I’m not going to lie, I’ve never seen an episode of Community, and in fact I’m a fan of its opposite, The Big Bang Theory. Yes, I know, I’m a terrible person who should be burned at the stake as a heretic, how dare I show myself in public, yadda, yadda, yadda. I tell you this not for public self-flagellation but rather so you’re aware that what I say below isn’t directed as a dig from a non-fan but rather an analysis from someone who actually watches and enjoys the Big Bang Theory.
I wasn’t a fan of the show at first. In fact, I think I’d dismissed it entirely without even seeing an episode as insulting to nerds/geeks and playing upon the tired stereotype of intelligence being a detriment when dealing with members of the opposite sex. (Yes, I know, a sitcom that uses stereotypes as part of its humour, what a shock.)
What turned me around later was the advice of my friend Jeff, an older geek (with the grey hair to prove it – yes I will pay for that comment later) who really enjoyed it and convinced me to give The Big Bang Theory a chance. I’m glad I did, if not completely for the reasons Jeff recommended it.
Yes the show panders to stereotypes about nerd/geek culture, dipping its toe into the shallow end of the geek pool. At the beginning the four main characters, all male, are all outliers of negative aspects of geek culture, used for comedic purposes. They are also misogynists. Okay, I’m sure that statement has upset a few people, but read on before condemning it, as I’m about to explain how they are misogynists and why The Big Band Theory is the tale of their redemption.
So Leonard, Howard, Sheldon, and Raj form what I’ve decided to call the “Four Faces Of Big Bang Misogyny”. I call them that in an effort to keep the scope of discussion narrow as there are many aspects to misogyny and gender relations that I am not an expert at and won’t address, though I do encourage those with deeper knowledge to comment on this piece to engender further discussion. Now, on to the Four Faces.
Leonard is the first Face. He is the objectification of women so that they are held up on a pedestal above him and other men, an unobtainable goal that needs to be chased, quested for, and will ultimately remain out of reach. Leonard is the classic “good guy” before he’s turned bitter and resentful and morphed into the second Face or worse. He sees women as the Madonna.
Howard is the second Face. He is the objectification of women so that they are brought down to his level or lower (at least in regards to women he isn’t related to – I’d discuss his relationship with his mother but that’s an essay in and of itself). Howard is the clueless horndog who’s watched one too many rap videos and absorbed far too much of modern culture’s obsession with sex. He sees women as the Whore.
Sheldon is the third Face. He is the anger towards women that manifests itself in arrogance and disdain. Of course, Sheldon treats just about everyone that way, so it could be argued that he isn’t misogynistic, but consider this: the comments he makes about his fellow male scientists, while harsh, are rarely if not never gender-based. The comments he makes about the female characters on the show quite often are. Like Howard he sees women as the Lesser.
The final Face is Raj. He is the fear towards women that manifests itself in selective mutism and an ersatz homoerotic relationship with other men where he takes on a female role, and of the four I think his version is the most insidious. Raj is, after you strip away the veneer of sensitivity, an old school misogynist raised in culture that still sees women as subservient to men (at least that’s how it is portrayed on the show – I can’t comment on current Indian culture as I’m not Indian nor have I had enough exposure that I can adequately comment). Raj is the hidden misogynist, the one you least expect, and therefore the most dangerous.
So those are the Four Faces, but if The Big Bang Theory is about four misogynists, where’s the redemption?
The redemption comes from how the characters have grown over the last few years, and covers not just the Four Faces but the show itself. At the beginning the focus was on the Four Faces and their struggles to fit in to society when they are so horribly not suited for life outside of their parents’ basements. (Sorry, it’s true – no one in their right mind wants these people as friends, and not because they’re nerds but because they’re just rather unpleasant to each other at times). A lot of the humour at the show’s beginning was based on how odd and pathetic Leonard, Howard, Sheldon, and Raj were. But then things started to change.
First, for the show’s redemption, Penny, the one female opposite the four guys, started to grow as a character. This is an important fact because Penny is the catalyst for change in The Big Bang Theory. She is the one that gets Leonard to actually do something about the attraction he feels towards her and pushes him to become a more rounded individual, a man who can have real relationships with women rather than chasing after unobtainable objects. She also opens Howard’s eyes by turning them black and blue, and is instrumental in introducing him to Bernadette, the woman that will act as the catalyst for Howard’s redemption. In an odd twist of fate, both Leonard and Howard end up on the road to redemption upon obtaining the objects of their affections and realizing that they are more than what they thought.
How do they show their redemption? Leonard breaks up with Penny, dates other women, and learns how to be a more confident partner, which comes to a head in an episode last season where he imagines what would happen if he and Penny got back together. He sees the worst possible scenario and decides to try again with Penny anyway. Their new relationship is a much more mature one, on both sides.
Howard, on the other hand, shows his redemption by having a stable relationship with a woman that is far from what he thought was his ideal mate. Bernadette is sweet, somewhat innocent (hey, she’s a woman, not a statue) and is nothing like the wanton sex-goddess Howard hoped to land. But she’s what Howard needed. After a false start they end up having the longest lasting and most stable of all the show’s relationships. Howard has his eyes opened up and realizes that having a partner is much better than having a living sex doll.
Even Sheldon gets in on the redemption train. The most recent season of the show saw him start to acknowledge he has an intellectual equal who is not only a woman but someone he has genuine feelings for. Of course, this being Sheldon he’s still an arrogant prick with childlike tendencies, a He-Man Woman Hater who’s physically an adult if not emotionally, but at least he’s made progress.
The only person who hasn’t shown signs of redemption is Raj. Not that he hasn’t tried to overcome his fear, but his methods have all been external to himself, through drugs and alcohol, rather than through internal means like the rest of the Four. Leonard, Howard, and Sheldon have all had realizations about themselves and their attitudes that lead to improvement. Raj has not. In fact, at times I think Raj has slipped even further backwards, as evidenced in an episode in the last season where he dated a woman because she was deaf and he could control her through gifts. I do hope that the next season sees the start of an arc where Raj truly starts to get his stuff together and work on his problems.
So those are the Four Faces and their treks toward redemption, but what about the show itself? How has The Big Bang Theory redeemed itself, if not for everyone then at least for myself? By improving and expanding the role women play in the show.
Early on there was an attempt to introduce a greater female dynamic and provide Penny with a female foil in the person of Leslie Winkle. Unfortunately, the writers or show-runners didn’t seem to be up to the task, and Leslie fell to the wayside. From what I remember reading the creators decided to drop Leslie because they just didn’t know what to do with her. A shame really.
Not all was lost though. Both Bernadette and Amy, characters seemingly introduced not with any grand purpose but brought on to act as foils to the guys, ended up staying and finding their niche in the Big Bang world. Even better, with Penny they’ve formed a power trio that provides the writers an opportunity to show the women interacting without the guys around. They have their own adventures and fun separate from the men, which I believe no one actually intended when the characters were introduced. Do their scenes pass the Bechdel test? I don’t know as I haven’t tried to apply it yet. Still, how many sitcoms in recent memory that weren’t exclusively focused on a group of women can you name with a similar power trio?
Is The Big Bang Theory now the example of a perfect show that treats men and women as equals and is a shining utopia for us all? No, not at all. At times it does fall backwards, both when dealing with misogyny and when dealing with the other stereotypes that form the basis of its humour. That being said though it does offer me some hope, which is also a concept at the show’s core. Hope is what motivates Leonard from his first meeting with Penny, hope that he can win the heart of his lovely new neighbour. The hope that he can find love even after losing Penny is what sustains Leonard, and hope, from both Leonard and Penny, that they can make it work with a second try is what brings them back together. Hope is what redeems what could have been, in my eyes, a tacky take on nerd culture and makes it watchable.
In the end hope is wall we have when it comes down to the question, will there ever be true equality between men and women? So in the end, let me leave you with the hope that you find something decent to watch on TV. I know I have.