The Big Bang and the little whimper



The TL;DR version: I did not like the ending of The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon’s sudden epiphany about his “other family” was reductive, and what happened with Penny (pregnancy) and Amy (makeover) were downright offensive. Read on for the meandering version or skip straight to the comments to vent (or to disagree with me).

That last double-length finale was a protracted set-up to give Sheldon a short-sighted and unlikely, and I would even say unnecessary, character growth. One that left the others as stage props to facilitate the sudden and inexplicable change in him. But this is not mostly about Sheldon, because I’m not about to do the same thing that the show did. My beef is about the women of The Big Bang Theory, how even in its last hurrah, it hadn’t even the self-awareness to realise that everything they thought was progressive was actually just stereotypes heaped upon tropes.

That final episode saw a Nobel Prize-winning woman scientist having to undergo a transformation to become a more glamorous, more suitable-for-male-gaze avatar of herself. It saw another female character—in fact, the only woman who’d been in the show since the beginning, and in her own way, despite judgement and derision from the show makers and other characters, to stick to her own terms of existence—lumped with a pregnancy that she’d declared just an episode ago that she didn’t want. And this with absolutely no sense of irony given that bodily autonomy debates that are raging in American society right now. Perhaps there is some truth after all to another stereotype—of the clueless, insular American?

When I first started watching The Big Bang Theory, I identified with the men—all their nerdiness resonated happily with mine. While I never did quite warm to the depiction of Penny as the Trixie McBimbo (Gilmore Girls reference there; a hugely problematic series in its own way) of the show, for a long time I managed to ignore my misgivings. Or maybe I just avoided thinking too deeply about them. Then Bernadette Rostenkowski and Amy Farrah-Fowler were introduced, and the gender stereotyping and sexism became worse.

This was despite TBBT’s showrunners attempting to give all the women so-called “strong” characters and stories. All of them went on to become successful in their careers of choosing. Penny moved on from her part-time waitressing and failed acting career—though there was judgement there, in that acting was positioned as being lesser than the academic careers the others had—to become a successful sales professional, eventually managing her own team at a big pharmaceutical company. Bernadette also put herself through college while working at the same restaurant that Penny did, earning a doctorate and then landing a high-paid job at a drug company. In fact, she always earned a lot more than Howard did. Amy was the only nerdy one among the women, and of course she went on to win a Nobel Prize in physics (even though her main field of expertise was neurobiology, which Sheldon consistently put down).

The problem, however, was that it was always a show for straight (white) men, told from the context of a straight (white) men. So much so, that even their protagonists were set up as caricatures to be pummelled and derided, perhaps it was the playing out of the bizarre fantasy of mediocre white men who are threatened by their intelligent counterparts. (Raj was just the token diversity caricature, a ridiculous character place there to be laughed at even more than the others were. So much so, that he they didn’t even bother to get him a proper name.) All of this meant that their narrow straight-(white)-man worldview underpinned everything—from the premise (“A woman who moves into an apartment across the hall from two brilliant but socially awkward physicists shows them how little they know about life outside of the laboratory”) to the way it ended.

I won’t go into how and why the show was an embodiment of misogyny and toxic masculinity—there has been a lot written about it already, resources that helped me understand my own discomforts. My gripe has always been more about the way that it portrayed its women—all three, without fail, “mothered” their partners. The women were the ones who decoded social signals for their male counterparts, even to the extent that Amy’s nerdy-girl character had to be sacrificed for it. (A great post by Melissa Blake about it here.)

The show was also incredibly racist, as mentioned earlier, though I’ll need an entire blog post to talk about how and why. In short, nothing about Raj was funny; he was an amalgamation of the worst stereotypes about Indians. And the way his relationship with Anu was depicted reflected ignorant, Orientalist views about Indians and arranged marriages. Raj had a funny-sounding make-believe name; his sing-song voice was ridiculous (nobody talks like that in India); nothing about his family or background was authentic (even a cursory couple of hours with Google would have produced a better backstory).

Coming back to how the show failed its women characters, I guess I’m angry that I expected anything different. After all, the benevolent misogyny had always been present, so why did I assume anything might change? It brings us back to the discussions we’ve been having in the #BerenaDeservedBetter campaign—the absence of actual intersectional diversity within production teams. This results in blinkered, stereotypical, mainstream representations of anyone who’s not the gold standard of normality that we know—and no prizes for guessing who that is.

And guess what? This is not going to change unless there is a collective understanding that every story looks different depending on who’s telling it and who’s watching it.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.