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“It’s just another sitcom in different pants” – The Big Bang Theory and sexism

August 29, 2014

[Discussion of sixth season.  May spoil those who haven’t seen it yet.]

These are the words my husband said to me when I complained about The Big Bang Theory last night (and again this morning).  The show might be the closest thing I have to a guilty pleasure, in that because I spend half the time laughing and the other half cringing, it’s maybe the only show I watch that makes me feel any shame.

I am not a media snob, I don’t think.  I feel the same sense of completion reading a new translation of Camus’s The Stranger as I do finishing the latest Eloisa James.  I do a lot of critical analysis, but being able to see missteps in something doesn’t make it bad or mean I don’t enjoy it.  If you tell me you liked the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, I didn’t see it, so I’m not going to say “Ugh, seriously?” just because I didn’t like the first Bay Transformers movie.  If you tell me you enjoyed the first Transformers, that’s fine.  I didn’t, and I won’t ever watch it again, but hey.  Different strokes for different folks.  But if you tell me there are no plot holes, or that it makes perfect sense for two humans to fool around on a sentient car, that’s where I’m drawing the line.

(I didn’t mean to single out Michael Bay there, but those two movies highlight my policy on others’ enjoyment.)

That said, The Big Bang Theory is something my mother-in-law introduced us to, because she enjoys it, we’re nerds, it’s about nerds, so we’ll love it, right?  She got us the first season on DVD for Christmas and my daughter and I watched it.  If I remember correctly, it starts pretty pro-nerd and soon after (I want to say after the writers’ strike but I’m not sure) gets nasty.  In the pilot, Leonard and Sheldon are a team of nerds living blissfully in their nerdy ignorance, but by about six episodes in, Sheldon is the butt of all the jokes for being “different”–and annoying–and Leonard is constantly snarky to him.

The show evens out toward the end of the first season, and we picked up the second and third seasons for a song so we could continue watching.  My husband, who’d mostly ignored us or, you know, been in the military, eventually started wandering in and watching, usually while he was doing something else.  He laughs a lot, but he cringes maybe even more than I do.

We’re now watching the sixth season (without the kid, who’s on vacation), and I’m plowing through partially just to get through it, because I have that feeling like when you’re in the middle of a conversation and someone can tell the other person is checking out, and is desperate to wrap up, either to end the conversation or just get to the next topic.  That’s how I feel about The Big Bang Theory.  If I watch it fast enough, I can fool myself into believing it was more enjoyable than awkward.

My husband’s feelings on sitcoms are directly related to how he feels about television networks, because you can’t remove one from the other.  He believes that good ideas are ruined by committee, that when you pull in people who are more interested in numbers than story, you end up with a terrible product, because product is all it is.  On top of that, you’ve got the sitcom: fast, funny, and always reaching for the lowest common denominator.  This doesn’t mean bad people, or trash, or whatever, just the majority.  But who are the majority?  Are they really the people the networks think they are?  Futurama, one of my husband’s favorite shows, addresses this when they introduce Gammabot, a network-owned robot who is in charge of figuring out what “Middle America” wants.  Her line is, “It’s funny, but is it going to get them off their tractors?” (“Bender Should Not Be Allowed on TV”).  The line is perfect because it reflects how network execs (supposedly) see people as walking stereotypes, and so their characters are the same.  Or maybe it’s the other way around: the characters are so stereotyped, the people in charge of creating them have forgotten nuance even in its off-screen, very real, audience.

My husband also uses another Futurama quote to highlight his point, from the episode “When Aliens Attack”: “Clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them feel scared.”  Is this the truth, or is it just what the networks expect of the majority?  Look at all the people who are tuning out network television for “smart,” “edgy,” cable shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Dexter.  (And remember, all three of these are book adaptations.)  As a result, it seems like certain things in sitcoms are still the standard, but pushed ahead.  Fifth season seems to be the right time to get your characters together now, knowing that if you have a successful sitcom, you’ll be getting seven to ten years out of the storyline.

But there’s still the Nature of Sitcoms to deal with–the dragging out of relationships that are incompatible and generally miserable.  A good example of this on Big Bang Theory is Amy’s relationship with Sheldon.  Amy is awkward and into science.  Sheldon is awkward and into science.  They must be perfect for each other!  Except that Amy has a normal sex drive, and Sheldon borders on the asexual.  So of course this is played for laughs.

But they’re cruel laughs, like Leonard’s comments about Sheldon in the middle of the first season.  Amy is seen as ridiculous for having sexual feelings.  This isn’t the first time a sitcom plays a woman being interested in sex for laughs–see also Married: With Children.  But Peg and Al have two kids; they’ve had sex before and they’ll have sex again.  Amy, however, is left in the cold, and we’re supposed to laugh.

Thank goodness the show addresses this, finally, when the gang teases them about their sexless relationship during a game of D&D and Amy bolts from the room.  Sheldon finds her and explains that their relationship, to him, is incredibly intimate, even beyond what he’s comfortable with.  But he’s willing to move the area of his comfort zone because he cares about her and she cares about this.

The problem is, that’s not enough.  It’s enough in Sitcom-Land, where everything moves at a snail’s pace, but in real life, two years of a sexless relationship, where one partner is reluctant to even hold hands, where one of those characters has a healthy sex drive and wants to act on it, would be too much.  And it’s at times too much for me to watch.

Another time Amy’s sex drive is played for laughs is when she’s sick and Sheldon takes care of her, and I spent most of the episode cringing.  Amy fakes being sick so that Sheldon will rub her chest with medicine and give her baths.  Given that Sheldon has no idea why Amy enjoys this, there’s a creepy feeling of non-consensual behavior underlying these scenes.  Add in the fact that Sheldon can be almost childlike at times, and you’ve got a recipe for nausea.

This is only the tip of the Sitcom Iceberg for the show.  You also have the ridiculing of a male character for being too feminine (oh god, the Wikipedia entry on Raj: “part metrosexual with a strong feminine side”), fat jokes, and slut shaming (although that’s down to just Sheldon now).  Despite the fact that women have a strong presence in fandom, none of the women–even the one Raj meets at the comic book shop–is interested in comics or geeky pursuits.  This makes NO sense to me.  I mean, okay, I have met a science nerd, and was shocked to find that his focus was purely science, and did not get any geek references I made.  But for NONE of these women to be interested in the same things the men are?  That is just ridiculous, and propels the stereotype of geek pursuits being for men only; there are, the shows tells us, no geek girls.

This does not mean that the show always fails.  Penny’s sexual past is treated very casually now, Howard’s move from wannabe ladies’ man to devoted husband has been handled well–especially when you consider the fact that Howard has lived with his mother and until now hasn’t done things like household tasks–, and it’s been interesting and funny watching how Raj and Stuart try to figure out how to have a close friendship in a world that acts like two single men that spend time together must have something wrong with them.  (OH NO, TEH GHEY)

And, of course, I love the geek jokes and references.

But now we come to my husband’s problem with the show.

Him: The women in this show are assholes.

Me: They’re all assholes.

Him: But the women are allowed to get away with it.

He’s right.  The show is appallingly sexist on many levels, and one of them is that women are in charge, their word is law, they’re always right, etc etc.  At one point, the girls, annoyed that the guys want a night to play D&D for the first time in ages, and they put on revealing clothes and strut in front of the men.  This is totally rude, selfish, and sexist.  How dare the men want to do something they enjoy that they haven’t done for a while because it’s not what the women want to do?  Ughhhh.

He could give you more examples, but unfortunately I had to put off writing this for a few days while I fixed my laptop and they’ve fallen out of my head while life happened. So, to sum up, The Big Bang Theory may be a funny show about geek culture, but it’s primarily male geek culture, to the point of being a parody of itself, and the inherent problems of sitcoms run rampant.  If the seventh season is more of the same, I’m not sure I’ll keep going with it, though I would miss it.

The good news is, the laptop’s working perfectly again!  Woohoo!  So expect posting on a regular basis now.

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