2013 Golden Globes Week: The Evolution of ‘The Big Bang Theory’

Kunal Nayyar, Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, Simon Helberg, Kaley Cuoco

Written by Rachel Redfern.

The Big Bang Theory, the show that legitimizes the nerd in all of us and tickles that small (or large) part of us that gets the Star Trek jokes. The writers of the show are like geeky unicorns who can finally tell that nerdy joke you’ve been trying for years and who make you smile with superiority when you manage to understand one of the many scientific concepts thrown around.

For the second time, The Big Bang Theory has been nominated for a Golden Globe award in Best Television Comedy Series. This is also the second Best Actor in a Television Series-Comedy or Musical nomination for Jim Parsons, the hilarious actor who plays Dr. Sheldon Cooper, an award that he won back in 2011. Similarly, Johnny Galecki was nominated for the same award in 2012.

Instead of just being another rendition of ‘Friends’ and ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ The Big Bang Theory has a unique foundation in its scientist main characters. The main characters Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) are brilliant, but struggle socially, embodying the traditional nerd stereotype in their love of science fiction shows, fantasy card games, comic book mania, and gamer lifestyle. In the typical sitcom, these kinds of characters are usually background extras that provide the comedic situation for a bad date; while definitely quirky, each of The Big Bang Theory characters’ intelligence and desperate need for affection provide the necessary comedic relief.

The show’s contrasting use of pop culture and advanced scientific concepts is engaging and is augmented by guest appearances from Star Trek alums LeVar Burton, Will Wheaton, and a voice-over by the unparalleled Leonard Nimoy, as well as scientific celebrities Stephen Hawking and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, to name a few.

However, despite the unique nature of the show and it’s legitimately hilarious dialogue there are problematic elements to The Big Bang Theory and it’s a problem I’ve mentioned before: the use of stereotypes. Stereotypes are obviously an important part of comedy; the stereotype is a relatable way to demonstrate a familiar funny situation (or an unfamiliar one since I know few people as smart and neurotic as Sheldon Cooper). However, the stereotypes used in The Big Bang Theory often pigeon-hole women who aren’t physically appealing into socially awkward nerds with latent lesbian tendencies and traditionally beautiful women into uneducated sluts with bad taste in men.

Kaley Cuoco plays Penny, the third main character on The Big Bang Theory, who is a beautiful, young waitress and a bit of an airhead. There are a few disturbing moments on the show when Penny is condescended to by the male characters and is given lines to reflect an “I’m hot but stupid” mentality. Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t some people in the world who are probably like this, but perhaps it wouldn’t be so noticeable on The Big Bang Theory if it wasn’t used so often with it’s female characters.

Kunal Nayyar, Melissa Rauch, Simon Helberg, Jim Parsons, Mayim Bialik, Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco

In the first three seasons it’s especially noticeable as all of Penny’s beautiful friends are given similar characteristics, as are the beautiful women that the boys date. Even Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), Howard Wolowitz’s fiancé, who has a Ph.D in microbiology, is often typecast as an airhead who doesn’t understand a common sense principle as well as the boys.

Perhaps this is a good transition into the sexist mess that was the early Howard Wolowitz character. One of Sheldon and Leonard’s close friends, for the first four seasons Howard played the role of a disgusting, probably should be on a sex offender list somewhere, horny aerospace engineer. His goal was to get laid and so he lied to women, hired prostitutes, chased them down in a park, and was in general, completely repugnant for laughs. While the character has improved since the introduction of the Bernadette character and their marriage, for the first four seasons, Howard’s character ran rampant through the show, completely unchecked and without any repercussions for his behavior. If anything, there was a congratulatory sense to his actions, as if him hiring a prostitute and going back to his old ways of disrespecting women after a small breakup was something the audience should be sympathetic toward.

Howard’s character displays what I like to call the ‘Mad Men Principle:’ is a show sexist because it portrays sexist situations, or is it instead brilliantly self-aware and exposing sexism? In the case of Mad Men I would argue that yes, it is self-aware and exposing the massive amounts of sexism that was commonplace in the 1960’s. Does the same hold true for The Big Bang Theory?

I would say that in the early years of the show, no, it was sexist. For instance, take the episode “The Killer Robot Instability,” during this episode the sexually rapacious and unethical Howard Wolowitz says something incredibly inappropriate, wildly sexual and completely disrespectful to Penny for about the millionth time, yet when she tells him off, she’s the one who has to apologize for being rude. Despite the fact that Penny has now put up with Howard’s constant pick-up lines and overt sexual come-ons, when she finally stands up for herself and informs him that his behavior is inappropriate, she is the one in the wrong; this action validates Wolowitz’s inappropriate behavior and paves the way for him to continue being disgusting without consequences.

Or again, how Wolowitz treats his mother badly and demands that his girlfriend and wife cook and clean and care for him: the lovely Bernadette looks confused by his constant insistence that she do so, but continues to participate in his illusions about how she’s going to behave.

However, the show has gotten better the past few seasons; the characters feel more well-rounded, there are fewer jokes at Penny’s expense, and the “quick, try to bone every woman in sight” attitude from Wolowitz has subsided since his involvement with the Bernadette character. In fact, there was a moment of acknowledgment and apology for his past behavior in season five, an act of redemption that has put the show on the good side of the ‘Mad Men Principle’ for me.

Simon Helberg, Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki, Kunal Nayyar

 In fact, the season four episode, “The Roommate Transmogrification,” started a clever role reversal featuring Wolowitz and Bernadette as she is offered a high-paying job at a pharmaceutical company. This job will make Bernadette the main ‘breadwinner’ in their relationship and spawns a situation where Bernadette treats him like a trophy wife. Similarly, in season five’s “The Shiny Trinket Maneuver,” Bernadette tells Wolowitz that she’s not sure she wants children, a problem that’s resolved by her compromise to have children if Wolowitz will stay home with them so she can continue her career. It’s obvious that this compromise is unacceptable to him, a fact that I appreciated since it was automatically assumed in the episode (as it so often is in life) that it’s the wife’s duty to give up her career and stay home with her children.

It seems glaringly obvious to make this point about a show who’s title references evolution, but the great evolution and development of The Big Bang Theory makes it, in my opinion, a well-thought out and intelligent sitcom. I’m hopeful that this deserving show will win a golden globe this year and that I’ll continue to laugh like the giant geek I am at every brilliant Star Trek joke that Sheldon Cooper makes. 

Rachel Redfern has an MA in English literature, where she conducted research on modern American literature and film and its intersection, however she spends most of her time watching HBO shows, traveling, and blogging and reading about feminism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13723130306678074304 Celayha Cameron

    This show is one of those that you either love or hate. Sure, there are your basic stereo types on the show but this is how the public identifies with this so-called group of “nerds”. I don’t think it’s offensive or anything because the show uses sound science to support the arguments in the show. My DISH co-worker, who is an avid fan of the show, agrees that the sexist behavior of Howard was often out of control. I didn’t take it personal and I still enjoy the show every week, regardless of who makes what tasteless joke. I’ll be working when the show comes on but I’ve already got my DISH Hopper set to record it when it airs. The Hopper allows me to store up to 2,000 hours of my favorite TV shows and movies so I don’t have to rush into watching anything I’ve recorded. I’ve got complete control over how I watch my TV and I love it!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    Great article. I’m glad you pointed out these issues. Some of us are so used to it that it doesn’t seem inappropriate at first, just normal. Your analysis was helpful and I appreciate the acknowledgement of the shows development over the years. It’s a great show.

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