The Strange and Tortured Genius: Deconstructing a (Toxic) Trope

Oscar-winning movies and toxic masculinity.

Two topics that have been the epicenter of media attention lately.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen the rant I went on after seeing The Phantom Thread in theaters this week. Well, perhaps “saw” is a loose term, because I found myself so irritated with the film that I quietly exited the theater halfway through, along with my friend, fellow PopLurker writer Yennaedo Balloo.

The source of my irritation? The fact that the male lead, Reynolds (played by the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis, who deserves far better than this), is a renowned dressmaker whose genius and passion cause him to be a rude, obsessively picky ingrate who spends the majority of his screen time treating every woman who dares to encounter him like his verbal punching bag. He pitches a tantrum when his love interest, Alma (played by Vicky Krieps), butters her toast too loudly, screams his head off when she has the nerve to bring him a cup of tea, and makes her physically remove one of his dresses from the body of a passed-out woman whom he no longer deems “worthy” of his precious designs.


This is a trope that’s all too familiar: talented and/or successful man as a quixotic, tortured genius who lashes out and behaves erratically in the name of passion. This got me thinking about how common this trope is at various levels of pop culture. We’ve seen it in all works of fiction. Books? Check out Uprooted by Naomi Novak, a story about an angry wizard, stuck in his ways who treats his seventeen year old female apprentice like trash while throwing things and screaming at her. TV? We’ve got it in shows such as Sherlock and The Big Bang Theory; in biopics, such as Steve Jobs; and in countless real-life articles about how male directors have exploited and tormented their actors on set.

That famous story about how Alfred Hitchcock had real birds thrown at Tippi Hedren in The Birds? Totally excusable. The actual psychological torture Stanley Kubrick inflicted on Shelley Duvall in The Shining? Only because he’s so BRILLIANT, obviously. Yet all behavior is immediately excused in the name of “art” or “brilliance,” because apparently a man being marginally skilled at something gives him a free pass on basic human decency, usually towards women.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: For all intents and purposes, my discussion of Sherlock shall refer specifically to the modern BBC adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch].

Sherlock leaps to mind because while the titular character is not in a relationship with any particular woman, he is often shown treating women (and men) with disrespect, disdain, or flat-out hostility. Case in point: forensics professional Molly Hooper, who harbors an unfortunate crush on Sherlock. He, in turn, treats her like something he found floating in a public toilet.

In “The Great Game” (season 1, episode 3), Molly introduces her new boyfriend (who, unbeknownst to the audience, is actually criminal mastermind Jim Moriarty). Sherlock gives her a list of all the reasons her new partner is clearly gay, (not realizing he has been manipulated to think so by Moriarty, but that’s beside the point) with all the tact and sensitivity of a blunt ax. He doesn’t even look up as Molly runs off in tears, because he has that little regard for her feelings. In another episode, he mocks her lipstick, as well as “the size of her mouth and breasts”.

That qualifies, at the very least, as workplace harassment.

Sherlock’s defamatory behavior doesn’t end with Molly Hooper. He frequently declares everyone he encounters, from BFF John Watson to random barkeeps, to be incompetent, slow-minded, and generally lesser than him. I understand that it’s entertainment, but does the audience condemn Sherlock for his rude, childish behavior? No, because of his famed talent for solving crimes. Like Reynolds in Phantom Thread, Sherlock is portrayed as a quixotic, tortured genius, and his behavior is brushed off as a quirky, inevitable side effect of his brilliance.

IE: He’s an insufferable, entitled jerk who treats everyone around him (particularly women) like shit because he’s so “talented” and “good” at what he does, which makes it okay. If a woman were to behave like that, she would be labeled a shrill harpy, but a successful man behaving like a toddler is another story.

Speaking of “shrill harpy,” does anyone remember when hatred of Breaking Bad’s Skyler White became so extreme that actress Anna Gunn released a New York Times op-ed about it? Let me be clear: I love Breaking Bad and agree that it’s one of the greatest TV series of all time, but Walter White may be one of the biggest “tortured geniuses” I’ve ever seen. He was running an international drug empire, but Skyler was somehow the villain for not wanting to bring that kind of violence and danger into her home. Can we think, for a moment, about the absolute hell Skyler White went through, seeing the man she married become a murderous, meth-slinging drug lord? Her husband was blowing up buildings, killing his rivals, and, you know, producing and selling obscene quantities of crystal meth. How DARE she not immediately throw her unwavering support behind him!

During their separation in season three, Walt moves back into the house against Skyler’s will, refuses to leave when she calls the police, and unexpectedly shows up at Skyler’s workplace to threaten her boss. However, this pales in comparison to the oft-forgotten scene in season two where Walt violently shoves Skyler against the refrigerator and tries to rape her, a moment aptly dubbed “The Forgotten Rape of Skyler White.”

I understand and appreciate Walt’s transition into “evil” as a vital element of Breaking Bad, but the fact that his increasingly immoral acts are glorified as a transformation emphasize my point. There are in-depth analyses and 15-minute YouTube video tributes plotting out every minute of Walter White’s descent into malice. Do you think a female character would have gotten the same positive reception?

A “brilliant” man is rarely held accountable for his actions, but a woman is practically crucified for her response.

Walter White gets to be revered as “badass” and “awesome” because he’s good at making meth and killing people, while Skyler gets to be the nagging bitch. Like Alma in Phantom Thread, Skyler was expected to quietly accept her role as the collateral damage of a tortured genius, and was vilified by the fandom when she refused.

It seems almost redundant to bring up Fifty Shades of Grey. My first instinct is that it’s a little too on the nose, but you can’t really have a conversation about a man’s abusive behavior being excused by talent or success without this hallmark example. It’s been thoroughly documented in article after article that Christian Grey exhibits a laundry list of controlling and abusive behavior towards Ana: isolation, intimidation, control, possessiveness, lack of consent, stalking, etc. He forces her to sign a contract about everything from when she’s allowed to drink to how many times a week she exercises, demands sex at all times, shows up unexpectedly at her place of work, and furiously blames her when she eventually becomes pregnant. There are several instances where he manipulates and coerces her into sex, enraged by her pleas and excuses.

Perhaps the strongest hallmark sign of the abuse in Fifty Shades is the pervasive “he will change” mentality. You know the one, the “it will get better, I just have to be patient” mentality tragically held by so many victims of abuse. The Conversation puts it best:

“In reality, women stay in abusive relationships because they are physically, financially, or psychologically restricted or threatened. They endure the torment because they want to believe the man (or woman) will change. The fairy tale ending to this film is presented to women as evidence that the sadistic man who stalks her, controls her, and disrespects her requests for independence will change through the power of her love.”

Christian has “earned” this kind of patience and understanding merely by virtue of being a wealthy, successful man. We are meant to believe that his abusive behavior is simply an occupational hazard of his success, a minor personality difference to overcome. His insatiable need to isolate and control Ana is treated like a bad habit, the same as nail-biting or forgetting to take out the trash.

I once read a surprisingly truthful observation in some bygone Tumblr thread, which stated that Fifty Shades “is only a love story because the guy is rich, if he lived in a trailer park, it would be a horror novel or crime thriller.” Christian’s actions are somehow justified because he’s painted as an unbearably brilliant billionaire with a disturbed past- in other words, a tortured genius.

Similarly, Reynolds Woodcock exhibits controlling, possessive behavior towards his love interest, Alma, in Phantom Thread. He tells her when to stop eating, forces her to remove her lipstick on their first date, and lashes out at her for cooking him dinner, screeching that he will not tolerate any break from his patterns and routines. Perhaps I lack appreciation for dramatic cinema, but the last time I threw a tantrum about what someone cooked me for dinner was at the age of six.

This is emotional abuse. This is domestic violence.

However, once again, these actions are apparently acceptable because of his “genius” and success.

Interestingly, Alma eventually begins slowly poisoning Reynolds with mushroom shavings to reclaim her agency by weakening him, leading to another cycle of possession and control from both sides. Much like Ana in Fifty Shades of Grey, Alma envisions her perfect future with Reynolds, completely emulating the previously mentioned “one day he will change” mentality of an abuse victim. She endures the torment because she believes that one day, he will change, and the abuse she experiences is a consequence of his brilliance.

So then, let us ask this:

Why does media portray abuse as an unavoidable side effect or occupational hazard of a man’s talent or success, and all the women who suffer in his wake as collateral damage? Why does talent or success make a man exempt from basic human decency? What does the trope of the “tortured genius” tell us about how we view men with even the tiniest shred of power…

And what does it say about how we view women in general?

Yes, Phantom Thread is beautifully shot and scoredBut please- no more films or TV series about men who think success or skill gives them the right to be an emotionally abusive asshole.

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