The Big Bang Theory had 12.5 million viewers this week—down from 20+ million viewers in previous seasons, yes, but it’s still the most-watched show on television. Exsqueeze me?! I cannot believe people continue to love this show in the year 2017. It’s poorly written, the plot is rarely interesting and its characters are all one-dimensional, extremely flawed and seemingly incapable of change. But, beyond the fact that it’s just straight up shitty TV, The Big Bang Theory is majorly sexist: it uses the traditional “nerd” archetype as an excuse for rampant sexism—and the female characters are totally complicit in their own degradation. So, why is it working?
Unsurprisingly a product of creator Chuck Lorre (who also gave us the very problematic Two and A Half Men), I often thought of The Big Bang Theory as just another sitcom that provided viewers with a mindless way to decompress after a long day. But then The Big Bang Theory’s Mayim Bialik (a.k.a. Amy Farrah Fowler) used the Weinstein scandal as a peg for a New York Times op-ed, wherein she recommends modest dress and behaviour as an effective way to stave off sexual assault—as if those have anything to do with one another. All the problems with Bialik’s take reminded me of just how inappropriate her show is, and I think it’s time we see The Big Bang Theory for what it really is: pretty messed up.
The four main dudes—Sheldon, Leonard, Rajesh and Howard—are blatantly misogynistic in every single goddamned episode. Thirty-seven-year-old Sheldon Cooper has an IQ of 187, but that doesn’t stop him from being a total ass. In fact, it provides an excuse for his ass-ery: his whole M.O. is that he’s so smart, he can’t understand social cues—or the basic tenants of human decency, apparently.
When he says something inappropriate, it’s passed off as harmless because Sheldon simply doesn’t know it’s inappropriate. In Season 6, Episode 12, he tells his lab assistant (who is a woman) that she isn’t succeeding at her job because women are like an egg salad sandwich on a warm day: “full of eggs and only appealing for a short time.” His assistant complains to Human Resources, but Sheldon is hardly reprimanded for his behaviour, reinforcing the idea that he and his sexism are harmless. Ha ha, classic Sheldon!
Leonard Hofstadter is Sheldon Cooper’s best friend and roommate of more than 10 years, and he’s the closest to the “cool guy” of the group. He dresses in the least dorky way, he seems to have some skill where dating is concerned and he is without any glaring quirks—except for the fact that he’s consistently useless in his attempts to get his friends to realize their ignorance, and his semblance of caring inadvertently enables his friends. In Season 2, Episode 12, Howard tells Penny that she would be the “only doable girl” at a robot fight, and Leonard pipes in to say, “Hey Howard, let’s work on our robot,” in an measly attempt to distract him (which obvi doesn’t work). FYI, you’re no better than the rest of them, Lenny.
As for the other two? Rajesh Koothrappali is a 36-year old astrophysicist from India who goes mute when women speak to him. Howard Wolowitz is a 35-year old aerospace engineer with a dorky bowl cut who, until recently, lived with his mother. While this all sounds rather unassuming, both men engage in some pretty weird behaviour—when Raj gets drunk, for example, he becomes totally creepy. In Season 2, Episode 7, the two locate and travel to the house where all the America’s Next Top Models cast members are living, and pretend to be cable technicians in order to gain entry to the house. Pervy, right?
Pop Culture Detective (a.k.a. writer Jonathan McIntosh) takes a look at what he calls “adorkable misogyny” in this YouTube vid. He highlights a number of specific cringe-worthy moments (and other really subtle ones) to show how the Big Bang creators use the nerdiness of the show’s four main characters as an excuse for their obliviousness. By using geeky guys to deploy sexist remarks, McIntosh worries that the show disguises sexism, sending a clear message that those remarks are “harmless.” McIntosh goes one step further and looks at the way we think about stereotypical jocks (remember all of Penny’s blockhead boyfriends?). He argues by using geeky guys as foils for such misogyny, the show often makes its sexism harder to see clearly—and in some cases, it could actually become kind of endearing.
But for me, the most troublesome thing is that the female characters, Penny, Amy and Bernadette, lean into the negative tropes about women perpetuated by their male counterparts. Penny, an aspiring actress, a full-time waitress and the show’s resident “hot girl,” is constantly chided for being devoid of any real skill or intelligence. While she sometimes appears pissed off about the “dumb blonde” jokes, she still embodies the “hot dumb girl” role regularly—and seemingly happily. In Season 6, Episode 20, Sheldon, Leonard and Raj are battling for a tenured professorship at Caltech and, when the group attends the board’s announcement meeting, Penny arrives in a tight, black mini dress and a push-up bra with the intent of using her body as persuasion. Liiiiiike… was that necessary???
Clearly, there’s plenty of sexism to go around in The Big Bang Theory—but why are so many people cool with it? As McIntosh argues in his video, it probs has something to do with a technique called “Lampshade Hanging,” wherein the show’s writers hide their blatant use of an offensive stereotype or cliché by directly addressing it. Basically, it’s the writers’ way of letting the audience know that they’re aware of the sexism they’re promoting, but it’s just a joke, so it’s totally fine. Howard does it a lot, yet somehow, he never seems less creepy for it.
Frankly, this show puts me in a trés sour mood. The perpetuation of harmful stereotypes is by no means exclusive to The Big Bang Theory, but it doesn’t help that it’s one of the most popular shows on TV—and the show’s leading men, Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki, bank $1 million per episode. That’s a lot of money to put towards, well, crap. And I’m not the only one concerned about these sexist narratives, so I gotta ask… Isn’t there anything better to watch?
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