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Gendering Geekiness on "The Big Bang Theory"

by Ethan Tussey

by Katherine Zakos for IN MEDIA RES

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.

Leonard's Secret Weapon

A clip from the TV show The Big Bang Theory

from The Big Bang Theory (2013)
Creator: VIACOM
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey