OPINION: We need to let go of our idea of ‘genius’

(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

 

Albert Einstein. Leonardo da Vinci. Elon Musk. 

These are common names that come to mind when we think of a genius. They seem to possess an innate talent and intellectual quality that cannot be achieved only by working hard. It is indiscriminate by nature. You either have it, or you don’t.

But what exactly makes someone a genius? And who gets to decide? For instance, philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that a genius is someone who sets the bar for what beauty is. Philosophers like Plato believed that geniuses are vessels for creation and are inspired by supernatural beings or spirits to create radically original work. Whether it’s the unique ability to think outside the box, ace IQ tests, or appreciate beauty, there are no clear criteria for genius. Perhaps there are no justifiable means to measure and identify the quality of being a genius.

Despite our instinctive search for what makes someone genius, such an attempt may not be worthwhile at all. Feminist art historian Linda Nochlin insightfully argues that genius is a social construct that has been historically mobilized to exclude women. This is historically evident. The people who heavily influenced the notion of genius carried misogynistic beliefs into the criteria for genius, reserving it for white able-bodied men. For example, Kant believed that women can’t be geniuses because they do not have an inner sense of duty, while philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed women were not passionate enough to create art. 

As these theories of genius became increasingly significant in the 19th century, it was impossible for women to be considered geniuses. At the time, what made someone a genius was considered then to be exceptional artistic talent. Someone considered a genius artist had to be able to do fine art and create nudist art. The problem is that women were not allowed to paint nudes, which disqualified them from becoming great artists, let alone genius. The artwork that women made, such as basket weaving and quilt making, was excluded from the discussion of genius. 

The gender disparity in the usage of the term “genius” is prevalent even beyond the realm of art. A recent study analyzed 14 million student online reviews of their professors on RateMyProfessors.com across 18 diverse academic disciplines and found that male professors were three times more likely to be called “genius” than female professors. Meanwhile, they found the use of other descriptors like “excellent” and “smart” to be almost equal (1:1 ratio) between male and female professors. 

While these descriptions, which speak more generally to someone’s skill instead of innate intelligence, suggest that female professors are not necessarily viewed negatively, the prevalent application of these terms to women over men may signal potentially predominant societal biases that women can be skillful only through hard work and effort, not innate intelligence. They don’t carry the same punch, the same connotation, as the word “genius.” Perhaps people believe women can work hard to become skilled professors, but their hard work cannot overcome their disadvantage: innately lower intelligence potential than genius men. Thus, this disparity in the use of genius perpetuates our culture’s negative attitudes and stereotypes toward women’s intellects.

These findings also suggest that the concept of genius may be activating negative stereotypes in women’s own minds, making them susceptible to internalizing this biased message and deciding that they cannot succeed in genius-associated fields. One may believe that if we increase women’s representation in genius-associated fields, the term will become more inclusive toward women, but that may not be the case. Instead of increasing the inclusivity of the word genius, women’s increased participation in the genius-associated field of anthropology plummeted the reputation of the field, perhaps because it indicated that it no longer required genius.

Dismantling the exclusivity of the word “genius” may be more complex than simply using it more frequently to describe women or encouraging more women to join genius-associated fields. For many, the word is already deeply associated with a picture of white able-bodied men. No matter what solution you think is best, the first step is to acknowledge the gender bias that we carry. Think hard about how your biases may be affecting your everyday attitudes and actions. Only after we are more aware of our biases can we begin gradually counteracting them. 

Alexander Chao PO ’25 is from Taipei, Taiwan. He enjoys reading about nutrition, watching anime, and road cycling.

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