Questioning the genius

If you love a good story, and especially super satisfying spooky stories, one of the greatest gifts of the past couple of years is the emergence of narrative podcasts. One of the first and best of these is Pacific Northwest Stories’ The Black Tapes. The show is based in the Unites States, and features local radio/podcast host Alex Regan as she chronicles the unsolved supernatural-seeming mysteries documented by renowned skeptic Dr. Richard Strand. The series has been running for almost two seasons now, but something that immediately grabbed me about the show was the representation of Dr. Strand. Strand is what TV Tropes would call an Insufferable Genius. We are introduced to his character by way of a range of experts in paranormal phenomena, who all express anger at his position within their field of study. He is known for heavily criticising any research affirming the existence of the paranormal, and by extension, these particular researchers. It’s a professional grudge, but due to his characteristic derision, it also runs much deeper than that.

Now, I actually consider portrayals of the Insufferable Genius to be white male intellectual power fantasies. Not merely because these characters are usually white and usually male (especially in their most well known iterations), but because they reflect a supposed ideological commitment to developing knowledge as objective and independent of concerns of gender, race, and other forms of social stratification – but instead end up perpetuating a form of knowledge production which fundamentally centers a privileged white male perspective. Portrayals of the white male ‘Insufferable Genius’ usually rely on being condescending and dismissive towards other people who are considered intellectually inferior, and while almost all other characters will bear the brunt of this, it is women, people of colour, and other marginalised characters that will often experience a particularly potent form of disdain. White and male power fantasies can come in a number of different forms, but in contrast to say, the male power fantasy based on physical strength, the intellectual fantasy is often perceived as comparatively enlightened. We are supposed to believe that these men are superior because they use their brains rather than their (non-existent) brawn, when in reality both are used as tools of power. Both narratives are invested in and valorise exercising power over others.

You may be wondering why this critique is essentially attached to masculinity and to whiteness, why female and non-white characters could not embody the archetype just as fully or with the same problematic implications. It is impossible to untie the Insufferable Genius archetype from our historical beliefs about who is capable of being a critical and knowledgeable thinker. Both women and people of colour have historically been believed to lack the capacity for critical thought, and these beliefs were created and utilised to establish oppressive social systems and undermine claims for equality. Not only have women and people of colour been historically denied access to academic institutions, but in academia knowledge production is fundamentally shaped by white supremacy, patriarchy, and other forms of social stratification. Our understanding of objectivity and what it means to do objective research relies on believing that we can produce unbiased knowledge. Unfortunately, in a society where privileged white masculinity is the norm, we can never truly revert to a ‘default’ perspective – privilege is fundamentally ingrained in how we see the world, and unless challenged by marginalised perspectives, is almost impossible to eradicate. But in the paradigm of objectivity, marginalised perspectives are treated as inherently suspect – another bias to avoid rather than a vital challenge to a system blinkered by privilege.

To be clear though, anybody can find the Insufferable Genius emotionally compelling. In fact, I totally bought into these narratives too. (For some relevant context, I am neither white nor male.) I’ve loved House MD, BBC Sherlock, Artemis Fowl, and I’m sure many others that escape me now. I found the fantasy of putting others in their place with superior knowledge and a hint of disdain fulfilling. Especially as a nerdy girl growing up who didn’t feel like she had much going for her but her brain, but even then sometimes feeling a little insecure in her intellectual abilities. But this is precisely the point – power fantasies help us seek validation for areas in which we both feel insecurity but recognise a potential pathway to greater control over our lives. And even as someone who is deeply passionate about how popular culture can validate our feelings and support our journeys in developing identity and being empowered, I think we can acknowledge that sometimes the narratives that we internalise can be emotionally unhealthy, or even dangerous in particular circumstances. We see endless cases of disaffected men perpetuating violence, especially when denied access to something they feel they deserve as a result of privilege. And this fantasy can result in a particularly vitriolic misogyny in nerd and geek culture, where the appeal of the intellectual power fantasy is most compelling.

Now, back to The Black Tapes. In the second episode we are introduced to our first Black Tapes case. Strand keeps paranormal cases he hasn’t been able to solve yet (in case it isn’t clear, his emphasis) in black VHS cases, and his solved cases in white VHS cases. The first Black Tape is that of the Torres family who have suffered from an inexplicable and disturbing presence haunting their young son, Sebastian. We soon discover that the shadow figure that now follows Sebastian followed his father in the past. However, while Strand provides some scientific explanations for the symptoms of the problem – basically, he speculates that everyone is suffering from something he calls ‘apophenia’ (seeing connections between possibly weird but entirely unrelated events), and that the unhappy couple are externalising the problems within their marriage – but he cannot meaningfully address the problems they are facing. It’s also worth highlighting that Strand implies Sebastian’s mother, Maria, is seeing paranormal signs due to mental illness. (This is notable given that there is a long history of women’s resistance to patriarchal systems and norms being attributed to madness, with women experiencing institutionalisation as a result. Nowadays, this dynamic is often reflected in the way women’s legitimate feelings and experiences are disregarded as “crazy,” “hysterical,” etc.) When we finally meet the Torres family, Sebastian’s parents have separated over this issue, with his mother infuriated at how her concerns have been delegitimised and desperate to protect her son.

What Strand can treat as simply a frustrating intellectual dilemma, his clients are forced to live with their whole lives. Conveniently, few of his cases are like that of the Torres family – many are retrospective looks at phenomena which do not continue to occur in the lives of the survivors. The Torres family are one of the few exceptions who continue to suffer. At the end of the episode, Alex confronts Strand about his dismissive attitude:

Alex: You don’t find that a bit patronizing? To reduce their experiences, which sound frightening to them, to a bad marriage?

Strand: I never find the truth patronizing.

Alex: Okay, but, in the little time I’ve known you, I’ve heard you talk about the importance of evidence. But there’s very little evidence that they have a bad marriage.

Strand: They’re separated right now, aren’t they?

Alex: Okay. On the subject of evidence, I’ve seen four distinct cases of something strange in photographs and videos surrounding the Torres family. Also, there’s the anecdotal evidence from all three of them.

Strand: I wouldn’t call any of that evidence.

Alex: You know, you’re actually bordering on condescension at this point.

Alex goes on to observe that “I don’t think he’s being purposely smug, it’s just that he seems to have an answer for everything. And those answers are occasionally dismissive of people’s subjective experiences.” (x)

What is so notable to me about this portrayal of the Insufferable Genius archetype is that, not only is Strand challenged on his rudeness and the limitations of his methodology inside the fictional universe of The Black Tapes, but that he is also being fundamentally undermined by the format of the show. We, as an audience listening to what we recognise as a paranormal fantasy podcast, know that something is going on in this universe. Whether it’s demons, ghosts, some vast non-paranormal conspiracy, or another thing entirely – we recognise that the people we meet are telling the truth, that their stories are connected, that something is going down. So the validation that we would normally get from the portrayal of a character like Dr. Strand becomes somewhat empty. That fundamental ingredient – being right, and everybody having to put up with your bullshit because of how clever you are and how effectively you can solve the problem at hand – is taken away. And then all that is left is a total refusal to respect others or their lived experience, despite their clear trauma. All that’s left is a character who is unable to meaningfully address the evidence in front of him or recognise the weaknesses in his arguments due to an arrogant adherence to his intellectual paradigm. All that’s left is a hollow rendering of the white male intellectual power fantasy, flaws laid bare.