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.
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.