Why the toxic myth of the male genius must die

The notion of the male genius sits at the heart of our artistic and cultural life – here's why it's time to rip it up and start again

Feature by Katie Goh | 01 Aug 2018
  • RIP Male Genius

Who was your first male genius hero to fall? Bill Cosby? Ernest Hemingway or John Lennon? Roman Polanski or Jean-Luc Godard? Or maybe yours was more recent following #MeToo: Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, Harvey Weinstein, or Louis CK? Or even more recently, Kanye West? There’s a wealth of famous and powerful men who make great art and do shitty things to pick from. 

Mine was Woody Allen. When I was a teenager, I loved Woody Allen, particularly Allen in Annie Hall. It wasn’t even just a case of admiring Allen’s gift of comedy, I wanted to be him. I thought he was a genius. A few years later I learnt that Allen’s adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow had accused him of sexual assault when she was seven. It felt like a betrayal, and not just by Allen. Farrow accused her adoptive father of assault in 1992. For the entire time I had admired Allen and looked up at him as a genius, this had been public knowledge. Why had nobody told me? Why was Allen still held up as one of the greatest living American filmmakers and a comedy legend? Why had no one listened to Farrow? It was the first time I realised just how powerful the myth of genius can be and how far we’ll go to defend our genius men. 

Despite Farrow’s accusations in the early nineties, Allen had been given a pass in Hollywood. Because genius transcends the mundane. Who cares if David Foster Wallace stalked, harassed, and abused the poet Mary Karr? The guy wrote Infinite Jest! Or that Pablo Picasso was in a relationship with a 17-year-old girl when he was in his forties. But cubism! Although we do have it a little easier with the dead geniuses. We can excuse them by saying they were of their time or who cares, they’re dead, it’s not like they’re benefiting from our admiration now. But they are benefiting. As time passes, Picasso, Wallace and other dead, problematic genius men’s reputations are continually being cemented. Their art is worth millions as they are locked firmly into our culture’s canon as the great auteurs of history. If we can’t even hold dead geniuses to account, what luck do we have with the living ones?  

When we talk about genius, we aren’t just talking about ego or talent. We’re talking about the institution of genius that we have build Western art on. We’re talking about the canon and history, who we choose to give reputation to and who we decide is worthy of our time, space and money. We’re talking about why we give certain men who abuse their power and privilege a second chance, while we throw their victims under a bus for daring to threaten our geniuses. When we talk about genius, we’re talking about ourselves.  

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the etymology of “genius” as, from the Latin: the “male spirit of a family, existing in the head of the family and subsequently in the divine or spiritual part of each individual […] spirit or personality of an emperor regarded as an object of worship, spirit of a place, spirit of a corporation, (in literature) talent, inspiration, person endowed with talent, also demon or spiritual being in general.” Divinity, spirit, worship, talent, inspiration – something godlike from the heavens and a quality that is always inherently masculine. Women cannot be geniuses. While Ted Hughes was called the greatest poet of his generation during his lifetime, it is only by the hard work of feminist academics that Sylvia Plath has received any critical acclaim or respect. Hughes is a literary genius while Plath is “an interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college-girl mentality.” It was Woody Allen’s character who said that in Annie Hall. Go figure. 

Female artists like Artemisia Gentileschi, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Frida Kahlo, all of whom responsible for conceiving and advancing their respective literary and artistic movements, aren’t geniuses. They might be respected but it’s largely their lives rather than their work that is remembered. Toni Morrison might be the greatest living American novelist but she will never reach the level of genius of Wallace or Hemingway. While male geniuses are passionate, soul-searching, violent pursuers of greatness, female artists are simply difficult women. That’s why when a male genius is accused of abusing his power and privilege by a woman, we forgive him because, well… he’s a genius! Why would we care about a seven-year-old girl who has accused her fifty-something adopted father of molesting her when that man is Woody Allen. The male mind will win every time over the female body. Rape culture is a symptom of worshipping genius men. 

Recently, however, there’s been a shift in our culture. Male geniuses are falling and your fave is definitely problematic. During #MeToo, famous and powerful Hollywood men like Weinstein, Spacey, and CK finally faced real consequences for their actions that for so long had gone unacknowledged. Kanye “I am a god” West was another male genius who fell. Woody Allen’s latest film looks like it will never see the light of day. Elon Musk has become a hack meme. Why have we suddenly decided that we don’t like male geniuses anymore? Perhaps having Donald Trump, the self-claimed “very stable genius” who has been accused of sexual harassment and assault, as the leader of the free world was finally too much for us (although he was still elected president).  

So, now that we know that our male geniuses are shitty people, how do we navigate our culture that is built on the foundation of monstrous men’s art? We’re told to separate the art from the artist but what happens when the art is about the artist? How can you watch Allen’s character in Manhattan have a fling with a high school student without remembering that he has been accused of paedophilia? Or appreciate one of Picasso’s female nudes with the knowledge he was a sexist who slept with underage girls? Or listen to Kanye’s latest record while a voice at the back of your head reminds you that he believes slavery was a choice and that America should be made great again?

The thing is though, I still listen to Kanye’s music and watch Annie Hall and can appreciate the impact Picasso had on art history. What does that say about me? Am I a shitty person for doing that? I don’t think we can separate the art from the artist. Doing that only shifts the blame from us, the consumers of art who have given these men a platform. We need to create a dialogue about what to do with the art of monsters that moves beyond “cancelling” them or a your-fave-is-problematic culture. While we can boycott and not financially contribute to bad men’s art, it still exists and we need to learn how to navigate that. We need to talk about how we treat male artists and how we give certain men the platform to become geniuses. A change is needed on an economical and cultural level to shift the institution of art so that it isn’t run by the powerful and rich. We need to open up art’s canon to give room to underrepresented artists so that our cultural history doesn’t only consist of male geniuses. 

No artist is a genius and no artist is above being held accountable for their actions. Art is a reflection of society and the male genius is a toxic myth that pollutes art, politics, society, and ourselves. If we stop giving male artists the platform to become our secular gods, then they can no longer fall. We kill genius, we free our art, our artists, and ourselves.