Why I Have Problems With the Big Bang Theory

I frequently find myself watching The Big Bang theory, finding it funny, then  hating myself for it. I mentioned this on the twitters and facebook yesterday, which immediately had a group of people saying, in essence, why, dude, it’s actually funny? And, yes, it is. There are times when it’s absolutely smart and entertaining, and I watch it for these moments because they’re a kind of humor that makes me happy and speaks to me as a man who self-identifies as a geek and enjoys being part of an active geek subculture. It’s a show that’s very, very good at doing that, creating little in-jokes among the broader strokes.

It’s also a who willing to play to deeply entrenched cultural myths about geeks and women, which makes me less happy, and in some points outright angry.

The default narrative of the show is generally one that posits all geeks are children looking for a mother figure and the bulk of the female characters with any depth are either caring mother-replacements (Penny, Leonard’s girlfriend from season two, Shelton’s actual mother) or emasculating shrews (Leonard’s mother, Raj’s mother, Howard’s mother – are you seeing a theme here? – Leslie Winkle, and ironically, Shelton’s mother due to her ability to countermand Shelton’s self-built idea of masculinity based around intellect).

The remaining female characters that appear in the series are generally there to be gratuitously objectified and competed for by the male cast, thus serving as a means of proving their masculinity and “growing up” (see Shelton’s sister and Penny’s friend from Nebraska) or non-idealized sexual partners who are characterized by their non-threatening naivety (Howard’s girlfriend Bernadette in season three).

The core cast of Male characters don’t actually fare much better: they’re infantilized by their interests, by their inability to get women (problematic, in and of itself), by their heights, by their familial relationships, but their inability to do their jobs correctly (Leonard’s research is derivative, Raj’s hypothesis is disproved, Howard fucks up every engineering prospect he comes up with), by their lack of knowledge about non-geek popular culture (I mean, really, geeks tend to know radiohead is a band). They’ve been neatly cut off from any traditional notions of the masculine, which would be fine if 90% of the show’s narrative wasn’t focused on three of the four trying to prove their masculinity through having sex while the fourth is determined to prove it through constantly being right.

Essentially the show strives to create a contemporary tribe of Lost Boys adopting a Wendy as a mother figure, except that only works in the case of Sheldon who actually is a childish innocent because the others all have deeply fucked up relationships with women (Which is not to say Sheldon doesn’t, but at least his relationship with women isn’t defined by sex).

We won’t even speak of the Howard-and-Raj-Are-a-dysfunctional-gay-couple thing they’ve started playing with. It was unpleasant-but-tolerable when it was a joke being played out in the episodes featuring Leonard’s mother, it was less tolerable when it became a recurring part of the narrative.

Yes, there are individual episodes where they seem to get it right. I breathed an audible sigh of relief the first time they introduced Stuart the comic shop guy, who spent his first few appearance being self-assured enough to flirt with Penny even if he exhibited signs of nervousness about the actual date. “He runs a successful small business,” Leonard opines, “he’s a talented artist. Not all geeks are like Captain Sweatpants over there.”

And I was like, “man, finally, it’s about fucking time.”

Of course, Stuart serves his narrative purpose, getting Penny together with Leonard, and the next time he appears he’s a lonely and isolated man who obsesses over Penny and  shares his Friday night meals with a stray cat.

And really, fuck that shit. All of it.

The show is largely redeemed by solid casting, the episodes where the writing is genuinely smart and interested in laughing with the geeks rather than at them, and very occasionally by the presence of guest stars from the cast of Roseanne (lets face it, any television show that puts Laurie Metcalf back on television gets something of a pass).

But beneath it all is a series of narrative assumptions I find deeply, deeply uncomfortable, and it seems to be getting worse rather than better. Sooner or later they will hit the point where the stupid outweighs the smart, and then I’ll be forced to stop watching lest I throw things at the television.

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Friday night I went to check my PO Box and discovered a cheque I forgot was coming, which was kinda nice, then got home to the news of the Japanese earthquake and Pacific Ocean tsunami’s, which was less nice and kinda put a downer on the evening overall. There’s news on the latter everywhere at the moment, so I won’t repeat what’s readily available. There is, as always, Red Cross donations that can be made to help those affected.

Later, after absorbing the news via twitter, I paid far to much for the least appealing take-away Butter Chicken of my life, but ate it anyway ’cause, well, it was butter chicken. Then the news of the explosions in the nuclear reactor started filtering in.

I don’t watch television anymore, nor to I read newspapers, so world news and I have a very strange relationship. Information tends to flow in through the communication in online mediums – twitter, facebook, blogs, etc – which means simultaneously seem better and worse than they appear to be depicted in traditional media. There are portions of my friends list that are all lo, the nuclear Apocalypse is upon us, and there are those linking to things like this post over at Genki English.

I expect that if I were watching traditional media, I’d be a nervous wreck right now. At this point, I’m just watching the internet and waiting further developments.

  16 comments for “Why I Have Problems With the Big Bang Theory

  1. 16/03/2011 at 8:56 PM

    The first episode I saw of BBT was so appalling in its gender attitudes and stereotypes (it was from the period Penny&Leonard were dating so not early but I don't know enough to know how recent an ep) that my head exploded. Since then I have seen it occasionally and sometimes find it funny, sometimes not.

    One I watched more recently really upset me – basically Howard's hamfisted sleazy come ons to Penny finally overwhelmed her so much that she snapped and said something mean to him. There was a quiet horror/shock from the rest of the guys, and the rest of the episode was about how Howard was now deeply depressed, and the others made Penny feel guilty about that until she went over there and babied Howard out of his funk.

    I agree with you that the assumptions made about men in this show are just as damaging as the assumptions made about women – it really surprises me that the veneer of geek humour makes this stuff so much more acceptable to people who would never accept overt sexism in a more everyone-is-hot-and-dumb sitcom format.

  2. 16/03/2011 at 8:57 PM

    Yeah, I have a similar reaction. Yes, I watch it – religiously, and I love it. When they hit it right, it's sheer brilliance.

    But they do tend to slide into stereotype too much, and the relationships are pretty fucked up. I'm able to put that aside to focus on the bits I love (and it's pretty cool to see science and math being used as the basis for comedy).

    But I can understand that other people have more of an issue than me and can't just put the problems with it aside. I think that says more about my lack of action than their concerns.

  3. 16/03/2011 at 9:40 PM

    I think I must have been listening to Galactic Suburbia then caught BBT after – I was thinking about female representation in fiction and thought how poorly they were portraying Penny and women in general. But hadn't turned that same thinking back on the Male cast – hmmm. There's also some racial/cultural stereotypes I am not comfortable with either.

  4. 16/03/2011 at 10:40 PM

    @Tansy I suspect it's like science fiction and super-hero movies – geek culture is usually so damned pleased to have something they love out and on the big screen that they'll willingly ignore the fact that most of them aren't terribly good.

    Plus, lets face it, geek culture has never truly been very good at owning the fact that many young geeks (and older ones) treat women like shit. My response to Big Bang Theory is remarkably similar to working the experience at working for Gen Con, where there were portions of the attendees (and some of the people helping to run the show) where these kinds of attitudes were endemic.

    To be honest, the fact that there are so *few* positive portrayals of male geeks pisses me that I struggle to . The only SF fan that comes to mind as being in any way positive is Grig from the Jane Austen Bookclub.

    @Nicole I totally get that, I do. I mean, I still buy DVDs, and I still watch them. I'd just like to have something that was Big Bang Theory-ish that didn't go out of its way to make me feel bad about watching it.

    @Sean To be fair, the fucked up male stereotypes are largely derivative of an archetype that's been showing up in non-geek film and television for a few years – that of the eternal boy-child that's brought to adulthood by the love of a good woman. You can trace its history through shows like Men Behaving Badly and movies like Knocked Up (or, basically, anything that stars Seth Rogan).

    Big Bang Theory just does everything *worse* in terms of the archetype, because there's rarely any real depth in the way the characters are being written.

  5. 16/03/2011 at 11:38 PM

    Thank you. I've been trying to explain to friends why I find this show, while funny at times, to be offensive.

    I am glad to find I am not the only one with reservations about this show. I tried watching it on and off during the first season, but I got to the point that I could no longer handle the negative stereotypes, the gender relations and the hit and miss grasps at geek culture. Sometimes they get it spot on, other times it is so poor that I have to turn off the tv. I only watch The Big Bang Theory if there is nothing else to watch. I have a lot of trouble explaining to friends _why_ I find it offensive. They have bought into the glossy sitcom view of The Big Bang Theory.

    And yes, most of the geeks I know are so far into pop culture they rate off the charts. Radiohead is just the start.

  6. Ian Houlihan
    17/03/2011 at 12:01 AM

    I think being a Sit-Com, stereo-types are a necessary evil – after all, sit-coms are not based on provoking thought, they are just a series of running jokes clinging together to form a short narrative (that may be a rash generalisation).

    The one interesting thing though is that recently after being directed to it by Erik Mona was a You-Tube clip of a scene from BBL theory without the canned laughter inserted in the places where we are meant to laugh. And low and behold – it wasn't funny.

    Since then I've actually listened to the dialogue closely when watching an episode and now find BBL to have moments of brilliance, but generally its fairly dull and derogitory. And like Pete, that makes me sad.

  7. 17/03/2011 at 3:39 AM

    It's not my thing. The IT Crowd is too good for me to put up with The Big Bang Theory's hit-and-miss attempts at geek humor. I tried to watch, it tried to like it, but gave up after three or four episodes. Maybe it comes together better after that…

  8. 17/03/2011 at 3:41 AM

    It's a sit-com – and an American sit-com at that. It blows by definition.

  9. 17/03/2011 at 4:30 AM

    Peter, I love Grigg! There are other good portrayals of geekboys, I'm sure, but he is a great one.

    I also agree with Christopher that the IT Crowd is way better – it pokes fun at geeks and non geeks equally, has characters who are charming as well as flawed, and it managed to portray their ineptitude (and occasional lack of ineptitude) with the opposite sex without being nearly as offensive towards either sex.

    I think it interrogates gender stereotypes far more than it reinforces them – the episode which had Moss trying to "fake masculinity" by repeating rote lines about football, and accidentally infiltrating a gang of bank robbers, was very funny but also had a lot to say about cultural perceptions of being a man.

    Also omg, SPACED. One of the most poignant and meaningful TV depictions of nerddom, and twenty somethings, which showed among other things that artists, writers and landladies are WAY less equipped for real life than comic book geeks.

    Daisy as the quintessential writer who never quite gets around to writing anything is an uncomfortably accurate portrayal too 😀

  10. 17/03/2011 at 4:36 AM

    Oooh and should add, very much looking forward to new ABC sitcom Outland by John Richards – which is about a gay SF club. The creator pooh poohed descriptions by the media that it was 'the gay Big Bang Theory' by chuckling that actually, it is 'the gay Spaced.'

    I do hope so!

  11. Paul Haines
    17/03/2011 at 8:03 PM

    Me? I just thought BBT was just another typical stupid fvcking American sitcom, so never bothered. The dire advertisements are warning enough. I also detest the IT Crowd, I cannot stand the style of humour employed by the chap who writes it (or that style of English comedy). Now Spaced, that was a show!

    Give me bad taste. Give me black. Give me edgy. Give me anarchic. Give me controversial. Give me the stuff that makes people cringe and wonder what the hell the strange guy is laughing at.

    And um, I have been enjoying Modern Family, 30 Rock and er The Middle as of late…is it because I'm a parent or middle-aged? Shudder…

  12. 17/03/2011 at 8:56 PM

    @obsidiantears83 Glad to help.

    @Ian I disagree. Archetypes are necessary, perhaps, and I'd argue that what Big Bang Theory deploys tend towards the archetypal than anything else (otherwise, lets face it, they'd all work in IT). The problem here is one of ideology – there's a world view about women and geek culture that's coming through in the subtext that is decidedly unpleasant.

    @ChrisG Somehow I've never really jibed with the IT Crowd. I suspect it's because there's no real sign of a season-long arc, which is what I tend to look for in shows I buy on DVD.

    @ChrisS You and I come at that argument from different sides of the modernist/post-modernist divide. I will now rant at you in an entirely separate blog post.

    @Tansy If Outland is good, it may well be the television show that convinces me that I should plug the rabbit-ear antenna back into my television and watch something during its first run on television instead of waiting for the DVD.

    @Paul I'm totally with you on 30 Rock, although I keep neglecting to pick it up. Modern Family, on the other hand, makes me throw things at the television.

  13. 18/03/2011 at 2:34 AM

    Peter – hopefully you won't need the rabbit ears cos it will be on iView! I watched the whole of Laid that way (which I have really enjoyed – a fabulous black comedy with realistic modern characters) because it was on at the same time as two other things I already record to watch later.

  14. 31/03/2011 at 12:30 AM

    The sit-com The Big Bang Theory is quite humorous, many cool episodes, lots of stereo-types but all should be viewed from a tongue-in-cheek perspective. The real Big Bang Theory is just as humorous, although it was not intended to be that way 🙂 and many still take it seriously.

  15. Joao
    30/06/2014 at 5:40 PM

    My only less positive point about the TBBT is that there's a certain mysandry, sorf of "women are always wise, all men are stupid and dysfunctional".
    This is something I detest, and quite often detect in the media nowadays.

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