The Mad Genius Trope

Many writers link mental illness with some brilliantly minded form of genius. Think Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lecter, and even Dr. Frankenstein. From the depths of madness, there is art and music and literary beauty. But there’s something wrong with this trope, and I’ve fallen into it too and I’m trying my best to remedy that to avoid any such cliches. I apologize.

It’s a stereotype.

The “eccentric artist” or the “mad genius” concept has been tossed around in film and popular literature for so long that it’s become a cliché. It basically states that every artist, from composer Mozart to poet Sylvia Plath, went mad, tortured for years by their own genius. Sure, there are multiple examples of “mad genius”: the painter Van Gogh cut off his own ear to gift it to a prostitute. Sylvia Plath, the famous writer, tragically, suffered intense depression and, ultimately, suicide. The actor and comedian, Robin Williams, also battled with mental illness and, in the end, lost. Yet the question remains: why do we romanticize/stigmatize the “mad genius” trope and insist that creativity and mental illness are inevitably linked?

We can cause great harm to both creatives and the mentally ill by wrongly associating creativity with mental illness. People would believe that the mad genius trope is true because the American public, or the public worldwide, has romanticized mental illness within books and film. The romanticizing approach to mental illness is the figure of the “mad genius”: the savant, the severely depressed artist, the schizophrenic mathematician.

For romanticization in movies, it’s Rain Man for people with autism, Van Gogh documentaries starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and A Beautiful Mind about a prize-winning mathematician who hallucinates about conspiracy theories and secret army bases. But that romanticization feeds into the mental illness stigma because these movies do both romanticizing and stigmatizing. The films portray the mentally ill main characters as being tragic heroes who inevitably have a violent breakdown. Raymond in Rain Man nearly kills his younger brother by accidental drowning, Van Gogh self-mutilates, and John Nash, the schizophrenic mathematician, has a breakdown and nearly kills his wife and child.

This romanticization/stigmatization isn’t linked to film. Tell-all TV gossip shows broadcast the startling confessions of beloved celebrities and artists, showing how heroic the subject was as they battled against mental illness, utilizing their art as a form of escape, like following Robert Downey Jr. with a watchful eye as he battled drug and alcohol addictions. This “mad genius” fascination is by no means restricted to the present day. In the past, artists were often called “immoral and depraved” by their critics since artists were vocal politically and, often, radical in their beliefs. Look within the French salons of the French Revolution era. See why artists might get a bad reputation as madmen in a time where the choice was: act in a way that the masses approve, or be guillotined. One such victim was Olympe de Gouges, famous playwright, was an outspoken abolitionist and feminist who was, unfortunately, indésirable.

Looking at this as a skeptic instead of a romantic, some obvious questions come to mind. How does culture play a role on affecting how one person’s “mad habit” is perfectly normal in another country? Was the time critical of something we find sane today, such as Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality? The data points we need require experiments that require psychologically evaluating a grouping of exceptional, even genius, artists to see if they’re different than the rest of us. One must entertain the mind of a skeptic for a while and think on the wholly unromantic realities of mental illness to realize that this trope isn’t just clichéd; it’s potentially dangerous to its victims. As mentioned above, the “mad genius” is unfortunately portrayed as violent within TV shows, movies, and literature, a threat to society.

The experiments that were conducted in recent years that challenge whether mentally-ill people have more creativity included an experiment where Nobel Laureates, psychiatric patients, and art students were gauged on their creative skills. Still, using this creativity test, the Nobel Laureates were found to be the most creative, followed by the art students, and then the psychiatric patients. Yet, this experiment is flawed because no psychiatric evaluation was conducted on either the art students or the Nobel Laureates, assuming they were in full possession of their mental capabilities. As a skeptic, there simply aren’t enough credible experiments to state whether the “mad genius” trope linking creativity/mental illness possesses truth or is a total sham.

I think it’s reasonable to believe that there’s truth in the statement in that, when somebody is afflicted by mental illness, they might choose to pursue a creative hobby to cope with their symptoms. Yet, though many writers, artists, singers, and other such creative geniuses might suffer from alcoholism or depression, that could easily just be a result of constant social stigma and feeling neglected by their peers. The mentally ill and creative people should not be subjected to the “mad genius” trope or romanticized because that leads to the dangerous stigma of the mentally ill being unusually violent. Until the attitudes towards both creatives/geniuses and mental illness change, the link will be forged between them, unfair, yet persistent.






Works Cited

Abraham, A. (2015). Editorial: Madness and Creativity: yes, no or maybe? Frontiers in

Psychology, 6. Retrieved January 23, 2017.


Waddell, C. (1998). Creativity and Mental Illness: Is There a Link? Can J Psychiatry, 43.

Retrieved January 23, 2017.


Wolframe, P. M. (n.d.). The Madwoman in the Academy, or, Revealing the Invisible

Straightjacket: Theorizing and Teaching Saneism and Sane Privilege | Wolframe |

Disability Studies Quarterly. Retrieved January 31, 2017, from

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