There are three things that are unavoidable in life: death, taxes, and The Big Bang Theory re-runs. Somehow, this C.B.S. show has had 6 seasons and about 19 million dedicated viewers, which is almost enough to make me wish that television had never been invented.
While The New York Times claims that “20 million nerds can’t be wrong,” I’m not the first person to have seen the show and been appalled by the sexism that seems to be ingrained into its D.N.A. Criticism of the show’s sexist undercurrents has been buried beneath mounds of praise and awards like the show’s Emmys, Golden Globes, Satellite Awards, SAG nominations, and Critics Choice Awards, to name only a few. It’s gotten to the point where The Big Bang Theory is simply an amplification of the sexism that reigns over today’s media trying to justify itself as comedy.
As a female geek myself, with more than a fair amount of female geek friends, The Big Bang Theory contributes to a problem that makes enthusiastic women like me afraid to openly express their love for geek-culture. Even if I could list every companion of every Doctor by order of height and favorite food, or alphabetically rattle off every episode of Star Trek in Romulan while creating a functional teleportation beam, there would still be people accusing me of being a “fake geek girl“. Apparently, if you’re a woman, simply liking a show isn’t enough. We can’t just enjoy something, we have to be a verifiable encyclopedia just to avoid being chased down the street by pitchfork wielding villagers dressed like the Justice League.
“Fake Geek girls” are accused of being man-seekers looking for an excuse to wear revealing clothing by a vocal group of men (that tends to overshadow the perfectly non-sexist men in geekdom) whose only argument is “You are a girl and therefore do not love this as much as I do, you must be in it only to try to attract a man.”
The Big Bang Theory accepts the idea that only men can be “geeks” with open arms. Although this as seen throughout the course of the show, it’s highlighted in the season six episode “The Bakersfield Expedition.” When three women, Penny, Amy, and Bernadette, walk into a comic book store, the men act as if they’ve seen a unicorn tap dancing in Macy’s. In fact, the show jokes that such hardcore “geeks” never see women, implying that there’s no way women could partake in comic book reading, science fiction conventions, or other “geeky” past times where they could come into contact with the comic book store’s clientele. By perpetuating the stereotype that women aren’t participating in “geeky” activities, The Big Bang Theory is providing a justification for the men who like to think that it is their sacred duty to keep women out of geekdom through demeaning and insulting confrontations.
Later in the episode, the owner of the comic book store, Stuart, tries to show Penny the merits of the comic book Fables by lauding its sophisticated stories and lack of objectification of women. Penny responds by completely ignoring him and choosing a Thor comic because Thor is “hot.” Not only does this facilitate the show’s determination to make Penny seem like one of the most stereotypical “dumb blondes” ever to grace our television screens, which is enough of a problem itself, it also presents the wildly inaccurate idea that women could only appreciate comics for their attractive male characters, vacantly ignoring any literary merit. This once again reduces women to the position of sex-seekers, instead of fully-formed people who are perfectly capable of appreciating both Thor’s abs and Thor’s interesting plotlines.
Women are seen purely as sexual objects within the Big Bang Theory universe. Nearly all new female characters are introduced as potential sexual partners for the male characters, furthering the show’s implications that women are only valuable to men as sexual conquests. This isn’t entirely surprising, seeing as The Big Bang Theory was created by Chuck Lorre, the same chauvinist that created Two and a Half Men. Lorre has a history of perpetuating stereotypes in his shows that could be insulting to men as well as women, constantly reducing women to nothing more than sex-providers and men to predatory creeps.
In the season two episode “The Panty Pinata Polarization,” Howard and Raj use NORAD satellites to locate the contestants of America’s Next Top Model. They stalk these women, show up at their door, and then pretend to be the satellite repair men in order to gain access to the house and gawk at the women wearing bathing suits. That is not funny. That is not clever. That is downright creepy, and even when this is pointed out to the characters, they don’t care. You get the sense that they feel entitled to these women, like it’s their right as men to go try to seduce and ogle them, even if it requires illegally using military spy aircraft.
This is not the only occasion in The Big Bang Theory where Howard has proved himself a sexist creep. Just to name a few, in “The Cooper-Hofstadter Polarization” he chases Penny with a remote control car that has a camera attached to it in order to look up her skirt, and in “The Terminator Decoupling” he predatorily hits on Summer Glau, obviously making her uncomfortable, while the other guys watch in amusement. These “jokes” add insult to injury by being unfunny clichés to begin with; the fact that they are emphasizing Howard’s unhealthy attitude towards women, often even condoning it, makes unfunny humor into an unfunny problem.
Adding the icing on this extraordinarily unfortunate cake is the poor characterization of The Big Bang Theory’s female characters, especially Penny. Just “Penny”: the writers still haven’t bothered to give her a last name, despite being six seasons into the show. Kaley Cuoco plays another “popular blonde” stereotype, although past forays into the archetype (like in the lovable sitcom 8 Simple Rules) show that the actress is capable of giving the role more heart and humanity than the writers of The Big Bang Theory have allowed. Penny is an attractive airhead, serving only as a foil to the “nerds” across the hall and as the object of Leonard’s desire.
When shown together with the intelligent-but-frumpy character Amy, Penny is a display of the profoundly insulting idea that women can either be attractive or intelligent; the two are shown as mutually exclusive. Even the cute scientist Bernadette severely downplays her intelligence, showing that most of the female characters on the show (exempting Priya) have to choose whether they are going to be portrayed as smart or sexy, not both.
Penny’s tendency to demean other women simply because she views them as a threat, personally or professionally, also gives the character sexist undertones. In the second season episode “The Dead Hooker Juxtaposition” (yikes, even the episode titles are cringe-worthy), Penny is jealous of an actress who has moved into the building, calling her a “dead whore on TV, live one in real life.” Judging women based on their sexual activity is apparently funny to The Big Bang Theory writers; the show has a history of using slut shaming as humor.
Penny isn’t the only poorly characterized female in The Big Bang Theory. The studious Amy Farrah Fowler goes from being portrayed as the female counterpart to the asexual Sheldon to another female character fixated on “coitus.” Even the female characters who are introduced as something other than the show’s normal, sex-centered characterization eventually become the subject of the same objectification as the rest of The Big Bang Theory’s female characters. Unlike some of the female characters on the show, Amy is portrayed as having little to no control over her physical relationship with Sheldon. The “sexually unattractive” character is shown as having to work very hard to have her needs met, effectively mocking her decision to focus on things other than her appeal to men, such as science and career-advancement.
After four or five episodes of this, I couldn’t take it anymore. Some sources claim that the show is making great leaps in its portrayal of female characters, but the majority of the episodes that I watched were from the most recent season and it seems like the show’s attitude towards women is just as demeaning as it always has been, despite the addition of more female characters throughout the past few seasons. It saddens me to see a show that treats women, and many other demographics as well, so poorly be praised in the media and in the entertainment industry so often. I’m going to go re-watch all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to remind myself that there is some good in the world.
Written by Kristy Pirone
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