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April 7, 2017

Maybe it’s just personal. Having grown up within academic mathematics, I bristle whenever some pop culture story uses mathematical talent as shorthand for “brilliant in some way inaccessible to Mere Mortals.” It’s a lazy move on the part of a writer who doesn’t want to bother engaging with the details of a character’s intelligence; a way of saying “they’re smart, now shut up.” That’s certainly the case in Gifted, and writer Tom Flynn’s use of math as a casual shorthand leads him into some truly ugly places for such a smarmy story.

The talented character is Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), a little girl being raised by her uncle, Frank (Chris Evans) in some southern backwater. Mary bristles at the idea of going to school, preferring to stay at home with her uncle and their cat, the latter conveniently one-eyed for easy identification later. When he makes her go, she immediately impresses her teacher, Miss Stevenson (Evans’ then-girlfriend Jenny Slate), who tries to convince Frank to get Mary a scholarship to a private school specializing in gifted students.

But Frank is having none of that; he insists Mary stay in a regular school, with regular kids. Because, as it turns out, Mary’s mother was also a math prodigy. And her mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), was also a mathematician, who set her sights on the Navier-Stokes problem — it’s a math thing; don’t worry about it; Flynn certainly didn’t beyond copying a press release — like her very own white whale. Evelyn wants to push Mary into advanced courses as soon as possible, in the hopes that she will succeed where her mother failed, while Frank fears that Evelyn’s domineering was exactly what led to his sister’s suicide.

Setting aside all the ways that Flynn clearly has no idea how mathematical research works — talented mathematicians and “human calculators” are almost never the same people; subfields are not interchangeable, and talent in one area can’t be expected to work on problems in another area — the whole story turns on the fundamental assumption that there is no middle ground between basic public school classes and a supercharged scholastic hothouse. And, beside that, there’s the idea that gifted children won’t stand out as different among their public school age-peers; that it’s even possible for a child as profoundly gifted as Mary to have a “normal” childhood just by being placed among “normal” children. It’s the sort of nonsense only someone who has never shown a single shred of academic talent could buy.

But most dangerous of all is the way all of this interacts toxically with what I’m sure was intended as a very well-meaning choice on Flynn’s part: making Mary, her mother, and her grandmother all women. On paper, there’s something to be said for increasing representation of women in technical fields, though on some level this feels like it’s as much about shaking up audience expectations as normalizing women in mathematics. Because it’s not just showing women with mathematical talent, it’s characterizing them. And how are they characterized? women mathematicians are either frigid ice-queen bitches or suicidally depressed over their failure to relate to “normal” people. The story, in fact, is about how Mary must be carefully sheltered from the deleterious effects that mathematics can have on her poor little female brain.

It’s all the old sexist arguments for keeping women out of the academy, repackaged into a cute little girl reciting some lines the screenwriter obviously doesn’t understand anyway, and with a Sassy Black Lady™ (Octavia Spencer) to add a sheen of normal-folks authenticity. It’s toxic garbage that’s too stupid to realize the damage it can cause, sold to an audience that isn’t inclined to think about it any more than its makers did.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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