The Adorkable Misogyny of The Big Bang Theory
This is tag two, take one. Mark. The Big Bang theory is the most popular show on television It centers on four male friends who are characterized by essentially every Hollywood stereotype about geeks and nerds in existence. “Alright, just a few more feet and… Here we are gentlemen The Gates of Elzebub.” “Good Lord!” “Don’t panic. This is what the last 97 hours have been about.” Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj all lack most of the traits traditionally associated with leading men in Hollywood. They’re not conventionally handsome. They’re not confident, and they’re definitely not athletic. What they are, are dorky insecure fanboys who are plagued with a wide variety of anxieties, illnesses, and awkward personality quirks. They also happen to be the perfect embodiment of a media trope which I call: The Adorkable Misogynist. Adorkable Misogynists are male characters, w hose geeky version of masculinity is framed as both comically pathetic and endearing. “Wait, wait, what’s on top of them?” “Wireless webcams! Wave hello!” And it’s their status as nerdy nice guys that then lets them off the hook for a wide range of creepy, entitled and downright sexist behaviors. “You may want to put on slacks” “What? Ew. Stop it! No! Leave me alone.” Now in order to help explain how this convention works we will need to take a quick trip back in time to the 1980s. The year was 1984. “Say ‘Cheese!'” “Cheese!” And one of the most popular summer movies was a film called Revenge of the Nerds. These weren’t the first socially awkward nerds to grace the big screen, but they did help popularize this type of character. Over the next few years this geeky guy archetype quickly gained traction in Hollywood. And by the 1990s it had become something of a mainstay in comedy entertainment. It’s worth noting that this type of character is nearly always white– though there are a few rare exceptions. “Caught ya sweetums!” The Hollywood Nerd is almost always positioned in opposition to the expected norms of Macho Manhood. This is usually accomplished through the juxtaposition with the jock archetype. When contrasted with hyper masculine guys who perform a crude, aggressive form of manhood, our geeky hero gets to be framed as the better, smarter, more sensitive alternative. He’s the misunderstood nice guy. “Hi Betty.” “I’m not kissing a nerd.” He was unfairly bullied and mocked by his peers. “Hey, not every guy’s born with blonde hair and a chin you can crack walnuts with.” “To catch babes, I had to use my imagination.” He’s presented as the clear underdog in the manhood competition. “You saying I’m out of this world? Hehe.” “Oh Lisa, I love the excitement of chasing you.” (Screams) “Is this a good time to ask you about the dance?” On closer inspection however, we start to notice that these type of characters are shown engaging in a variety of harassing, entitled and sexist behavior where women are concerned. They consistently stalk, spy on, lie to, and try to manipulate the women in their lives. They’re overbearing. They refuse to take no for an answer and they often ignore the basic tenants of consent. Most of this behavior falls under the rubric of sexual harassment, and occasionally it escalates to the level of sexual assault. Both Revenge of the Nerds and Sixteen Candles include scenes in which Geeky nice guys commit acts of rape. This type of behavior should be understood as reprehensible. I say should be because that’s not how these TV shows and movies frame it. Instead this behavior is framed as kind of pathetic but ultimately harmless and even endearing in an adorkable sort of way. “You’re that nerd.” “Yeah.” “God, you were wonderful.” “Thanks.” And it’s the adorkable part of the adorkable misogynist that makes this trope so insidious. So let’s return to The Big Bang Theory. “We have to get rid of the time machine.” The four geeky friends on this show are written to be genuinely likable guys. They’re even capable of fleeting moments of heartfelt sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and sweetness. “What is it?” “It’s a snowflake from the North Pole.” “Are you serious?” “It’ll last forever. I preserved it in a 1% solution of polyvinyl acetyl resin.” This non-threatening, adorkable framing is designed to excuse the other more toxic part of the trope. The four leading men on Big Bang Theory each present their own distinct flavor of adorkable misogyny. Howard is the creepy pervert with a heart of gold. “Come to Papa you unkosher delight!” “I’m not necessarily talking to the food.” “Would you have opened the door if you knew it was me?” “Not since I found out the teddy bear you gave me had a webcam in it.” Throughout the first several seasons. He’s depicted as a wannabe pickup artist. “Yes. We’re here to fix the cable.” He stalks, harasses, objectifies, and tries to trick dozens of women into sleeping with him. Howard talks about women the way a zookeeper might talk about trapping and taming wild animals. “See first we let the lawyers and the jocks thin the herd, and then… we go after the weak and the old and the lame” He’s conniving, he’s manipulative, and his behavior sometimes crosses the line into criminal activity. “There’s the house! I found America’s Top Models!” “Are you sure?” “Look on the roof! Anaise and Giselle are sunbathing!” “European-style” “You can recognize people on Google Earth?” “Of course not. I got a buddy of mine at NORAD to have a spy drone fly over.” I should note that once Howard is in a committed long-term relationship, the way that his male chauvinism is expressed does shift slightly. So he stops trying to be a womanizer, but he still demands to be taken care of. And he refuses to share in any of the domestic responsibilities. “Wanna pause the video game and help me clean up?” “I am cleaning up. Look at the mess the Joker made of Gotham City!” “I want this to feel like my house too.” “Oh, honey. Of course this is your house. Why else would you be cleaning it all the time?” Raj is the sensitive guy turned inappropriate drunk. He’s the show’s token geek of color and is endlessly mocked for being the most effeminate of the four friends. “I’m sorry, what was your name again?” Raj is also the most socially awkward around women. In the first few seasons, he can’t speak to women at all. “That’s just fascinating!” “Thank you.” Except when he’s drunk or on drugs. “Would you like to hear more about it in my hot tub?” And it’s in those uninhibited moments when we see some very extreme levels of underlying misogyny come to the forefront. “I’m very comfortable here.” “Penny dear – why don’t you shoot another Silver bullet my way?” “Where are you going? We’re doing so well… She never even got to see my penis!” “Tada!” Leonard is the nice guy enabler. He plays the more down-to-earth, “normal” one of the group. Still, he participates in much of the same behavior as his cohorts, just to a lesser degree. Leonard’s character arc is basically the pathetic nice guy who refuses to take no for an answer, …and who eventually gets the girl. “How did you get her to go out with you?” “Well, she moved in across the hall.” “He started to slowly wear me down.” “Like a river carves a canyon.” One of the roles that Leonard plays on the show is as the guy who excuses and enables the sexism of his male friends. “You know that deep down inside Howard’s a really nice guy.” “Cut the crap, you set this up didn’t you?” “Yes.” “She’s a hooker, isn’t she?” “A prostitute, yes.” “You already gave her the money?” “Yes.” “Thank you!” He might roll his eyes at his friend’s antics, but he never seriously challenges their behavior. “But I’d like to get lost in her Bermuda Triangle.” “That’s not helpful.” “Then I won’t say I’d like to cover three quarters of her surface area.” “Are we done?” And his mild protests work as a springboard for still more sexist jokes. “Not yet. This is fun! Oooh. I know! I’d let her free my willy!” Sheldon, is the innocent bigot. Most of the guys display a general disdain for icky girl stuff, but Sheldon is the one who harbors the most virulent form of casual misogyny. “Tonight’s theme flags of countries that have been torn apart and the women I have a feeling were responsible.” “My father used to say that a woman is like an egg salad sandwich on a warm, Texas day.” “What?” “Full of eggs and only appealing for a short time.” The whole shtick of Sheldon’s character is that he’s too smart to understand or care to understand what’s socially appropriate and what’s not. As such, he’s dismissive of nearly everyone and their feelings. But when he belittles and devalues women it’s very specifically because they are women. “Thanks to you, I know better than to ask if you’re menstruating.” “And based on your behavior, I don’t have to.” “All you hear women say is I’ll just have a salad.” “Where’s my lipgloss? I think this element should be called radium.” “That last one was Madame Curie. You know what, she was kind of an honorary man. She had a penis made of science.” So how does the Big Bang Theory keep us as the audience sympathetic to men who behave in such reprehensible ways? Well, it’s done by leaning heavily on a combination of ironic humor and a popular writer’s trick known as lamp shading. Most of the jokes on The Big Bang Theory, such as they are, revolve around the following ironic hook: Since geeky guys don’t fit into the macho mold of what we expect sexism or male entitlement to look like, it’s funny to watch them engaging in that type of behavior. “It’s ‘anything-can-happen-Thursday, let’s hit the clubs and meet hot women!” “Here we go! Lock up your daughters. We’re gonna hit it and quit it!” Notice that the target of the joke is not the misogynist behavior. “Or… we could finish eating and go to the comic book store.” “Also a good plan.” Instead, it’s making fun of men who are not traditionally masculine enough to believably pull it off. “Smell that? That’s the smell of new comic books.” Unlike many of our earlier examples from the 1980s, the creepy behavior on the Big Bang Theory is meant to be understood for what it is. “I know you think you’re some sort of smooth-talking ladies man, but the truth is you are just pathetic and creepy” And this is where ironic lamp-shading comes in. “So, what are you saying?” Which is when media makers deliberately call attention to a dissonant or overly cliched aspect of their own production. Rather than writing better different punchlines, writers attempt to duck any potential criticism by pointing out the sexism inherent in their own jokes themselves. “That’s it confirmed. We now have the address of the top model house.” “Hey, for the record what you guys are doing is really creepy.” “You know what, if it’s creepy to use the internet military satellites and robot aircraft to find a house full of gorgeous young models so that I can drop in on them unexpectedly then fine. I’m creepy.” This technique of making something super obvious to viewers is meant to let us know that the writers are self-aware and to make us feel like we’re all in on the joke. Most comedy writers know that retrograde style bigotry is no longer acceptable on prime-time television. But many of them still want to use sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes as an easy way to get cheap laughs. “Actually, Indian Monopoly is just like regular accept the money’s in rupees instead of hotels you build call centers and, when you pick a chance card you might die of dysentery.” Ironic lamp shading provides a clever way for them to keep getting away with it. “Just FYI, that was racist.” Now the problem with this comedic device is that by itself, “Hey! Why am I in charge your phone support? Seems a bit racist.” it doesn’t critique or challenge sexism, homophobia, or racism. It simply acknowledges it in a humorous way. “Very clever, but still racist.” “Duly noted, Steve from Wichita.” Acknowledging bigotry is not the same thing as critiquing bigotry especially when the punch lines end up making light of serious social issues like sexual harassment. “Dr. Cooper, you said things to your employee that you just cannot say in the workplace.” “Oh, I see the confusion here. No, no, Alex thought I was singling her out. No, I meant that all women are slaves to their biological urges, You know? Even you.” So while it’s true the message of The Big Bang Theory isn’t, “sexism is super cool.” “Relax, no one’s gonna be looking at her hair.” I’d argue the implications are much more troubling. Because the show’s message is more akin to sexism is mostly harmless. And especially when that sexism is coming from geeky guys. “There are pitfalls trust me. I know when it comes to sexual harassment law I’m a bit of a self-taught expert.” Adorkable Misogyny is presented as just another socially awkward personality quirk as something that’s perhaps deserving of an eye-roll, or an exasperated look, or maybe some light-hearted chiding but never as something to be taken seriously or seriously challenged. “You’re engaged to my friend.” “Hey, Bernadette doesn’t mind where I get my motor running as long as I park in the right garage.” “I can’t believe you’re engaged to my friend.” At its core, the adorkable misogynist trope is built around the old axiom that, “boys will be boys”. And what that phrase really means is, “boys will be sexist” or, “boys will be creepy stalkers who sexually harass women,” as the case may be. On the very rare occasions when one of the geeks is called out for his sexism, the audience is meant to feel bad for him because his feelings got hurt. On television men’s feelings and bruised egos are nearly always depicted as more important than women’s comfort, or women’s safety. “Okay, look, Howard. I just want to apologize.” The adorkable misogyny of the four main characters on The Big Bang Theory is tolerated. It’s tolerated by their peers, by their girlfriends, and by their employers. “Well, despite your quirks, the three of you are very accomplished in your respective fields.” “I don’t know what you mean by quirks, but um” The trope downplays the sexism of men who don’t fit into the macho stereotype by framing it as pathetic, as non-threatening, and is not that big of a deal. Of course the reality is that sexism is a big deal as practically any women involved in geek subcultures will tell you. “Everybody’s staring at me.” There is, sadly, no shortage of real-life examples of men involved in nerdy hobbies or professions who behave EXACTLY like the guys on The Big Bang Theory, and it’s not harmless, and it’s not adokable. Harassment scandals that have been sweeping through Silicon Valley. 60 percent of women who work in the tech industry have reported unwanted sexual advances. In it’s simplest form, it’s a torrent of attacks against women. …frequent problem inside Uber: sexual harassment and sexism. And it’s harmful in all the ways The Big Bang Theory tells us it’s not. It’s damaging to women. It’s damaging to their sense of safety, to their well-being and to their careers. Former Google engineer who wrote a 10 page memo criticizing the company’s diversity programs saying women lag behind in the tech world because of their biology. The unnamed Google engineering employee wrote, “Biological causes may explain why we don’t see equal representation Men have a higher drive for status and women on average have more neuroticism. If we added a laugh track to that clip it would be indistinguishable from the casual sexism that we can see on practically any episode of The Big Bang Theory. “The trouble isn’t with me, Penny. It’s with your gender. Someday scientists will discover that second x chromosome contains nothing, but nonsense and twaddle.” “We’re talking about Penny’s job.” “And how difficult it is to do when she’s bloated, cranky, and crampy? Continue.” Just because the performance of a geeky version of masculinity is markedly different from traditional Hollywood archetypes that doesn’t necessarily mean that geeky guys are any less invested in sexism. The bottom line here, is that there’s nothing cute or harmless about misogyny. Even when it’s coming from men who may play Klingon Boggle. It’s really not that difficult to write nerdy male characters who aren’t total creeps. There’s Abed from the show Community. “You have to understand about Abed, he’s usually – you know – adorable weird, like Mork from Ork.” There’s Lionel, from “Dear White People,” the TV series. And there’s Ben from, “Parks and Rec.” “Presenting, “The Cones of Dunshire,” a brand new gaming experience.” All these characters somehow managed to perform a quirky, awkward, and often humorous form of masculinity without the undercurrent of retrograde sexism. It’s long past time for Hollywood writers to retire the adorkable misogynist trope once and for all. Thanks for watching if you’d like to see more long-form video essays that deal with the intersections of politics, masculinity, and media, then you can go over to Patreon and help fund the project there. There’s also a link to PayPal in the description below. I’ll see you all next month with another video about Big Bang Theory, this time about geeky masculinity.