Lives and loves of geniuses

Recent films fail to recognise the support women give to famous male artists or scientists, says Mary Evans

February 12, 2015

Source: Alamy

Unwavering support: in The Theory of Everything, Stephen Hawking’s wife Jane is portrayed as a devoted spouse who is in awe of her husband’s superior intellect

The films allow to remain mysterious the nature of ‘genius’ and exactly how and why great, innovative work is achieved and then endorsed as such

One of the pithier sayings of third-wave feminism was the remark, reproduced on many Christmas cards of the time, that “The birth of a man who thinks he’s God is not all that unusual.” No doubt still blasphemous to some, it nevertheless captures many of the assumptions of two films that have been widely screened over the past months, Mr. Turner (directed by Mike Leigh) and The Theory of Everything (directed by James Marsh). In both, the central male characters (the artist J. M. W. Turner and the cosmologist Stephen Hawking) are supported in various ways by women, who readily acknowledge their “genius”. Indeed, that quality of “genius” provides much of the explanation for the acceptance by women of various forms of exploitation and neglect. It is also remarkable that the women seem able to judge the men they support as “geniuses” long before the world as a whole (and even the “geniuses” themselves) seems to do so.

Mr. Turner has been rewarded with accolades from film critics (but less well rewarded with prizes or nominations for major awards). The Theory of Everything had a less eulogistic but nevertheless sympathetic press. The critic of The Observer remarked on 4 January that the film about Hawking was “conventional”.

Owen Jones, in The Guardian on 5 January, observed the considerable collective support that Hawking enjoyed, in order to make the wider point that none of us can achieve even ordinary competence, let alone “genius”, without various forms of institutional assistance and the dedication of others.

In neither case do these comments go beyond the boundaries of the “conventional”, namely to suggest that it is worth thinking about the gendered organisation of support provided and received; the ways in which accolades of “genius” are assigned and the absence in popular culture of any substantial account of the actual work of “genius”. We see Turner spitting on his canvas and taking the various expeditions that inspired his subject matter, but we are not given any account of why he then chose to paint in a way that was so far ahead of his time and conceptually different from his own previous work. In the same way we have one or two scenes in which Hawking speaks of stars and bits of stars, but why this is important remains as mysterious as much of his book, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (1988).

Without making them merely examples of “dumbing down”, there are aspects of both films that implicitly do this. In the case of Hawking’s work, there is perhaps some justification, since few of us could follow the arguments of his work, let alone decide whether the equations shown in the film are accurate or just the inspired guesswork of a set designer. With Turner’s work – which we can all see and appreciate – there is no justification for refusing the audience access to a greater understanding of his canvases.

So when critics say of the Hawking film (as they well might of the film about Turner) that it is “conventional”, it is not just that it does little to question the willingness of women to worship (and work) at the feet of great men, but that it also allows to remain mysterious the nature of “genius” and exactly how and why great, innovative work is achieved and then endorsed as such. In this way, fantasy and magic become the conditions through which “genius” emerges – the fantasy, in the case of Hawking, that it is possible for a man seriously debilitated by motor neurone disease to live a professionally successful life without the presence of round-the-clock, exhausting care that involves not just witty verbal exchanges but constant and intimate engagement with every aspect of that person’s body.

Channing Tatum and Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher

To present, as The Theory of Everything does, these challenges as always effectively overcome suggests an extreme case of showing the world as we might like it to be rather than as it is. But it also bolsters many ideas that inform celebrity culture. When stars are referred to as “effortlessly chic”, as often happens in the Daily Mail’s so-called “sidebar of shame”, it is never suggested that appearance owes much to money, time and outside help.

Hawking and Turner were famous before films about their lives were made. Much less well known were the British Second World War code breaker Alan Turing and the American wrestling champion Mark Schultz and his brother Dave. Yet they form the subjects of The Imitation Game (directed by Morten Tyldum) and Foxcatcher (directed by Bennett Miller). Both these films show more of the blood, sweat (literally in the case of Foxcatcher) and tears of the work that goes into the making not just of genius but of more everyday abilities. Yet although still uncritical of the idea that the role of women in the world is to support the work of exceptional men, they do suggest that the contexts in which these men succeeded were not so straightforward as those implied in Mr. Turner and The Theory of Everything. There were very powerful reasons for Turing and his colleagues to learn (a word used to emphasise that what Turing achieved was not a matter of happenstance, but of testing, thinking and thinking again) how to break German codes.

In the case of the Schultz brothers, the self-regard and pathological need for self-aggrandisement of John du Pont (the plutocratic magnate but also the eventual killer of Dave Schultz) was the driving force behind the finally tragic careers of the brothers. In these cases, the “why” of the work is introduced, not least, in the case of Foxcatcher, because paid work is a necessary condition of existence.

The story of Hawking was, and is, one of the power of the will. But it is not a will that emerges from nowhere. One of the most striking scenes in The Theory of Everything is the one in which the young Stephen takes his friend Jane (who is to become his wife) home to meet his family, because, as he says, “Ma does a great roast.” What follows is a socially painful, but important, vignette of the display of symbolic capital: the interrogation of Jane about her academic credentials; the equally obvious assumption that they don’t much matter; and the cluster of women – sisters, mother and girlfriend – all joining in an appreciation of a world in which it is taken for granted that Stephen will succeed.

He does, of course, enjoy considerable success (although the cost to Jane is told in her own memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen), but the film about his life (and that about Turner) also degrades his work by translating it into merely the means of celebrity. Certainly Turner and Hawking survive their fame and we see them living personally contented lives, whereas in different ways the Schultz brothers and Alan Turing suffer.

But this poses another issue: the films about Turing and the Schultz brothers present even the merest hint of the reality of work as somehow related to considerable personal suffering. At a time when paid work for many people is becoming subject to harsher and harsher conditions, the imagined binary between the “happy” work of “effortless” genius and work made “difficult” by individual pathology is as much a fantasy as that of “effortless chic”.

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