I Have A Theory
I’m going to go ahead and admit that I am — ultimately — a fan of The Big Bang Theory. To an extent, anyway.
Yes, I know it’s a ‘dumb’ version of Community. No, the show isn’t half as smart as it pretends to be.
And yes, despite my appreciation of the sitcom’s tribute to fandom culture, ultimately, I think the entire series failed quite spectacularly. Primarily, the show failed its female protagonists to a point I still can’t bring myself to watch the series finale.
My Love Affair With TBBT
When I first started watching the show, I absolutely adored the characters mostly because I saw a lot of myself in them.
Sheldon Cooper’s fussy behaviour, his need for rules and order validated my own real life quirks. Leonard’s need for validation mirrored my own insecurities when it came to my personal interests and hobbies. Penny’s lofty creative ambitions and limited understanding of the hard sciences made me feel less like an idiot.
There were other details in the story that absolutely engaged me of course. Showing up at the comic book store on Comic Book Day once a week? Check. Getting addicted to MMORPGs? Check. A deep and abiding love for the tragically cancelled Firefly? Check and check.
Also, I was — and am — an avid Sheldon/Penny shipper. They complimented each other so well, it honestly baffles me that they were not the end-game couple. Sheldon encouraged Penny to better herself through education, and indeed, he often played the role of mentor in that sense. Penny on the other hand is a huge reason why Sheldon finally managed to live a fuller life. She taught him how to navigate society, and played a huge part in helping him develop his social skills.
The fact that Penny ended up married to Leonard instead — and this is important to me — is part of the reason why I think the show betrayed its female characters.
The Penny Problem
Penny’s character was introduced as the perfect foil to the two nerd boys across the hall. She was everything they were not — she was popular, social, and she wasn’t even a quarter as educated as they were. As the show progressed, the story makes it clear that her character wasn’t just a ‘pretty blonde’. Indeed, I appreciated the fact that the show explicitly framed her as a well rounded individual in her own right, nevermind her lack of a doctorate.
We got to learn about her career struggles, her fear of commitment, her rocky relationship with her father…
What we never learned however, was her last name. At a very fundamental level, Penny’s character never got the privilege of having a literal identity of her own. Instead, the only last name she was ever awarded was ‘Hofstadter’ — i.e. her husband’s last name.
Seriously — think about it.
I wish that was the last of my gripes about the way Penny’s character was treated, but very, very unfortunately, it isn’t.
Despite the fact that Penny obviously brought a lot of positivity into the boys’ lives, Leonard, her main love interest, reduces her value down to her looks. It’s worth noting that Leonard openly and often says things like he ‘would never find a girlfriend as pretty as her again’. As if that weren’t enough, Amy Farrah Fowler’s character also objectifies her ‘bestie’ in exactly the same problematic way. Why was this ever okay-ed as a plot device? It’s kinda messed up.
I will concede that the final seasons of the show saw Penny’s character blossom (ha!) into her full potential. Obviously, the writers realized that the hot-girl trope was played out. The narrative saw Penny becoming a successful career woman in her own right, capable of leading complicated projects in the corporate world. Not only that, her intelligence is soundly emphasized, to show that her success was no fluke…
Except all of that compensation fades away into nothing, when audiences find out that she’s pregnant in the series finale.
What’s wrong with being pregnant, one might ask? Nothing. Nothing except for the fact that the character had stated firmly and repeatedly that she didn’t want children.
As far as I’m concerned, the writers did Penny a dirty by coming full circle by once again reducing her to her body. The show didn’t end with an emphasis on Penny’s career finally taking off — it ended with her entering an elevator dressed all in feminine pink, ready to become a mother despite her express wishes not to be one.
For that reason alone, I cannot bring myself to ever watch the finale. I cannot make myself witness the assassination of what had been a wonderful, strong, female character.
On The Subject of Motherhood…
Unfortunately, Penny was not the only one who got subjected to this level of reductionism. Almost every woman in the show was converted into a farcical representation of their initial characterizations.
Bernadette, the first character to say she didn’t envision kids in her future, not only concedes to Howard’s wish for children, she temporarily becomes a stay-at-home mom despite her explicit sentiments in earlier seasons about not wanting to be that person.
To add insult to injury, they turned this successful, brilliant character into a bit of a controlling bitch — the same way they turned Howard’s poor mother into a crass caricature. Instead of examining the reasons why she had to start giving the irresponsible Howard an allowance, or a chore wheel, the show writers turned Bernadette into a controlling harridan — or more accurately, Mrs. Wolowitz 2.0.
Seriously Chuck Lorre, what gives?
Then There’s Amy…Problematic, Creepy, Sad Amy
I sincerely hated Amy’s character at times, which was unfortunate.
Amy should have been the woman nerd-girls everywhere looked up to. She wasn’t fashionable, she was awkward, she was bullied in high school…but she didn’t let that stop her from pursuing a successful career in the sciences. In many ways, I was and am her.
Instead, we got a character that was one tick shy of being a stalker; indeed, she’s kind of a sexual predator. The episode where she tricked Sheldon into spanking her? That really grossed me out. It’s not funny to see someone taking sexual (and it was sexual) advantage of a person who didn’t realize exactly, what was truly happening. It’s icky, when you consider that Sheldon had no idea he was helping Amy get off.
But it’s not just Sheldon is it? Throughout the show, Amy continually makes weird, sexually charged comments at Penny and Bernadette. Quite often, the two other women tell her that she’s making them uncomfortable, yet she never actually stops.
When she wasn’t being creepy as fuck, Amy resorted to emotional manipulation by recounting stories of her ‘tragic’ childhood.
Honestly, her character was not only problematic, she should never have been written in as a plot device at all. At least, not in this way.
I Get It — It’s Just A Sitcom
I know I shouldn’t take this stuff seriously because TBBT is in the end, a silly sitcom.
But come on. In a show that’s supposed to elevate intelligence, that proposes the idea that esoteric interests should not diminish individuals, why are women ironically reduced to crass representations of femininity? What all this tells me is that Hollywood is still in many ways. not able to properly write intelligent, successful women with their own motivations.
Not to say of course, that things haven’t improved — in the last decade or so, we have had comedies like 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, and Community, which gave the world better insight into the complex machinations of being a woman in the twenty-first century.
Regardless, when award winning (albeit concluded) comedies like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family continue to reduce women down to their bodies and their maternal roles, when revived shows like Sex and The City continue to portray women as out-of-touch, shallow, tone-deaf creatures…
It’s not much of a laugh, is it?