, ever treated his wife so poorly. On 13 November 1863, Sofia wrote, “I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture, I am a woman…”
In another entry dated 13 March 1902, Sofia had written, “For a genius, one has to create a peaceful, cheerful, and comfortable home. A genius must be fed, washed and dressed, must have his works copied out innumerable times, must be loved and spared all cause for jealousy, so he can be calm. Then one must feed and educate the innumerable children fathered by this genius, whom he cannot be bothered to care about himself, as he has to commune with all the Epictetuses, Socrateses, and Buddhas, and aspire to be like them himself.”
As is evident, the title of genius along with its inherent biases has, for centuries, insulated men from not just their responsibilities towards others but has also shielded them from the consequences of their actions. By extension, this logic has applied to any man who has occupied any position of power. It is this same logic which allows our conscience to celebrate the ‘comebacks’ of male artists and creators who have been charged with sexual harassment. Without a nuanced understanding of genius and all its baggage, we’re continuing to live in a culture that excuses problematic behavior in men in the name of talent, creativity and brilliance.
Sanjukta Bose has a degree in English literature, and yet, is terrible at writing bios. She can be found on Instagram.