Pop-Culture | Posted by Mareike S on 05/7/2012

Why Does Exceptionally Smart = Crazy On TV?

Now, before launching into this, let me make one thing clear: I love the TV show Bones and have for a long time. I also kind of like Rizzoli & Isles, but there’s one thing that’s been irking me about these two series, even though they feature women in the leading roles and (especially in the case of Bones) have diverse casts. My problem is the fact that while both Temperance Brennan of Bones and Maura Isles of Rizzoli & Isles are portrayed as unusually smart and gifted females, they are also portrayed as socially awkward to a point that borders on a psychological disorder.

As anyone who has read The Yellow Wallpaper might know, there’s been a long standing tradition of portraying women as crazy and in need of psychiatric assistance in order to undermine their intelligence (or, as the folks at Jezebel recently pointed out, just to undermine them in general).By portraying both Temperance and Maura as gifted-but-mentally-challenged individuals this old stereotype is reinforced.

But there’s more to it. Think about all the police procedural dramas out there that have especially smart male characters (Gill Grissom of CSI is one example that comes to mind). While these male characters are sometimes portrayed as a bit goofy, there’s never the same social inhibition or hints at disorders as with Temperance and Miranda. In male characters, being smart is astonishing and awe-inspiring, but is rarely seen as being “crazy.” The only reason I can see for this is gender. I mean, wouldn’t Temperance’s social blunders be just as fun if she was a man? Or in the case of Miranda: would it detract from the show if she was socially well-adjusted? I really don’t thinks. After all, is it so much to ask of the writers of these shows to create opportunities for tension and/or humor without making a smart woman look like she should see a shrink?

Of course, there are smart female characters that are able to be smart without being portrayed as “crazy”: Catherine Willows in CSI, Stella Bonasera in CSI:NY or Angela Montenegro in Bones are all good examples. But it’s still revealing to see that women that are not only smart, but specifically exceptionally talented in male-dominated fields (forensic anthropology in Bones and medical examiner in Rizzoli & Isles) are portrayed as slightly crazy. The idea that too much knowledge is just not good for women, and that women can’t actually be as good (let alone better than) men in traditionally male-dominated fields still seems to linger in some people’s minds, which in turn leads to the perpetuation of this harmful stereotype. And here we are, still wondering why there aren’t more women in the so-called hard-sciences. When women who are in those fields on TV are portrayed as “crazy” is it such a stretch to understand why female viewers might shy away from those fields?

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  • Renee @ at 7:30 pm, May 7th, 2012

    MMMM….i don’t know most of the time if there is a trope it’s never explained it’s just, “Yup that’s the way it is. Don’t ask questions.” But there is a reason for Dr. Brennan’s anti-socialness she had to deal with abandonment and emotional trauma. I think it’s even explained in one episode that she is so fact based because she sees her mother and father in each of her cases. Also Dr. G is a pretty big medical examiner with her own show, and Criminal minds has a woman who’s a computer programmer or something.
    IDK I normally stick to 30 Rock and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

  • Kristen A @ at 12:42 am, May 8th, 2012

    I think that Temperance is actually written true to form to the book series by Kathy Reichs (one of the first forensic anthropologists) but I don’t watch Bones. Often I believe it’s a sensationalization and a shying away from the Mary Sue/Gary Lou complex that creates “crazy genius” characters with some sort of tragic back story.

    Reichs’s work was my inspiration to go into a highly specialized field within anthropology. I hope to see a lot more female colleagues in the future.

  • Yoannah @ at 5:39 am, May 8th, 2012

    I love BONES exactly for Dr. Brennan not being the social butterfly. There are other very smart women on the show who are also socially open. It was such a relief to finally have a women who is an atheist, very open and honest about her sexuality, and also socially awkward – even more than I am! It’s great to see a woman who is all brains and not “female intuition”, where it’s the man who is more tuned into others’ feelings. This show breaks so many stereotypes, that should be even more popular than it is now.

  • Mareike S @ at 8:18 am, May 8th, 2012

    I know the reasons behind Brennan’s social-awkwardness, so it all does make sense. My point is that this connection of being very smart and having problems at the same time is very pronounced with women in these shows, but not with men, which perpetuates the old myth that too much thinking isn’t good for men. Honestly, show me any very smart male who’s struggling with social-awkwardness to the degree Temperance and Maura do.
    I love Criminal Minds for their kickass females!
    I have only read one of Reich’s books (Crossbones) and I thought it was kinda ‘meh’, but maybe the others are better.

  • Sarah @ at 8:18 pm, May 8th, 2012

    What about Sheldon Cooper, of the Big Bang Theory? He’s also incredibly smart but completely nuts. Although I do see what you mean, I don’t think that this rule of “smart=crazy” only applies to women.

  • Dee @ at 4:11 am, May 10th, 2012

    I’m all for calling out gender-based bias in the media, but…what about MONK? The guy is brilliant but has severe social issues and OCD. I think that, overall, intelligence and social problems appear in characters on TV and in movies in order to humanize them to the general audience.

  • Amadeus @ at 3:31 pm, May 11th, 2012

    @Mareike S
    Ever watched a show called the ‘Big Bang Theory’? Do watch it.
    Actually, observe a particular character called ‘Dr. Sheldon Cooper’. I bet you haven’t seen social awkwardness of that magnitude anywhere on television….Unless it borders into a serious mental ailment.D:

  • Matt SS @ at 10:38 am, May 22nd, 2012

    In Law and Order Criminal Intent the lead character is often shown to be viewed as crazy. And Reed in CM is certainly socially awkward. Zach in Bones itself is shown to be weird and socially awkward and Hodgens is a conspiracy theorist. One of Brennan’s grad students, Fisher, is pretty off the wall and involved in therapy and quite depressed. Nigel is obsessed with facts which is portrayed as quite annoying, although personally it amuses me. The most “normal” of these students is from a poverty background and has money issues, and he is also portrayed as less smart than the others. Another has conflicts because of his religion.

    There may be portrayals of this trope on TV, but Bones is not a great example.

    Its a general stereotype in society that all exceptionally smart people are crazy. Usually this only takes effect at about an IQ of 140. Just above average people are not shown that way.

  • meg @ at 2:37 am, June 14th, 2012

    i feel like smart = crazy/socially inept as a stereotype for both men and women; for example, sherlock holmes. it’s a very old trope in literature, tv, and film and has nothing to do with gender in my opinion.

  • Emma @ at 12:06 am, June 30th, 2012

    Actually, they’re not male-dominated fields, that’s a misconception created by TV shows. Granted, when the field started it was relatively male-dominated, but I believe something like an average of 80% of the female forensic scientists, pathologists, and anthropologists entering the field today are female. And this is especially true with forensic anthropology, I have actually never met even one forensic anthropologist who’s a man.

    Also, Bones and Maura Isles are two characters I can strongly identify with, especially with the smart-and-socially-awkward combo. It’s very refreshing to see, in Bones at least, the whole “logical emotionless man and emotional intuitive woman” stereotype flipped on its head. (Actually, if anything, Dana Scully started that stereotype-flipping).

  • Kristin @ at 11:21 pm, July 9th, 2014

    Ok, I’m really late to the game and just started watching Season 1 of the show and was searching “Bones” and feminism for this very reason. I think the writers and Emily Deschanel do a great job with the character of Brennan. What drives me nuts is the almost CONSTANT running commentary that the men (and some women) have on the show about her looks or her status as a single woman. Like, she’ll be doing her extremely important job and all the other characters’ can worry about is why she’s single. I just watched an episode where she corrected a woman about a term and the woman said “And that’s why I’m getting all the dates in town,” suggesting that intelligence isn’t attractive or assuming THAT IT EVEN MATTERS TO BRENNAN, which as far as I can tell in this season, it doesn’t.

  • Ano @ at 12:13 am, August 11th, 2015

    Social awkwardness and “crazy” in smart guys like Monk and Sheldon Cooper are played for laughs; similar qualities in their women counterparts are to make their intelligence more palatable. The ultimate example is Carrie of Showtime’s “Homeland”: a genius who plays fast and loose with the rules, shows questionable judgment, sleeps with whoever they want, and somehow continues to fail up? Sounds perfectly plausible for a male protagonist. But a woman? To be believable she’ll have to be not only awkward but full-on bipolar.

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