The Problem with 'The Big Bang Theory'
The Hit TV Show’s Obsession With Misogyny and Harmful Masculinity
The Big Bang Theory is an Emmy award-winning sitcom based around the lives of four socially awkward but highly intelligent scientists in Pasadena, California: roommates and theoretical physicists Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter, aerospace engineer Howard Wolowitz, and astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali. The show's main source of comedy in the early seasons is the men's relationship with Penny, the beautiful, socially skilled, aspiring actress who moves into the apartment across the hall from Leonard and Sheldon, as they try to win her affections and their awkward 'geek' status clashes with her common sense. Throughout the show's 11 seasons (and renewal for a twelfth), two other characters are added to the main cast as Sheldon and Howard's partners: Amy Farrah Fowler and Bernadette Rostenkowski, respectively.
On the surface, the Big Bang Theory is about four genius scientists, their love for geek culture and comic books, and their social awkwardness around women. Therefore, it can be seen as elevating and celebrating a lesser-shown version of masculinity, a version where men are not fixated with sports, their appearance, or other stereotypical aspects of 'hegemonic' masculinity. The term 'hegemonic' refers to the upholding and reinforcement of the dominant or ruling class. In the case of masculinity, it constitutes the reinforcement of stereotypical 'masculine' traits such as aggressive heterosexuality, physical strength, and engagement with sports and mainstream culture. The men in the Big Bang Theory, however, are more obsessed with geek culture, comic books, fantasy franchises (such as 'Lord of the Rings'), and science fiction products including Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Star Wars. They are also scientists, and socially considered 'nerds'.
Although the show may appear to celebrate this somewhat marginalised representation of masculinity, it actually only reinforces what the men 'should' be like, or how they 'should' act as men. The YouTube video I have linked to this article by the channel Pop Culture Detective is the first in a series of two videos that deconstructs the Big Bang Theory's representations of both men and women. The one that is linked to this article focuses on the 'Adorkable Misogyny' present in the show, which I will discuss later, but the second video titled 'The Complicity of Geek Maculinity' explores how the show only mocks the men for acting outside of the norm of masculinity, particularly the character of Raj.
Raj is often depicted as more feminine than the rest of the men, as he loves small dogs and rom-coms such as Bridget Jones's Diary, and he is constantly ridiculed for these aspects of his personality by the other men. Although they are all social outcasts, they still belittle Raj for acting feminine, ultimately reinforcing hegemonic masculinity and, to some extent, disregarding homosexual masculinity. Although Raj is not explicitly gay, the portrayal of his femininity could have homosexual subtexts (and his relationship with Howard is sometimes super-gay), but he is only mocked for these traits in his personality, and for simply being who he is - which could be harmful to gay or non-conforming men in the audience, who are told that it is not okay to divert from the norms of masculinity.
It could also be argued that the harmful portrayal and mocking of Raj's character stems from the show's fear or hatred of femininity. All of the show's main female characters only exist in relation to the men and as their partners/sexual conquests. Penny is the show's only female lead in the early seasons and is represented as the stereotypical 'dumb blonde', who is only there to be looked at and chased (inappropriately) by the men. However, as the Pop Culture Detective explains, the men's social status as geeks allows them to commit harmful sexist and misogynistic acts, under the guise of being awkward and harmless - the inappropriate actions towards women (particularly Penny) garner laughter from the studio audience and allows their actions to be considered 'funny' rather than dangerous. Penny eventually becomes romantically involved with Leonard and serves somewhat as his 'prize' within the show, as does Bernadette with Howard. Amy, however, is constantly dismissed by Sheldon for her expertise in the field of biology (rather than physics) and her status as a woman.
Perhaps the most worrying problem with the Big Bang Theory is that it has such a huge audience, as 20.36 million people watched season 9 (Nielsen ratings) in 2015 - the successful ratings allow for more seasons of harmful 'jokes' about women and masculinity, largely uncontested by the massive audience that enjoys it. Although, the enjoyment factor is possibly the worst aspect of the show, as it is sometimes genuinely entertaining and, dare I say, funny? Part of me feels hypocritical writing this article when I have found myself laughing at parts of the show and used to be part of the audience that guarantees its success. However, as I have become more socially aware and realised the inherent problems within the show, it has become less and less enjoyable. I do feel that it is time for the Big Bang Theory to come to an end or to change its outdated and harmful 'humour'.
By the way, the biggest problem by far with the Big Bang Theory is the period jokes. They need to stop.