I’ve been watching “The big Bang Theory” for several weeks now. I tell myself this is an experiment, an immersion in mass pop culture (haha!). Even though I love the show (and I love that it often sends me to Google to look up things like the Holographic Principle), I, like a lot of people, really struggled with some of the show’s assumptions about intelligence, gender and race.
I’ll start with the first thing that bothered me about the show: the way it defines “intelligence.” Now, I love Sheldon as much as the next person, and the painful contradiction between his social ineptitude and his physics genius is one of the show’s fulcra. As a character, Jim Parsons manages to sell Sheldon because he’s just so strange and unique that he stands in his own category. The same can’t be said of Leonard. To the extent that a show like “The Big Bang Theory” has an everyman (and it does, even while it posits that its “everyman” is an intellectual deviant), then that Everyman is Leonard. Together (and not alone!) Leonard and Sheldon create a portrait of “intelligent people” dominated by (A) deep knowledge of the hard sciences (B) a tendency to correct everyone around them (C) an inability to recognize when they’re being socially grating (D) a lack of perceptiveness regarding social cues (related to c, but broader in scope) and (E) sexual desperation (well, Leonard, anyway). Unlike Sheldon, who sees his ‘intelligence’ as superseding his human needs, Leonard openly struggles to reconcile his intellectual abilities (which are, in the show’s universe, perceived as alienating to those around him) with his desire for human companionship.
I can accept (A) because I realize that this show is about a particular kind of nerd, but what I dislike is the way in which the show makes invisible all forms of intelligence beyond physics know-how. There’s a moment when Penny asks Sheldon if Leonard has ever dated a woman who isn’t a genius. Sheldon responds that at one point, Leonard dated a woman with a PhD in French literature. Penny, of course, wants to know how exactly this woman wasn’t a genius. Sheldon says (I’m paraphrasing) something like “Well for one thing she was French. For another, it’s literature.” Haha, except that Sheldon’s mentality isn’t actually a joke. Growing up, I also classified certain subjects as more seriously intellectual than others. Sheldon doesn’t make this distinction because he’s smart, he makes it because that’s part of the snobbery of our culture. We classify certain forms of knowledge as more deserving of praise and admiration than others. Much like in “The Big Bang Theory,” in the real world, these perceptions of “rigor” are often deeply gendered. Which brings me to…
Oh god. Where to even begin? I have friends who are female graduate students at MIT who refuse to watch this show because of the way it treats gender (which, btw, is a major loss for the show’s creators because that is a big demographic for geek culture!). I really enjoy the show, but I’m starting to think that it hates women. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I have never seen a mainstream show that explicitly and subtextually hates women as much as “The Big Bang Theory.” This is such a serious issue that I’m going to break it into categories.
The all-male sacred circle
Not since the famously sex-phobic JRR Tolkien wrote the “Fellowship of the Ring” has there been a circle of male friends more decidedly defined by their exclusion of women than the characters on the “the Big Bang Theory.” The show’s friendship dynamic (even as the characters age) is defined by the fact that everything the guys do is typed as “male”, as opposed to what goes on in the “female” world. This aggressive gender-ing isn’t just unfunny, it’s homophobic and (I’d argue) unnecessary. Even when the show later adds really funny female characters (Bernadette and Amy) it sticks them in some weird ghetto of “female humor” where all they do is talk to each other awkwardly about menstruation and suffer inappropriate sexual urges towards each other. (Like, what?) Amy is a great character, and except for the first few episodes after she appears, we basically never get to see her interact with any of the show’s male characters besides Sheldon. Why? Why is her knowledge of neurobiology basically limited to remarks about her ovaries? How many damn jokes about jealous female primates throwing their poop at each other can one show contain? (An infinitely expanding number, apparently) Same goes for Bernadette. We really only see her with Howard, being the cute wife who makes him human. Why?
Sexual harassment as amusing and acceptable quirk
So, pretty much everyone agrees (or at least, everyone I’ve met agrees) that the Howard Walowitz character (while excellently acted) is really neither funny nor interesting. Howard is a creep, a fact that all the people in the show agree upon. And yet, one of the show’s main premises is that Howard is only creepy because he acts on the urges that everyone else keeps buttoned down. There’s an episode in Season 2 called the “The Terminator Decoupling”, in which the characters run into sci-fi actress Summer Glau on a train. She’s gorgeous, of course, and the guys freak out. Leonard, Howard and Raj spend the next twenty-five minutes taking turns verbally harassing her. This despite the fact that she is clearly uncomfortable, not enjoying their company, and saying things like “please leave me alone.” Somehow, this sort of behavior is amusing because these guys are nerds who can’t get laid? Um, no thanks bro. (This episode is one of the show’s more egregious examples of this trope, but Howard engages in this kind of behavior throughout the show.) At one promising point in the early seasons, Penny calls Howard out on being a total sleazeball. He falls into a sad downward ego spiral, from which Penny is pressured by the other characters to reassure and recover him (WHY?) She does this by going to his house (how is this safe behavior?) and then trying to cheer him up. She doesn’t take back what she said, but she doesn’t really press her point either. So instead the show leaves us in this weird limbo, where Howard gets punched for being creepy (yay) but doesn’t really learn anything and neither do we (he ends the episode by saying that he views Penny’s punching him as being “halfway to pity sex.” Funny? Kind of. But also stupid.)
Homophobic jokes at Raj’s expense
Ok so, because of the whole “sacred male circle” thing going on above, and because of “warrior bonds between men” or whatever, the show is constantly at pains to show us that the characters are not gay. I classify this as hatred of women, because a lot of times, the show’s gags are less about homosexuality than about men who display behavior that the characters typify as female.
Nowhere is this woman-hating-homophobia thing more evident than in the treatment of Raj. Raj & Howard are both played by great actors doing a great job with the shitty, shitty material handed them. (Imagine what Picasso would have created if he’d been trapped on an island where the only artistic materials available to him were toothpaste and dung, and you’ll get a sense of what’s going on.) Not only is Raj painfully unfunny, he’s just painful most of the time. Raj is one of those guys who loves things that characters on the show think are “girly.” He worries about his weight (he has “fat pants” and brings low-calorie beer to a guys night), he cooks for other people (at one point, he makes an elaborate dessert for a girl he’s dating) and he watches Sandra Bullock movies. Because of this behavior, Raj is relentlessly mocked for being gay. Basically, one of the show’s running gags is the kind of elementary school playground bullying that today’s more Internet-conscious parents are trying to train their kids out of. How is that OK?? And how do the creators get away with it? Because the characters are supposedly “smart”? If this show were about uneducated people living in a small rural town, would “Raj’s gay personality” still be treated as an uncritical source of humor? I don’t think so. Then there are the problematic qualities themselves. Apparently, caring about your appearance and wanting to make good food for other people are things that real men don’t do, in the world of the “Big Bang Theory.”
Need I really address this one? The fact that Penny is presented as “stupid” is weird. I actually don’t think Penny is supposed to be stupid at all, even in the eyes of the creators. She’s just too witty and with it. But the guys never address why they think Penny is unintelligent (she doesn’t understand homeostasis? She refers to Leonard’s lasers as “high techy-techy”?) or whether this perception is reasonable.
Because Penny is supposed to be stupid, this show says something interesting about male-female relationships through the Leonard-Penny pairing. Neither the show nor its characters ever really take a critical look at (A) Penny’s supposed lack of intelligence or (B) the fact that Leonard is still madly in love with her, despite the fact that he thinks she’s an idiot.
There is nothing wrong with a character dating someone who has a different level of education from their own. But the show should demonstrate that Leonard believes Penny to be his equal in the mental realm. Clearly she keeps him entertained and amused, right? The show doesn’t really explore the Leonard-Penny dynamic beyond the basic. We (the audience) are supposed to assume that Leonard likes Penny solely because she’s hot. And yet their relationship continues for years, and Leonard never loses interest. Who’s the idiot again?
This is really all about Raj, and where I get into my Raj rants full-stream. So, I hate what the show’s writers have done with Raj. It’s lazy and possibly criminal. First off, Raj is the show’s biggest romantic failure. Sheldon starts dating Amy, Leonard starts dating Penny, and Howard gets married. Raj, meanwhile, dates a deaf girl briefly. That’s it. The new Raj joke in town is that Raj is pathologically lonely. This sort of joke wouldn’t ever be funny, and it’s just awkward and sad even on TV.
There is nothing novel about depicting Asian men as romantic failures or sexual nonentities. TV has been doing that for ages. On the rare occasions that Raj does pick up a woman at a bar, it’s because she’s fascinated by his “exotic Indian accent.” Seriously? At one point, he engages in a Bollywood dance routine in his head. This is all very amusing, but I’m in Season Six and I’ve yet to see Raj as anything other than some unholy nexus of “de-masculinized + Asian + weirdo.”
Interestingly, it’s hard not to read “the Big Bang Theory” in light of the interesting ways in which computer science – and the hard sciences in general – have been interpreted as “male.” An NPR piece about “When Women Stopped Coding” points out there was actually a time when women were more than 35% of computer science majors, but that percentage declined drastically starting around 1985. These are some interesting statistics. Increasingly, as scholars and the media have looked at issues of gender diversity in technology companies, they’ve delved into the history of computer science in the popular consciousness. In an article I’m reading for class, writer Cindy Royal points out that “the early days of computing were actually pioneered by females.” She cites Ada Lovelace, considered the author of the first algorithm, and the female ballistics experts who worked in math labs through World War II. The story of ENIAC, Royal writes, is instructive. Although women were key in developing the world’s first general purpose computer, “their roles…have been marginalized in history, having not been included in press releases, photos or celebrations around the ENIAC introduction.” Despite the increasing number of women using the Internet, online forums can be deeply unfriendly places for women, where violent comments and abuse too often go unpunished. These sorts of problems affect even women-oriented sites like Jezebel (which the Jezebel editors wrote about in an open letter to the company management.)
Shows like the “Big Bang Theory” are part of the cultural landscape. Sure, we can enjoy the show for its moments of genuine humor (and we can agree that Jim Parsons deserves every one of his Emmys) while also demanding that our media be more introspective, more critical, and more diverse. I love the Big Bang Theory because, as a nerd, it offers me a lot I can relate to. I just know, as a woman and a person with a working knowledge of cultural criticism, it could offer me a lot more.