Nerdy men and hot women: sexism in The Big Bang Theory

// 20 April 2013

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Lucy Pegg argues that the sci-fi/fantasy genre this sit-com is based on has already moved away from the stereotypes of women it perpetuates, leaving it woefully behind.

The Big Bang Theory is America’s highest rated comedy. It is regularly E4’s most watched show on our side of the Atlantic and can definitely be said to divide opinion. Is it funny or just plain stupid? Does it laugh at nerd culture or with it? And is it sexist or not?

The programme bases itself entirely on stereotypes in a huge number of ways and given its subject matter, a lot of these are drawn from those typically found in the sci-fi/fantasy genre; a world in which historically the men are the heroes and the woman are skimpily-clothed and more than slightly helpless. Like many of us, Leonard, Sheldon, Raj and Howard submerge themselves in comic books and films as a method of escapism from a society which labels them ‘uncool’. In many ways, this brings these worlds back into their realities; part of this is seen in the way that they often view women. The even more irritating part of this is that nerd culture is starting to change and has recently become far more female-friendly, while The Big Bang Theory insists on continually perpetuating out of date ideas.

The women of the show are constantly sexualised, a major issue in sci-fi and fantasy which has been highlighted by groups like The Hawkeye Initiative. Particularly in the earlier seasons, Penny seems to be portrayed as the archetypal “helpless blonde bimbo” needing to be saved from her pedestrian life by our oh-so-intelligent lead characters. For quite a while she has virtually no character besides being hot and not very academic when compared to the hoards of scientists that populate the show. After six seasons she still doesn’t even have a last name! Penny is the clearest example of the programme objectifying women, though in no way is the practise limited to her. All four of the main characters (though particularly Howard) have very cavalier attitudes towards dating, with it made clear that sex is often the main goals of these adventures. It seems to follow the idea that a handsome male lead must desire vast amounts of intercourse with faceless women before heading off to do battle, in this case with whatever social situation Sheldon is failing to cope with that week. Furthermore, Amy is shown to have little sexual control in her relationship with Sheldon, with her clearly wanting to become more physical and him doggedly refusing to even contemplate her requests. Of course compromises are part of being in a couple but it seems very obvious that Amy has little choice in how their union progresses.

As for how this compares to recent sci-fi exports, look at The Hunger Games; Katniss is attractive but she wears what she needs to for the tasks at hand, is intelligent, remaining forthright and strong as a person, rather than being categorised as “just a woman”. If Howard of The Big Bang Theory used his usual sleazy manner to ask her out I think he could expect an arrow buried somewhere quite uncomfortable.

Another stereotype follows, which is seen both in older sci-fi/fantasy and the households of the 1950s: the idea of women as automatic homemakers or at least stay at home girlfriends. It is Howard who becomes an astronaut and Bernadette who stays at home and frets. Amy sets up the perfect non-valentines for Sheldon and he cannot even get her a present himself. Basically all the women on the show have careers, and in general very successful ones, but they are shown as performing the expressive role in the relationship despite this. Once again, the genre this is based on has already moved away from this with shows like Game of Thrones (set in a more rigorously patriarchal society than nerdom a decade ago) and Big Bang has been left woefully behind.

Overall, the programme generally misrepresents the sci-fi and fantasy genre, as well as the culture which surrounds it. The multitude of jokes made about the lack of women in comic book stores is absurd; last time I went into my local one I found myself accompanied not only by other women (including a staff member) but families too. This is the complete opposite of what is portrayed in the show. It seems patently clear that the writers don’t understand much of the content their work is based on and are working on assumptions about the genre which don’t necessarily continue to ring true. There seems to be no effort to promote equality on The Big Bang Theory and, in fact, much of the humour is based on this and other divides. Perhaps the characters have been spending too much time on their quantum physics to realise that the culture around them is changing and they’re far from catching up.

[Image description: Cover of The Big Bang Theory Season One DVD boxset. Black and red writing. White background. Left to right: Sheldon (Jim Parsons) wears a glazed expression and a lukewarm slight smile. He looks over to his left at Penny (Kaley Cuoco) who has her right arm slung over his shoulder. She has a more pronounced but sideways smile and is looking knowingly to her right at Leonard (Johnny Galecki). Leonard is turned towards her, slightly smiling, with his chin up, evoking a haughty stance. He is wearing glasses.]

Comments From You

Martine // Posted 20 April 2013 at 4:11 pm

“Furthermore, Amy is shown to have little sexual control in her relationship with Sheldon, with her clearly wanting to become more physical and him doggedly refusing to even contemplate her requests. Of course compromises are part of being in a couple but it seems very obvious that Amy has little choice in how their union progresses.”

I do hope you are not suggesting that Sheldon should enter into a sexual relationship just because Amy wants to?

Unclear_User // Posted 20 April 2013 at 6:18 pm

I found this article annoying. The argument is confused and in places completely invalid.

Point 1: The programme is a comedy, and in comedies, characters are often gross exaggerations which do not reflect real life.

Point 2: “All four of the main characters (though particularly Howard) have very cavalier attitudes towards dating, with it made clear that sex is often the main goals of these adventures.”

This is untrue. Leonard seeks a meaningful relationship with Penny from day one. It’s true he enters into other liaisons, but only when he believes Penny is unavailable. When the two finally do hook up, it is Leonard who tries to take the relationship further by telling Penny he loves her; upon hearing this, Penny breaks off the relationship, revealing Penny to be the commitmentphobe, not Leonard.

Even Howard, who is initially promiscuous, enters into a committed relationship with Bernadette, eventually marrying her.

You then go on to illustrate this point with an example which is completely the opposite – that of Amy and Sheldon. Sheldon is asexual. He is not interested in dating or sex. He only begins a ‘relationship’ with Amy after suffering peer pressure from his colleagues. Her persistence in attempting to bed him (and failing) is presented as having a lack of control in their relationship, yet consider this: were the roles reversed and it was Sheldon pestering Amy for sex, I’m sure most feminists would support Amy in her reluctance.

Finally, point 3: “It is Howard who becomes an astronaut and Bernadette who stays at home and frets.” Howard becomes an astronaut because he is an engineer who has worked on NASA space projects before. It wouldn’t make much sense for Bernadette to become the astronaut, would it? While we’re on the subject of Howard and Bernadette, there are many jokes on the show relating to the fact Bernadette has a Doctorate while Howard doesn’t, indicating her superior intellect.

So the show really isn’t as sexist as this article makes out.

Marianna // Posted 20 April 2013 at 6:39 pm

I really liked this review and I generally agree but there are some points I disagree with. For example the point the author makes with Howard being the astronaut and not Bernadette – well Howard is an engineer and has been featured working for NASA and developing NASA equipment; whereas Bernadette is a microbiologist and a very accomplished one – not the usual stay at home person. Additionally, about Sheldon not satisfying Amy; during the course of the show Sheldon has been described as asexual – it would have been weird if all of sudden he committed in a sexual relationship with Amy. Additionally in a recent episode he said to Penny that there might be a possibility of sleeping with Amy at some point – so I’m expecting this to be one of the big themes of the coming episodes or next season.

Saranga // Posted 20 April 2013 at 8:48 pm

I also disagree with the review. Admittedly I’ve only watched a little way into season 2 but I didn’t find it sexist at all, for the following reasons:

Howard clearly has sexist attitudes but the show is continually framing this as a bad thing. the other characters criticise him for it and Penny makes it very clear she finds his attitude disgusting.

Sheldon also displays misognystic attidues but is also roundly criticised for it – mostly by Leslie Winkle.

Penny is not shown to be inferior to the rest of the cast. She is a well rounded person with her own interests and career. The fact she isn’t a scientist and doesn’t have a degree does not make her lesser in the eyes of the rest of the characters.

I think there is a case for traditional gender roles being reversed on the show – Leonard frequently worries over how he acts around Penny, he analyses their every conversation and he frets about whether he said the right thing or not. Usually in pop culture it’s the women that do this. Also, Penny dates lots of men, presumably sleeps with them and is never slut shamed for it.

Penny is girly but is not demeaned for it.

“Penny seems to be portrayed as the archetypal “helpless blonde bimbo” needing to be saved from her pedestrian life by our oh-so-intelligent lead characters. For quite a while she has virtually no character besides being hot and not very academic when compared to the hoards of scientists that populate the show.”

I think she’s got tons of character. She’s kind, friendly, dislikes her waitressing job, wants to be an actress, really likes MMORPGs, likes dancing, doesn’t let people talk down to her, keeps a messy flat, is generally relaxed and optimistic. That’s quite a lot of characterisation. I don’t agree that she’s sexualised.

I think there is casual, occasional sexism in the show, but no more or less than any other TV show. Any sexism in it is because it’s produced in a patriarchal society and things just slip through. In it’s concept, premise and it’s execution I really don’t feel that it’s sexist at all.

In terms of it’s treatment of nerd culture, I think it laughs with it. My only nerd based criticism of it is the argument they had in season 1 over whether Superman’s skin cells store solar power and act as batteries. Yes they do, and anyone with 10 boxes of Superman comcis would know this! The argument was redundant and the writers did not do their research.

Carrie Dunn // Posted 20 April 2013 at 9:29 pm

I can see why some viewers might read TBBT in this way, perhaps, but I’m going to agree with the points made by the previous commenters here – plus Bernadette is “much smarter” than Howard, she earns more, and just off the top of my head there’s an episode where she talks about not wanting to give up work to raise a family. Penny has become a much more rounded character too, and though she might not be academically smart, she’s definitely bright – she beats Leonard at chess the first time she tries out the game. And remember Howard’s “promiscuous” behaviour is a facade – we see behind it when Penny tells him he will be single forever, and then he stays in bed crying for days…

Feminist Avatar // Posted 21 April 2013 at 12:02 am

I certainly don’t think TBBT is perfect, but I do agree with all the comments made here. I would like to particularly emphasise that its REPEATEDLY mentioned that Bernadette earns more than Howard, and at one point there was a joke about her being his sugar-mommy. All of the women in this show are career driven, even if Penny is not “successful” in her chosen field.

I also think that Penny’s role as ‘pathetic-blonde’ in the first couple of seasons (something that disappears as the show develops) was more complex than this review implies. Yes, she used her ‘feminine-charms’ to manipulate men into doing things for her- but this was not meant to show her weakness, but her ability to manipulate her male neighbours. In this, Sheldon is her foil, because she finds someone even more manipulative than her, and eventually the table is turned with her acting as carer to him (like the other characters in the show). In part, this is because in the early seasons, Leonard is the ‘star’ situated between these two equally needy characters that he is unable to resist helping. Sheldon and Penny are meant to balance each other, acting as magnetic poles that pull Leonard in different directions. This dynamic changes as the show develops, in part because Sheldon was so successful as a character and in part because show dynamics need to develop to keep things interesting.

I agree that Penny is hardly the most enlightened model of femininity, but it’s not because she is weak. I also think there is a more complicated discussion to be had here about the role of stereotyping in comedy. In this, I think there has to be room for women to play ‘weak’, ‘silly’, and otherwise negative characters, or we are not allowing women access to the full experiences of humanity.

il sogno di una cosa // Posted 21 April 2013 at 12:35 am

I think there are cases where someone else’s interpretation of an article / program / tv show can open your eyes to things you may not have previously seen. That can only be constructive. There are also cases where it is not simply a case of different interpretation but just plain seeing-things-that-arent-there. I think this is unfortunately a case of the latter and it does a disservice to some egregious cases of sexualisation and sexism on TV.

Stereotypes are used in comedy precisely because we recognise them as being stereotypes ; exaggerations of common social ideas, simplifications that are used to the effect of making jibes at or mocking social norms.

The BBT is popular because it plays on all of these stereotypes in equal measure but ultimately shows that the sum of the characters is ultimately greater than the idiosyncrasies of the parts (all the characters have strengths and flaws – Penny is equally mocked for preferring sex and drink to study as she is often the only voice of sanity and common sense). I dont see any reason to pick up on the “sexualisation” of Penny as the typical student / attractive neighbour anymore than the taunting of Raj as an immigrant or Howard as being convinced of his abilities as a womaniser.

What rings alarm bells in this piece is the following,

“There seems to be no effort to promote equality on The Big Bang Theory and, in fact, much of the humour is based on this and other divides”

Indeed, the humour is humour because all characters are different yet treat each other as equals and are ultimately better off for it.

Anita // Posted 21 April 2013 at 9:40 am

I find this review extremely annoying your portrayal of Penny’s character seems to have come from someone who has seen a poster of the show but never actually watched it. Penny is reguarly depicted showing up the men at “masculine” endeavours including paint ball, gun clubs, diy, killing spiders, video gaming etc she is constantly refered to as ‘robust’ and sometimes even called butch due to her athletecism and ‘gung ho’ attitude. Please don’t mistake me in thinking that all athletic women are or should be called butch but its a far cry from a “helpless blonde bimbo”.

She is constantly shown as having no ability for traditionally ‘feminine’ work she cannot cook, nor can any of the men and they all live on take out, and she lives in an absolute pigsty that more than once the men have cleaned up for her. where is the gender norm in that situation?

As for Bernadette staying home and fretting whilst her husband becomes an astronaught, i think you’ll find that she is an extremely successful micro biologist who is more educated, more successful and makes a shed load more money than her husband. Does she worry about whilst he’s in space? yes it would be weird if she didn’t but does she ignore her high flying career to do so? hell no.

And Amy is i believe consistently shown as the most intelligent person on the show. she repeatedly shows up Sheldon especially in the beginning of their relationship and also has the added bonus of acquiring social skills whilst he remain clueless.

I feel like the person who wrote this reveiw watch the program with a preconceived notion of what it was going to be and then chose not to see any points which contradicted it.

LauraB // Posted 21 April 2013 at 2:34 pm

Yeah, I have to disagree with much of this article as well. The characters are sexist at times but they’re called on it frequently. Such as Penny standing up to Howard in the early shows, and Sheldon’s sexual harrassment case. Then there was a recent episode about encouraging women into Science. The female leads in it don’t all fit the very narrow media stereotype of what is attractive and, although it was problematic in previous seasons, as Amy and Bernadette have joined the cast I think most of the episodes pass the Bechdel Test now.

I actually think the depiction of women in TBBT is much, much better than a lot of other TV manages to be, especially TV written by men.

LauraB // Posted 21 April 2013 at 2:48 pm

… Although, I can see how it is sexist by ommission. I’m not much of a nerd myself but I’ve followed Anita Sarkeesian’s ordeal with horror and read about the sexism that women in nerd culture get subjected to and it’s well harsh. To just make female nerds completely nonexistent in TBBT is sexist, like making black new yorkers invisible in Girls was racist. I’d guess this is laziness on the writers part rather than malicious, but it is still shit.

Holly Combe // Posted 21 April 2013 at 5:42 pm

I do think there are loads of really good critical points in this thread (such as Saranga’s about Penny not being slut-shamed and Carrie’s about her beating Leonard at chess). However, I have to admit I’ve personally never liked the show and broadly tend to agree with Lucy that the stereotyping is boring and lazy. For example, Penny may actually be no fool and arguably framed as ‘cool’ in comparison to the other characters but I’d say this generally runs along tired ‘Beauty and the Geek’ lines. This is with Amy arguably being othered far more than her male equivalents, due to apparently not meeting certain norms, such as knowing how to do things like ‘girltalk’, but nonetheless just wanting to fit in and be viewed in stereotypically ‘feminine’ ways. (Also see Kelly’s comment on our Facebook page.)

This means I disagree with the comments implying or stating that Lucy’s arguments are invalid. I’d suggest the number of recommendations and positive tweets for this post indicate that there is clearly still a debate to be had and there are, indeed, lots of potential answers to the questions Lucy poses at the beginning of her piece. We can disagree and argue why but I don’t think we can just close the case and say all those people are “just plain seeing-things-that-aren’t-there”. [EDIT: @il sogno di una cosa here and in the next para.]

Also, regardless of that, being allowed to sometimes get it wrong is surely an important part of being genuinely able to speak out when we see prejudice. Subsequent discussions can sometimes throw a different shade on things, but this doesn’t mean we’ve somehow done “a disservice” to our cause. To say we have is silencing because it fosters conditions where we can only call things out if we’re 100% sure of what’s happening.

Holly Combe // Posted 21 April 2013 at 5:45 pm

Just a couple of other points (and I’ll keep them brief, as I’m aware that a lot of the comments, including mine, are getting rather long!):

@il sogno di una cosa. You seem to highlight sexism as something that matters but then justify the use of stereotypes on TBBT on the basis that the show plays on a number in equal measure. While I appreciate this may be somewhat offset when “the sum of the characters is ultimately greater than the idiosyncrasies of the parts”, I wouldn’t agree that “the taunting of Raj as an immigrant” is any better than any possible sexism on the programme.

@Anita. I know Lucy has watched TBBT because we have discussed it off-site! To refer to the comment policy, I’d suggest we need to maintain focus on the argument here, not the person :-)

EDIT: @Anita. I’ve re-read your comment now and can see I slightly misinterpreted you. Sorry about that! I think my pile-on radar might be skewing things a bit.

Holly Combe // Posted 21 April 2013 at 5:57 pm

@LauraB. (Forgot to add this!) I think you’re right about invisibility, though I tend to agree with the view that there’s more of a problem with a lack of female geeks than nerds in TBBT.

Saranga // Posted 21 April 2013 at 9:01 pm

What’s the difference between a geek and a nerd?

I do feel that the comments look like we’re all getting at Lucy.. that certainly wasn’t what I intended.

I posted about this on my facebook and it prompted a discussion about the show’s sexism (or not). Most of us thought it wasn’t but one guy thought it was, and he loathes it for (as he sees it) mocking geeks/nerds.

Holly Combe // Posted 21 April 2013 at 9:47 pm

@Saranga. I didn’t think that came across in your comment :-)

I’m definitely saying too much today so I’ll try to pipe down after this but, to attempt to answer your question, my understanding is based on the old OKCupid test definition stating that:

A Nerd is someone who is passionate about learning/being smart/academia.

A Geek is someone who is passionate about some particular area or subject, often an obscure or difficult one.

LauraB // Posted 22 April 2013 at 2:11 pm

I had no idea about the nerd/geek distinction – every day’s a school day!

Thinking about it a bit more, the female characters are, at times, very engaged in what they look like. There’s a very recent episode where they get fairy princess makeovers. Amy and Bernadette are talking on the phone to a group of female students about how they can achieve anything that they want to, whilst dressed up as Cinderella and Snow White. It’s a pretty funny juxtaposition and it did make me laugh, but I also felt – what are the writers getting at here, is it the irritating ‘having it all’ idea, you can be a scientist AND a hotty! SO it’s ok to be clever, high five! Or was it more, no matter how successful women get, all they really want is to look like a princess? I dunno but it made me pretty uncomfortable.

sianmarie // Posted 22 April 2013 at 3:54 pm

Mayim Bialik, who plays Amy (and is a qualified neuro scientist in real life!) wrote this interesting blogpost on the Princess episode

I think this review reflects a lot of the early episodes – it’s quite weird to watch how different Penny is in them, but to me the women characters have really grown and evolved for all the reasons mentioned above.

Rangjan // Posted 22 April 2013 at 6:33 pm

I agree totally with this review. To understand the alternatives you need to look at the character of Saga Norén in the Danish TV series, The Bridge, rather than comparing it to the narrow genre of US comedy, which many responders here appear to be doing.

Holly Combe // Posted 23 April 2013 at 3:34 pm

@Rangjan. Surely that’s fair enough though, seeing as US comedy is the genre TBBT falls within? Thanks for mentioning The Bridge though! I have to admit I haven’t seen it myself but I’ve read some really good things about the character Saga Norén, as a woman who doesn’t meet social and neurotypical norms. I’m looking forward to checking it out…

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