Is The Big Bang Theory Sexist? Well, Yeah.
I was watching a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory last night, and, since I haven’t really watched it since feminism happened to me, my brain started wantonly analysing the treatment of women in the show. And you know what? The results weren’t good.
The show sprung from the mind of Chuck Lorre, the man behind the mind-bogglingly sexist Two and a Half Men, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a thundering surprise that The Big Bang Theory is sexist. But I guess it comes under a veneer of seemingly unintended forward-thinking ideas- showing several main female characters as accomplished and respected scientists, for example- but it undermines this message at so many turns it seems like a horrible mistake.
Let’s start with Penny. Question: can you tell me Penny’s last name? Nope? That’s right, because the show has never given her one-not as a long-running gag, but simply because it hasn’t come up in over eight years. She’s portrayed from the off as a stereotypical hot, dumb blonde who sleeps with a lot of men- sure, she has street smarts, but her booksmarts are regularly compared to the four leading men’s to make a joke at her expense. Har, har, fucking har. She eventually does go to college; the decision is made, not because she wants to continue her education to further her career or expand her prospects, but because she wants to be smart enough to date her scientist boyfriend. When she snaps back at Howard, the resident endearing creep, for hitting on her one to many times after she’d said no, she’s made to apologise for upsetting him- so when she does stand up for herself, she’s slapped down for it. You don’t even have to delve into why these examples are sexist, they’re so bloody obvious. And more numerous than I’d care to count.
And then you’ve got the rest of the women on the show, who are, without fail, introduced to be romantic or sexual interests for the men (excluding a few overbearing mothers). Amy, who’s introduced as the direct counterpart to socially awkward, hyper-intelligent Sheldon, is soon boiled down to her desire to make Sheldon her boyfriend and engage in “coitus” with him (and occasionally, brilliantly, criticise the Indiana Jones movies), which is hilarious because she isn’t conventionally beautiful. Leslie Winkle, a scientist, appears almost always when she’s a fuck-buddy to one of the main cast. Bernadette is probably the most complex portrayal on the show, and she does have her own merits- her refusal to quit her job to have kids, for example- but she’s still essentially there to marry Howard. When the men display negative character traits, like lying or cheating, it’s often played for laughs- when women do it, it’s usually played off to show how much it hurts the men in their lives. Many of the female characters are barely given personalities beyond what they offer to the men in the show, with many- like Raj’s big-eyed squeeze- directly reflecting the characters of the men their paired with.
Then you’ve got the silly marginalisation of women in geek culture. Look, here’s the thing: women like nerdy shit too. And some men- I stress, not all men- see women as an impingement on their sacred ground, accusing them of wielding nerd culture as an excuse to dress up in sexy outfits and go to Comic-Cons to exploit the loneliness and vulnerability of male geeks (tiny violins play). Things which are just blatantly, blunderingly not true. The Big Bang Theory doesn’t want girls near it’s boy’s toys. Women are rarely, if ever, shown engaging in geek culture in the same way the men in the show are- in fact, when the three leading women walk into a comic book store everyone stops to stare. Later, Penny picks out a Thor comic book because he is “hot”. In the world of The Big Bang Theory, women aren’t welcome in geek culture because they couldn’t possibly understand it the same way the guys do. And no, just because we’re invited to laugh at the guys for their obsession doesn’t mean that exclusion is okay, because we’re being encouraged to giggle at the intensity of their fascination, not the idea that they might have a fascination at all.
It seems doubly odd, too, when two of the leading women in the show have presumably followed a reasonably similar educational/career trajectory as the men, with regards to the fact that they all ended up working as respected scientists (albeit in different fields). Is it really beyond the realms of possibility that they, or literally any other female character on the show, might have found their way into the same fascination with pop culture and entertainment? Evidently not.
I wrote last month about sitcom sexism, and how it often comes down to an across-the-board lazy use of stereotypes. The Big Bang Theory doesn’t escape with that questionable honour. Women are actively excluded, mocked, and stereotyped. And this is one of the longest-running, most watched, and most awarded sitcoms on television. I won’t just ignore it, because this is television which, whether you like it or not, matters.