Academia doesn’t necessarily lend itself to Hollywood film-making. There’s a lot of silent reading, staring off into space and wearing of gym gear and/or pyjamas. The most exciting moments of most people’s research probably look to a camera exactly like the least exciting moments of research. But it’s nice sometimes, when there’s a problem I just can’t solve, to think of those montages in high-budget films about amazing people coming up with groundbreaking theories or writing life-changing novels set to a building orchestral score.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the genre: brilliant but tortured genius, gains a place at renowned academic institution where his work (which we all know will fundamentally change the way we think about the world) is challenged by the older generation and threatened by his intense personal life, perhaps a mental illness, but ultimately, with the support of the wife/girlfriend who nearly gave up on him when he was just too obsessed with the task at hand, and a loyal friend or two who can see past his personality quirks, our hero discovers the theory/writes the paper/paints the painting/writes the novel/presents the findings that we’ve been rooting for him to discover was inside him all along. I love these films. I’ve been watching them since I was 11 and my Mum (a maths teacher) convinced the usher at the cinema to let me see A Beautiful Mind, even though it was rated R13.
Recently we’ve had a little spate of them from Hollywood: The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Steve Jobs and now Genius which will be coming out later this year. Maybe it’s because of these first two coming out so close together that I’ve suddenly realised what’s missing from one of my favourite types of film: women.
It’s not that there aren’t women in these films, and brilliant women too – Jane Hawking and Joan Clarke are each portrayed as impressive, highly intelligent women who look boldly back at those who demean their academic achievements because of their gender. But they still, inevitably, play a supporting role to our hero, whose genius is the real focal point. In fact, it’s these women’s emotional support to the protagonists that is seen as their best qualities – the heroes being free to be as disloyal or dismissive of them as they like, whilst still retaining the audience’s support (well, maybe not in Steve Jobs’ case). It is a credit to these filmmakers that they’ve managed to incorporate such striking female characters in a genre traditionally hostile to them, but it’s not enough. It’s still putting the woman in the role of somebody’s wife or mother or daughter, who, for the greater good of humanity, has sacrificed her own aspirations. I need the real thing. I need the female genius film.
A quick look at IMDb’s list of ‘Movies about geniuses’ demonstrates the problem extremely clearly. Of the 35 films listed, 34 are about male geniuses. Only one is about a female genius – and she’s fictional. The film in question is Proof, which I was lucky to perform in a local production of when I was 18. I wish I had realised the significance of that play at the time, because it is one of very, very few which focuses on a woman’s mind.
Why aren’t there more mainstream films about female genius? And why, when there are, have we felt the need to invent fictional women? It’s not like there aren’t plenty of women to choose from. Ada Lovelace invented the first computer programming language. Marie Curie discovered radium. Hedy Lamarr invented things I still apparently use but can’t even begin to understand, yet she’s still best known as ‘the most beautiful woman in Europe’. Rachel Carson’s ideas are what created the modern environmentalist movement. Harriet Tubman freed literally thousands of slaves at great personal risk but can barely make it onto a US banknote. Julian of Norwich (a woman, despite the name), may have written the first ever English-language book, and of course there are thousands of other examples. These stories are often all the more incredible because of the challenges these women had to face in just being taken seriously – challenges that, incredibly, female academics in every single field still have to deal with.
Perhaps the film I’m after is held back by the numbers. Women comprise a tiny 9% of directors in the upper echelons of Hollywood, and 15% of writers. Only 11% of identifiable protagonists are female, and in 2014 only 30% of all speaking characters are female. No wonder it’s a struggle. But representation is important, and the more ‘Good Wilhelmina Huntings’, ‘Rain Women’ and ‘Finding Forrestinas’ there are, the higher we’ll see those numbers climb.
Or does it even begin before the film even starts? Advertising is appallingly sexist, yet so ubiquitously that it doesn’t even seem worth commenting on when a near-naked woman is used to sell everything from deodorant to cars to computers to glasses. In the words of The Representation Project, “The media is selling young people the idea that girls’ and women’s value lies in their youth, beauty, and sexuality and not in their capacity as leaders. Boys learn that their success is tied to dominance, power, and aggression. We must value people as whole human beings, not gendered stereotypes.”
Academia isn’t that sexy. It’s hard, it’s lonely, it can be dull, and your entire day may depend on whether your officemate buys coffee. But it is also a wonderful thing to be trusted with a room of one’s own and time to think to see what you can contribute to this world. I take my hat off to films that make this process look beautiful on screen, and provide the temporary delusion that us lesser mortals might have some genius in us. But I just can’t watch another long suffering wife play support crew and decoration to a male genius protagonist. I need a female genius film, and so do all the other female academics who’ve had their own topic mansplained to them, been told their outfit at a conference was a distraction, been called a bimbo by colleagues who are supposed to be mentors, not been able to get a word in on a panel, or any of the rest of it. More importantly, so do all the girls who don’t know if they have the ability to do postgraduate study, or become an artist or a scientist in the first place, and so do all the boys who will be their colleagues and classmates.