Feminism | Posted by Katherine C on 05/18/2010

Brilliance is Human

We’ve all read about the studies and statistics on girls in school- that we self-defeat in math and science, that we don’t speak up in class. That we’re afraid. But what about when our teachers and classmates doubt us- when they question our individual intrinsic creativity? Why is brilliance perceived as masculine?

My friend Zoey is a mathematical genius; she was playing around with complex multiplication problems when she was four. She’s in the Higher Math class, in which there is a smaller contingent of über-math-brains: kids who are passionate about math and have a real talent for it. Brilliant people, all. Zoey is the only girl. She asked the teacher if she could move her seat to where these high-performing boys sit so that she could collaborate with them. Her teacher informed her that she wasn’t a “natural” like the boys- “You just work hard,” he told her. She couldn’t be truly brilliant- she was just a girl.

In my AP English class, I am the only girl, in a class with a female majority, that will volunteer to read her work out loud when called upon to do so. It’s not because my female classmates are shy of public speaking- I’ve heard them give history presentations and the like without a hitch. They know they can’t be truly brilliant. They’re just girls.

In art class, a girl’s boyfriend reaches over whenever he thinks she’s not doing her painting “right”, takes the brush out of her hand, and does it for her. I asked her, doesn’t this bother you? “Well, maybe a little, but he’s such a better artist than me.” She knows she can’t create. Only he can.

The list marches on- example upon example of incredibly original people who have their natural expression stifled on account of their gender. We see the same thing in art history: female painters stuck to still lives and portraits rather than work toward knarlier subjects, no matter how skilled they were, because these were masculine territory. Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter, tackled the problem with her “Seville” Magdalene, or “Magdalene as Melancholy,” showing the saint associated with both promiscuity and intellectual excellence in the traditional “melancholy” pose of male intellectuals, which then symbolized creative thought. She subverted the iconography of her day to assert herself as a woman artist.

Brilliance is not male- it is human, and we as young women need to claim it, because as a title it will not be handed to us.

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  • Helen H. @ at 11:19 am, May 18th, 2010

    I’m not quite sure about this.

  • Bree @ at 2:49 pm, May 18th, 2010

    I concur. I was in a history class and a girl asked about all the famous women in history, to which a boy responded “There would be more famous women if there were more smart women.” And that pissed me off. Anyway, I’m often ostracized for being smart, because as a female I am supposed to be pretty and charming and nice. Smart is scary.

  • Tessa @ at 5:34 pm, May 18th, 2010

    I don’t really agree with this article because, at least in my school, brilliance is definitely considered equal. Many students comment about how certain female and male students are “so smart”. You mentioned the example about the artist, but I don’t think that means anything. Maybe she meant that AS AN INDIVIDUAL he was a better artist than her. I highly doubt she was putting down her own gender by thinking that only boys could be brilliant. Maybe her boyfriend was an exceptionally good artist…

  • AlienGuardian @ at 6:40 pm, May 18th, 2010

    I don’t know where YOU were going to school, but this definitely isn’t the case in any school I’ve been in.

  • Jenn @ at 11:04 pm, May 18th, 2010

    It saddens me that the incident with your friend’s teacher happened. I too am a math natural, but have never experienced that kind of negatativity toward me, perhaps because I have always had female math teachers, perhaps not. I’m interested in seeing what happens in my higher math classes in college. I agree that brilliance is equal- these ‘studies’ claiming women are naturally not as good at math and science as men are bogus. However, I disagree with your statement that women should claim this title because it will not be handed to us- I feel that apart from a few old school misygonist assholes in the academic world, generally the new generation of intellectuals views women as their equals and recognise their potential. This fact was reiterated to me when upon viewing my SAT math scores, the head of engineering (a male) at the college I am attending begged me to join his program.

  • Aleka R. @ at 3:31 am, May 19th, 2010

    I agree with the article as well.I was in computer tuition where the teacher always pays less attention to the girls.All she does is focus on the boys.And during class she always tells us that it is absolutely essential for boys to do well in their 10th grade boards because they have to work and earn for their families when they grow up however its okay for a girl not to do well because she’s going to end up quiting her job when she gets married and has to look after her kids.
    Indian society has a pretty misogynistic attitude when it comes to women and most people aren’t willing to change their views with regards to the status of women in society.And the surprising thing to note is that its the Indian women themselves who speak up about other women doing well in their jobs and berate them for not looking after their families.

  • Helen H. @ at 9:54 am, May 19th, 2010

    Tessa pretty much summed up what I was thinking.

  • Katherine C. @ at 12:13 pm, May 19th, 2010

    @ Helen and Tessa- All I can say is that you are fortunate to go to schools/live in communities where this is not a problem.
    And the girl I mentioned in art class, to give some context, acts like a complete doormat where her boyfriend is concerned- and given some space, she is every bit as talented an artist as he is. Obviously her surface meaning was that he individually was allowed creative domination, but I used the anecdote as an example of such cases; and I don’t think the gender divide is a coincidence.

  • Jake @ at 5:38 pm, May 19th, 2010

    I think we’re talking about the clever/brilliant divide. Here in the UK, girls outperform boys at every level and area of the education system. Everyone is perfectly willing to acknowlege girls’ cleverness, but this is somehow a degraded category, different from the creative/intellectual spheres which boys occupy (to use an slightly silly example, you can compare clever Hermione Granger with brilliant Harry Potter). Though Helen and Tessa are right to point out that smartness is often considered to be equal across genders in many school environments, our culture is still unwilling to see intelligent women as anything other than bookish and clever.

  • kim @ at 5:57 pm, May 19th, 2010

    Everybody is a bit true in their comments, because whileextreme sexisme used to be considered as the norm – which is both very cruel and very stupid -, a lot of people believe in gender equality, specially when it comes about talents… In politics, while women are usually WAY better (as a norm because peer pressure forces them to perform more), they keep being ridiculed and that is based on sexist biais…

  • Taylor S @ at 12:25 am, May 20th, 2010

    I go to a boarding school focused on math and science, and I too can see some of this behavior. People bringing themselves down because they are insecure and not confident, mostly with the female gender.

    The girls here, many of them brilliant, will never let on the fact that they possess real talents. They’ll undermine themselves, saying that they are terrible at math or science, and that they get their boyfriends or “smart” friends to help them.

    In some places, this is a matter or gender yes. Here, however, I think a stigma remains that the super smart kids are far less likely to be accepted.

    Nonetheless, a subtle air of misogyny seems to be lurking around all the self degradation. Coincidence? I think not.

  • Haley @ at 12:03 pm, May 20th, 2010

    There are significantly more smart girls at my school than there are boys, but I go to a private prep school…I guess this depends on where you live, and what environment you are in.

  • Zelda @ at 12:02 am, May 21st, 2010

    As an english teacher I have to agree with this article. When teaching classes I have come across several girls who are without a doubt brilliant at creative and essay writing. However most of them especially in my area are never encouraged to pursue this and are instead told to grow up and take “life skills” courses so they can follow career paths they have no interest in. Does the same happen with boys? no not really, whenever a boy shows the smallest bit of talent at well anything they are nutured and thrust forward. I think there is a distinction between clever and brilliant with females. Female students who show talent are accused of “working hard” and “being clever” while males are naturally brilliant. I remember when I was at school I showed a natural talent towards understanding history and english, I was bullied by the male students constantly and accused of “stealing” their ranking in exams.

  • Emily @ at 9:08 pm, May 21st, 2010

    I can see many of my female friends do this and it breaks my heart because they are genuinely some of the most brilliant people I know.

    In my school, I think its mostly student culture that does this rather than teachers. (In fact I find my teachers to be incredibly nurturing and supportive in all things all students attempt or excel at) For example, one of my friends thinks that the only class its okay for her to get a B in is math because math is a “boy’s” class.

    On another topic, one of my friends refuses to acknowledge who she is as a bisexual young women because she is sure that it would make boys less interested in her.

    All I know is that I also know many other girls, including myself, who are never afraid to speak up in class and who have weaknesses and strengths not because of their gender, but because of individual traits.

  • RebJ @ at 11:41 am, May 22nd, 2010

    Female students who show talent are accused of “working hard” and “being clever” while males are naturally brilliant.

    Yes! I think its an extension of the social pressure on girls to be “perfect” in every aspect of their lives–not just appearance, but also in the numbers (grades). On the contrary, it is acceptable for boys to be a bit lazy, b/c they are just “naturally brilliant” or “misunderstood genius”. Girl’s who don’t do well in school don’t get that label.

    I tried this experiment on myself: Whats the picture that comes in your mind when you hear the word genius? (as feminist as I am, why do I always see a boy? I’m working on changing that mental image..)

  • Niamh @ at 4:04 am, May 23rd, 2010

    I completely relate to everything written in the past above! Sexism is still a huge part of academia. I’m one of the few (four) females in my higher-level computer programming class, and I often feel completely isolated. While the teacher is a woman and tries to convince the girls in the class to participate in the “techy” clubs my school offers, the teacher is unknowingly sexist. All of the girls of the class are placed on the edge of the computer bay. As fellow coders know, collaboration is a huge part of programming and to be placed in this undesirable position isolates us, hindering our work.

    The teacher is also surprisingly sexists in her views of students. The girl next to me and I are easily part of the top-three programmers in the class. However, whenever a substitute is in our class, neither of us are recognized as being able to help the other students. Obviously as girls were could never be “brilliant” enough to understand the problems of others.

  • Fae @ at 12:51 pm, May 24th, 2010

    In my experience, it works a little something like this:
    http://blog.prospect.org/blog/ezraklein/xkcd.png

    If a girl makes one mistake, obviously she’s just awful at that subject.
    If a boy makes a mistake… he just made a mistake.

  • Natasha @ at 1:51 am, May 28th, 2010

    I’m so glad you brought this up. As the only senior girl on the advanced math track at my school, this has always been an issue for me. Ever since sixth grade, girls have been the minority in my advanced math classes. In my eleventh grade calculus A class, it was down to two girls. This year in calculus B, it’s just me and sixteen boys. I’ve always felt a bit alone as a girl who preferred the maths and sciences to English and history, but I have never been told, as this Zoey was, that I couldn’t be naturally talented simply because of a chromosome. To all other girls out there who are less traditionally feminine in their academic pursuits, don’t let the boys get you down.

  • Megan @ at 9:09 am, June 23rd, 2010

    To all of the posters who commented that this phenomenon doesn’t occur in their schools: You’re very lucky; don’t take it for granted. When I was in eighth grade, all of the girls in my school hd to take Alg I. This was so the school could say that they had a math program that fostered a love of math. In my class, there were two girls who demonstrated great talent in algebra. One had been lucky enough to take algebra as a fifth grader and knew everything already. I tried to tell her how cool it was, but she dismissed me, because she wanted to be like the other girls. Later, in technology class, she griped about how she couldn’t wait to get a nose job so people would take her seriously.
    The other girl was mainly concerned with her dating life and a contest with another girl that concerned how well they could straighten their wavy hair. This girl placed 11th at our county MathCounts! competition. Back at school they announced this and had her stand for applause. Later, she remarked that the recognition was embarssing and that she shouldn’t have done so well. I got really into algebra at 14, but have found that this further isolates me from other girls. In my experience, girls tend to make math uncool within their social systems.

  • Danielle @ at 2:11 am, June 30th, 2010

    I’m an over-achiever by nature (which SUCKS sometimes) and have always been known as the “smart kid” in school. Though I’ve never experienced the kind of oppression you talk about in your article, I’m sure there are plenty of girls who HAVE, which is extremely disheartening. I could probably even name a few of those girls in my own life, right off the top of my head (but then again, I’m not sure if their lack of confidence is necessarily gender-related . . .)

    In the end, I think we should all strive to work hard and reach our full potential. If someone stands in our way we’ve just got to raise a little hell . . . :)

  • Grace @ at 3:37 am, August 16th, 2010

    That’s what I liked about going to an all girls school. It was completely normal for anyone and everyone to speak up in class. And all the girls who were good at maths were REALLY good at it. Of the girls who did year 13 calculus (highest level of maths in New Zealand education system) all but two are now studying to be doctors. The other two are studying chemistry and maths respectively at university. From what I’ve been hearing they’re all doing really well, no issues with being pushed aside in favour of male students. Maybe it’s a result of all-female education? There’s no idea that because they’re girls they can’t do the work. They were to only ones to do the work at school. So I really don’t believe in gender stereotypes when it comes to education.

    About the female painters in art history – yes, it is true that they are grossly under-represented. But in art of the Orient male artists and all viewers became rather indebted towards female artists who had access to exclusively females. Their representations of the Harem highlighted just how much male painters had painted Harem scenes from fantasy.
    Also, female artists in France during the time of the Salon and Academy were greatly limited. To have your work displayed in the Salon you had to have passed a certain level of training. This training included sketching from *gasp!* live nudes. Because it’s perfectly acceptable for male artists to paint and sculpt nudes of both genders, but women can’t even look at a model? Shocking.

  • blakerivers @ at 8:27 am, August 18th, 2010

    This is actually something I get slightly hotblooded about, and angry sometimes.

    No one seems to want to accept the notion that womens’ and mens’ mental abilities are not inherently different. Sure, once years of conditioning have set in, differences arise, but when a child pops out of the womb, I see no reason to believe that it comes with gendered limitations.

    -RebJ – the reason you think of a male when you think of genius is because of history, where documented male geniuses outnumber females practically 100 to 1. Of course, there are 100 oppressive reasons why this is so.

    -Fae hits the nail on the head with her comic.

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