May 25th, 2010

staring at the sun

The Myth of Genius

One thing fandom likes is its geniuses (Tony Stark through Greg House through Patrick Jane), but I'm really struggling with the way fandom likes to portray these characters (myself included). There's this one particular Iron Man AU that's really well done and really smart, but I had a lot of problems with it, because it plays into this mythical idea of genius and the way it's constructed in Western society.

We have this image of the lone genius, sitting in a room by himself as he comes up with these amazing things, whether these things are weapons designs or medical diagnoses. (And yes, I am using gendered terms here, because the Myth of Genius is incredibly gendered and racialized.) He doesn't have to work for his intelligence, it's been given to him, like a gift from God. Possibly a vengeful one. Sure, he may have a support system, but that support system could never truly contain intellectual equals. He doesn't need them to balance him out professionally, just emotionally. His only professional weaknesses are personality flaws, not flaws of the intellect. He gets to be an asshole, because no one else can come close to what he's capable of doing. He can build anything, solve anything, do anything he damn well needs to, because he's Just That Smart.

Obviously, I'm generalizing to the extreme, and some of these things are less true for some of the pop culture geniuses than others, but I think all these pieces are common enough that was can recognize them in a lot of our media.

First off, one thing that really annoys me is the idea that there's only one type of intelligence, that there's only one way of thinking (scientific/mathematical) that really matters as 'intelligence,' as if there isn't a type of intelligence necessary for running a small business or understanding kids enough to teach them English or in figuring out how exactly to cook a fish so that someone is willing to pay $50 dollars to eat it. And then there's the assumption that knowledge of stuff == intelligence, which I also find kind of frustrating, because the type of skills needed to know and remember lots of stuff and the type of skills needed to come up with mathematical proofs are completely different. This is not to say that people can't have scientific/mathematical skills and lots and lots obscure knowledge simultaneously, but they are different enough that I think claiming that they're the same type of intelligence to be kind of ridiculous. Intelligence is a lot more complicated than the on/off switch our culture tries to sell us, and a lot of the myth of genius is about trying to tell us that there is only one way of being intelligent. And the geniuses have it while all the plebes don't.

Another problem I have with the myth is the way it isolates the genius, where the genius goes into a room and when he comes out, he's been magically gifted with the solution out of thin air. All science builds on other science. Breakthroughs are built on previous discoveries, on entire bodies of previous work. It's the same problem fandom has with prowriters calling us hacks, because we explicitly acknowledge and engage our inspiration. Science is a conversation as much as art is. Science cannot be done without other people. It's rare to see only one name at the top of a scientific paper and it's pretty much required to have a 'Previous Work' section to address the ideas and concepts that has inspired or provided a foundation for your work. Science doesn't happen in a vacuum. Edison doesn't discover the light bulb without the twenty-two other guys with crappier ideas for incandescent lamps that came before him and Watson and Crick don't discover the shape of DNA without Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling's X-ray diffraction image of DNA, and I'm only using these big names here because history has erased or hidden all the other scientists and inventors who directly or indirectly contributed to these things.

I also refuse to believe that intelligence is simply something a person is born with, rather than something that you have to work towards achieving. One thing I've discovered over the course of my college career is that the problem-solving parts of my brain are like a muscle; they weaken with lack of use. I've run into problems that would have seemed trivial a few months ago and found them extremely difficult because my brain hasn't approached that type of problem in a while. I've discovered that certain problems become easier if you've spent a lot of time thinking about similar ones already.

There's this one person I know. She's a lot smarter than me, and it became increasingly obvious the more time I spent around her, because she totally kicked my ass at math. Once, she told me that she doesn't think she's smarter than most people, but she just ends up thinking about these problems she has to solve all the time; while she's walking around, while she's eating, while she's falling asleep. After she told me this, I keep thinking about the people who have the luxury to do that. Who has the luxury of spending every waking moment thinking about math problems? Who has the privilege to be a genius? How many more geniuses could we have had if so many people weren't simply trying to survive?

How much easier is it then, to be a genius when you don't have to worry about paying your way through college? Or don't have to worry about making sure your parents are fed and your mortgage will be paid on time? Or don't have to worry about whether or not your ex-boyfriend is going to try to kill you next week, next month, next year? What does House have that Cameron doesn't? Why can't Rhodey be as smart and as innovative as Tony? What makes these people special?

I can only rationalize their specialness enough so that I can enjoy them as characters by acknowledging the privilege that comes with being a white, male, middle-to-upper class, cis, straight dude in a Western country. By acknowledging that they have access to decades and centuries of previous bodies of work. By understanding that their privilege is why they can behave like complete jackasses and not just their abilities. I have to rationalize things this way or else I'd feel complicit in believing that white, male, middle-to-upper class, cis, straight dudes in Western countries simply are smarter and more competent than everyone around them, and I am really not okay with doing that ever.

The damage that comes from the Myth of Genius are not theoretical to me. I'm involved in the Women in Computer Science (WiCS) group at my University. I know so many incredibly intelligent, incredibly capable women who feel like they're dumb and stupid and don't have 'it' -- whatever 'it' is when it comes to CS -- because of the guys who are better at faking it, because of the guys who don't have to deal with paying for college, because of the guys who don't have to deal with the social pressures involved with the many, many contradictory messages about what it takes to be properly female in our society. I've felt it too, this weird, creeping feeling of inferiority because I don't think I have that touch of genius in me, because some of the guys make it all seem so easy even when I know it's really not.

This is not theoretical to me, and when I see the myth play out in fiction in a way that reinforces the way I see it play out in real life, it hurts me. It hurts me and it makes me angry.

So I guess what I'm trying to say that this whole Myth of Genius thing is a really shitty way of conceptualizing intelligence, and I'd really like for the concept of it to DIAF now.

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