12 Regressive Yet Crucial Controversies in The Big Bang Theory
The CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, created by executive producers and writers Chuck Lorre, Bill Prady, and Steven Molaro, is one of the most highly rated yet highly critiqued shows on modern television. The series has aired for ten years, but it is often looked at with disdain by self-identified “nerds.” The show centers around four brilliant and driven scientists and their love interests, their awkward interpersonal interactions, their career issues, and their hilarious, everyday encounters. The combination of simple and intellectual humor makes The Big Bang Theory relevant to everyday life and accessible to individuals’ various tastes in comedy. Nevertheless, this popular show is deemed offensive by many viewers because of its regressive attitude toward equality – encompassing sexuality and gender, race, and social class – and for valid reasons because this series certainly perpetuates these antiquated beliefs about our society. It is these offensive portrayals of the main characters that give this show a narrow-minded feel, resulting in negative criticism.
I argue, however, that these controversies regarding The Big Bang Theory’s presentation of gender, race, and class are needed in our society to help create a progressive movement toward genuine acceptance of others. Alan Yang, creator of Parks and Recreation, Master of none, and Date and Switch, states, “I’m not naive enough to think a single episode of TV is going to change everything, but it’s my hope that some people watched that and it at least brought to light something they hadn’t thought about before,” and he further notes that a sitcom can “express something you yourself haven’t personally experienced” (Ellwood 81). Thus, without The Big Bang Theory’s ability to draw these issues into question, television would be lacking. Sitcoms are a highly effective way to address current problems without making them seem too aggressive or serious, so shows like The Big Bang Theory can be used to identify and create a dialogue about these concerns in a productive way.
Stereotypical portrayals of both women and men are a significant part of this show. They create a tension that is difficult for me as a viewer because I reject these attitudes but still find the series enjoyable. Penny (Kaley Cuoco), the neighbor of roommates Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons), who are the two primary scientists, is presented as a “dumb blonde,” a woman whose sexuality is at the forefront of both narrative and comedy. For instance, in an episode where Sheldon and Leonard compete for tenure status, Penny “plans on with members of the tenure committee to further Leonard’s cause,” says Sheldon’s jealous girlfriend, Amy (Mayim Bailik) in “The Tenure Turbulence.” All parties in the scene, Penny included, concur; the canned laughter that is present all throughout the conversation solidifies the fact that Penny’s sexuality is exploited – but without disapproval from the characters. In conjunction with the men, who are seen as too “nerdy” to be attractive or social, this encourages a difficult situation; these conventional, offensive integrations of character traits are crucial to the humor in this sitcom.
Sheldon and Howard (Simon Helberg) each have girlfriends who are equally as smart as the males, yet their careers are occasionally made fun of, apparently just because they are women. Moreover, they are portrayed as “ugly” and “dorky” girls as opposed to the attractive yet supposedly simple-minded Penny. In her article “Representations of Female Scientists in The Big Bang Theory,” Heather Mcintosh argues that Amy’s and Bernadette’s (Melissa Rauch) careers are attractive on the surface to viewers and to their boyfriends, but their professional lives are diminished in worth when compared to how often their feminine roles and duties take over the storyline. Mcintosh even reminds readers of the fact that Bernadette admits to downplaying her intelligence to make Howard feel more confident about his own. Amy and Bernadette’s relationships are presented alongside the various romantic relationships of Leonard and Raj (Kunal Nayyar), which creates even more distaste among viewers, as their “nerdy” relationships seem to be successful while the relationships between “smart” men and “dumb” females usually fail, as would be expected. This is meant to be a central element in the comedy of such sitcoms, but it still propagates a patriarchal society because the men never have to change to become more compatible with the women, and they are never expected to play a part in improving the relationship (Walsh, et al. 124). This is not a problem for Raj, however, because he lacks successful relationships as a whole.
It is possible that one of the reasons that Raj’s relationships seem to fail is because of his ambiguous sexuality. His character is gender fluid, which not only addresses homosexuality and gender identity, but brings issues of race into this context, as he is the only non-white character on the show. The amalgamation of both gender and race in the Raj character is a significant reason that this show is a leader in drawing attention to inequality in the 21st century; these two concepts actually elevate The Big Bang Theory due to the ability of the series to portray the harmfulness of stereotypes upon both men and women who suffer the brunt of the jokes and the consequential judgment of viewers. Raj is positioned as the laughingstock of the series – Sheldon, Leonard, and Howard are set apart for several reasons. Unfortunately, one of the reasons Raj is alienated from them is because he’s a person of color, which gives rise to racism because of his additional “other” identities. His character is written so that, at times, it suggests a pattern of gender fluidity; he skirts the boundaries of traditional gender non-conformity and is not especially masculine in the ways that the show denotes. Thus, the fact that he is isolated in all of these ways points to discriminatory attitudes because, on their own, these qualities would be innocuous. When these traits are analyzed along with his race, these characteristics reinforce him as someone who does not fit the standards established by the series.
For instance, although Sheldon is awkward, he is the most intelligent and as such is respected. Howard and Leonard are able to interact with others relatively normally, so they are not quite as easy to ridicule. Raj, however, is severely afraid of females and cannot communicate with them at all, reinforcing the idea that he is insecure in his sexuality. He is the solitary Indian on the show, which leads to several questions. Why must this Indian character be the character who is fluid and consequently made fun of? Why are the jokes surrounding his race at the forefront of the comedy? His parents, who live in India, constantly try to force him into a marriage dictated by them, which perpetuates the stereotype of arranged Indian marriages. Furthermore, it reveals that Raj cannot manage to find a relationship on his own; he is seen as a failure – but as a funny failure. The show suggests that this confusing reading of Raj’s character may be because of his closeness with men, high-pitched voice, way of dressing, and his needy, emotional personality. Many viewers have become offended that Raj is both presented as possibly bisexual or homosexual and as inferior to the other white characters because of his inability to communicate as clearly as they do.
This representation reveals commentary on race: Raj is developed to be of lesser likeability and, thus, perceived as lower in status than Leonard, Sheldon, and Howard because he is held back by his race. According Kimberly Walsh et al., “Characters that deviate from traditional gender roles are portrayed as unhappy and pathetic… The portrayal of nontraditional males and females as dissatisfied serves to emphasize the importance of filling the traditional gender roles” (128). Taking this into consideration, Raj is destined to become an outsider. His Indian identity prevents him from integrating into society in a productive way because of his awkwardness, and this suggests that other races combat the same issue because, apparently, they do not belong. In a society full of judgment of others based on such shallow characteristics, attention needs to be drawn to the impact that these assumptions can have both on an individual and on a community as a whole. The Big Bang Theory illuminates the roots and results of such racist labels and allows viewers to witness how their own interactions with others can be harmful because Raj is a pitiful character.
The show advances racist views of Raj by allowing the other characters to view him as “other,” but their judgment of him is not seen as offensive because it is displayed through apparently good-natured humor. In “The Skank Reflex Analysis,” Amy comforts Penny after she has sexual relations with Raj. The fact that Penny regrets sleeping with Raj and that Amy agrees that this was a mistake points to a racist element as well: Raj is the only person of color with whom Penny is ashamed of having intercourse. Amy’s consolation of Penny is founded on a historical premise of racism, seen through the language she uses: “She engaged in inter-species hanky-panky and people still call her great.” Amy is referring to a Russian ruler who had “intimate relations with a horse.” Because she compares sex with an Indian man to sex with a horse, it is evident that Amy views Raj as an “other,” even if they are presented as friends. Moreover, Amy calls Raj “a little Indian boy” later in the conversation. This downplays Raj as a person because, according to Amy, he is lesser of an individual because he is Indian and, therefore, Penny should not worry about her “mistake.” While this scene is humorous in many ways, it is still heavily racist, especially because of the characters’ apparent ignorance of how offensive their opinions and words are. Kenneth Ladenburg in his analysis of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia deems that racial naiveté – when in conjunction with sarcasm and political adherence – serves as a comedic element. Humor, he says, is also created through “…the buildup and subsequent relief of tension or stress, through the sudden introduction of the odd or unexpected, and through a feeling of superiority over others” (860).The way that Amy and Penny view Raj is transmitted to the viewer through this humor, which is why it is so forceful. Those who witness the degradation of Raj are made aware of his differing qualities and consequently judge him further, even if it is not in an overtly negative way.
Another element in The Big Bang Theory that causes characters to be established as “others” is the clear construction of ranking individuals based on their social class. Penny, who not only is cast as a “dumb blonde,” is also presented as a lower-middle-class waitress who struggles to make her way, unlike the males. This could certainly be tied to sexism, but the focus here is on economic disparity. The show implies that a woman, who is not a “genius” like the others, is lacking because of this lack of intellect. She is overtly looked down upon by the other characters: “What’s she going to do, take people’s drink orders and get them wrong?” jokes Sheldon when the group judges Penny for attending a professional meeting along with them in “The Tenure Turbulence.” She is disapproved of and laughed at by Sheldon, Leonard, Amy, and Raj because she does not belong in a setting where her intellect and professional life are of lesser standing than theirs. The inclusion of this issue is due to the fact that “At a time when education matters more than ever, success in school remains linked tightly to class” (Spangler 471). Sheldon and Leonard, on the tenure track, are certainly seen as more educated and thus of higher economic standing because Penny has no Ph.D. degree and they do. To viewers, the show makes it clear that Penny is different because of her class, and because many people identify with this – or are at least influenced by it in some fashion – dialogue is inevitable and necessary if we are to combat discrimination.
In sitcoms over the years, and evidently still today in The Big Bang Theory, those who are not members of the working-class, “…were presented as great successes or young with much promise,” which solidifies the difference between Penny’s opportunities and the men’s (Butsch 19). Her limited income represents more to some viewers: it is offensive because she is a cerebrally inferior woman within a lesser social class and who possesses fewer opportunities, and she is not respected as a consequence of this. She is set apart and scorned, and viewers are able to see the social disparity that results from the economic. While Richard Butsch’s discussion of sitcom family life does not especially pertain to The Big Bang Theory, his general assertions about the working class are useful to incorporate in this analysis. For instance, “Working-class families, in other words, were given a try when ‘normal’ fare wasn’t established or sustaining ratings. But even in these peak years working-class shows remained a minority among domestic situation comedies” (19). The lack of depictions of the working-class speaks to the audience’s desire to be removed from such observations, whether it be because the working class is unentertaining or unlikable. The lower classes, then, are looked down upon because they are not “good” enough to appear on television. Moreover, Butsch reveals that working individuals situate their comedic effect through battling obstacles, which they usually created themselves. Traditionally, the working class was portrayed as inept, immature, and emotional; they are essentially “dumb but lovable” (21). Penny certainly creates most of her problems herself through her “dumb but lovable” decisions but solves them in a humorous way; the focus of the show is not on her triumphs, however. Rather, it focuses on her weaknesses and her distinction from the intelligent, higher-class figures in the series. Penny is the stereotypical pitiable, weak female character because of these reasons that become so real and personal that viewers cannot help but discuss them. The Big Bang Theory directs these discourses, narratives, and conversations, and so we must appreciate it in this aspect. Without this show, it is possible that some people would not understand how damaging sexism, racism, and judgment regarding social class can be. By seeing the impact of these harsh connotations on endearing characters, viewers sympathize with and want to protect these “others.”
We cannot ignore the influence that the media, especially television, has on our beliefs about society and the groups of people that make up communities. For whatever reason, humans naturally categorize each other, especially through gender, race, and class. Because this process of creating factions of individuals based on arbitrary qualities is so abiding, viewers have been taught to accept it without question. These stereotypes are easily circulated through sitcoms, which is why we must be careful about how seriously we take these shows and the “normal” distinctions they draw between individuals. This caution is necessary because the process of creating binaries, groups, and “others” institutes an unyielding distance among people, especially those of different races, sexes, or social class. The ensuing perception that stereotypes are wholly true results in a damaging, systematic process of “othering.”
Because the influence of television shows is undeniable, we must manipulate our reactions and morph them into something positive: a discussion addressing the problems that sitcoms present, even if they do present them so in a humorous way, as if to cover up the blaring reality of these issues. Thus, “…we just can’t run from having these conversations” (Walsh et al. 80). Rather, we should use the humor that sitcoms, such as The Big Bang Theory, enable as a mode of reference to catalyze this discourse. It is up to us to utilize or to accept the harsh generalizations presented to us in this show.
Alex Buter is a senior at Wake Forest University from Atlanta. She is an English major and Psychology minor.
BagoGames. Flickr.com. 20 July 2017. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bagogames/14237996824
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Lorre, Chuck, Bill Prady, and Steven Malaro. “The Tenure Turbulence.” The Big Bang Theory. CBS. New York, New York, 4 Apr. 2013. Television.
Spangler, Lynn C. “Class on Television: Stuck InThe Middle.” The Journal of Popular Culture47.3 (2014): 470-88. Wiley Online LIbrary. Web. 23 June 2017.
Walsh, K. R., Fürsich, E., & Jefferson, B. S. (2008). Beauty and the patriarchal beast: Gender role portrayals in sitcoms featuring mismatched couples. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 36(3), 36.3 (2008): 123-132. Taylor and Francis Online. Web. 20 June 2017