Adorkable Misogyny: The Big Bang Theory

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The hit series The Big Bang Theory attracts millions of viewers through the goofy antics of its four leading men. The laughs of the show are mostly derived from poking fun at the guys participation in “geek culture,’ making the characters themselves the butt of the jokes instead of their actions. Their storylines and the resulting jokes revolve around their inability to achieve traditional masculinity, which wherein lies the implicit dilemma of the show, that these characters are still perpetuating chauvinistic attitudes that are excused because of their “geek” status.

In one particular scene Penny the typical girl next door shuts down one of the main characters Howard Walowitz after dealing for years with his sexual harassment:

Penny throughout the course of the show is viewed as a status symbol, which if obtained would mean the fulfillment of the masculine ideal. From the outset Penny is not seen as a person but as an accessory only viewed in relation to a guy.  Howard’s goal to “obtain” Penny is not because he desires her as a potential romantic partner, but rather how a relationship with her would be a positive reflection on his own masculinity. The showrunners intention behind this dynamic of Howard relentlessly pursuing Penny is to make the audience laugh at how Howard fails in his pursuit. Since he lies outside traditional masculine standards his disturbing behavior is not seen as predatory, but comedic. The reaction from the other characters following that immediate scene where Penny confronts Howard over his behavior is to have her apologize to him, putting greater importance on Howard’s bruised ego than Penny’s safety.  Her anger is then used as a comedic set up for the joke about entering her into the killer robot competition, completely invalidating her subject position.

The diminishment of Penny is a continual trend that bleeds into all the relationships she has with the four male protagonists. Most notably in her relationship with Leonard, the geeky male lead that becomes her husband. He, too treats her as a trophy and shows off his prize at every available opportunity.  

In this scene, Leonard is there to be supportive of Penny’s terrible movie, meanwhile there are perverted guys coming up to Penny who Leonard at first turns away for their creepy comments to his partner. However, he quickly ignores their behavior when the attention shifts away from Penny to how he “landed her”, giving him an audience to inspire hope in other self identified geeks the problematic message that “no” is an eventual yes.

The writing in the show itself just consists of cheap laughs based on gender roles and racist stereotypes, a formula they get away with through lamp-shading. The term "lamp-shading" refers to a writing tool in which a writer acknowledges what has just occurred to signal to the audience that they know what has just happened and that they are aware that the audience knows what has happened. This is employed often in context to the Raj and Bernadette. Raj being the token ethnic member of the group is most often made fun of for his Indian background in conjunction with his feminine behavior. Howard consistently copies Raj’s accent, jokes about the stereotype of Indian call companies, and calls him a woman, all situations that are supposedly neutralized by another cast member calling the situation what it is: “That’s racist” or “That’s sexist.” The same is translated to Howard’s behavior toward Bernadette (his wife) who he constantly looks to to fulfill domestic duties and when he is forced to complete domestic tasks it’s interpreted as a diminishment of his masculinity, which is offset by an acknowledgement that his attitude is sexist. The show while acknowledging this problematic behavior does not condemn it. Instead they perpetuate it through having all their comedic material generated through sexist and racist stereotypes. The show whose opening song tracks the progression of our universe ironically operates within the outdated paradigms of gender and race that is obscured by the geek trope of adokrable misogyny.