Stereotyping the Stereotypes on "Big Bang Theory"

Aug 02 2010 Published by under Race Matters, Stereotypes We Know And Love

I am one of those folks who would like to get rid of all the t.v. sets in my house, but not for the usual reasons people give - "oh, I never watch t.v., there's nothing worth watching, I prefer to read, bla blah".  I just think t.v.'s are ugly and take up wall space that could be more profitably devoted to attractive shelving displaying my ever-expanding collection of books and pottery.  I am slowly learning to cope now that Lost is over.  I don't mind unwinding now and then in the late evenings with some house porn on the HGTV network - ZOMFG! a couple is in need of a new house! with a walk-in closet! and a nice playroom for the kids! and a really great kitchen for entertaining!  because everyone is always entertaining! even though no one ever cooks anymore!  because feminism killed cooking!

I have enjoyed watching Merlin on the SyFy network, in part for sheer escapism, and in part because I like the way it deals upfront with class issues and Othering.  In many ways, you could read the whole must-hide-my-true-magical-nature-or-be-killed-by-the-magic-haters as a metaphor for the persecution of homosexuals.

And then there is the Big Bang Theory.  Oh, BBT.  I have a love-hate relationship with you. 

Mostly hate, even though you make me laugh sometimes. See, I love nerd humor, and I love the idea of having scientists as central characters in a comedy on prime time television.  What I hate is tired, worn, cardboard cutout stereotypes.  Scientists are socially awkward!  They are dudes! Who don't know how to talk to women! They almost never have sex!  Real, true, uber-geeky scientists have absolutely no interest whatsoever in sex anyway!  Women who are not scientists are hot blonds who, no matter how much you try to teach them, are just never gonna get the finer points of physics.  Women who are scientists are sorta ugly and wear glasses and are not blond and are socially maladjusted and don't care about their appearance and - if they do have sex - they are kinda slutty about it and sleep around. Moms - moms are all crazy, and they all have messed up their dear little scientist boys in some way or other (overbearing Jewish-y invasive mothering, southern Christian-y preachy mothering, skepticoscientastic uptight-y neuropsychoanalyzing mothering, nosey Other Asian-y match-making mothering), generally bearing the responsibility for the ill-fated attempts at mating of Our Dear Boys.  Ha ha, Leonard finally gets in bed with Penny and can't do it, because he's thinking about Mommy!  Ha ha, Howard lives with Mommy, who's always yelling at him when he does manage to get a woman upstairs in bed with him!  Ha ha, Mommy nags Rajesh over Skype and he has to get drunk to talk to women!  Ha ha, Mommy's crazy Bible-talk made Sheldon the most uber-geeky of all the geeks - he has no interest in sex!  He wins!

Isn't it just ultra hi-larious that Sheldon and Leonard, via their Crazy Mommys, find common ground in the science v. religion debate: neither system will help you get it on with hot chicks!   Everybody knows women have nothing to say in that debate anyway, so it's totally proper to center the hilariosity of too much skienz/crazy faith talk (by those crazy mommies!) on the tragicomic consequences for the male sex drive.

Possibly the saddest episode ever of this Showcase of Stereotypes was when Sheldon tries to teach Penny physics - and fails miserably.  Of course this is portrayed as Penny's inability to learn, not Sheldon's failure as a teacher to really convey anything meaningful about the beauty of physics to a beginning learner.  He teaches her how to parrot something she doesn't really comprehend, and she seems more or less content with that, having been convinced that any true understanding of actual physics is beyond her grasp.  There are many awful parts of this sad episode, but a real low point is reached when Sheldon types pseudo-anthropological entries in a journal called "Project Gorilla", thus mocking Dian Fossey, all women in science, and all beginning learners of science in one fell swoop.  I am pretty darn sure that Dian Fossey had more respect for her research subjects contained within the little finger of one hand than this show has shown to women in its entire run so far.

If the clip I linked to above were made as a parody of bad physics teaching, it would perhaps be funny.  But that's not how it's played in the episode.  Neither Sheldon nor Penny comes to any realization that Sheldon's vaunted physics prowess is meaningless if he can't convey anything of the subject he so loves to anyone but other jargon jockeys.  Even my worst physics instructors on their off days weren't this bad. Maybe they, too, felt sad because other people were stupid, but they actually wanted to convey the meaning and beauty of physics to their students, even if they didn't really know how to do so very well.  Sadly, Penny, and the viewing audience with her, is left to think of physics as some esoteric craziness that normal people just can't get.  Sheldon tried his best, but physics just can't be taught to waitresses at The Cheesecake Factory.  Memorize this sentence.  You can dazzle your boyfriend with it, little lady.

Ah, it's a comedy, you whine.  Her not learning is funny! Reverse the genders in that scene, let Penny be the physics savant sans empathy, and let Sheldon be the one crying so prettily on the couch because he just can't understand, and he needs to impress his girlfriend, and he thinks Fig Newtons were named for Isaac Newton, and he just can't keep a single fact in his little brain! Then later let him rapidly fire off a complicated sentence he totally does not understand, to dazzle his physics PhD girlfriend with.  Does the comedy still work for you?  Hmmm.  I didn't think so.

I haven't even touched upon the clever mockery of homosexuality that is the running joke of Howard and Rajesh's friendship.  Because two guys who are good friends to each other and aren't currently fucking the living shit out of something with a vagina have got to be faggots.  Which is hilarious.  Screamingly hilarious.  Dudes cannot just be friends, so something's going on, amirite?  I mean, not being aware of your own true sexual desires, or having to hide your homosexuality, because you live in a world of compulsory heterosexuality, that there is comedic gold.  Everyone knows that science nerdboys can't get it on with hot chicks because they are geeky closeted faggots anyway, so this really is truly goddamn funny shit. And when you, the writer,  have grown tired of pumping the Everflowing Well of Misogynistic Humor, dipping your bucket in the Stream of Homophobic Hilarity is a refreshing change of pace.

So, to sum up: the best scientists are asexual; hot women distract you from science; if you have a close male friend, you may be gay, and that's funny!; women scientists are odd and funny-looking; Mommy is to blame.

No wonder everybody loves this show so much. I admit it's got clever writing and the characters are more well-developed than the usual sitcom cardboard cutouts, but damn.  It's the laughing at women and gays and others that makes it all cook. How much toxic swill are we supposed to just swallow because it comes along with clever?  Tina Fey - there's a comedian and writer who knows how to do (for the most part) non-toxic clever funny.  I want my nerd humor with a 30 Rock sensibility, not a reworked Two and a Half Men (mommy issues! I want to get laid! misogyny! homophobia! look, vaginas!).

So all this is bad enough on its own.  Then, last week, I came across Jonathan Storm's column in the Philadelphia Inquirer, reporting from the television critics' press tour.  Normally I enjoy his analysis of television shows.  But his bit on BBT left me wanting to do a little shoe-puking.

I asked Nyaar [the actor who plays Rajesh Koothrappali] why so many Indian characters and actors were turning up on TV these days. There's Archie Panjabi, who plays the tough but mysterious Kalinda Sharma on CBS's The Good Wife. Reshma Shetty plays the simultaneously sultry and levelheaded nurse Divya Katdare on USA's Royal Pains. And this fall, NBC has an entire sitcom set in India, a TV version of the feature Outsourced.

So many, indeed.  Three!  Plus a whole sitcom! Why, that's practically an invasion!  And it is only natural that Nyaar should be a complete expert on All Things Indian and serve as a SpokesOther for any topic that is in any way related to Acting While Indian. Why are there SO MANY of you on my t.v picture?  I have to adjust the color and brightness settings because the screen is getting so dark!  Fortunately your women are mysterious and sultry, and you, good sir, are funny, so I am still amused.

Bah.  Nyaar told him to take his stoopid "three dusky indians r invadin' mah teevee" story line and shove it up his ass.  Not really.  But sorta.

"Indian actors always joke that we are the new black," he said. "Like, we are everywhere now. ... It doesn't surprise me. We are all really good-looking and talented, and I'm really happy that we continue to take over the world."

Okay, BBT fans.  Have at it in the comments and try to convince me this show isn't just a bagful of fetid old stereotypes about women, scientists, religion, mothers, gays, and Others-in-General, with a light topcoat of clever writing, some occasionally delightful nerd humor, and great acting by Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco.

25 responses so far

  • estraven says:

    "Women who are scientists are sorta ugly and wear glasses and are not blond and are socially maladjusted and don’t care about their appearance and – if they do have sex – they are kinda slutty about it and sleep around. "
    Guilty as charged, your honor. Except when I was a student I wore contacts, and now I'm a professor and a mother I have no time or energy for slutty behavior.

    "let Sheldon be the one crying so prettily on the couch because he just can’t understand".
    When my then-boyfriend couldn't understand Cantor's diagonal argument, despite my best beer-fueled attempts to explain, he didn't cry nor looked sorry. He never even tried to understand it (or why I would care) when sober. We just weren't a match, I guess, but funny it wasn't.

  • jennygadget says:

    I still can't get over the fact that Penny does not have a last name.

  • Kyorosuke says:

    It speaks to larger cultural problems, surely. TV networks and hack TV writers (as opposed to the good ones) think this is what we want. They think we believe that science is this ineffable nonsense promulgated by sexless nebbishy scruffles, that we really do think women are just empty-headed fuck machines, and that having male friends makes you a big gay homo fagfairy (and that, of course, is a problem). They think we're too dumb to handle anything other than the stale and typical laziness of stereotypes.

    The show has some good qualities that you mentioned, but I think everyone gets so excited because, unfortunately, it's actually mildly better than past portrayals, or at least more "mainstream". We're supposed to, on some level, sympathize with these guys, rather than just be disgusted by them (we're supposed to do that also, though, of course.). Or perhaps we've just grown accustomed to low standards for entertainment.

  • Jason says:

    I'm not sure I agree that the whole "I can't learn physics and so I'll just memorize a phrase" wouldn't have happened with a guy. I've watched plenty of the sitcom Friends in the past and the comedy would have worked very nicely with the stupid Joey and the smart, sciency Ross. I don't think the fact that she's female had anything to do with the situation in this case. Except if she cried, I guess. A male character probably wouldn't have been made to cry.

    When I watched this episode I saw more Sheldon's inability to teach than her inability to learn. I thought his terrible teaching was pretty over the top and that was the driving force for the joke. But maybe they were really going for the angle that women can't learn physics and I missed it. Hard to say.

    I certainly agree that the stereotypes are over the top and it annoys me that they portray all the atractive women as unable to do science. In order to enjoy the show, I consider it a story of a specific woman who can't do science because this is just a story and there do exist women (and obviously men) who can't do science. Then I Can enjoy all the good science humor and nerd-isms and keep it at a superficial level.

  • Michelle says:

    Plus there's the annoying-as-hell laugh tracks telling me when I sh0uld consider something funny. ugh.

  • Pat Cahalan says:

    "I just think t.v.’s are ugly and take up wall space that could be more profitably devoted to attractive shelving displaying my ever-expanding collection of books and pottery."

    Get a high-quality projector and a drop screen. It will cost a bit more than a hi-def television, but solves this problem nicely.

    Admittedly, not a renter's solution...

  • Alex says:

    I'd have to agree that it's Sheldon's inability to teach that's being shown here.

    Sheldon has been shown many times that he's unable to relate to other people, and in particular that he find it difficult to understand that other people don't always share his interests and skills. He also is self-centered, and cannot believe that he's not hypercapable in any field that he wants to try. That's why he thinks that the only possible explanation for Penny's inability to learn is her having suffered a concussion.

    However, even if there was a stereotype here, it wouldn't be very surprising. Sitcoms are generally full of characters who are stereotypes, often with characters who are functionally identical to characters in other sitcoms. For example, you've got the dumb one, who could be Joey in Friends, Rose in Golden Girls, or Chrissy Snow in Three's Company. Another example would be the slut, as in Roz on Frasier, Blanche in Golden Girls, or Kelly in Married With Children. Of course Male sluts exist too, Such as Joey, Charlie in Three and a Half Men, or Dan in Night Court.

    The reason for these stereotypical characters are obvious. Sitcoms have to attract an audience, and keep that audience. That means that you cannot have too high a bar to understanding the jokes. By reusing character archetypes a stranger to the show can quickly understand the character's motivations and therefore the jokes.

  • Well if someone asks Samia or I to be part of this collective, then we brown folks really will be taking over the world, muhahaha.

    I have a love hate relationship with BBT, for the reasons you've listed. I have to say I've totally missed the homosexual tension between Rajesh and Howard. Totally over my head. Not sure if thats a good or bad thing....

  • Sargassosea says:

    Sea wants her (a chance at) some schwag! Yes she does!

    Now I'll read your post.

  • aweb says:

    I can't believe the main thing anyone took from Sheldon's attempt to teach Penny is that Penny is not capable of learning Physics. The joke of those scenes was clearly that Sheldon was a terrible teacher, especially for a basic introduction to the topic. Penny has been shown to pick up some of the nerdy knowledge of the guys on the show, and in general to not be an irredeemable moron (unlike SHeldon and his social abilities).

    Stereotypes are of course a jumping off point for almost any show. There are hardly any characters that wouldn't sound like stereotypes if you summed them up in one sentence (which of course writers have to do to get a show started). How many other shows have the "apparent jerk/hardass/criminal with a heart of gold" character?Almost every murder procedural show is based on this type of character, as is a lot of sci-fi and drama, which is basically a lovabel rogue male stereotype (even when the occasional female fills the role).

    Can anyone name a show where the characters couldn't be summarized into a stereotype in one-two sentences?

  • zuska says:

    Oh well then. I guess there is no point in attempting to critically analyze anything we see, read, or hear. Best just to nod and say, "yep, that's the usual pablum they're selling" and swallow it.

    Can anyone name a show where the characters couldn’t be summarized into a stereotype in one-two sentences?

    What about: The Office. I would like you to summarize Dwight's character as a stereotype in one-two sentences. Unless you can dismiss everyone on the show as "crazy office workers" but that's hardly the kind of stereotypes we're talking about here, is it?

  • Ace says:

    I love nerd humour too, but it seems like most of the nerd humour in BBT is laughing at the nerds instead of making clever puns about integration. It strikes me as odd that the show seems to be aimed at a nerdier audience that probably got made fun of themselves. Are we supposed to laugh at the characters whose nerdiness is so exaggerated that even we can finally pick on someone?

    Guh. This show hurts for so many reasons!

  • Jason says:

    I don't find myself laughing at the characters. Rather, it's led me to enjoy being a nerd even more. The science jokes tend to be smart and funny and the attention to detail is excellent. It's a nice change from the stereotypes of dumb fat man married to attractive shrill wife who dominates his life as if he's a child.

    Also, they don't have a laugh track. It's a live studio audience.

  • Ace says:

    That's great that you don't laugh at the characters! Do you think that your response is the typical one to the show, or can you see how many people watching might laugh at Sheldon and his overly exaggerated behaviour?

  • Jason says:

    Okay, when you put it that way I guess it is laughing at Sheldon and the others. It just doesn't seem mean spirited to me but rather in the same vein as every other show where you laugh at the characters. It's hard to think of too many comedies either on TV or in literature where you aren't laughing at the way characters respond to situations.

    But yeah, I would say I laugh at the way these characters respond to situations. Is that picking on the characters?

  • Kea says:

    Well, as a professional blond waitress who went from a cafe job to a (short term) theoretical physics postdoc at Oxford, I can assure everyone that being stereotyped as Penny by most physicists does not make me laugh. On the hand, I quite like the show because it does such a good job of portraying the stereotypes, which in my experience many people try very hard to live up to. But yeah, not really funny. Well, I'll just get back to looking for waitressing jobs and do my best to ignore the Sheldons (actually the real world model for Sheldon is a friend of mine on Facebook) of the world, who will in the end be proven wrong not only about women and minorities ... but about the physics too. They will be the laughing stock of a thousand generations. Get with it, doods. This is 2010.

  • ginger says:

    Oh, my feelings about this show. Soooo conflicted. The dialogue is so funny, and the actors are so very good. At least there are some scientists on TV other than Professor Frink, and they don't wear lab coats all the time or have coke-bottle lenses, and at least some of the guest spots are female scientists, who don't pull off their glasses and let down their hair to be told "But you're beautiful!" by a romantic lead. And I do love that the gamer/geek details are right.

    But - do the scientists all have to be gamers with mother issues? Why does Penny have to be emotionally intelligent and intellectually bankrupt while Sheldon is emotionally bankrupt and intellectually brilliant? I mean, of course I know why - because these are immediately recognizable archetypes that reinforce the status quo - but the show doesn't HAVE to do this now that it's a proven quantity, that it's shown it can pull viewers. Can the writers depart a little from the stereotypes? Could Penny join the guys for a bit of gaming, and dazzle them with some role-play or an unsuspected knowledge of tabletop strategy games?

  • becca says:

    I think the 'sheldon teaches penny physics' episode is the *only* one I've seen. I'd say it makes them look equal parts moronic.
    Maybe in the context of the show's overall character development, if you ALWAYS see sheldon missing the point and not penny, it comes across as a joke on sheldon (or maybe some of us just have a vested interest in the show?).
    But Fig Newton/Issac Newton confusion? That's beyond just 'dumb girl' into 'unfathomably oblivious'.

  • F says:


    That show sounds like a bucket of flaming stupid in a world of hurt. I vaguely recall noticing its existence, probably due to those constant ads shows get prior to launch, and thinking, "Er, no."

    But now I know to avoid coming into accidental contact with it. Currently considering plumbing required for installation of emergency eye-wash station.

  • DuWayne says:

    I just think t.v.’s are ugly and take up wall space that could be more profitably devoted to attractive shelving displaying my ever-expanding collection of books and pottery.

    Bookshelves on sliders/hinges, over a flat screen. Not exactly a cheap fix, but the absolute sexiest I've seen. Ikea has it in a couple of styles, though personally I look to Ikea mostly for ideas I would love to build myself (using the materials I would prefer, in a style I would prefer - or more accurately, my partner would prefer). The sliders are particularly fun, because if you go all books you can get half again coverage of each wall.

    As for BBT - fuck it. I mean for pretty much any entertainment you have to accept some sort of bullshit, but there is a limit to what is acceptable. For me, BBT crosses it - while at the same time, Numbers for example, did not. While I found the slow removal of anyone who wasn't one of the "beautiful people" rather frustrating (not to mention the absolute shit ending to the series) and the near lack of color, even among the minorities portrayed was fucking obnoxious, the interpersonal relationships on the show transcended a lot of stupid stereotypes - totally making the show worth it to me.

    I was open to BBT at first, because I really like the idea of science on primetime, but yeah, it ultimately just fails and fails hard. This is definitely a case of no "sciencey" entertainment would be better than this.

  • Madelaine says:

    I have mixed feelings about the show too, I've watched it a few times. My favorite character is Sheldon, he just says some really funny nerdy stuff.

    I think this is a really good point: "It’s a nice change from the stereotypes of dumb fat man married to attractive shrill wife who dominates his life as if he’s a child."

    Yes, there's lots of better options out there, but this show isn't the worst of the lot by far. Unfortunately.

  • Endor says:

    Apologies if this has been pointed out already, but this show is made by Chuck Lorre. The same dude that makes 2.5 men. With wife-beater Charlie Sheen. Ever read Chuckie-poo's "vanity cards" that blip by at the end of every. single. t.v. show he's ever done? That dude does not like women.

    I say this as someone who loves BBT, but grates her teeth at the overblown stereotypes in place of real characters. It didn't start out this way.

  • Noodle says:

    Come on, I LOVE this show!

    AND I happen to be a female postdoc in a physics department.

    The characters are hilarious because they depict so many of my colleagues so perfectly. For instance, 90% of the physicists that I know have white boards in their apartments. 99% of the physicists that I know are constantly making subtle science jokes in non-science situations (Sheldon dressed up as the Doppler effect for Halloween for f*$@'s sake). 90% of the male physicists that I know can't treat a woman like a real person to save their lives, and 90% of the female ones grate on my nerves just like Leslie Winkle. Some of these people even 'creep me out,' to borrow a phrase from Penny. Etc etc etc. I find that this type of attention to detail makes me love the show even more.

    And I don't know what you are talking about - Penny the Perpetually Stupid Blonde? I think some of Penny's scenes in more recent seasons show her actually understanding the physics and dishing out as much crap as she is given. She even makes Star Trek jokes and was addicted to video games! Go Penny!

    And if you want to complain about the writers 'wrongly' stereotyping the scientists, take a step back and look at Penny's stereotype. Perpetually Stupid Football Loving Blonde Babe Transplants to LA from Flat Farmland Square State to Pursue a Career in Waitressing-Oops-I-Mean-Acting? How many people in LA does that piss off? 90%? Why? Because it's 90% true even though 90% of the people in LA are in denial that they fit the stereotype?

    (And I can't complain about Leslie Winkle, really. She almost exactly describes me. Do I care/am I offended? Not really, I find it funny that they (the writers) got me right.)

    Finally, despite what you say, there is NOT a lack of educated females on the show. Leslie Winkle. Leonard's mom has a PhD in psychiatry/neuroscience/whatever and is portrayed as being quite intelligent and successful. There was an intelligent female grad student with whom Sheldon briefly worked. (Fine, there's only three that I can think of...but it's more than none.)

  • zuska says:

    Noodle, I think you must be confusing my blog post with someone else's. "A lack of educated females" on BBT is hardly what I am basing my critique of the show on.

  • Joseph Bailey says:

    I know what you mean. I'm a bright (that is high-functioning autistic) and I feel that the character of Sheldon Cooper is supposed to be bright, and all the autistic stereotypes are multiplied to the 10,000th degree and they laugh AT it, not with it. Yes, aspies are socially awkward, but not like that! Also, Rajesh is sort of an Indian stereotype that isn't PC. They also have Jewish stereotypes. It's like it's the one show that didn't get the memo that this is the year 2013.