I can safely say that I’ve never analyzed a 22-minute sitcom as closely as I am about to, but there’s a first time for everything.
With The Big Bang Theory on a brief hiatus due to NCAA basketball, it’s worth taking a look at its most recent episode, “The Weekend Vortex.”
In my mind, what makes The Big Bang Theory interesting – aside from its position as one of the most-watched shows on TV – is the fact that it’s a show about geeky young people that doesn’t particularly appeal to either geeks OR young people. The show airs on CBS, the TV network with the oldest-skewing audience, and the show’s approach is, depending on your point-of-view, either traditional or downright outdated: multiple cameras, a live studio audience and laugh track, heavily stereotyped characters (the geeky scientists, the dumb blonde, the Jewish character with multiple neuroses and an overbearing mother, the Indian character who speaks with a heavy accent, etc.), and the typical set-up/punchline/set-up/punchline dialogue pattern. It’s exactly the same formula that I Love Lucy popularized in the 1950s, and for true geeks (a group I happily include myself in), it’s all too simplistic to be particularly stimulating. (We’ll take Community or 30 Rock or Parks and Recreation over Big Bang any day.)
In this vein, “The Weekend Vortex” features a classic (stale?) premise: the guys all want to hang out with each other while the women have other ideas. It’s a story that could have been told on I Love Lucy, All in the Family, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, or about a million other sitcoms. (In fact, I’d be willing to bet that all of those shows DID do some variation of this story at some point, though the hours of TV watching required to confirm my hypothesis would have delayed the posting of this article by about three years.) In The Big Bang Theory’s version, Raj (Kunal Nayyar), Sheldon (Jim Parsons), Leonard (Johnny Galecki), and Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) want to spend the weekend playing the new Star Wars online role-playing game, but their plan is complicated by the women in their lives.
The three main female characters on the show each offer a different reaction to the guys’ plan, and more generally they represent three distinct types of girlfriend. Amy (Mayim Bialik) is Sheldon’s girlfriend, and she is upset with him because he had previously agreed to go with her to her aunt’s 93rd birthday party. (Her anger here is quite justified.) Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), Wolowitz’s fiancée, wants to play the game with the guys. And Penny (Kaley Cuoco), Leonard’s secret girlfriend, doesn’t really care what Leonard does with his time.
While the style of the show can be seen as somewhat old-fashioned, it’s the gender politics at play that I found startlingly out of place in a contemporary environment. For starters, the basic premise of the episode seems outdated – are there really still groups of people out there that believe that sequestering themselves from members of the opposite sex will enable them to have a better time? More importantly, though, the show gives its three female characters the short shrift. Let’s take a look at them one by one.
In the case of Amy and Shelton, Amy is depicted as shrewish for wanting Shelton to honor his long-standing commitment to her instead of blowing it off to hang out with the guys. Sheldon complains that Amy is controlling, going as far as saying that “I always thought if I were ever enslaved it would be by an advanced species from another planet, not some hotsy-totsy from Glendale.”
Penny, for her part, is clearly intended to be the “cool” girlfriend. While she is happy to go along with Leonard’s plans, she still doesn’t get off scot-free, though; Leonard expresses disappointment with the fact that she isn’t particularly saddened that she won’t be able to spend time with him over the weekend.
The case of Wolowitz and Bernadette is perhaps the most puzzling, at least for me. Not only does Bernadette understand Wolowitz’s desire to play a game with his friends, but she is sufficiently enthusiastic about it to want to take part in the game herself. The reaction of Wolowitz and the guys? Bernadette is ostracized and depicted as being embarrassing to her fiancée, and Wolowitz is ridiculed for “caving” to her request to join in the fun. Let’s put ourselves in Wolowitz’s shoes for a moment (which as a fellow geek isn’t too hard for me to do.) On one hand, his friendship with the other male characters on the show is rooted in their common interest in geek culture: movies like Star Wars, TV shows like Star Trek, comic books, video games, and so on. At the same time, his interactions with women before Bernadette were overwhelmingly unsuccessful. Now, he’s FINALLY found a woman – an attractive one, no less – who isn’t repulsed by him AND is actually willing to join him in his geeky endeavors! If you were Wolowitz or one of the other guys in the group, would you really want to turn away a woman like Bernadette? I don’t think so. In this scenario, I would TREASURE Bernadette, not shun her.
For the women of The Big Bang Theory, it’s a no-win scenario. If you put your foot down and insist on spending time with your boyfriend, you’re a shrew. If you take a hands-off approach, you don’t love him enough. And if you want to join him in his plans with the guys, you’re ruining the party. What the heck is a girlfriend supposed to do, then? (It should also be noted that the women in the show seem to define themselves almost entirely through their relationships to men – after all, Bernadette and Amy were introduced to the show merely as love interests for Wolowitz and Sheldon, and Penny’s primary function since the start of the series has been to service the ongoing ‘will they/won’t they’ dynamic with Leonard; she rarely gets stories of her own.)
In the final analysis, the picture that “The Weekend Vortex” paints isn’t pretty; the guys are largely able to enjoy their game together and face limited consequences of their actions. Two conclusions can be drawn from this: first, that The Big Bang Theory implicitly advocates traditional gender roles in relationships, in which the male is dominant and the female subordinate, and second, that clear divisions (both spatial and emotional) should exist between the sexes. This acceptance of traditional roles and a binary view of gender is reinforced by the ridicule of Raj by Wolowitz, Leonard, and Sheldon, who compare him to a woman and make fun of his buying lower-calorie snacks, Wolowitz’s comment that “women like a firm hand on the tiller,” and the frequent use of a whip-snapping sound effect as a means of mockery against several characters who are seen by the other men as being too beholden to their girlfriends. And in case the gender binaries and stereotypes aren’t already obvious enough, witness Bernadette’s pink laptop and her excitement over the fact that she gets to wear a “pretty purple robe” in the online game.
So what’s behind The Big Bang Theory’s dated gender politics? It’s impossible to say for sure, but I’ve got a theory of my own, and it doesn’t take much more that a trip to IMDB to figure it out. The show was created by two men: Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady. Prady acts as Big Bang’s day-to-day showrunner, and every single episode of the show has been directed by a man, with Mark Cendrowski at the reigns the vast majority of the time. Until Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch joined the cast as recurring characters in season three, the show’s regular cast consisted of four men and only one woman. A peek at the show’s writing credits shows that only one woman, Maria Ferrari, has received credit on at least 30 of the show’s 106 episodes, while Lorre, Prady, and five other men have accomplished the same feat. In terms of “The Weekend Vortex” specifically, the story for the episode was conceived by Lorre, Prady, and a female writer named Tara Hernandez, while three men (Steven Molaro, Eric Caplan, and Steve Holland) are credited with the screenplay. As far as I can tell, Hernandez and Ferrari are the only women on Big Bang’s writing staff at present.
The verdict here is pretty clear: The Big Bang Theory is overwhelmingly a boys club. This, it should be noted, is thankfully an increasingly rare occurrence behind the scenes at contemporary sitcoms. Community, for instance, goes out of its way to have a near 50/50 split between men and women on its writing staff, 30 Rock, Suburgatory, and several other shows were created by women, and a woman, Pam Fryman, directs virtually every episode of The Big Bang Theory’s CBS sibling series How I Met Your Mother. Judging by these shows, it seems clear that the presence of women on set and in the writers’ room has a progressive effect on the types of stories the shows ultimately tell, while the lack of women involved in Big Bang’s creative processes may contribute to its anachronistic gender politics.
A traditional visual style, traditional narrative techniques, and traditional gender divisions, all on America’s most-watched network. I suppose the success of CBS’s lineup of shows isn’t so surprising: instead of challenging viewers, they largely reinforce their older viewership’s more conservative mindset. And in spite of its youthful façade, The Big Bang Theory fits right in.
Of all of the articles I’ve written for the blog, this is probably the one that best exemplifies all of the wacky thoughts that run through my head when I’m watching even seemingly innocuous movies and TV shows. This is what film school does to you, folks.
Here’s a great interview from AV Club in which Community creator Dan Harmon talks about the difficulty of finding female TV writers and the energy they bring to the writers’ room. (Scroll down a bit and you’ll find it.)
And apologies to my Aunt Lori, if she ever reads this, for systematically tearing apart her favorite TV show. Don’t worry, Aunt Lori, I still love the “Bazinga!” T-shirt you gave me! And hey, I’m writing from a feminist perspective, so that’s gotta count for something, right?