I love getting requests for can be bitter topics. It makes me super happy that you guys feel engaged enough with the blog to comment or to email or facebook me, and it makes me even happier that my opinions are making people think about the programs or films they watch.
Unfortunately, sometimes the requests can prove difficult to actually bring to fruition. This is particularly true in the case of TV shows I’ve never seen. The Big Bang Theory is one such show. The time commitment alone led me to put off Rowie’s request for months and months, until I hit upon the idea of basing my analysis on ten of the best episodes and extrapolating from there.
I don’t mind telling you, I’m pretty sure this is going to revolutionise ‘by request’. Well, okay, maybe not revolutionise, but if you have asked me to write about a television program and it hasn’t come up yet, you can have some confidence that it hasn’t been entirely relegated to the too-hard basket.
The “Best of ” list I’ve used is from here, so if you think I’ve been unfair in my characterisation and that there are some more redeeming episodes or examples, please let me know in the comments.
Yes, I did say “unfair in my characterisation”. There is a negative review coming your way. What can I say, I went into the show expecting a Chuck Lorre production, and sadly, a Chuck Lorre production is what I got.
Let’s start with the male leads, roommates Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) and their friends Howard (Simon Helberg) and Raj (Kunal Nayyar). Each of these men is uber-qualified in his respective field (theoretical physics, experimental physics, aerospace engineering, astrophysics); all except Howard possess PhDs. Obviously, the guys are nerds, often referring to Star Trek and scientific theories in order to get a point across. Tied up with their nerd identities (of course, it’s a sitcom) is a stereotypical inability to attract or talk to women. It is established, for example, that Raj literally cannot speak to a woman unless he is drunk, while Howard (who inexplicably dresses like a Monkee, and does not work it) is constantly assessing the likelihood of various women sleeping with him (s03e08: “Okay, the best I can tell, there are eight other campsites nearby. Mostly science nerds like us, but just over yon ridge are two not unattractive middle school teachers who reek of desperation”). From watching the first five minutes of any episode, it is clear that the main four men do not respect women as equals with their own thoughts and feelings but instead see them only as potential sex partners. Only Sheldon expresses some rejection of this traditional view, e.g. when he claims not to be jealous of Stuart dating his ‘friend’ Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik), but this is impossible to take seriously given his lack of sexual interest in anything. Given Sheldon is presented as being socially ‘abnormal’, the audience must reject his views as such too.
It’s true that all of The Big Bang Theory‘s male stars are socially awkward and inappropriate, and so it would be easy enough to reject their views of women as separate to that of the show’s. However, its presentation of female characters is just as shallow as the guys’ opinions. Penny (Kaley Cuoco), the female lead of the show, is unlike to her neighbours across the hall in every way. She is not college educated and works as a waitress while she waits for her acting career to take off. While she is “life smart”, TBBT constantly comments on her sex life and makes clear that Penny is intellectually inferior to her men friends (emphasised by promotional materials such as that to your left). It is only her status as a potential romantic partner for Leonard that makes her worth her attention. That, and she’s hot (a requirement that doesn’t seem to have been made of the male leads). In this way, Big Bang Theory‘s portrayal of Penny matches the views held by the male characters, that is, that women are merely sex objects rather than people. Consider, even, that Penny’s surname has not been revealed in six seasons of the show, an obvious mark that she is less important than the male leads.
In the 10 episodes I watched, I saw many instances of women being treated as inferior, and of the show’s disapproval of women who do not comply to traditional gender roles. For example:
- Women make up only 20% of the leads on the show, and even less of the supporting cast. It is not until season 4 that Penny befriends other women, and unrealistically, these female friends are the girlfriends of the male characters: Amy and Bernadette.
- In s03e11, Leonard’s mother is portrayed as failing as a parent. She is blamed for not communicating with her son and for withholding information from him (e.g. his parents’ divorce). No mention is made of Leonard’s father, who presumably is just as capable of relaying this information.
- In s04e24, Howard fights with his fiancee Bernadette because she is more successful than he is. His friends prompt this by asking how he’s going to feel when they are introduced as “Mr & Dr Wolowitz”, implying that to be second to woman’s success is shameful.
- In that same episode, Raj rejects Howard’s mother’s hospitality because she is feeling particularly frisky. This friskiness is supposed to inspire revulsion because she is an older woman with facial hair.
- Bernadette apparently dumbs herself down for Howard in order to avoid challenging his masculinity. The implication is that she should be happy she has snagged any man rather than one that might actually be a good match for her.
I’ll admit that I laughed out loud at a few (non-gender-related) lines, but it’s unlikely I’ll be watching any more of the series. It’s crazy to me that one of today’s most popular comedies can still have such a male bias, but then again, Chuck Lorre is behind that other juggernaut, Two and a Half Men, so I suppose he is sticking with the misogyny he knows.
RESULT: Ugh. Sheldon doesn’t even like Babylon 5 – avoid!
Up next: The end of an era: The feminism of Tina Fey’s ’30 Rock’