30 depictions of female genius in film

The film industry, like the rest of the world, has an uneasy relationship to female genius. For many years (and it remains a popular old wives tale) the world’s conceit confined females to be anatomically incapable of genius. The film industry has more to answer for than one would suspect. In the absence of scientific fact, it falls on the shoulder of pop cultural propaganda to uphold the mythology, and central to that is the depiction of genius in film.

Google “films portraying genius” and you get list after list of films about men. In fact, Google “films portraying female genius” and after the lists of men(!) you come across papers discussing the problems of depicting genius, lists of genius female scientists (majority unknown to the general public as no film has been made about them) and finally autism or bi-polar disorder. As soon as you place the words “female” and “genius” next to each other, you either don’t understand what those words mean, or you are talking about someone with a disability.

This deliberate and calculated absence of females from these trite representations has had a devastating effect on the real world of high-level achievement. In pop culture the male genius is depicted as gleaning brilliant ideas out of nowhere, as if hit by lightening, while women are depicted as hard working and using effort to painstakingly arrive at a single achievement. It takes her years of forced struggle to get to where he innately, immediately stands. This false depiction of genius impacts on almost every area of high-level academic achievement, as women will be routinely overlooked as bookish support systems over their creatively brilliant male counterparts. Life imitating art indeed.

However, like so much to do with inequality, times are changing, and the good news is that films have emerged (past and present) that depict female genius as its own challenge to the male stereotypes. If the contemporary scientific conversation about cultural inspiration is accurate, then watching films about female geniuses is essential viewing for women who want to achieve at the highest level. In the spirit of the film Noble (the true life story of Christina Noble, a children's rights campaigner, charity worker and writer who founded the Christina Noble Children's Foundation in 1989) released in Australia this month, I’ve compiled the list I noticed was missing for all of the genius women out there who need some encouragement to keep studying/practicing/experimenting.

To assist in the selection process, I’ve categorized the following films that depict female genius in bundles. Let me know if there are important ones I’ve left off in the comments below.

This post is dedicated to Hedy Lamarr – a true genius.

The Writer:

  1. Impromptu (George Sand)
  2. Sylvia (Sylvia Plath)
  3. My Brilliant Career (Miles Franklin)
  4. The Brontë Sisters (the Brontë sisters)
  5. Rowing with the Wind (Mary Shelly)
  6. The Hours (Virginia Woolf)
  7. A Quiet Passion (Emily Dickinson)

The Painter / Sculptor:

  1. Frida (Frida Kahlo)
  2. Seraphine (Séraphine de Senlis)
  3. Camille Claudel (Camille Claudel)
  4. Artemisia (Artemisia Gentileschi)
  5. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (María Elena)
  6. Fur (Diane Arbus)

The Philosopher:

  1. Iris (Iris Murdoch)
  2. Hannah Arendt (Hannah Arendt)
  3. Violette (Simone de Beauvoir)

The Business Woman:

  1. Working Girl (Tess Magill)
  2. The Devil Wears Prada (Miranda Priestly)
  3. Coco Avant Chanel (Coco Chanel)

The Villains:

  1. Rebecca (Rebecca de Winter)
  2. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (O’Ren Ishi)
  3. Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Elle Driver)
  4. The Harry Potter series (Bellatrix Lestrange)
  5. Basic Instinct (Catherine Trammell)
  6. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (Madison Lee)

The Child:

  1. The Harry Potter series (Hermione Granger)
  2. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (Violet Baudelaire)

The Superhero:

  1. Tomb Raider (Lara Croft)
  2. Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2 (Beatrix Kiddo)
  3. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Lisbeth Salander)

One final addition for Catherine Llewellyn from Proof, who is the only genius female mathematician I could think of in a film.

Honorable mentions: Miss Marple, Catwoman, Queen Elizabeth I, Margaret Thatcher, Janet Frame, Dora Carrington, Dorothy Parker, Anais Nin, Margot Tenenbaum, Wonder Woman, Sarah Connor, The Marquise de Merteuil, Marie Curie.

So there you have it. All these films are favorites of mine that I watch when I need a bit of an emotional boost depending on my mood. All of them I recommend.

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