The Myth of the Male Genius

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, an elderly white man looking up at a spotlight, in Phantom Thread

Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread (Photo credit: Focus Features)

The seemingly unassailable world of the male creative genius seems to be crumbling: Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby were recently expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and SciencesJunot Díaz stepped down as Pulitzer Prize chair after multiple women have spoken out about his pattern of harassment; and, 10 years after David Foster Wallace’s death, Mary Karr is reminding the world of his persistent abuse and stalking. In this unique social and political moment, a previously untouchable artistic archetype has finally become something close to vulnerable. Genius is power. It is unquantifiable, uncontainable, and like beauty, exists in the eyes of the beholder. Genius enhances access—sexual, social, economic, political. It is a collective agreement—or, in many cases, a collective lie—that grants boundless latitude to those we anoint with the title. But genius is also an indelibly gendered currency used by men—almost always men—of means and success to purchase license.

The lie of genius is inextricable from the lie of meritocracy: Culture dictates that these men have risen to fame and success because of their unstoppable genius. But now that so many geniuses stand accused of abuses of power including sexual assault and violence; and as debates about separating the art from the artist spill into every corner of media and pop culture, the aesthetic alibi that artistic genius exists unfettered by lowly considerations like morality may no longer hold up under scrutiny. With the rise of auteur theory in the mid–20th century, film joined the ranks of other fine arts, like painting and writing, that have long cultivated the mythology of the genius. Auteur theory, originating in French film criticism, credits the director with being the chief creative force behind a production—that is, the director is the “author.” Given that film, with its expansive casts and crews, is one of the most collaborative art forms ever to have existed, the myth of a singular genius seems exceptionally flawed to begin with.

But beyond the history of directors like Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, and many more using their marketable auteur status as a “business model of reflexive adoration,” auteur worship both fosters and excuses a culture of toxic masculinity. The auteur’s time-honored method of “provoking” acting out of women through surprise, fear, and trickery—though male actors have never been immune, either—is inherently abusive. Quentin Tarantino, Lars Von Trier, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and David O. Russell, among others, have been accused of different degrees of this, but the resulting suffering of their muses is imagined by a fawning fanbase as “creative differences,” rather than as misogyny and as uncompromising vision rather than violence. Allegations that Tarantino forced Uma Thurman, for instance, to disastrously perform her own driving stunt in Kill Bill: Volume 2—as she put it, part of a dehumanization “to the point of death”—is not dissimilar to Alfred Hitchcock’s torment of the actress Tippi Hedren, both dynamics masquerading as artist-muse relationships transcending common sense. As Imran Siddiquee writes of genius directors and abusive behavior: “Many of the ‘greatest’ artists in our most influential visual artform continue to be celebrated for their own obsessive, often abusive exercises of power and control.”

Daniel Day-Lewis’s temperamental dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock in 2017’s critically lauded Paul Thomas Anderson film Phantom Thread has all the makings of a genius: He is successful, he is considered a visionary by the elite, he is messy, he is twisted, and he preys on young women. Phantom Thread was a frontrunner in the Oscars race this year, along with Darkest Hour, a character study of of Winston Churchill at the dawn of Britain’s entry into World War II. Gary Oldman (alleged wife beater), won Best Actor for his role as Churchill; elsewhere at the Oscars, Kobe Bryant (charged with sexual assault in 2003) won for best animated short. Guillermo Del Toro took home the Best Director Oscar for The Shape of Water, which also won Best Picture—and while the film’s win is notable given that no film with a female protagonist has won the award in 14 years, Del Toro’s explicit support of Roman Polanski (accused of sexual assault by five people; charged with drugging and raping a minor and then fleeing the United States to avoid sentencing) make his position as a supposedly progressive director a tenuous one at best.

The Academy Awards have always been deeply entrenched in establishment capitalism and Hollywood liberal lip service, but amid the flurry of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the 2018 awards offered an instructive example of what still holds primacy in the film industry: the sometimes difficult and troubled, often abusive, and always male genius. Men like Polanski retain artistic cred and social license because gatekeepers and fans argue that their cultural contributions outweigh their individual transgressions and crimes. It is not that passive consumers of art don’t recognize that their idols may be flawed: It’s that genius is imagined as a separate faculty that exists beyond ethics and morality. Genius is unemotional and objective, elevated beyond such paltry concerns.

Of course the generous leaps of imagination and apologism offered to men of genius do not apply to women and gender-nonconforming creators, so if the latter should distinguish themselves, it is not because they are genius, but it is because they are “different.” Superlative women have always been encouraged to believe they are notable because of an inherent “difference” from other girls; this difference is what distinguishes them in creative fields dominated by white men. I once thought I had the “androgynous mind” Virginia Woolf says is necessary to creativity. Mary Wollstonecraft, in her groundbreaking 1792 treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, wondered whether the “few extraordinary women” in history were indeed “male spirits, confined by mistake to female frames.” Even Ursula K. Le Guin, whose revolutionary fiction challenged contemporary humanity’s preoccupation with gender, said some strange stuff about her own conception of herself as a “generic he,” a “poor imitation,” and a “substitute man.”

While we know it is both reductive and essentialist to reason this way, it’s historically understandable. The cultural misogyny that underlies the archetype of the male genius has ancient roots. According to Christine Battersby’s 1989 book Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics, the 19th-century reworked an “older rhetoric of sexual exclusion” from Renaissance ideas about sexual difference in the arts (which were themselves based on the ancient Greeks and Romans). But the Romantics contributed something unique to “anti-female traditions”: While emotionality and expression—traditionally “feminine” attributes—rose in prominence, women themselves were further downgraded as artistic inferiors. Notes Battersby: “The Romantic artist feels strongly and lives intensely: the authentic work of art captures the special character of his experience.” And his art became his individualistic expression.

Originality and creativity wasn’t always inherent to artistic practice. Greeks thought of art as mimetic; the poet as a prophet; painting and sculpture pretty facsimiles of the natural world. The Middle Ages similarly viewed the artist as ungod-like, simply an imitator rather than a creator. The term “masterpiece,” had less to do with terrific originality and more to do with the “piece of work produced by an apprentice who showed sufficient skill.” A master was a “trade-union leader”—and women were active in these guilds as well. “Hostility towards women in the arts only increased when the status of the artist began to be distinguished from that of the craftsman…suitable only for the most perfect (male) specimens of humanity,” writes Battersby. She dates this change to when artists began gaining patronage during the Renaissance, freeing artistic creation from religious restrictions. In other words, when a great deal of money entered into the equation, art became profitable and it suited men to push out competition.

The modern term “genius” comes from the melding of two words: “genius,” a symbol of fertility represented by a little boy, and “ingenuity,” or skill. While Renaissance women lacked genius, they were artistic inferiors because they lacked “ingenium”—according to Juan Huarte’s 1575 Examen de Ingenius, men, in the Aristotelian fashion, were hot and dry; women, cold and wet, were a “lesser man.” (Aristotle also thought women were “flower pots” and sterile—creativity and procreativity both being male attributes.) Huarte’s physiological reasoning, though widely discredited, was later referenced by Schopenhauer, whose argument that women “lack all higher mental faculties” is a good example of Romantic reworking of cultural misogyny. (It might be worth noting that Schopenhauer is a well-known touchstone of Woody Allen’s many autobiographically based neurotic male protagonists.)

The lie of genius is inextricable from the lie of meritocracy: Culture dictates that these men have risen to fame and success because of their unstoppable genius.

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Further, madness and deviance were idiosyncrasies worked into the masculine artistic template. Artists, once expected to uphold societal values, became “countercultural” around the time of Lord Byron, who was once described by an ex-lover as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” The image of the antihero, the messy, the eccentric, the intoxicated artist persisted from the Romantic period through today. And while craziness was celebrated in the elite men, “female madness” was stigmatized. As Vox writer Tara Isabella Burton notes, the male artistic establishment begets the tortured, unruly genius sex: “That female flesh is the reward for a male job well done is not an uncommon cultural phenomenon in any field, but in the arts, that dynamic often takes on a faux-spiritual aspect.”

Even as the #MeToo movement picks up momentum, famous men who have sustained public critique in the past few months are already plotting their comebacks, with ample assistance from industry media. Tarantino, a man accused of choking Thurman and Diane Kruger for the sake of on-camera authenticity; who told Rose McGowan he used to jerk off to her; and who publicly defended Polanski, has unveiled his latest enterprise: a movie about Charles Manson. Charlie Rose has reportedly floated a comeback via a talk show in which he would interview men like Louis C.K. brought down by#MeToo—thereby facilitating their own comebacks—and Matt Lauer apparently hopes to be back on television screens as well. Despite the recent spate of high-profile falls from grace, the culture of media and art world are arranged such that neither whisper nor lawsuit will be able to fell geniuses for long.

Those who try to separate the art from the artist are setting up an illogical argument: The art was always separated, which is why these male auteurs had the license, the support, and the cover to victimize as they did and still make more celebrated art. In the aftershocks of predatory unveilings, we have seen multitudes mourn the loss of the genius of these men. We need to now consider that we have elevated what we’ve inscribed as genius at the expense of the humanity and potential of people they silenced, erased, and preyed upon. We need to examine the destruction wrought by the archetype, and acknowledge that we have let it fuel rape culture and sexual exploitation. We need to acknowledge that genius has been a construct all along—that it may not actually exist.


by Aditi Natasha Kini
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From a sunny apartment in Queens, Aditi Natasha Kini writes essays, scripts and other text objects.