Trisha’s Take: The “Big Bang” problem

The beginning of this blog post and this review has been very difficult for me to write, so I’m just going to come out and say it:

I think that Wil Wheaton is wrong about “The Big Bang Theory,” aka TBBT.

As people who admire Wil Wheaton’s work know, he’s had several very fun guest appearances on the show as “Evil Wil Wheaton,” the alternate universe version of himself who for several years was main character Sheldon’s nemesis, helped further along the initial break-up between Penny and Leonard, used his fame to line-jump during a midnight screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark that had 21 extra seconds of footage, and then finally get off the “shit-list” by giving to Sheldon a mint-in-box Wesley Crusher action figure, and that’s just the first iteration of the guest character’s story arc.

When he threw open the comments on a blog entry about the show to people who had questions about his first guest appearance, the following exchange took place:

Q: I think TBBT has really made geek chic in some respects, which I’m all for! Do you think the show’s had an impact making geeks more mainstream and funny?

Wheaton: I think it’s part of the general uncloseting of geeks, if that makes sense.

It’s no secret that I originally thought BBT was making fun of us, and I couldn’t get into it. It wasn’t until late in the first season that I gave it a real chance and ended up seeing that it was laughing *with* us and not *at* us. I love that the show embraces its geekiness, refuses to dumb down its humor, and manages to find a balance between mainstream and nerd humor. That’s a lot harder than it seems, and is sort of like playing Comedy Operation. If you touch the sides, the audience’s red nose lights up and instead of laughing, there’s a loud buzzing noise. It isn’t pretty.

Based on those words alone, I put “The Big Bang Theory” on my list of shows that were kind to geeks and science; however, some opinion pieces I saw earlier this year had me questioning his words.

The first one I saw was from Kris Naudus, a writer with whom I worked when I was at Wizard Entertainment. She’s currently a content manager for gdgt, but in her free time, she maintains a blog at LiveJournal where she posts her musings on pop and geek culture. She’s not a fan of TBBT, but because so many of her friends and family enjoy it and keep recommending it to her, she thought she’d give it another chance.

Of the episodes which were streaming online at the time she wrote the review, the first was “The Egg Salad Equivalency,” and after the episode ended, she had this to say:

I usually insist that I don’t like this show because it’s not really nerdy; it’s just making fun of nerds, and that offends me. But this episode didn’t offend me as a geek or nerd. It offended me as a woman, and as a decent human being. Sheldon’s behavior was disgusting and the fact that the episode plays it for laughs and lets him get off scot-free, means that in a way, they condone it. We’re supposed to accept it because “that’s just the way Sheldon is.” It’s absolutely awful that part of the show’s premise is “these guys can’t talk to women,” but then they’re all given girlfriends before they’ve actually learned that lesson. Or really, Sheldon hasn’t learned that lesson, because he doesn’t need to, because he has Amy and Amy doesn’t care because of the way she is. Which is a shame, because I like Miyam [sic] Bialik and how Amy isn’t a stereotypical girl character. Unfortunately, it also makes her an enabler.

Shortly after I watched the episode, I also came across a TEDx talk by Jorge Cham, the cartoonist behind Piled Higher and Deeper, aka PHD Comics, aka The Webcomic that Grad Students Get and Most Everyone Else Might Not Get.

His talk was about something he’s calling “The Science Gap,” that leap in perception between what academics, nerds, and geeks see regarding the world of science and what the rest of the “normal” or mainstream world sees. The relevant part of the talk starts at 4 minutes and 46 seconds into the talk; you can watch the whole thing below:

Let’s take a closer look at one of Cham’s comments again:

TBBT is a major TV network show that’s [also] supposed to be about scientists and researchers, and the show has a lot of fans—and I don’t want to offend them, especially on the Internet—but this show does… all the smart people in this show have [these] glasses, they dress really weird, they’re socially inept, and all the pretty [and] cool people, they’re blonde, they’re dumb, they’re outgoing, etcetera. And so, I don’t have anything personal against the show, but I do sort of worry about what these stereotypes, what impact they have on society in general.

Long-time readers know that I’m definitely the kind of person who will put her money where her mouth is, and rather than just take someone’s word for granted regarding claims that a piece of entertainment is misogynistic or unrepresentative of a particular sub-culture, I’m going to check it out for myself. So, I hopped on over to the CBS website where “Egg Salad” had been streaming and I watched the entire episode.

Because Naudus was so thorough in her review, a lot of the twists and turns of the story were spoiled for me and so I don’t feel as if I can be as completely objective as a person watching the episode during its first run or without the benefit of the fan-wiki and a review by a trusted source would be. During my viewing of the show, I paid close attention to the scenes where Sheldon was interacting with his assistant Alex, because for the last four years I’ve been an assistant to various people in many different industries and know first-hand what it’s like to work for someone who has a very strong sense of self like the Sheldon character does.

The scenes where Alex felt uncomfortable and insulted as her boss started describing her as being full of hormones and/or having her emotions controlled by them like a lesser human being was equally as uncomfortable to me because I could see how I would react in exactly that sort of situation, having seen it in the workplace. I’ve also done human resources work during my career and I know how unnerving it is to have someone show so much disrespect towards you and your position without realizing that they’re doing so, as in the scene where Sheldon told the African-American woman from human resources that she was “a slave” to her body chemistry. And knowing that the other three scientist characters were equally as guilty of inappropriate remarks and behavior in the workplace regarding their female co-workers didn’t make things better because it showed that even Leonard as the most “normal” of the four was a terrible co-worker and colleague.

With those three things in mind and having seen how similar Naudus’ conclusion about the episode (“Sheldon hasn’t learned [his] lesson, because he doesn’t need to, because he has Amy and Amy doesn’t care…”) was to my conclusion about Observe and Report (“Even at the end of the film, [Ronnie] is still posturing, still arrogant, still a dick, but this time he’s got everyone else around him affirming and agreeing that he should continue to be this way….”), I came to my first realization about “The Big Bang Theory”: Because of the nature of episodic sitcoms on the major non-cable networks in the U.S., it is in the best interests for the writers of TBBT to keep Sheldon and the other main characters as being portrayed as stereotypes of geeks rather than showing positive growth and change for as long as possible; ergo, this show is not very kind to geeks at all.

On the other side of the coin is Cham’s claim that this show isn’t kind to science through its portrayal of young, intellectual researchers in academia. One could be cynical and say that the only reason Cham is saying this is because he is the executive producer of a feature film based on his comics as well as an ongoing web documentary series which portrays real researchers talking about real science and he just wants the additional views on YouTube, but I don’t think that’s it.

I think that through Cham’s experience having done a series of lectures all across the U.S. and abroad starting in 2005 and the work he’s done since then on his feature film and web series, he’s personally seen and spoken to thousands of young intellectuals in academia who are more socially adjusted, more stylish, and have more interesting lives and compelling stories about those lives both inside and outside of their field of research than the four main characters on TBBT. From physics grad Ameliz who wants to be a professional actress to architecture grad Matt who built and lives in his thesis, from the research teams at CERN who are working with the Large Hadron Collider to the unnamed woman who went from being a cancer researcher to a cancer patient, Cham more than anyone understands who exactly the average young scientist is and why he or she are nothing like the characters on TBBT.

“But TBBT is fictional!” I hear you say. “It’s not meant to be realistic! You should just chill!” Believe me, I hear and understand that viewpoint, but I think that the continued portrayal of scientists as being socially inadequate and only unattractive compared to the average person has a chance to harm real scientists. For example, on the PhD Comics YouTube channel, Cham aired a multi-part look at how fandom interacts with the real world, and what neurobiologist grad student and host Crystal Dilworth has to say about her reaction to the stereotypes in TBBT is interesting:

Dilworth: It’s interesting, your take on TBBT because for me I look at that show as propagating some, in my mind, negative stereotypes about scientists.

Lincoln Geraghty, professor of popular media studies at the University of Portsmouth, England: Well, indeed.

Dilworth: Especially for me as a woman, believing that in order to be a woman in science, you have to be both ugly, socially unequipped, and narrowly focused. Which, I’m a woman in science pursuing a PhD and I don’t find…

Prof. Geraghty: What’s your field?

Dilworth: Molecular neuroscience.

Prof. Geraghty: Oh, blimey.

Dilworth: So, Amy Farah Fowler is supposed to be me, and I don’t feel like I’m being accurately represented.

My immediate response, which I posted in the YouTube comments to the video, are that I understand what Dilworth is saying because as a scientist who happens to be a woman, it could be hard for her to be taken as seriously as an Amy Farah Fowler-type would be because Dilworth—in my opinion—is more conventionally attractive than the character is. By perpetuating the stereotype that Fowler is what all or most female neurobiologists look like, it harms her personally.

But even more damaging is the notion that “scientists” are a completely and totally different type of person than the average person can hope to become. We all know that through hard work, exercise, the right diet, and maybe the right fitness applications on your cell phone, a person can go from very unfit to reasonably fit in as few as nine weeks. But what about increasing one’s knowledge? Shouldn’t we encourage more interest in the sciences by encouraging people of all kinds to be interested in it?

In this same episode of TBBT, Penny, the audience viewpoint character and Leonard’s girlfriend, got jealous when she learned that Alex had attempted to ask Leonard out on a date. Alex, who is reasonably attractive, also happens to be a doctoral candidate in physics (which is why she’s Sheldon’s assistant). After pondering whether or not she should take community college classes in science, Penny decided that it all seemed too “boring” for her, and chose to start wearing “geeky” glasses instead as a way to keep Leonard’s interest in her fresh. Thus, creating a “fake geek girl” for Leonard to have sex with that evening.

But wouldn’t it be cool and provide a more interesting character arc to have Penny learn what the sciences are like, for her to find a science or a skill that she does like and for which she has a real aptitude? Wouldn’t in encourage interest in the STEM fields to watch how someone’s interest in the sciences can be piqued? And couldn’t it be equally as engaging and as funny as trotting out old stereotypes about geeks?

Until someone give me a production budget, a writing staff, and some actors, unfortunately, we’re never going to know that answer for sure. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t wish and ask for more from our entertainment.

Posted on May 17, 2013 at 13:58 by Trisha Lynn · Permalink
In: Opinion/Editorial, Opinions/Editorials, Science · Tagged with: , , ,