Sadly, the portrayal of gifted individuals in popular media is not always correct or positive.  Rather, the media tends to reinforce stereotypes and send the message that the highly gifted are not normal.  Gifted individuals or geniuses in pop culture have an unbelievably high IQ, exaggerated behavior or personality traits, elicit conversation, interests in obscure topics, rattle off statistics and calculations, play chess, read thick books, seem blunt and insensitive, some level of arrogance, emotionally detached, logical-minded, etc…  The media’s insistence on reinforcing stereotypes is not helping how the gifted are perceived by others.  Instead, people are sometimes describing gifted children based on which TV character they think the child is more like.

Pink or Paris? Giftedness in Popular Culture” is a research paper from the University of Wollongong in Australia that analyzed the portrayal of gifted in the media.  Their analysis found that gifted young people are often stereotypically portrayed as studious, non-sporting and not popular and that gifted programs are portrayed as undesirable settings with obnoxious characters.  They also found that the terms used for someone who is gifted are largely negative such as freak, geek, egghead, nerd, or brain.  In addition, they found gifted portrayed doing stereotypical activities such as maths, science, chess, debate, art, band or after-school classes.  In the journal Gifted Today, there is an article by Jennifer Cox called “Amadeus to Young Einstein: Modern Cinema and its Portrayal of Gifted Learners.”  Her research also found that gifted characters are presented as abnormalities or oddities. In other words, the media is reinforcing negative stereotypes and missing the broadness of giftedness or the fact that the gifted are everyday people.

Here are just some “gifted” characters from various TV & Movies that many people know about:

  • Doogie Howser from Doogie Howser, MD
  • Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang
  • John Nash from Beautiful Mind
  • Will Hunting from Good Will Hunting
  • Lisa from the Simpsons
  • Daria Morgendorffer from Daria
  • Hermione Granger and Harry Potter from Harry Potter
  • Cordelia from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Calvin and Susie from Calvin and Hobbes
  • Angus MacGyver from MacGyver
  • Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds
  • Mike Ross from Suits
  • Michael Scofield from Prison Break
  • Walter White from Breaking Bad
  • Gregory House from House
  • Walter Bishop from Fringe
  • Sherlock Holmes from Sherlock
  • The Professor from Gilligan’s Island
  • Professor Farnsworth from Futurama
  • Malcolm from Malcolm in the Middle
  • Lex Luthor from Smallville
  • Stewie Griffin from Family Guy
  • Benjamin Linus from Lost
  • Steve Urkel from Family Matters
  • Mr. Spock from Star Trek
  • Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation

Here is a list of movies specifically about “geniuses” (Hoagies’ has an even longer list of movies featuring gifted kids or adults.):

  • The Imitation Game
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Limitless
  • August Rush
  • Copenhagen
  • A Beautiful Mind
  • Finding Forrester
  • October Sky
  • The Legend of 1900
  • Pi
  • Goodwill Hunting
  • Shine
  • Searching for Bobby Fischer
  • Rain Man
  • Amadeus
  • Little Man Tate
  • Gifted Hands
  • Pollock
  • My Left Foot
  • Tim’s Vermeer
  • The Fountainhead
  • Finding Neverland
  • The Soloist
  • Kindergarten Teacher
  • Dead Poets Society
  • Pawn Sacrifice
  • Crumb
  • A Brilliant Young Mind
  • Proof

Here is a list of TV shows about geniuses:

  • Pretender
  • Rubicon
  • Fringe
  • House
  • The Big Bang Theory
  • Sherlock
  • Suits
  • Dexter
  • The Mentalist
  • White Collar
  • Monk
  • Numbers
  • Unforgettable
  • Scorpion
  • Lies to Me

Another portrayal of the gifted is the international trend of making gifted children compete against each other to see who is the “real” genius.  In America, the show is called “Child Genius.”  In fact, the parent group we are part of received emails looking for candidates for their reality show.  We wanted no part of it for many reasons.  There are other shows like this in the works.  The problem is, these shows exploit gifted children and perpetuate the myth that parents “hothouse” their children and made them that way.  Amy Harrington has an excellent blog about this called “Child Genius: How Media Distorts & Exploits Gifted Children.”  Elizabeth Meckstroth and Kathi Kearney wrote an article for Hoagies’ called “Indecent Exposure: Does the Media Exploit Highly Gifted Children?” that also address similar points and even gives tips for handling the media.

In print media such as newspapers and magazines, there tends to be a more accurate presentation because they often give factual stories of gifted children and early college entrance, musical performances, or athletic victories.  In addition, there appears to be a rise in educational articles regarding the failure of the current gifted and talented programs in both the identification of students (especially of minority and low socioeconomic status) and providing services (lack of funding and lack of appropriateness).  Historically, this may not have been the case.

Joan Lewis and Frances Lewis wrote the article “A Portrayal of the Gifted in Magazines: An Initial Analysisafter researching the number of articles per year from 1982 to 1996 that focussed on gifted and talented children.  They found the most articles existed in 1984 at 12% of all articles.  However, in 1996, they only found 3% of all articles focussed on gifted and talented children.  They also found that articles were mostly in education related magazines.  They also found few articles dealing with the needs of gifted and talented individuals and made recommendations for this source of media to be better used.  Sadly, I could not find a follow-up study to see how the numbers changed.  Based on the rise of social media it certainly seems like there has a been a rise in articles about gifted and talented children and their educational needs.

The following is a list of magazines or journals that are dedicated to gifted and talented education:

  • Twice-Exceptional Newsletter
  • Creative Kids
  • Gifted Child Quarterly
  • Gifted Child Today
  • Gifted Children Monthly
  • Imagine
  • Journal for the Education of the Gifted
  • Journal of Advanced Academics
  • Roeper Review
  • Understanding Our Gifted

In addition to TV, movies, and magazines there are also books with characters who are gifted.  With books, there is a significantly broader portrayal of gifted.  Hoagies’ has a list of books for children featuring gifted children.  Bertie Kingor also has a list of books with gifted characters.   

It should be noted that many books are used by gifted children to find characters that they can relate with or have similar struggles.  Our son enjoyed these book series with gifted characters:

  • George’s Secret Key to the Universe (series by Lucy & Stephen Hawking)
  • Nick and Tesla (series by Bob Pflugfelder & Steve Hockensmith)
  • Frank Einstein (series by Jon Scieszka)
  • House of Robots (series by Jon Patterson)
  • Journal of a Cardboard Genius (series by Frank Asch)
  • Uncle Albert (series by Russell Stannard)

If you are truly interested in debunking media myth about the gifted, check out these resources:


This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on “Giftedness in Popular Culture, Positive & Negative.”  I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page and elsewhere for their inspiration, support, and suggestions.

Please click on the graphic below (created by Pamela S Ryan–thanks!) to see the other Hoagies’ Blog Hop participants, or cut and paste this URL into your browser: