Today I want to take a minute to talk about how scientists are portrayed on the television show The Big Bang Theory: “The Egg Salad Equivalency” was probably my last episode of the show. I no longer feel like TBBT is true to my experience as a scientist, and one of the things I want to do with this blog is to give non-scientists a window into the daily life of scientists.
There’s been discussion about whether TBBT was problematic from its first season, mostly whether the show was laughing with nerds, or at us. I think both are true. I’ve debated with others whether it’s okay that they get the science wrong, or represent it oddly, on the show. (Dr. Mayim Bialik is a biologist; I had hoped her being on the show would step up the quality of biology more than it has.) I know it’s “just” a sitcom, and I know that people don’t think that they see sitcoms as real, sitcoms are based in reality, and they can really back up really weird things about real society.
What’s bothering me goes beyond that, though: recently, the show has moved from making in-jokes with people to jokes about people. And the jokes aren’t funny: they’re mean. (Again: read the great blog post I linked above.) The jokes make me feel like the writers of the show have gotten lazy*, and are taking away a lot of the humanity of the characters by reducing them to clichês. (See Melissa McEwan’s post as Shakesville for another, very elegant take on the reduced humanity of TBBT woman characters, framed as their writers not loving the characters they write.)
The continued laughing at Raj’s “effeminate” comments and behaviors and the implication that he’s homosexual and hasn’t recognized that? They just reinforce the stereotype that men can’t talk about emotions, be interested in appearances, or have deep, meaningful friendships with other men without being gay – not to mention reinforcing the idea that being gay is somehow bad.
The jokes about Sheldon being a lovable misanthrope? They seem to be skirting around the idea that Sheldon might have an undiagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder – I hear Jim Parsons, the actor who plays Sheldon, believes that Sheldon has Asperger syndrome. I get that Sheldon grew up in Texas and that’s (unfairly) milked for laughs – do you really think all people from Texas are semi-rural, ignorant, anti-intellectual, and hyper-religious? – and that some of Sheldon’s lines in this episode are grounded in what his father used to say.
Older episodes included Sheldon’s friends giving him an unnamed book meant to help him understand social cues and traditions, or Leonard stopping Sheldon from being rude to the university president, or to be more humane to Penny, or Penny helping him to pick out a birthday gift for Leonard; this episode ended with nobody actually convincing him he needed to modify his behavior. I say this as a previously self-identified fan: I was disturbed because Sheldon’s treatment of Alex involved him using language he does not normally use, and has not used with her in the past. There’s a huge difference between being smugly superior to/oblivious to everyone and being sexist. (Not that his increasingly rude and mean statements to Amy haven’t had their fair share of sexism.)
And what about Amy? She started as “the woman version of Sheldon.” She’s now mostly just there to deliver sexually suggestive comments to Sheldon and to Penny. That Penny simply looks askance at Amy at these moments again subtly reinforces that it’s okay to be weirded out by homo- and bisexuality. What’s wrong with that picture, though, and what makes it understandable that Penny is uncomfortable, is not that Amy might be bi: it’s that she’s making unwanted advances after repeatedly being turned down. Which isn’t absent from the dynamic, but it’s just not handled in a way that feels realistic. (Lighthearted aside: also, dude, what’s with the jokes about biology not being as hard as physics? We’re smart people doing super complicated work, too! 😉 Seriously: I’m a biologist who has done field work and genetics and is now doing computational biology – I write my own programs, do my own math, grow my own cells, etc.)
Penny’s experiences in this episode also squicked me out. She felt insecure because Leonard got hit on by a woman scientist – understandable. But she didn’t get reassured that Leonard loves her for who she is, as we have seen before: she opts to put on glasses to “look smart.” Unlike the Penny of earlier seasons, she looked at a course catalog’s science listings and rejected it out of hand as boring. Remember how she used to ask the guys to explain stuff to her? Or when she learned so much that she surprised herself with her contributions to group conversations? All of that character development felt gone by the time I got to the end of this episode – Penny was back to being dismissive of other people’s knowledge/intellect.
Not helping: Leonard’s serenade and cello performance was just so clearly a non-apology apology. “I’m sorry you were offended by Alex hitting on me” is NOT the same as “I’m sorry I hurt you by gloating about getting hit on.” Penny’s cleary a strong woman, even if her character is still largely “the dumb pretty girl next door,” and it saddened me that she didn’t tell Leonard that he hadn’t actually apologized. She’s told him off for being rude before.
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As a woman scientist, I absolutely feel uncomfortable about comic representations of sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace, because most of the time? It’s my reality. Like my chemistry lab teaching assistant in college, who commented on a shirt I was wearing in a way that made me realize he was probably actually looking at my breasts. (Seriously? When your students are running around with really strong chemicals, you should try to focus on that. Oh, and I wasn’t the only woman made uneasy by this guy.) Or the older male professors around me who touch me in more familiar ways than I am okay with – no, it’s not okay to put your hand on the knee of a junior colleague you have just met. There was the situation where I was afraid I was about to become a victim of stalking, because a professor at my institution was clearly fetishizing me based on my ethnicity. (My (male) boss agreed with “fetishizing” as the best way to describe it. And thank goodness he stood up for me, and got his boss involved, allowing my boss to take action to help me feel safer in my own office.) I’ve heard male colleagues joke about sexual harassment or other sorts of sensitivity training, even though I have seen them doing and saying things that ranged from mildly irritating to outright sexist (or otherwise bigoted/ignorant) and clearly needed to have their eyes opened to how their behavior was affecting others.
For the record, I think it’s possible to make jokes about sexism, sexual harassment, etc. The work that Kristen Schaal has done as the Senior Women’s Issues Correspondent on The Daily Show is hilarious! (That last link goes to a video I think is only available in the US.) Same thing for Samantha Bee. But those jokes help to shed light on a problem, to bring awareness of the problem to the audience, and sometimes suggest solutions.
Overall, this episode wasn’t simply funny to me because it caricatured a really important problem without illuminating it – the show milked a sensitive topic for cheap laughs. Like I said, it’s hard to feel comfortable with “silly” jokes about a serious, sometimes scary part of my normal life. And I’m lucky! I’ve never had super horrible stuff happen to me.
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Bringing this back to where I started: are scientists really like the ones on TBBT? Some of them are, yes, but many of them are not. My daily life as a scientist definitely includes chattering about the new Hobbit movie or what kind of smartphone technology is about to hit the market. But my daily life as a scientist is a much more respectful, mature place than TBBT.
Others will disagree* – feel like they were being laughed with, not at, or see a more nuanced comic take on sexual harassment than I did – and I’m willing to engage with discussion on that point. Sadly, I don’t currently plan to continue watching more of the show. A lot of us nerds grew up being teased, bullied, or otherwise put down. That doesn’t give us permission to create a secret club where we just put other people down. And despite the fact that there clearly is room for improvement, I’m proud and pleased to say that most of my fellow scientists do try to change when they realize they’re being unintentionally hurtful.
*Here’s why it feels lazy, to me: there are a ton of plot points that could be revisited or expanded! Why aren’t we seeing the whole group having meals together anymore? Can we see more of Sheldon’s dreams? What about Penny’s acting career? Or Bernadette’s awesome work with scary germs? I loved the “giant Jenga” game in this episode – I love watching actual games and new games that the friends make up being played. If Stuart and Raj are roommates, why don’t we see more of that? Why do we so often see Raj by himself? Will Leonard’s mother reappear? Evil Wil Wheaton? LeVar Burton? I used to fall off the couch with laughter. Now…not so much.
I know the writers can get it right, or mostly right: the earlier episode where Howard tries to bond with his father-in-law is a great example. Howard, Leonard, and Sheldon are all congregating in Leonard and Sheldon’s kitchen, waiting for Penny to show them how to gut a fish…and they reveal a common vulnerability, of feeling like they didn’t have satisfying connections with their own fathers. That this was immediately followed by Penny’s bored, kind of harsh tone of voice as she guided Howard’s cleaning of his fish. Even if it was a little bit weird to watch, it had humanity and it was funny!
** I will say that Britton Peele, the author of this piece, says in the text that he’s a married straight man. He may not be the best authority on how non-straight, non-white nerds feel about TBBT. His response to Penny’s intelligence/education being a joke? “They laugh at her because she’s more than a little air headed.” <— this actually is mean. That he calls his wife "normal" instead of not-nerdy? That he uses words that are talking down to his audience? If you don't want to take my word for how these and other attitudes are common and not okay, please read married, straight, white man John Scalzi's Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is. (If you haven’t read it, read it anyways! It’s great!) Mr. Peele, respectfully, it takes tremendous effort to understand one’s own place in a complex society – just because “real” nerds or nerd heroes or professional scientists participate in this show doesn’t mean they have taken the time to achieve that understanding, have made a decision about it, and are willing to risk their jobs over speaking up. (More Scalzi? More Scalzi.)