Gendering Geekiness on "The Big Bang Theory"

Curator's Note

First of all, I consider myself a fan of The Big Bang Theory, so it does pain me somewhat to do what I am about to do. However, like any good media critic, I feel that for the good of the land I must turn a critical eye to the object of my affections, and I cannot ignore the glaring gender stereotypes before me. Every time I watch this show, an overworked and exhausted voice inside me screams: how can something that focuses on such a marginalized subculture turn around and marginalize women in such a blatantly unapologetic (and quite often offensive) way?!

Admittedly, there are many shows that are enjoyable and even progressive on some fronts that still lag far behind where I’d like them to be on others, but that doesn’t make this any easier. Perhaps it’s just a hazard of the job, but when your particular brand of geekiness includes a personal and professional obsession with media representations of marginalized identities, it makes it really hard to ever turn off that critical voice inside your head. Incidentally, I am far from the first or only person to take issue with the show’s treatment of women; one need only perform a Google search to discover an extensive array of critiques, rants, and lamentations on the subject. When the show started back in 2007, Leonard and Sheldon’s neighbor Penny was the only female member of the main cast. She was portrayed as what society repeatedly tells us is the fantasy of every young adult male in America—she’s blonde, she’s beautiful, and she appears to be relatively uncomplicated (read: not too bright). Despite the late addition of love interests for Sheldon and Howard and a few delightful appearances by Sheldon’s mother, the show still remains largely tied to its one dimensional representations of women: women can either be pretty and dumb, or smart and (Hollywood) unattractive (i.e., throw on some giant glasses).

To be clear, the problem (and I strongly believe this is indeed a problem) is not only the way that the show’s female characters are portrayed, or the way that the male characters talk about women, but also the role played by women on the show’s production team—which is, sadly, quite limited. The show’s creators are male, most of the regular writing staff is male, and the directors have all been male. Coincidence? I think not.


Really interesting observations! Two things jump out at me here. First, I wonder if you think your critique of the show's production team could be extended to the network on which it airs (CBS) and the broad comedy approach associated with that network and the show's creator, Chuck Lorre? Are problematic representations of gender part and parcel of this broad approach? And what makes geeky subject matter a good fit with that approach to comedy? Second, while it certainly makes perfect sense to attribute some of this CBS and/or the male dominated production team, I wonder if there is another aspect to the show's gender problem. Are the one-dimensional and stereotypical representations of women also a symptom of the problematic attitudes that still exist within geek culture? And does the show's popularity among self-proclaimed geeks, who identify with the show and its characters, demonstrate a reticence to really interrogate or change these attitudes? Would love to hear your thoughts!

Thank you for your comments Erin. I definitely agree with you about extending the critique to the network and the creator, and this was one of the may things I would have liked to have been able to discuss at length here, were it not for the space constraints! I think that Chuck Lorre presents an interesting dynamic in this case, because while he has been associated with "Two and a Half Men," a show that I find to be incredibly sexist and highly reliant on one-dimensional portrayals of women, he was also a writer and co-executive producer/supervising producer for "Roseanne," a show that had quite complex female characters and often championed various feminist causes. As for the network, I think that CBS is often seen as catering to a relatively older crowd, and so the success of a show like "The Big Bang Theory" in this context is particularly interesting. Based on data from sites like "TV By The Numbers," this show may be luring younger viewers to the network, an occurrence which has been aided by the show's success with the younger demographic in syndication on TBS as well. Furthermore, I would be very interested in conducting a reception study of the show in order to discern whether or not viewers of TBBT actually identify with geek culture or not; there are many critiques of the show from self-identified "geeks" or "nerds" currently circulating in the blogosphere that claim that the show stereotypes geeks and/or that it is simply uninteresting. Obviously these pieces cannot be taken as representative of the whole audience, but they are interesting to consider nonetheless.

Great insight! I too struggle with my fandom and the representations we are given on the screen. As I watched your clip I found myself wondering how perhaps using females as a sexual object the geek is able to rid himself of the effeminate and sexually inept stereotypes. Although many of the male characters in The Big Bang still embody these stereotypes, the females could be seen as a visual stand in for "Yes, I might be a geek. But look I have a female as an object and hold more power".

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