who can be genius?
thumbnail shot by Queen Complex
I was nineteen the first time I read a Toni Morrison novel. That novel was Love, never before had I felt like I was able to truly look at characters, feeling the same emotions as them, living out their story. I was 20 when I finally read Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, that book blew me away. I finished it in 2 days, ignoring all of my responsibilities in the process. It was also around this time that I started reading essays by bell hooks and Angela Davis. I fell in love with Frida Kahlo, Carrie Mae Weems, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker during that time as well. I even experienced the fantasy of Octavia Butler’s writing. I began questioning why it took to be so long to be introduced to these women, women who in my eyes are great and genius. Why did I have to find them on my own?
Recently, on a plane ride home I found myself reading the essay “No Competition” by Siri Hustvedt within her book, A Woman Looking At Men Looking At Women. In this particular essay Hustedt reminisces on a conversation she had with Norwegian writer, Karl One Knausgaard, where she asked why in his autobiography, My Struggle, a single female writer had been mentioned out of the many referenced writers. His startling response to her question was: “No competition.” As Hustevdt begins to try to make sense of Knausguaard’s response she makes some interesting points as they relate to the role of gender in the arts, literature especially.
Hustevdt writes, “Emotion and its open expression have long been associated with femininity and the corporeal.” I personally don’t believe women are more emotional than men, but rather that women are conditioned to show their emotions whereas men are not. However, there is no argument that emotion is more closely tied to femininity. Alongside, Knausgaard’s autobiography expands for chapters about his struggle with a domestic life cooking and taking care of his children. This is a book that received high praised internationally, Norway and beyond. A book complaining about so many of the tasks that unfortunately regularly fall upon women. I feel confident in saying that if a woman wrote a book “complaining” about motherhood and household it would not reach acclaim of that.
I use this example because it seems interesting to me that man can receive such widespread recognition for the ideas and experiences that women have been sharing for centuries. The root of the issue is that women and men can often do the same exact thing but when men do it, they’re viewed as geniuses - especially when it taps into emotions, behavior, interests that are associated with femininity or the female experience. Cooking! The vast majority of civilization scribes cooking as a womanly duty. “Women just are naturally better cooks than men.” If that is the case why is it that when you walk into a five-star restaurant the head chef one can frequently guess is to be a man. When you look at the leading fashion houses, a man sits at the head of them even though it is an industry that has far more women as consumers. When we name genius fashion designers we say McQueen and de la Renta and Alaïa. Mind you, the last thing I am doing is denying their genius, but it is critical we point out how rarely the title of genius is actually granted to women. Even in realms we identify as feminine.
I am guilty of this thinking myself. I have both an aunt and an uncle who are absolutely phenomenal cooks. I tell my uncle all the time he should open a restaurant, I don’t believe I have ever said that to my aunt. But if you asked me to pick who is the better cook I would tell you I can’t. What does this say about how we are conditioned to think of genius?
In Linda Nochlin’s essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists she takes this question head-on. What I appreciated so much about Nochlin’s essay and approach to answering this question is that it doesn’t put the individual under the microscope but rather the institutions. Bringing back the quote from Hustvedt that emotion and its open expression is associated with femininity, Nochlin reinforces the idea by giving the examples of “needlework or crocheting, as a suitable “accomplishment” for well-brought-up young women”. However, Nochlin takes it a step further by saying this train of thought has and still does dismiss the seriousness of women perfecting their craft simply as ways to ‘blow off steam” or just a way to express themselves.
When we think about how institutional thinking affects our idea of genius I think it is imperative to have a hard look at how we characterize genius. Often a genius we associate to border on “crazy.” By societal standards, they are assertive, quirky, recluse, and more than anything they are devoutly focused on their work. I would be absurd in saying that we also identify genius with being an asshole (think Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg). Are these traits that when ascribed to women are viewed as favorable? I would say no and if you a put a woman such as this within a professional setting she often may get simply written off as a crazy bitch. When ascribed to men though they become tolerable if there is said genius there.
Why did I have to find all these amazing women-of-color artists on my own? Because their work exists in institutions that don’t allow them to reach the status of genius. We still see this today in our most beloved industries such a music. When will we stop using the term “female rapper” and just acknowledge the individual as rapper because that’s just what she does? Tierra Whack put out what was in my opinion one of the most dynamic projects of 2018 both musically and visually, but we have yet to see her receive the longstanding spotlight that Smino has. I think we are getting better as a society but we have to have more conversations around the perception of greatness.