Before I hurt everyone’s feelings, let me say that I see the charm of The Big Bang Theory. The show has all the right elements: geeky characters, empowered female scientists, and a running theme about the importance of friendship. I want to like this show so much, it pains me. I’ve kept up-to-date with it, and I’m left trying to figure out why. Maybe I’m waiting for it to get better, or maybe it satisfies the TV-equivalent craving of eating a McGriddle, or maybe I’m trying to connect with my fellow man. To be sure, the show is more interesting than other typical sitcoms, but it has so much lost potential. While the show seemingly celebrates all the things I love—comics, cosplay, smart characters, snarky best friends— it actually mercilessly ridicules them in a way that, for me, is the opposite of fun.
Instead of celebrating geekery, individuality, and being your own person, Big Bang Theory proves everyone’s 8th-grade assumptions about nerdiness. The smart characters may have found success, but they lack social currency. At the beginning of the show, most of the jokes centered on Leonard, Raj, and Howard awkwardly trying to score dates and Sheldon just being awkward. As the show progresses, the guys snag girlfriends (and Howard a wife), but the cruxes of most of the jokes are still the same: the guys aren’t “cool” and they are into “nerdy stuff.” Nerds are so weird and impossible to understand! *Cue laugh track.*
As someone steeped in geek culture, I don’t feel like the characters in Big Bang are representative of me—or any actual people. Instead of introducing complicated, smart characters, the show reinforces preconceived stereotypes, including the fact that geeks are male. While smart women grace the show, none of them share the geeky culture that the male characters embrace. Bernadette and Amy may be brilliant scientists, but they still make fun of the guys for liking action figures, cosplay, comics, and sci-fi, infantilizing these interests to the point of mockery.
Not only is a love of geek culture gendered male in Big Bang, but it’s also marked as dumb, silly, and impenetrable to outsiders. It’s the same old sitcom dynamic as Everybody Loves Raymond or King of Queens or Home Improvement: the wife is smart and smug and the husband is a bumbling idiot. But the difference is that the Big Bang Theory laugh track invites the audience to laugh with the women as they laugh at the men and their childishness—and feel superior.
Throughout the entire run of Big Bang, geekiness is treated as something to be laughed at, rather than something to be celebrated. The stuff that real geeks love is treated as nothing more than laugh-track fodder. To me, this stuff isn’t funny—this is my life. I don’t see someone in cosplay and burst out laughing, because I genuinely think cosplay is cool. I don’t think it’s dumb for adults to freak out over action figures, because my shelves are full of them. I don’t think the idea of ritualistically going to the comic book store every Wednesday is absurd because it’s part of my own routine. And I don’t think it’s ridiculous to talk about the scientific accuracy of sci-fi films or discuss superhero powers.
For me, there’s no punchline where the laugh track wants me to find one—just a laundry list of stuff I like being made to look ridiculous. Normally, that kind of parody is fine, except that in this case there’s no smart commentary, no insider winks, and no substance given to the culture. It seems like the writers are only peripherally aware of geeky interests, and use a formula to plug in various surface-level references. It’s an empty parody that echoes the high school dynamic of the “cool kids” making fun of the “nerdy kids” and little more. If the show ever decides to go ahead and try to reach its potential—to move beyond surface-level quick jabs and the belittling of my geeky brothers—I’ll be waiting.
And why does Penny waitress at some weird diner, that looks like a waiting room at a doctor’s office, with the same name as the Cheesecake Factory?
Right?! So weird.
While I think it would be nice if they introduced a nerdy girl to bridge the gap between the interests of the men and women on this show, I think the author is being a little too touchy. Yes, sometimes it seems they go too far highlighting how awkward the guys can be. But if you can’t laugh at yourself for cosplaying or find humor in a debate about a fictional universe, you’re missing the joy of all the things on the “laundry list” that you love.
Thanks for your comment. To be clear, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a humor about yourself—what I’m pointing out is the condescending and belittling tone of the show. I have an investment in discussing and critiquing media because I see it as an important part of our culture—one that can change minds, influence society, and be descriptive as well as prescriptive. I’m a bit tired of being told to “lighten up” or that I’m “overthinking” movies or films because I think critical discussion is important, and I enjoy discussing the problems with even the media I love. I think we may have diametrically opposed philosophies about consuming media, and that’s okay. But I’m here to critique and discuss meaning.
Hi Ashley, your article raises several valid – and quite sad – points, especially when you mention that “there’s no smart commentary, no insider winks, and no substance given to the culture.” and that “it seems like the writers are only peripherally aware of geeky interests”, but in my opinion your conclusion, expressed by the title of your article, that “TBBT hates geek culture” is absurd.
Just to be clear, I don’t think “you’re overthinking it”; on the contrary, I think you are not going deep enough.
Speaking for myself, the only way I can enjoy any comedy that plays with stereotypes – and which one doesn’t – is by “consuming” it on a meta-level, not as “they make fun of X”, but rather as “they make fun of society’s perception of X”.
For me, TBBT – and of course I’m talking of season 2/3 and later here – is not “empty parody that echoes … the dynamic of … making fun of the nerdy kids”, but rather a satire that _denounces_ that perception and dynamic. (Ok, I’m slightly overshooting here.)
Without that mindset, it would be impossible for me to watch TBBT even if all the issues you mention would be magically resolved.
I mean, there are frequently jokes about Raj’s decidedly un-maskuline bearing and the resulting assumption that he must be gay. I’m neither gay nor particularly effeminate, but I would find that really offensive if I’d take it at face value.
Likewise, unlike you I’m neither a woman nor recognizably blond, but I would find the “dumb blonde” jokes about Penny, and occasionally even Bernadette, totally unacceptable if I couldn’t interpret them as social commentary.
Why do you gloss over all the offensive stuff, except when geek culture is targeted?
Ok, I’m not a geek – even though I’m a scientist and software developer, a science fiction fan, and a webcomic enthusiast – so I’m neither directly targeted nor fully aware of the faults and mistakes you describe, so it’s a lot easier for me to take the stance I do.
Maybe the “target” demographic can never be the “target demographic” of a SitCom. I’d assume that many lawyers will find “Better call Saul” as bad as you find TBBT.
Finally, I’ll grant you that the laugh-track is terrible, but isn’t that true for any SitCom? Ok, I guess I just found another reason for thinking that webcomics are THE medium …
actually – i think the author of this article did not even reach all the points on what is wrong with this sitcom. I liked TBBT, I like Sheldon and J.Galecki – but – the shows constantly suggests that child abuse is funny. The mere sentence “i lacked my mother’s affection, i just wanted to be happy” is a punchline 😦 child abuse, neglect … that is a joke in this show 😦
well – i think the author did not even count down every weak point … i used to like Sheldon and also the actor Galecki … but i am done with this show now… Leave alone geek culture, tbbt keeps telling us that child abuse is funny…. 😦 The mere sentence “i lacked my mother’s affection, i just wanted to be happy” is cue for the laughter track… 😦 child abuse, neglect … that is a reason to laugh in this show 😦 ..
Thank you for writing this post, Ashley. I wonder if there is a connection between this subject and why sometimes people say things like, “Yes, I know all about [topic x], but sorry I’m such a nerd,” or “I know I’m weirder than everybody else here, but I LOVE [topic y].” What these people are assuming when they make these statements is that they are somehow less than normal because they like a certain subject–usually things that really are awesome. And, to go one step further, what I don’t understand is why people are apologizing for liking things like Star Wars when other people aren’t apologizing for liking things like Twilight.
Ha, good point. Thanks for your comment, Jarron!