The Big Bang Theory and sexism?

Of course, I mean the sit-com - not the cosmological theory.

It’s a favourite of mine. We have almost reached the end of series 2 in New Zealand and I have watched every episode.

The production has general been reviewed well by pro-science people so I was intrigued to hear some critical assessments on a recent podcast of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (Podcast 211 – August 2009). Rebecca and fellow Skepchick Carrie Iwan were criticising the stereotyping of the main female character, Pennie, as sexist. They felt she is cast in the role of the dumb blonde as a foil to the intelligent nerds Sheldon, Leonard, Rajesh and Howard. The complaint was – why don’t women get more roles as intelligent characters.

big-bang-groupI can see where Rebecca and Carrie were coming from but feel they were being a bit unfair. And they were missing a more relEvant critisism that could be made of the sterotyping in this programme.

Personally, I find Pennie to be one of the most human characters in the programme. No, she is not a nerd. She doesn’t understand theoretical physics. But that doesn’t stop her from having a caring and respectful relationship with her nerdy neighbours. She gets many of the best lines. And she is the main source of common sense.

Leslie-web

Leslie Winkle - Experimental physicist

The programme does boast a nerdy female – experimental physicist Leslie Winkle. On the other hand, some of the minor male characters, Pennie’s old boyfriends come across as thick, muscular and macho characters. Perhaps we should complain about the male stereotyping?

Stereotyping in comedy is a delicate issue. Often this provides an important source of the humour. But, in the process it can be disparaging to the real people the stereotypes represent. There must be a fine line between acceptable humorous stereotyping and the sort which can be offensive and disparaging to real people.

I don’t have any problem with the gender and intellectual stereotyping in this programme. But I do sometimes wonder about the stereotyping of obsessive compulsive disorder which comes across in Sheldon’s character.

Sheldon’s obsessive compulsive behaviour provides a lot of the laughs, particularly in the more recent episodes. Now, I know there is a rich psychological diversity in humanity, and we should be acceptable and understanding about this. We often do need to laugh about our own and other’s foibles.

But obsessive compulsive disorder can be a very debilitating psychological illness. Both for the individual suffering from it – and for their friends and family who may suffer because of it.

So sometimes I do wonder about the stereotyping in this programme. I still find it humorous – but sometimes I feel a bit guilty about that.

See also: The Big Bang Theory

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18 responses to “The Big Bang Theory and sexism?

  1. I’ve had mixed opinions on the show from the onset, owing to the stereotyping. It seems typical of so many “American” shows that the characters “represent” some feature, rather than have a mix of traits that most “real” people have.

    I dislike Sheldon’s character. In some episodes I think it’s put to good use, but on others it feels like a strained attempt to get laughs that aren’t really there (for me). I’ve meet a few “Aspies” through work, in my experience they’re more inoffensively locked into a “preferred” way of doing things, rather than obnoxious. I personally find the most obnoxious people (by far!) are those who are not OCD/autistic-type personalities in the least but think unbelievably highly of themselves and insist on inflicting it on everyone else. The OCD/autistic-type personalities I’ve met tend not to impose themselves simply because they rarely offer anything at all unless asked. In that sense, I find Sheldon’s character a near impossible mix of the two. I’m hardly an expert and I’m limited by my experience, of course.

    As for the female characters, more stereotypes of course…

    I wish that the writers of the British show (forget the name now) based on the archeologists hadn’t decided “appeal to everyone” by including it all, including mysticism, conspiracy, implausible crime, etc. Had they stuck with the core premise and let the show rest on the characters, I think it would have had great potential, but trying to add everything and the kitchen sink simply ruined it.

  2. I’m also a fan of the show – it’s great for a change to have some good, geeky laughs. The fact that they cover topics from physics to gaming and ‘cult culture’ is even better.

    I haven’t exactly heard anyone complaining about the stereotyping of ‘geeks’ the show makes use of (in fact, it’s this stereotyping that underpins the whole show).

    This may well be because the people gently laughed at here, including trekkies and comic book buffs, tend to have something of a sense of humour about it. And there may well be an element of ‘thank god, jokes for us at last’.

    Whatever the reason – I think it’s great show, and, since it’s almost always possible to level accusations of stereotyping, maybe it’s just better if everyone relaxes and enjoys the laughs.

    Unless, of course, the stereotyping is so ludicrous as to be truly offensive, and I can’t think of any examples of this off the top of my head.

  3. I love the show, as does my wife. I did find Rebecca’s (and phil Plaitt who agreed with her) complaints to be kind of missing the point of Penny’s character.

    I really enjoyed the “Geek talks” at the start of the show in the first season, eg superman catching lois, seeing myself in the characters.

  4. At what point stereotyping becomes tasteless is a subjective judgement, for me the program doesn’t go over the line.

  5. Have you ever noticed how every single black character in every episode of this show (that i’ve seen, which is all but 4 or 5) has been working an extremely menial job in retail, or behind the counter at the DMV or a hospital? I find that a little more annoying, personally.
    Out of all the episodes i’ve seen, I dare say every single service employee has been a black person and every black person has been in a service position. That strikes me as quite odd, especially considering the only real life physicist that I know is black.

  6. No, I didn’t notice – but now that you mention it.

  7. Chalk me up as another fan of the show, but one who has noticed some of the sometimes-subtle racism and sexism in the show. The four guys themselves are fun characters, but don’t do a lot to dispell the stereotypes and myths about geeks and scientists – all struggle with women or are largely asexual, often dress or act in socially awkward ways, allow their intelligence to isolate themselves from more mainstream society, etc. The only recurring person of colour is Raj, an Indian – there is already a big presumption (not entirely unfounded, mind you) that the hard sciences and medicine are highly populated with Indian people. His parents are also shown to be ‘traditional’ Indians with their pressure on Raj to marry and have children. Penny, likewise, is largely interested in her perhaps unrealistic dream of ‘making it’ in Hollywood, dating and generally being cute. Leslie is portrayed as much more ‘mannish’ in her traits: more sloppy appearance (less unkempt hair, baggy clothes), sarcastic sense of humour, fairly cold and emotionless, into sex without feelings. Wallowitz’ ‘Jewish manboy living with invisible but very loud and interfering mother’ is, as Leonard’s mother meta-tastically remarks, “so common as to border on the cliche.”

    Overall, the longstanding idea of men = rationalism, logic, hard science, education, and sometimes sex (*cough Wallowitz cough*) vs. women = emotionalism, the arts, compassion, dating and relationships is very visible in the show. That said, many of the characters do show some redeeming qualities: Penny’s interest in gaming and paintball and her willingness to perceive both Sheldon and the comic-book store owner as potential dates break some moulds. The guys’ shared love of Fiddler on the Roof was unexpected (even if it did include a connection between musicals and homosexuality). And the simple fact that characters who would have almost certainly been the ‘weird, dorky outcasts’ in other shows or sitcoms are the likable and relatable stars of the show, the protagonists rather than the comic relief, is a step forward for geek-kind.

    Anyway I have already written too much, but anyway, love the show, sometimes very slightly bothered by some of the ‘privilege’ that shows through.

  8. …Aaaaand, I’ve just realised how old this blog post is. D’oh.

  9. The post may be old but I still appreciate you comments,

    Your analysis is probably pretty accurate. Unfortunately if all that were corrected I am not sure that we would be left with much entertainment.

  10. That Raj is a racist,he used the phrase,”in India we call them untouchables” in one episode and I have never watched the show since and will never watch it till he is replaced.

  11. For what it’s worth, towards the end of the most recent season we meet Howard’s girlfriend’s ex, who is a professor, and black (and towers over her, which makes Howard uneasy). Also, the real-life astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson makes a cameo appearance at some point, and so does LeVar Burton (the latter is very brief).

  12. The fact that society (as seen in this post and the comments, mostly written by males) believes you can’t have a funny sitcom that doesn’t succumb to really backwards and harmful {2008 psychology study proving the obvious: exposure to sexist humour makes men who already have sexist attitudes towards women act out more on their feelings, joking about women makes sexist behaviour more acceptable: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071106083038.htm } stereotypes proves that we have a looooong way to go. So there’s no possible way to have a funny show with black people who aren’t largely positioned in service roles, with the very few female characters of equal intellect shown to be attractive instead of mannish and not written out because the writers DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO WRITE FRESH MATERIAL FOR SUCH A CHARACTER? Really? There’s no way that could be funny?

    I’m not attacking this post or anyone else who has commented, I’m just asking everyone to really think about the subtle ways in which society has positioned us all to think these ways – and to create shows – albeit often funny, well-meaning shows created by people that I’m sure are stand-up guys – like this. Everyone isn’t “out to get” women, or blacks…it’s just so primed to see them as a minority or a stereotype that this is perceived as the norm.

  13. I’d just like to add that the aim of any male-female interaction in this show is sex. Why does Leonard want to make a good impression on his partner’s friends? Not to strengthen the relationship or make her happy because he values her as a partner, but to get sex off her. (Admitted by the character.) When the single male characters see a woman, what is the first action? Try and see if they can have sex with her and/or discuss with friends how they might get the woman to have sex. Single characters and the plight for a romantic relationship can be funny and is a staple of many (all?) sitcoms, but not all are this black and white – and yes, despite what you’re all thinking, it is actually possible to be funny and explore romantic (AND sexual_ pursuits and be less gender-exclusive at the same time. Males and females in this show are separated, with females primarily positioned as unworthy of platonic friendship or roles and intellectual cohorts. I’ve always had a problem with how some sitcoms think that they can’t be funny without resorting to the trope of a man “tricking” a woman into sex. (Red flag alert if you’ve done any sort of gender studies education.)

  14. You’re all pretty much dumb, sorry to say. The show isn’t sexist or racist, it’s a TV show made for you to laugh by introducing stereotypes that you can relate or not relate to. Stereotypes can be funny, and if you know in your heart that not all stereotypes are ‘true’ and ‘real’ you can laugh at it. You can laugh at the fact that you know better without being a judgemental asshole. If you dont understand what I’m saying then re-read it til you do.

    FYI
    I’m a black woman 24 and I dont find it sexist either, geeez.

  15. Hey Chel, nobody ever claimed that it was particularly racist. They were commenting on the parts of the show they considered frustrating and/or incongruous with reality. Everybody realizes that it’s a sit-com.
    On a related note, calling people dumb over the internet because you misunderstand (or are intentionally ignoring) what they’re saying is pretty ignorant for anybody over 8 years old.
    FYI, african american 31 year old patent attorney.

  16. I don’t know, I tend to think that Sheldon’s character is not so much due to any disorders/disabilities he has, it’s a mixture of his personality (obnoxious) and intelligence, more than any actual disorders. These just add to the way he is.

  17. Pingback: THE SEXISM OF “THE BIG BANG THEORY” | Permanent Socialism

  18. I’ve always found the show funny but I was happy when it added intelligent, accomplished women as regulars and a few African-Americans as guest stars. There were a lot of things in the early seasons that pricked such as the idea that they could have sex only with fat women who had low self-esteem. The second thing is the use of the word “pussy” to insult one another or others.

    Bur even when they were at their worst, it’s the best comedy on television.

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