I wanted to love The Big Bang Theory, I really did. The concept is hugely appealing to someone like me: a sitcom based on the lives of four seriously geeky scientists (Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj), featuring frequent cameos by nerd icons like Wil Wheaton. It’s kind of like Friends, except instead of hanging out at Central Perk they play Klingon Boggle and Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock (which I am both proud and slightly embarrassed to own a t-shirt of).
To be fair, the show has some really funny moments—Christine Baranski as Leonard’s mother is priceless—but having watched four seasons, I think its representations of women and people of color leave something to be desired.
The only main female character in the first three seasons is Penny, the woman who lives across the hall from Leonard and Sheldon and whom Leonard has a huge crush on. Penny’s a classic example of the stereotype that pretty women don’t usually have intelligence to match their looks.
Penny is a waitress who wants to be an actress, but doesn’t have the talent to succeed. She likes horoscopes and dating tough, dumb guys, and has trouble following the Leonard and Sheldon’s conversations. Through the series she’s been repeatedly objectified. At one point, the guys design remote control cars mounted with webcams, which Howard drives between Penny’s legs to look up her skirt. She does occasionally stand up to their antics, but she keeps hanging out with them.
Penny also gets territorial with other girls, at one point accusing a rival actress who’s just landed a CSI guest spot of being a “dead whore on TV—live one in real life.” Violence against sex workers is often used as a punch-line, but it’s the anything but funny in real life.
Leonard’s colleague, the more outwardly homely Leslie Winkle, provides the flip-side to Penny’s stereotype, demonstrating the mistaken belief that women can be smart or feminine and sexy, but not both. Sheldon’s pseudo-girlfriend Amy also falls into this trap.
Howard is sex-obsessed and some of the things he says definitely shouldn’t be considered comedy. For example, in one episode he and Raj use NORAD satellites to stalk contestants on America’s Next Top Model. Yes, it’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but the plot still reinforced the idea that pretty women are objects who must want male sexual attention. Here’s a clip from behind-the-scenes of that episode:
Unfortunately, the show doesn’t do much better representing people of color. There’s a stereotype called the “model minority” which states that Asians are better at math and science than white people, who are themselves better than black and Hispanic people.
These stereotypes are based on colonialist prejudice, not on fact, yet the Big Bang Theory does nothing to challenge them. The only main character of color is Raj, who is Indo-American. There are no regular black or Latino characters; to the best of my knowledge only one African-American has guest-starred as a scientist (real-life scientist Neil deGrasse-Tyson).
The character of Raj fits into the “model minority” stereotype but it also reinforces negative views of South Asians by making him the butt of jokes for being culturally inept and unintentionally effeminate. Jokes about Hindu cow worship occur and Howard mocks Raj with a crude imitation of an Indian accent on more than one occasion.
Racialicious contributor Karen Chau describes characters like Raj as a slight improvement in the typical treatment of Indian characters, since he’s not treated as an “innocent foreigner.” But she says she’s seeing a rise in a new stereotype: “the comedic Asian male representations of today lean towards the sleazy: guys that want a girl so badly that they ruin it for themselves.” Raj certainly does this, being totally unable to talk to women unless he’s drunk, at which point he usually starts insulting the women he’s with.
So I just can’t bring myself to love The Big Bang Theory. It may be just a sitcom but it’s probably the most popular representation of nerds out there in TV or film right now. There are other shows on the air that at least attempt to treat race and gender with more nuance and intelligence—The Big Bang Theory doesn’t have an excuse not to try.