If anyone in figure skating can be called a genius, it’s Evgenia Medvedeva. But “genius” is a loaded word, and the way we apply it says a lot about whose art we value.
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This episode was inspired by Emily Atkin’s excellent article “The Sexism of Genius” in The New Republic.
Full transcript under the cut.
Hi, I’m E.C. Marcon and this is Church and Carlton, a bi-weekly podcast about the intersection of sports and life in Toronto.
I was never really much of a figure skating fan before this year.
I mean, I loved Tessa and Scott like everybody else and was always transfixed by it during the Olympics, but it was something I would forget about and rediscover every four years.
But the 2018 Pyeongchang Games made me into a fan for several reasons, not the least which was the Olympic debut of Russian skater Evgenia Medvedeva.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because the two-time silver medalist became the centre of controversy when her flawless Anna Karenina-inspired free skate was beaten out for gold by teammate Alina Zagitova’s. It sparked a debate over whether Zagitova’s technical mastery was objectively better than Medvedeva’s breathtaking artistry.
This is not a new debate in figure skating by any means, but the general consensus this time around was that while Zagitova may have been the better skater in the final, Medvedeva has…it. Je ne said quoi. X factor. A rare gift or innate talent. Divine inspiration. Genius.
It’s a loaded word, “genius.” Stephen Hawking, perhaps the quintessential embodiment of the word, hated it.
And now that Evgenia Medvedeva is living and training in Toronto, I think it’s a term that’s worth exploring in the context of female athletes.
As Emily Atkin wrote in The New Republic after Stephen Hawking’s death,”young women tend not to see themselves as geniuses—or being capable of becoming geniuses.”
This isn’t just a vague assertion – there is a veritable truckload of science to back it up.
In 2015, Swedish gender studies professor Hillevi Ganetz released the results of a study on the media’s treatment of Nobel laureates. Besides the fact that only 6% of all Nobel laureates are female, female laureates are almost never described in the media as geniuses and their work is rarely discussed. Through her research, Ganetz found the female Nobel laureates were asked over and over about topics like work-life balance, motherhood, their husbands, and their clothing choices for the awards ceremony. Male laureates, however, were asked about their research, their process, and their inspirations.
Over time, a pattern emerged: women who had won Nobel prizes were portrayed as hard workers who’d achieved success through sacrificing a traditional maternal role. But the men were invariably described as geniuses.
Hillevi Ganetz is not the first sociologist to realize this – not by a longshot. There are countless studies that show we inherently associate the term “genius” with men, and that popular culture tends to portray genius as something innate and god-given. Think Sherlock or House. It’s to the point where researchers at the University of Kentucky found that by age six, most girls believe that boys are naturally smarter.
So where does that leave women in sports, a world where they’re already ignored and undervalued to begin with? In hockey, pundits always talk about “Hockey IQ” or “hockey sense” and how it’s something you can’t teach. And most major sports have a similar term for that elusive it factor that elevates certain players above the rank-and-file.
Figure skating, however, is often dismissed as “not a real sport” or “for girls” and so the women who excel at it are rarely talked about in mainstream sports media in the first place. But when it comes to “figure skating IQ” or “god-given talent” or whatever you want to call it, there is no doubt that Evgenia Medvedeva has it in abundance.
This is somebody who is changing their sport, a generational talent who is able to marry athleticism and artistry and make it look effortless. And she almost never gets any credit for being an artist, even though it’s obvious from the minute she takes the ice that you’re watching someone special.
During the Olympics, Hillevi Ganitz was proved right over and over again as the media focussed on Medvedeva’s love of stuffed animals and boy bands and a supposed rivalry with her protegee Alina Zagitova. How did she get into character for her emotional free skate? Why did she choose to lipsynch during her gala performance knowing it would add an extra level of difficulty? How did she master the incredibly difficult art of jumping with her arms above her head?
We don’t know any of that. Because instead of focussing on her obvious intelligence and ferocious drive to succeed, most Olympic coverage seemed bent on reassuring us that she was a harmless little girl.
Which is not to say theres something wrong with being a little girl, but girlhood and genius are not mutually exclusive. And at the end of the day, Evgenia Medvedeva is a genius.
Church and Carlton is written and produced by me, E.C. Marcon. Original music by the great Josh Labelle.
If you liked what you heard, and I hope you did, check out my website at www.churchandcarlton.net There, you’ll find links to my Patreon and social media.
We’ll be back with a brand-new episode in two weeks. It will be our season finale. Until then, I’m E.C. Marcon and I know I’ve said this one before but oh my god, people. I don’t care how hot it is – do not take your shoes off on the patio.