“Genius” is a show, like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” that couldn’t be more timely. It’s a show that focuses on Albert Einstein’s life–from his adolescence into his famed adulthood, exploring both his scientific successes and his romantic failures–as well as his life during rise of fascism and Nazism.
The National Geographic adaptation is based on Walter Isaacson’s book “Einstein: His Life and Universe” and Einstein is played by Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn. During a time where the U.S. is experiencing political strife, it couldn’t be more apt, especially since women’s rights are under attack–and when anti-Semitism is on the rise.
But more than just a look at the young genius’s experience in turbulent times, it’s also a window into what women’s lives were like decades ago—and how hard it was for smart women to be taken seriously, and succeed. The show expertly illustrates two things: Showing the rise of anti-Semitism–and showing the sexism so prevalent at the time–particularly in the behavior of Einstein himself.
Einstein is seen traversing German streets, at times brave and confident, wanting to stand up to the Nazis in 1930s Berlin–and then, finally, resigning himself to the fact that Nazis were there to stay, a realization he experienced when he saw Jewish men beaten on the street, and a Nazi youth recognize him in a crowd. That’s when he makes the move to America to teach at Princeton.
The sexism theme shows up more subtly, but no less strongly. In the first episode of the show, this theme is set when he is told by a lover (who he is having an affair with, since he’s already married to Elsa, his second wife):
“For a man who is an expert on the universe, you don’t know the first thing about people, do you?”
It’s not so much that Einstein doesn’t know the first thing about people, but the fact that women’s needs and rights were secondary to his own, as a man and a scientist.
The theme is supported, quite successfully, with the glimpse we get into his first wife, Mileva Maric’s life–her isolating journey into pursuing her own scientific degree in a time where women in academics were rare.
She is constantly overshadowed by her male counterparts in class, because her professors refuse to take her seriously, not because she can’t perform–she actually beat Einstein’s own math score when admitted into university.
Even though Einstein says he is in love with her mind, and wants to be with a woman who can discuss deep matters with him (which sure, is “commendable” for a time where his friends say “wives aren’t for that”), Einstein still doesn’t get it.
Instead, his career comes first, even though she becomes pregnant with his child while they are unmarried and needs his support. Her career, like many women even today, is put on hold for her family. Einstein doesn’t have to choose. She does. This is true of Maric’s real life—she never published a scientific paper or ever was able to finish her degree, although it is rumored that she helped Einstein in his own papers.
While some scholars tend to pooh pooh the idea of Maric’s influence over Einstein’s work, I can’t help but question that tendency as a form of subtle sexism. It’s not a secret she was brilliant, and was his classmate–and even if she didn’t actually write passages, it would be remiss to think she and Einstein didn’t discuss his ideas, and in some way, influence him.
This, of course, also makes sense as to why Einstein agreed to give Maric the earnings from his 1925 Nobel Prize in their divorce proceedings. Scientific American also poses the point that Maric may have agreed to a supporting role initially (as in December 1900, they submitted an article on capillarity signed only under his name), as a way to help him get a job so he could marry her in the first place (which is also reflected in letters they both sent to friends):
“Mileva wrote to Helene Savić on 20 December 1900. ‘We will send a private copy to Boltzmann to see what he thinks and I hope he will answer us.’ Likewise, Albert wrote to Mileva on 4 April 1901, saying that his friend Michele Besso ‘visited his uncle on my behalf, Prof. Jung, one of the most influential physicists in Italy and gave him a copy of our article.’
Radmila Milentijević, a former history professor at City College in New York, published in 2015 Mileva’s most comprehensive biography. She suggests that Mileva probably wanted to help Albert make a name for himself, such that he could find a job and marry her. Dord Krstić, a former physics professor at Ljubljana University, spent 50 years researching Mileva’s life. In his well-documented book, he suggests that given the prevalent bias against women at the time, a publication co-signed with a woman might have carried less weight.”
The show does a spectacular job at illuminating Einstein’s own sexism, and shining a light on the fact that the women in Einstein’s life suffer because of his carelessness and narcissism, illustrating that, of course, everyone has a dark side and few people can fully transcend their times–even geniuses.