We love to worship a talented man if he can passably play the hero: handsome, male, and, generally, white. In the age of parasocial relationships, we are wont to ascribe unearned virtue to any good-looking male with above-average talent. When he is good at his job, it follows that he himself must also be good. But if we’ve learned anything in the last six years, it’s that our favorite artist is just as capable of cruelty and violence as the mere mortals who extol him—stars: they’re just like us! We field incontrovertible evidence with a sympathetic nod before ushering in more salient concerns: that his masterpiece remains unscathed in the culture war. Resounding cries to separate the art from the artist drown out the horror stories, and the backlash to the backlash begins.
In the case of non-dangerous actors, this is fair. Last year’s New Yorker profile of Jeremy Strong revealed Succession’s lead actor to be pretentious and intense, a theater kid attempting to emulate his heroes—mostly notably, Daniel Day-Lewis. However, other than throwing off the vibes on the Succession set, he’s ostensibly fine. He might seem like the kind of guy who’d harass the bartender for a very specific brand of Japanese whiskey, but he’s nothing in comparison to men who’ve accrued power from cruelty and abuse.
The piece doesn’t depict Strong as a paragon of masculine genius, but someone aspiring to it. The Male Genius formula posits affability, collaboration, and sanity as obstacles in the Pursuit of Greatness, traditionally non-negotiable traits of queer and female artists. Diva behavior from talented women is a fast way to be blacklisted, but for white men it can yield amusement and intrigue. Heedless of collateral damage, the artist must go where inspiration takes him, be it excessive physical transformation, unsafe working conditions, or downright hostile behavior.
In contrast, the discourse around female and queer-driven art tends to focus on the artist’s persona or lack thereof. And while it happens to men, public tolerance for poor conduct tends to be much higher, whereas any deviation from “acceptable” female behavior (especially women of color) can incite rancor and professional repercussions.
Take, for example, Vanessa Williams, who was forced to rescind her 1984 Miss America crown after nude photos of her were released to Penthouse without her consent, or more recently, the 2010s’ obsession with hating a then-thirteen-year-old Rebecca Black. Justin Timberlake famously got off easy for Nipplegate, but the same cannot be said for Janet Jackson. Frequently, the “sins” of female celebrities are nothing more than an outgrowth of women gaining power, prestige, or wealth and lacking sufficient deference for the strangers who gifted it to them.
It took less than a year of Olivia Rodrigo’s supernova-like fame to wear on the public, first for writing too much about boys and heartbreak, and then for supposedly parroting the likes of Elvis Costello, Taylor Swift, and Paramore. In 2018, Serena Williams couldn’t wear a catsuit without inciting controversy. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino and Dave Chappelle remain pillars of their art forms, warts and all. They can double down on problematic behavior and still retain “genius” status, while the cultural forgiveness for women is razor-thin. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t hold queer and female artists accountable for their actions—it’s imperative we do—but let’s not pretend calling Olivia Rodrigo “unorginal” is productive.
That being said, we should not be required to like our favorite artists in addition to the work they produce. For one, no amount of social media activity can replace actually meeting somebody. And if it could, there’d still be tremendous potential for us to be disappointed. Regardless, there’s an unspoken social contract between the artist and their supporters. When we buy their book, wear their merch, or put on their comedy special, we’re betting their work isn’t a product of misconduct. So when those same artists break the contract, we contend with their work.
Previous long-time favorites, those few men who espouse allyship in their work, can betray us (I’m looking at you, Joss Whedon), leaving us to wrestle with icons who failed to live up to their doctrine. As I write this, I think of the 1965 Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, a 96-minute snapshot of the then-23-year-old person behind the poet. But Bob Dylan, the person, leaves more than a little to be desired: he’s tetchy and cocksure at best (as in an altercation with folk-rival Donovan) and at worst casually cruel. I think of the scene when he and his friends mock an interviewer, a young science student, for being striving and lower class.
For a man whose work espoused equality, his actions strike me as hypocritical yet horribly familiar. I am reminded of men I have gone to bed with, men I have worked with, men I at one point called friends—mythic figures with disappointingly ordinary problems. When you pull at the threads, the entire illusion unravels; there’s just no there there—the emperor never had any clothes from the start. “I’m just a guitar player,” Dylan says to a reporter. “That’s all.” Dylan’s protest poetry cannot equate to actual protest, but it’s tempting to mistake it for the real deal.
Ultimately, Strong seems to have bought into a myth constructed by his heroes and their very manly (usually white) works of art. Their talent (or so the myth goes) is not the fruit of hard work but something thrust upon them for better or worse. It overtakes them; their hands, minds, and hearts are mere vessels through which a god-like figure communicates divine truths. By association, they ascend to demigod status, avatars for a singular, masculine vision—a vision of a world by and for men like them. Such myths encourage a lack of accountability, and ignorance, like genius, can be weaponized. When inspiration seizes him, all bets are off—he can be forgetful, unprepared, cruel, or even dangerous. Those around him must bend to his every whim for the sake of a world made in his image.
Apart from a few exceptions (Lorde and Amanda Gorman come to mind) there is, at least in the public imagination, no such thing as a female prodigy. When there is, we like to call her “Ingenue,” then sit back and wait for her to fuck up. I can think of hardly any examples who have managed to retain uninterrupted public respect. For all the feminist movement has progressed in the past decade, and for all the retrospectives on maligned women of the ‘90s (see, most recently, Pam & Tommy), a young woman under capitalism is still, first and foremost, a thing to be consumed.
Her counterpoint is the Boy Genius (lately reclaimed by the all-female indie band boygenius): a modern wunderkind plucked from obscurity and hailed for a good long while. If he manages to surpass the awkward transition between boy and man, doesn’t spend all his money, and keeps addiction at bay (even then, it’s not a deal-breaker), he’ll age like a fine wine. Where the Ingenue must reinvent herself thousands of times over, it’s nothing but smooth sailing for the Boy Genius. He can use the same old schtick until it’s dead and gone, and one masterpiece is currency enough to coast for decades.
He could turn serious like Leo, or sexy like Harry. He can work forever like P.T.A, become a Zaddy like Brad, or hold an air of well-earned tragedy under his belt and utilize it for his next tour-de-force performance like Joaquin. He might be a singer or an actor, a mathematician, a CEO, your favorite guitarist, novelist, director, or poet. Wielding his craft like a gun, we cower at his fame and awesomeness. True, he’s skilled; he might even be brilliant. He might write women and queer characters with empathy and finesse. He might even be a good person. But a poet, for all he might resemble a prophet, is only a man—and powerful men have a remarkable knack for disappointing us.
Illustration by Robyn Phelps