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Jerk Geniuses

Is anyone else sick of the jerk genius?

You know the one. He’s unprofessional, lazy, selfish and rude, and even makes frequent sexist and racist remarks against the people around him, but that’s OK, because he’s a genius. He’s the best doctor/detective/scientist around, so everyone will put up with his jerkitude. Respect for others is the foolish pastime of the less intelligent.

We’re clearly meant to admire these (exclusively male) characters, or at least be amused by their social ineptitude. Their dismissive attitude to others, and especially their sexist jokes to others, are aspirations. They’re geniuses, observant and intelligent. They are just telling it like it is!

Which is one of the reasons I really love Sherlock Holmes in new CBS drama, Elementary. Yes, he’s a genius, and yes, he’s kind of a jerk at times. But he isn’t allowed to get away with it. His rudeness, his laziness… these are clearly character flaws, and his (female!) partner isn’t afraid to call him on his nonsense. And in return, he says things he shouldn’t, but he also respects her, he listens to her, and he even apologizes for things that he does. He isn’t a genius running rampant in the city, above the concerns of all the other silly humans. He’s an intelligent, observant, but flawed human, and he has to follow the same laws of decency as the rest of us.

Not only does Elementary modernize the story by partnering Sherlock with an Asian-American woman, it also allows them to actually be partners, with different strengths and weaknesses, different knowledge bases, and a complete unwillingness to take the other’s crap.


Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

8 thoughts on “Jerk Geniuses

  1. Yeah! I was just talking the other day about how much more I like Miller’s Sherlock than Cumberbatch’s. He’s a lot more sympathetic, whereas the Moffat Sherlock is so distant, you can’t ever bring yourself to pity him or feel happy for him or anything. Then again, what can you expect from Steven Moffat?

  2. I hate the Jerk Genius trope because only a White man could get away with it. A woman or person of color doing the same thing (especially if their actions skirt the edge of ethical or legal) would NOT be viewed as a rebel who has the guts to go outside the rules to get results, but as a threat.

    1. Yes, the Jerk Genius Trope is annoying and I agree whole-heartedly with the article, but I’d like to point out that there are female “Jerk Geniuses” in the media as well, it’s not exclusively cis white male. For example Temperance Brennan from Bones and Christina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy…

      1. I dont watch Gray’s Anatomy but I beg to differ that Brennan is anything close to being Rude Genius like Sheldon Cooper for example. She’s a genius, she has rude or unempahic moments but not… “that much and like this”…

      2. Dr. Brennan is meant to display traits of Aspergers. She isn’t a jerk, she shows a lot of caring and respect for other people. She often has trouble empathizing and intellectualizes things, which makes her flawed in a way characters like (early) Dr. House don’t appear to be.

  3. I really want to be friends with the author of this article. Because this was an amazing essay and I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts on the “jerk Genius”!

  4. Have you read Mallory Ortberg’s hot (well… by now, cooling) take on the anti-Sherlock?
    I too, feel that the jerk genius vein is a bit mined out. But everyone wants to be smarter than they are, and everyone wants to be able to get away with more than they can, so these hypercompetent d-bags are convenient hooks that fantasy can be hung upon. Who wants to fantasize about being more hardworking and compassionate?

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