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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