Ken Jennings


March 4, 2014

velmaParade magazine wanted to promote the new Mr. Peabody & Sherman movie for some reason. I wanted to promote my new Junior Genius books. An editor had an idea: I would list the five smartest fictional characters ever, in order. Go.

Fun, quick assignment. I spent a few days batting it around with pretty much everyone I met. Obviously, some indisputably worthy choices (Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon, Watchmen‘s Doctor Manhattan) were a little too esoteric for Parade. I remember at one point becoming very convinced that E.T. should make the list, because he learns to talk after watching about eight seconds of Sesame Street, and can make an interstellar transmitter out of a Speak & Spell, a table-saw blade, and an umbrella. “But he’s not human,” a friend pointed out. “He could be the dumbest E.T. You don’t know. He’s the only one who wandered off and got left on Earth, right?”

The final list was chosen more for joke potential than for actual IQ, but I wasn’t really happy that the list was 100 percent guys. It was worse than that: of the dozens of iconic smarty-pantses we had batted around as candidates, exactly zero were women. A few people on Twitter agreed. What’s going on here? Where are the fictional female geniuses?

It’s hard to write genius; invariably, the creator isn’t as smart as his or her creation, and has to fake it. So, instead of actually writing super-intelligence, writers use shorthand: they leverage a few tired archetypes. There’s the Mad Genius (Dr. Frankenstein, Hannibal Lecter), the Coolly Competent Computer (Sherlock Holmes, Spock), the Precocious Prodigy (Doogie Howser, Jimmy Neutron), the Absent-Minded Professor (Emmett Brown, Cuthbert Calculus) the Maladroit Nerd (Leonard and Sheldon, Urkel). And most of those archetypes, unfortunately, date back to an era when it was unthinkable that they would be anything but male.

And so I had a hard time coming up women candidates that wouldn’t seem like tokens. Lisa Simpson and Hermione Granger are very well-known (and welcome) variations on the tired “boy prodigy” trope…but can you really put them on a list with Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock? They’re kids. Lisa still plays with Malibu Stacy dolls. Same problem with Penny from Inspector Gadget–though I like the postmodern twist of the smart young thing who quietly solves the mystery herself while the vaunted male crimefighter bumbles.

This Entertainment Weekly list grappled with the same diversity problem, and took pains to include a handful of fictional geniuses of color and even a few with no Y-chromosome. But Temperance “Bones” Brennan and Gabriella from High School Musical (really?) also would have looked a little odd on a five-person list full of math savants and time travel inventors. The choice of Jane Craig, Holly Hunter’s hyper-competent Broadcast News producer, is a revelation. Not a household name, but at least a newer, less male-centric archetype: the Workaholic Who Wants It All. (Liz Lemon is a better-known example–iconic enough for the list for sure–but comedy writing and showrunning don’t quite have the world-saving gravitas of, you know, Tony Stark or whoever.)

You’d think there’d be more juicy nerd parts for women nowadays, but the only A-list name I could come up with was Chloe from 24. Even in the detective arena–a genre kept alive by women!–none of the all-time greats are women. The few that are big brand names–Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher–always get their man, but not in the show-offy, mental-gymnastics manner of a Holmes or a Poirot.

With one exception! In hindsight, I can think of one woman who’s perfect for the list, and I wish I’d included her: Lisbeth Salander from the Dragon Tattoo books and movies. She’s a top-shelf brain in all regards: photographic memory, world-famous computer hacking skillz, crime-solving chops. She’s an indomitably tough survivor who overcomes impossible odds over and over. She’s essentially a super-hero and she should have made the top five, because she could kick Will Hunting or MacGyver’s ass any day of the week.

We regret the error.

Posted by Ken at 11:20 am