Inès Saada is a French Tunisian Masters student in International Affairs specialising in European and Globalisation studies at Sciences Po Lyon in France, and was previously at King’s for her study abroad year.
“They say you’re the real thing,” says a reporter from Life magazine in Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit.
The “real thing” is a 13-year-old chess player named Beth Harmon who just won the Kentucky State chess championship. The interviewer prods her to talk about chess as a sport: how she is competitive, how she “plays to win,” how she is “out for blood.” And how she is female.
When Walter Tevis wrote his 1983 long-time overlooked masterpiece, The Queen’s Gambit, he portrayed a female chess champion, Beth Harmon, as an intricate and complex character, less obviously triumphant and glamorous a character as stunning Anna Taylor-Joy’s performance in last year’s ‘Outstanding Limited’ Netflix series. Trevis even explained that his choice in depicting a brilliant and aloof heroine was driven by being ‘more wrapped up in the idea of intelligence in women, for which I have an enormous respect and a kind of awe, than even the game of chess itself’.
Not only Beth doesn’t seem to understand and relate to the press fascination on her being a ‘female’ chess player in a exclusively male dominated world, but she refuses to consider herself a celebrity if it’s ‘for being a girl, mostly’.
But today, just 37 of the more than 1,600 international chess grandmasters are women.
Now, I’d like you to close your eyes and picture a genius just of the top of your head.
Did you think of Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, Maria Anna Mozart or perhaps Katherine Johnson?
Well if you came up with Picasso and Einstein, like most people do according to a survey realised in a recent poll of attitudes toward genius cited by Kaplan, you are among the 90% of Americans who said geniuses tend to be men.
Already in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir had identified in The Second Sex one of the main reasons our ideas and popular conceptions of geniuses are very much gendered:
‘Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of the view, which they confuse with absolute truth.’
The genius myth was created and bolstered in a Western male and individualistic culture, trapping our recognition of ‘extraordinary intellectual or creative abilities’ into a very narrow and exclusive category. It seems our examples for ‘exceptionally gifted personalities’ were shaped by those who were privileged and supported enough to eclipse not only their own personal hard work in the name of precocity, but most dramatically, to overshadow the contributions of their peers.
In 1575, Spanish psychologist Juan Huarte de San Juan said genius was stored in testicles, thus justifying his theory that women are, by nature more stupid than men. He also argued that if scientifically illiterate, one couldn’t necessarily be a genius. So it seems obvious when considering the percentage of women not educated in XVIth century’s Europe, that they would be denied the label of genius. But those two qualifications continued to perpetuate the ‘genius’ benchmarking by men features for centuries to come.
If women are denied the label of genius as often as men are, it’s not because it’s easier, it’s because it is actually harder to be viewed as such. If the world is not designed for you, it is going to be really hard to see yourself as a genius and carve confidence in yourself and see this difference is part of you. Indeed, if that difference is widely regarded in society and taught as being a problem or an anomaly, it is going to be infinitely hard to see yourself in another light than one of inconvenience.
That is exactly what Dr Camilla Pang highlights on autism spectrum disorder and the links drawn between genius and Asperger’s Syndrome in her 2020 book, Winner of the Royal Society Science Book Prize, Explaining Humans:
‘If three times more men are diagnosed with autism than women are and three times more men with Asperger’s disorder, it is because diagnosis are affected by gendered stereotypes.’
Girls as young as six years old believe that brilliance is a male trait, according to research into gender stereotypes. Published in the Journal Science in 2017, this US-based researched leads Andrei Cimpian, a co-author from New York University to warn on how powerful an impact these ideas of brilliance and giftedness can have on society:
‘’Because these ideas are present at such an early age, they have so much time to affect the educational trajectories of boys and girls’.
Hence, although good grades were more likely associated with six year olds girls, when showed pictures, ‘boys chose people of their own gender as ‘really, really smart’ 65% of the time, while girls only selected their gender as brilliant 48% of the time’.
Indeed, we easily forget that talent is realized within an ecosystem and that it very rarely comes along as a superhuman skill, if ever. In Walter Trevis’ book, Beth is able to thrive only after an early mentor identified her talent, opening opportunities for better training and competition.
Therefore, shouldn’t it be worthwhile to carefully evaluate the tools we use to recognize genius or giftedness?
A 2016 study published in PLOS ONE found students in higher education more often used the words ‘brilliance’ and ‘genius’ in their reviews of male professors and about academic disciplines in which Black people, and women across races, were less represented amongst PhD-holders.
And this is the tip of the iceberg: an illustration not only of how gatekeepers, like IQ tests or Oxbridge oral examinations, can display ‘culture loading’ and perpetuate biases through referrals and daily interactions over who achieves their potential and in what fields.
Lin Bian, Assistant Professor of Human Development at Cornell University confirms that stereotypes through the use of language impacts achievement gaps as this plays out in her research on the developmental roots of gender biases.
‘When the game was described as requiring ‘brilliance’, Bian found “around age six and seven, girls were less interested”. But when the same game was phrased as requiring ‘hard work’, boys and girls were “equally interested in the same game”.’ 2
At the expense of both individual complexities and our ability to recognize a richer, fuller and ultimately ‘more human’ means for supporting success, we should move away from an often toxic, sexist and racist fascination for geniuses as wunderkinds. Rather, let’s question:
How are we going to listen and pay attention to women’s genius if we just disparage them?
‘The Man Who Brought ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ to Life’, By David Hill, Nov 9, 2020, The Ringer
The Second Sex, 1949, Simone De Beauvoir
The Genius Myth, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/sponsored/queens-gambit-netflix/the-genius-myth/3517/
Walter S. Tevis interviewed by Don Swaim on February 15, 1983. Don Swaim Collection, Mahn Center for Archives & Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries
Nicolas Davis, 2017, Girls believe brilliance is a male trait, research into gender stereotypes show, The Guardian.
The Documentary Podcast, ‘Smart women, male genius’,
Storage D, Horne Z, Cimpian A, Leslie S-J (2016) The Frequency of “Brilliant” and “Genius” in Teaching Evaluations Predicts the Representation of Women and African Americans across Fields. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0150194. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150194
‘We let ‘male genius’ excuse bad behaviour – but what about the loss of female genius?’, Clementine Ford, The Guardian, 5 nov 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/06/we-let-male-genius-excuse-bad-behaviour-but-what-about-the-loss-of-female-genius
[Feature Image taken from The Tevis Estate/Netflix/Ringer illustration]
[Pictured above: Dr. Katherine Johnson watches Hidden Figures, a film about her history-making contributions to NASA’s Space Program.]