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The Big Bang Theory is one of television’s most popular shows and you can seldom flip through the channels without stumbling upon a rerun or two. While the show’s popularity is impressive, its treatment and portrayal of female characters is not. Women are treated in this show as sexual objects, with no potential to be seen as separate entities. Almost all new female characters are brought into the show as potential sexual partners for the four main male characters: Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj. There are several women who are introduced as highly esteemed scientists, but by the end of most episodes they are reduced to random hookups for one of the four main men and are never seen again. There is so much potential to have strong, recurring female characters, but the writers instead use the women as a punchline or a sexual object for the men of the show. There is a missed opportunity here to include women as equals in the show, both on the basis of humanity and the basis of science. Because the show focuses on four scientists instead of any of the more typically masculine roles that are often seen in today’s television, such as firefighters, lawyers, and crime investigators, The Big Bang Theory has a certain privilege of bringing science to the forefront of media and giving the field more representation. While it is a great step forward to have scientists represented on television, there is an obvious lack of female scientists on the show, resulting in furthering the stigma that women don’t belong in STEM fields. The creators of the show seem to be supporting the theory of homophily, thinking that their male viewers will only continue to watch if male scientists are represented. What they fail to recognize with this thinking, however, is that they are now discluding half of the population who may be interested in The Big Bang Theory. Representation of women, specifically women in science, would not detract from the show’s popularity, but would instead open it up to be more accessible to a greater amount of viewers.
Although the show has been running for eight seasons, there are currently three recurring female characters. All three of these characters have/had relationships with one of the main male characters. This goes to further the point that female characters cannot exist on this show without being there merely to supplement a male character. Penny, who has been in the show since the very first episode, is portrayed as the stereotypical ‘blonde bimbo.’ She is used mainly as a set up for jokes for the four main male characters and, even after eight seasons, still does not have a last name. An article on Feminspire highlighted an episode in which Penny goes to the comic book store that the male characters often frequent. She is shown choosing a Thor comic book because “Thor is ‘hot’” (Pirone 2). This is a perfect example of The Big Bang Theory’s use of female characters as a mere joke as well as a means to perpetuate the view of women as “sex-seekers, instead of fully-formed people who are perfectly capable of appreciating both Thor’s abs and Thor’s interesting plotlines” (2). Penny is used as a character in the show to further the male scientists’ plotlines without having much of a storyline of her own. She is said to be an aspiring actress, but that career choice is not often explored. She is less of a separate character and more of a device used for jokes and sexual objectification.
Two of the three main female characters on the show are scientists, but they’re still most often show interacting with their boyfriends, talking about boys, or doing other stereotypically ‘girly’ things. Furthermore, the work of any of the women scientists shown in the show “is never celebrated in the way that their male colleagues’ is…. they typically [are] plot devices to further the narrative involving the male scientists” (Leon 6). The two main female scientists are displayed in very different lights, but have the same end of being there to supplement their male counterparts. Dr. Amy Farah Fowler, a neuroscientist, is written as the stereotypical brain and is shown to be overly awkward. She speaks in a very matter-of-fact way and dresses in what could be considered a prude manner, conveying to the audience that she is indeed highly intelligent. On the other hand, microbiologist Dr. Bernadette Rostonkowski-Wolowitz is shown dressing more femininely with cleavage showing cardigans and floral prints. She has an “unusually high voice that alternately infantilizes and hyper-feminizes [her]” (6). Both of these women’s professions seem to take the backburner, as they are more often used to further develop the male characters. The stereotypes that are seen in these two women help to further marginalize women in science through “sexual objectification, professional dismissal” (7), or any combination of behaviors that are often seen on the show. Amy and Bernadette’s careers help to set them up as suitable partners for their scientist boyfriends, “but these careers become fodder for the development of their relationships” (McIntosh 199). Their careers are seldom discussed in the show, missing an opportune moment to shine a light on women in science. Instead, they seem to be scientists only because their male counterparts would only date someone assumed to have similar intelligence and interests.
Amy and Bernadette are portrayed as scientists in two opposing ways. Amy is seen to discuss her work more frequently and is more often shown in her lab. When Sheldon, her boyfriend, tries to claim superior intelligence, she “quickly shows the gaps in his knowledge and abilities and asserts not only her expertise, but also her confidence in her work” (McIntosh 198). The audience can assume from the beginning that Amy’s more prudish clothing and matter-of-fact way of speaking means that she is indeed able to be a scientist. This furthers the stereotype that women in science must all dress in a way that is deemed dowdy and more demure. Bernadette, on the other hand, is portrayed as being incredibly naive and often having questionable ethics when it comes to her practice of science. She is not often seen in the lab or discussing her work, but when it does occur, it is to set up a joke so the audience can laugh at the seemingly incompetent woman trying to make it in a man’s profession. This behavior, accompanied by her more feminine appearance and outfits, helps to further the notion that women who are typically seen as feminine cannot be competent in STEM fields. Although Bernadette most definitely could wear floral skirts and be a successful scientist, The Big Bang Theory goes against this, instead adding to the bias against women in these fields.
Bernadette and Amy interact with their own knowledge and intelligence in different ways, often to appeal to their boyfriends and not lose their interest. To this extent, Bernadette is known to be an accomplished scientist, but is shown in the show as “representing the ‘ditzy blonde’ stereotype” (202). The character often misses obvious jokes that the male scientists make. She also admits to downplaying her intelligence so Howard, her boyfriend, can retain his masculinity. In one episode, Bernadette says “I’m much smarter than [Howard] is. But it’s important to protect his manhood.” This buys into the view that knowledge, especially in the sciences, is inherently masculine and can be threatening when seen in a woman. It also shows that what Howard values most about Bernadette is her femininity and her appearance, and he feels threatened by the thought that she may be more intelligent than himself. On the other hand, Amy has to maintain her intelligence to keep the attention of Sheldon. She is frequently seen engaging him on “scientific grounds [as well as] social and behavioral ones” (202). Amy recognizes that Sheldon is easily bored, not inclined to romantic interests, and also values intelligence above all. While Bernadette is downplaying her intelligence and Amy is maintaining hers, they are both after the same goal of keeping their boyfriend’s attention and continuing the relationship.
Female scientists are often shown to be able to succeed either in their work life or their romantic life, but not both (McIntosh 197). Femininity and success are thought to be mutually exclusive, a theme furthered through the plot of The Big Bang Theory. This can be seen in the two main female scientists. Amy is shown to be a successful scientist, but she struggles in her relationship with Sheldon. On the other hand, Bernadette has more success with her relationship, but she is portrayed as being incompetent in her work. The women’s intelligence plays an interesting role in their relationships in that “for Bernadette, the downplaying is what she thinks keeps her relationship going with Howard, while for Amy, the asserting and maintaining of her intelligence keeps Sheldon interested” (203). Overall, Bernadette and Amy being scientists is merely a plot device to allow them to be suitable for their male counterparts and is not, in fact, an integral part of their characters.
One episode of The Big Bang Theory seeks to explore the lack of women in STEM fields, but it misses the mark by a wide margin. There is a scene in which Howard, Leonard, and Sheldon are meeting to discuss the issue of there being more men than women in science. Leonard offers some actual solutions and points out topics of sexism and racism in popular culture as well, but Howard counteracts with several sexist remarks. This scene identifies the issue of sexism but “immediately undermine[s] what had the potential to be an intelligent and relevant discussion” (Leon 7). During this entire episode, the female scientists are excluded from this conversation because they decided to skip work to go to Disneyland. These storylines are juxtaposed to show the men working and performing science, while the women have “forgone their profession in favor of pleasure-seeking” (8). The episode ends with Bernadette and Amy sitting in Disneyland dressed as Cinderella and Snow White. The two women are speaking to a group of young girls over the phone to try to promote women in STEM fields, but their message is lost under the comedy of two “grown, professional women essentially playing dress-up” (8). This episode misses a great opportunity to point out the institutionalized sexism in the field of science, but instead chooses to portray the idea that there are less women in science than men simply because they choose to put their personal lives over their professional lives.
Overall, the sexism in The Big Bang Theory is obvious. There is a lack of women represented on the show, and those who are there are simply used to further the male characters’ plotlines. Instead of using these female characters to reach out to female viewers or help to promote women in STEM fields, this show degrades them until they are merely sexual objects or the setup for a joke. The two female scientists that are regularly occurring have their careers placed on the backburner while their personal lives and their relationships with the main male characters are their most important attributes. There are many missed opportunities on this show to highlight the lack of women in science or to even just create female characters who can stand on their own. Instead, The Big Bang Theory chooses to treat women as second to men and female scientists as the ultimate punchline.
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