No, not the scientific theory (that’s pretty cool). I mean the hugely popular comedy TV show centred on the lives of four nerdy male physicists and engineers from Caltech University. Running from 2007-2019, The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) amassed numerous comedy awards and averaged 20M viewers per episode at its prime (1).
Back in 2009-10ish, I, a young impressionable nerd who had just started gaining an interest in physics, used to love it – rushing home to catch it on E4 after school. I thought it was “excellent” representation: the first of its kind (that I saw) to portray a main cast who were all like me: nerdy. The premise was appealing: The mythical scientist, only ever before heard of behind the labs’ closed doors, now seen and documented in its natural habitat. Not knowing any scientists in real life, this was the first thing that gave me an insight into what life was like in the science world.
However, as TV shows have got better at their representation of geekdom over time, my opinion of TBBT has plummeted. I have found the majority of its gags just fall short – relying on cheap laughs drawn from questionable stereotypes. For me, watching it in 2020 seems uncomfortable and dated. I also feel that the use of stereotypes is damaging to the goal of increasing Diversity in STEM subjects.
Yes – I am calling it out for being “problematic”
In the first couple of seasons, the four male main characters (Leonard, Howard, Raj and Sheldon) are constantly compared to the only main female character, Penny, a waitress who lives across the hall. The four heroes are portrayed as nice, sensitive and emotional guys in contrast to the alpha-male jocks that Penny dates. However, just the notion of the four not conforming to masculinity is played for laughs: whether that’s seeing them heavily buffed-up in a hyper-masculine superhero costume, or crying and showing genuine passion for something. It should be amazing that these male characters are shown to not conform to society’s stereotypes of masculinity, but this is completely undermined by the laugh-track.
All four main characters frequently make sexist comments. For Sheldon and Howard especially, this is played for laughs, but is actually quite sinister. Sheldon’s Asperger’s-like characteristics are used as cheap humour, but are also used as an excuse for his sexist attitude towards women (saying lines such as “Women are slaves to their biological urges” or ”Marie Curie was an honorary man” or ” [to a woman] I don’t need to ask if you are menstruating”)
The way these characters degrade women is essentially seen as “harmless”, probably because they do not conform to the alpha-male standard.
Howard is known for being creepy and sex-obsessed. in the first seasons, he is constantly seen to have a predatory, power-hungry attitude towards women. This is just excused as “a part of his character”, and other than some light protest from Leonard and the women, he is never called out for being unlawful, or ever gets into serious trouble for it. (A reminder for you: jokes about harassment are never acceptable.) He is also the only Jewish member of the main cast, which plays to damaging and offensive stereotypes.
Raj is the only person of colour in the main cast. Noticeably, he is the only one of the four at the end of the show to not have a girlfriend, which is a status often joked to be degrading or emasculating. In almost every episode, he demonstrates stereotypically “feminine” behaviour (e.g. watching Bridget Jones’ diary, or drinking sweet cocktails instead of beer) and is ridiculed for it, both by the laugh track and by the other characters (e.g. “Can you pick up a Y chromosome while you’re there?” from Leonard). This perpetuates society’s long view that femininity is seen as inferior. Constant references to how he will only get a relationship through an arranged marriage has terribly racist undertones. There are also more overtly racist comments made by other characters, such as “Indian Monopoly’s just like regular, except the money’s in Rupees, instead of hotels you build call centres, and when you pick a chance card, you might die of dysentery” from Howard, who immediately follows with “FYI, that was racist” as if somehow that magically makes his comment acceptable.
Just because their sexist or racist behaviours may be pointed out does not mean that suddenly makes the joke okay. Acknowledging bigotry is not the same as critiquing it. In fact, it normalises it for the audience. One only needs to look at sexist comments towards females in the gaming community, for example.
Additionally, both Raj and Howard are also often the butt of homophobic jokes, stemming from their close friendship with one another.
Representation of scientists and the “nerd” subculture
“DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS!!!!”
That’s it. That’s the joke. What a punchline, right?
It seems that mentions of anything remotely “nerdy” on the show, whether games, comic books or a character’s science pursuit always come with a side of that damn laugh track. By adding a laugh track, again, it belittles peoples’ interests. Why is nerdiness seen as comedic? Personally, I don’t find it funny. All the male scientists on the show are lumped into this nerdy stereotype, even though there are plenty of scientists in real life who do not conform to the geeky stereotype of liking sci-fi, fantasy, gaming, etc (although there is a higher proportion who do conform, so I suppose there is some element of truth).
Attitudes to scientists among young people are still steeped in stereotypes, with “geeky” and “male” still being the most prevalent views of scientists. (As shown in the longitudinal ASPIREs study, which investigated young people’s attitudes towards science careers (2).)
Unfortunately, the fact that all the physicists are male does stem from truth. There tends to be more equal representation across life sciences (which are known for being more “altruistic”, hence more stereotypically feminine) which is shown in the two female scientists in the main cast: Bernadette, a microbiologist, and Amy, a neuroscientist. Despite some of its sexism, kudos to the show for portraying female scientist representation in the later seasons. While there aren’t as many women in science careers, it is still important that we are represented! How else do we close the gap?
Uptake of STEM careers by women has always been widely questioned. The fact that more women drop out of science as they progress through academia is commonly referred to as “the leaky pipeline” (3). Why is it that women do not take up as many STEM positions as men? What causes this “leaky pipeline”? It has been proven that girls perform equally as well in science at school, but are more likely to drop studying science with the view that although girls in general can go into science, it’s not what they want to do. Is that because there is a lack of role models and representation of female scientists (especially physicists) in popular culture? Is it because of the stereotype of science being “nerdy” and “uncool” is perpetuated by shows like TBBT? Is it because the majority of scientists are male and the ones presented in pop culture are shown to be sexist? Or is it just because there is something inherently different about girls that makes them not want to?
It seems to be a vicious circle. The fewer women in science there are, the less representation they will have in popular culture. The less representation there is popular culture, the less there will be role models for girls going into science.
I suppose when I first came to watching The Big Bang Theory, it was exciting to see things I identified with being popular. But I also actively tried to be “not like other girls”, a bit “tomboyish” and liking stereotypically masculine things, which was probably only reinforced by watching the show. I didn’t see the misogynistic remarks as bad, because I knew I was in the minority and didn’t conform to what was “girly”.
Whilst watching an episode yesterday, (as research for this article), I constantly felt that all my identities were being ridiculed. My “nerdy” likes of fantasy, games, and my love of physics. A half-Indian woman within science. Thinking about it, the casual sexism and racism that the main characters exhibit may have reinforced my own doubts and feelings of imposter syndrome within physics. And the shows’ constant degradation of nerds makes me feel sort of “cringe” and inferior.
But, that is just my experience.
I am very aware that there is a huge trend on hating popular media at the moment – so here are some perhaps more modern comedy tv shows with excellent nerdy representation:
- Community’s Abed Nadir;
- Never Have I Ever’s Fabiola; (a show that addresses stereotypes but never uses them as cheap laughs); and
- Parks and Recreation’s Ben Wyatt,
which will all make much better binge-watches over lockdown than The Big Bang Theory.
References and further reading:
(1) Moraes, L., 2020. 2015-16 TV Season Series Rankings — Full List Of Shows Deadline.com. Available at: https://deadline.com/2016/05/tv-season-2015-2016-series-rankings-shows-full-list-1201763189/
(2) Archer, L., Moote, J., MacLeod, E., Francis, B., & DeWitt, J, 2020. ASPIRES 2: Young people’s science and career aspirations, age 10-19. London: UCL Institute of Education. [Online] Available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/departments-and-centres/departments/education-practice-and-society/aspires-research
(3) Blickenstaff, J. C. (2005). Women and science careers: Leaky pipeline or gender filter? Gender and education, 17(4), 369-386 [Online] Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09540250500145072