I don’t think there’s any other TV show that has had such a controversial reception in the nerd community as The Big Bang Theory. The show is wildly popular with mainstream audiences. It’s won two People’s Choice Awards, two Emmys, a Golden Globe, and more than a handful of nominations for cast and crew every year it’s been on the air. But much of the nerd community has yet to embrace it. Most of the criticisms fall into the categories of “nerdism” and “sexism.” I would say that these people don’t know what they’re talking about… but that wouldn’t be fair. Instead, I’ll attempt to show you why TBBT isn’t the big terrible beast some would have you believe it to be.
But first, for the uninitiated, what follows is the official synopsis of TBBT:
Leonard and Sheldon are brilliant physicists, the kind of “beautiful minds” that understand how the universe works. But none of that genius helps them interact with people, especially women. All this begins to change when a free-spirited beauty named Penny moves in next door. Sheldon, Leonard’s roommate, is quite content spending his nights playing Klingon Boggle with their socially dysfunctional friends, fellow CalTech scientists Wolowitz and Koothrappali. However, Leonard sees in Penny a whole new universe of possibilities… including love.
Essentially, TBBT is a rom-com sitcom following a handful of stereotypical nerdy friends on their quest for romance (or lack thereof). We begin with three main characters: Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny. Leonard and Sheldon are “smart” nerds and “social” nerds—both are genius scientists at Caltech who’d rather attend a lecture on particle physics or San Diego Comic Con than go to a club. Penny is their polar opposite—a beautiful blonde small-town girl in a new city hoping to make it big as an actress. Leonard is the series straight man, and his falling for Penny becomes the primary conflict of the show. Sheldon, on the other hand, makes Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes look like the life of the party. Leonard and Sheldon have two close friends, Raj (an Indian incapable of speaking to women) and Howard (a Jewish wannabe Casanova who lives with his overbearing mother).
Now, the most common criticism of TBBT is that it portrays hurtful nerd stereotypes as not only fact, but worthy of ridicule. And in many ways, especially in the early seasons, this seems to be true. Penny is a slutty dumb blonde. Sheldon is comedically out of touch with social reality and probably has some degree of OCD and/or Aspergers. Howard’s attempts at seducing women are borderline to not-so-borderline offensive. But to argue that people will think all nerd stereotypes are true from watching TBBT is absurd, unless you’re willing to make the same argument for every other sitcom. Is every white person living in the city like a character on Friends? What about Frasier?
Furthermore, to argue that TBBT presents its characters as pure stereotypes is inaccurate. Many people complain that Penny is criticized because she sleeps with different men. The sex isn’t the problem—the issue is that many of the men Penny chooses to sleep with make her unhappy. When Penny voices this to Leonard, he suggests she try dating someone different… which leads to the beginning of their rocky relationship. In most episodes, Sheldon is portrayed as universally annoying and conceited. But when the group is finally rid of his company, they’re completely bored—it turns out that Sheldon is the nucleus of the group (much to his delight). Sheldon and Penny have a different kind of relationship. If TBBT truly limited itself to stereotypes, they would have nothing in common. But Penny and Sheldon have a great platonic friendship. Sheldon always tries to help Penny in his own way, whether it be reorganizing her disastrous apartment while she sleeps or facing his intense fear of driving to take her to the emergency room when she dislocates her shoulder. Penny always sings “Soft Kitty” to Sheldon when he’s sick, and is the first to notice that her loud arguments with Leonard are forcing Sheldon to relive his traumatic childhood experiences of his own parents arguing. Whenever Leonard hurts Sheldon’s feelings, it’s always Penny who makes him apologize. Even Howard begins to see the errors of his womanizing ways, and falls in love with Bernadette, a Catholic neuroscientist. Stereotypes are just the beginning of who these characters are, not the end.
Many argue that TBBT isn’t a true nerd show—it gets its nerd references wrong. But the problem with this criticism is that the show’s core isn’t about making nerdy jokes; it’s about awkward situations. It’s wrong to compare TBBT to a show like Futurama. Futurama is obviously (and wonderfully) written by and for nerds, and much of the humor comes from nerdy cultural references that only those “in the club” can understand. It’s better to compare TBBT to a show like House MD. Take away the medical jargon and setting, you’d still have the same show. You could do the same for TBBT; it’d be the same basic show if the guys worked at a McDonalds and loved sports.
Perhaps the ultimate criticism of TBBT is its lack of nerd girls. True, the one “female version” of the nerd guys, Leslie Winkle, was written off the show because the writers couldn’t generate enough material for the character. But in later seasons Bernadette and Amy were added to the show, both as love interests and as best friends of Penny. Although both girls have PhDs, they’re more interested in going dancing with Penny than reading comics with the guys. This led to many people arguing that nerd girls don’t really exist in TBBT universe. But all that changed with last week’s episode.
In “The Bakersfield Expedition,” the guys prepare for Comic Con, finishing their Star Trek: TNG costumes. Penny remarks that Leonard has more and better quality makeup for his costume than she does for real life. After the guys leave, she goes out for brunch with Bernadette and Amy, and they decide to finally find out why the guys find comics so interesting. Now this is where we get those terribly sexist “Where no woman has gone before!” promos for this episode from CBS—the women go to their local comic store. Once inside, the shop owner yells at all the guys staring at the women (twice!), and kindly helps the three figure out what kind of comics might interest them. Amy goes for the comic with the great artwork and complex storyline, while Penny picks out a Thor comic because he looks hot. They bring them home, and after reading agree that they still don’t understand why the guys find them so interesting. Then Penny starts disagreeing with Bernadette over the various properties of Thor’s hammer, and Amy joins in what evolves into a search through Leonard and Sheldon’s entire comic collection to find something to support their arguments. Meanwhile, the guys get stranded in the desert, and people in a diner make them feel inferior for caring so much about their fandoms. Completely disillusioned and exhausted, the guys make it to Sheldon and Leonard’s door… only to hear the women still arguing about Thor’s hammer. Their faith in fandom newly restored, the guys set their phasers to stun and burst into the apartment in a defensive formation.
While earlier seasons of The Big Bang Theory may have left much to be desired when it comes to geekdom and stereotypes, and many of the promos even now still send anti-nerd and anti-girl geek messages, this episode represents how good this show has become. Not only does it negatively portray those who would say women (or anyone, for that matter) can’t be geeks, but it shows that whether you appreciate complex art or just think Thor is hot, it doesn’t matter how you get into a fandom. It’s an argument against the so-called “real nerd girl.” It shows the girlfriends going outside their comfort zone to better understand their partners, a common theme in many episodes of recent seasons (in another episode, Leonard tries to learn about football to hang out with Penny’s friends, and is surprised when Sheldon is able to teach him). It constantly brings up issues of rejection and “the other”—whether it’s the guys making a “jock” feel inferior because he’s not as smart as they are, or astronauts giving Howard a ridiculous nickname (“Fruit Loops”) and making him clean the space toilet. The real message of TBBT isn’t that nerds are fun to laugh at; it’s that all of us struggle with the tension between who we are and who we want to be.