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Questioning Popular Culture: ‘The Big Bang Theory’ And Its Discontents

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By Sohini Chatterjee:

Hollywood sitcoms are all the rage in India. And not without good reason. They have brought to the comfort of our living rooms the carefully packaged “American dream”, which is sold to the developing countries like India, taking advantage of the tendency of mimicking western culture. A cursory glance might lead you to labour under the illusion that there’s only one way of life which is so dangerously close to being perfect that the extension of freedom is unimaginable without it. A liberal would argue, with some conviction, that the portrayal of women in such sitcoms are stubbornly emancipatory leading to the breaking of patriarchal shackles which creates an almost gender egalitarian wonderland. Women are portrayed as hard workers, single, independent, having the agency to exercise at free will their sexual choice, who are not afraid of being responsible for themselves or taking charge of their own lives. They rub shoulders with men. Also, there’s a strong multicultural essence in these shows as they acknowledge the presence of non-white, non-Catholic characters by giving them screen space, however inadequate. On the surface, it does accommodate pluralism. But all is not well in what appears to be a paradise in the making. Let’s take a look at the Emmy wining sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’.

big-bang-theory

The show revolves around four accomplished men: three scientists and one engineer. It is in relation to the men that women appear in the sitcom. The central character, Penny, to resort to the violently sexist language, is “white trash.” She is a failed actress who works as a waitress at the Cheesecake Factory, a job that does not pay the bills. Hence, Penny lives off of her overachieving, Princeton graduate, scientist boyfriend Leonard, who reminds her of the amount of money she owes him once they begin a platonic friendship and the possibility of resuming a non-platonic one is nowhere near the horizon. Penny’s repeated failed attempts at kick-starting her acting career, her low paying job, her lack of university education, her inability to participate in intelligent conversations with the guys is constantly ridiculed by her insufferable, condescending next door neighbour and Leonard’s roommate Sheldon Cooper throughout the first few seasons, providing the comic relief on which the show thrives. Much later, enter two women, Bernadette and Amy, who are in romantic relationships with two of the show’s leading men, Howard and Sheldon. Bernadette is studying to be a microbiologist and Amy is a neurobiologist. Both, apparently, despite their credentials, agree to date socially awkward men, relatively more awkward than they believe they are, often entirely on terms dictated by their male partners, towards at the least the beginning of their relationships. Sheldon Cooper goes to the extent of drawing up a Relationship Agreement to secure his command over his relationship with Amy. Thus, the misogyny is palpable. Its overt manifestation only comes through Howard Wolowitz, who holds a master’s degree in engineering from MIT. He pursues Penny and showers her with sexual innuendos ever so often, in the first few seasons, despite her obvious lack of interest in him and resorts to a series of lies and trickery to attract and hold female attention. Power is monopolized by men in the show. Even though some occasional shifts are to be found in the power dynamics between the sexes, they are rare and short lived. Uncompromising male domination becomes the essence of the screenplay, but it manifests itself covertly exactly like patriarchal value systems work.

The multiculturalist pretension of the show, on the other hand, is comparatively easier to identify. Rajesh Ramayan Koothrapali is an astrophysicist, hails from an upper class Indian family and is quite successful in his field. But he suffers from selective mutism, he is the most awkward among his peer group, his place is on the floor when the others eat comfortably on the sofa, he is single and lonely, for almost the entire show over the seasons (except the eighth season) when his friends are happily engaged or married to women either beautiful or successful or both. He is given the least number of lines and has very little contribution as compared to his white, male counterparts. His sister Priya is an Asian stereotype. She graduated top of her class from Harvard Law School, works at a top notch law firm, but despite being hugely successful, she has a fearsome obligation to her over protective, conservative parents who, she is afraid, can never come to terms with her having a white boyfriend and hence is afraid of acknowledging her relationship with Leonard Hoftstadder. Her agency is compromised in favour of Indian moral, ethical and family values as portrayed in the sitcom. Even though difference is acknowledged, its presence merely confirms the superiority of the mainstream culture or the culture of the hegemon. Indian culture is made out to be of a pre-modern orientation which embarrasses modernity in remarkable ways.

Also, the show celebrates hypermasculinity. The lead male characters are meek in comparison to the macho. In the very first episode, when Penny sent Sheldon and Leonard to bring her television back from her hypermasculine, aggressive ex-boyfriend, Sheldon and Leonard were stripped semi-naked and sent home. In addition to this, Penny’s one-time boyfriend, Zack, is the cause of Leonard’s constant insecurity for a few episodes. He feels he cannot compete with Zack’s maculinity and fears “losing” Penny to him. The same insecurity leads Sheldon Cooper to acknowledge Amy Farrah Fowler as his girfriend as he becomes afraid of her closeness with comic book store owner Stuart. The women thus become subjects of conquest. Their role is to serve the male ego and keep it from being shattered into a thousand humble pieces.

The show has often hinted towards a homoerotic relationship between Howard Wolowitz and Rajesh Koothrapali which was treated with derision by the more “masculine” participant, Howard, which confirmed his vapid homophobia to the audience. The possibility of a romantic relationship was also left unexplored between Amy and Penny, even though the former had on numerous occassion made homoerotic references much to the latter’s bewilderment and discomfort. Heteronormativity came to assert itself more often than not.

The show cannot be scrutinized without the mention of its class orientation. All the main characters hold doctorate degrees except Howard, who is continually ridiculed for his lone Master’s degree by Sheldon. All of the leading characters, except Penny, are from elite institutions like Harvard, Princeton, MIT, UCLA, and four of the leading men work at California Insitute of Technology. Thus, it is hardly surprising that amidst the best and the brightest, the rich and the nouveau rich, the working class status of Penny is so unsavoury that it becomes the subject of ridicule by Sheldon Cooper whose acute awareness of his own merit and class position along with those of others, mostly of those who can’t think of enough blessings to count, make Dr. Cooper condescending, narcissistic and insufferable. He is the quintessential successful upper class intellectual who is so secure in his privileges that he refuses to view kindly the limitations put on the average, the ordinary.

Yes, sitcoms give us a direct peek into the apparent life of privilege that the First World provides. No wonder that shows such as The Big Bang Theory are talked about in social circles which include teenagers, newly adults and veteran adults, who pride themselves on being members of the global community having left behind their antiquated ideas and morals about right or wrong. But in this bid to embrace this “progressive” culture that neo-colonialism advocates, we have largely invisiblized the biases that these shows haven’t been able to rid themselves of. The vices are all the same, they merely differ in their appearances. Misogyny, racism, homophobia as well as classist, heterosexist paradigms persist with blatant arrogance. Their success was dependent upon the extent to which these vices were normalized or internalized by the receivers of entertainment, which has conveniently been done having left little room for doubt. Hence, the applause, the appreciation, the shameless and the equally shameful aping.

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  1. Swapnil

    In addition to the the things you mentioned, some characters in this show are downright rude and disrespectful. Sheldon is a prime example. He is a selfish prick to all his friends. How does he even have friends?

  2. Manasi

    It’s just a sitcom, for crying out loud! Can we try and NOT make an issue out of everything?

  3. Ashwina Jha

    I don’t really understand the point behind this post? What is this trying to tell us? You know, when you start reading something you expect to have a little more knowledge by the time you end. Otherwise, it is pointless.

    So is the case with this. So let me gather what I understood. You say that we are attracted to these global sitcoms because they show this gender neutral egalitarian utopia because(yes, it’s a chain of causes) that is what we wish to see in our free time. Then you tell us that it’s not that sunny in Philadelphia after all because everybody’s sexist, homosexual and full of all the vices of the Modern world.
    But tell me truly, where is the fun if there are no vices? Tell me, how would you have it? It’s the little japes and jests(sometimes a little stereotypical, agreed) that MAKES it a sitcom. That’s just how it is. It’s a satirical way of portraying the society. You can expect the highest number of racist comments coming from comedians. Does that mean they’re all racists? Of course not. It just means that the world has moved forward and people feel secure enough to make fun of everything!! EVERYTHING! It’s a funny world. I can’t laugh at a utopia.
    It’s a world of stereotypes and it’s funny so I laugh at it. That’s what I want to see in my sitcoms.

    The reason why I’m drawn towards shows like BBT might include how independent these ‘First World’ women are, sure. I mean I live in India and despite of asserting every ounce of independence that I have, at the end of the day, I’m still my family’s pet. But let me assure you, that is absolutely not the primary reason why. What draws me to it is the comedy. It’s the reality cooked in a gourmet dish garnished with humour.

    Nobody wants the sunny Philadelphia. It’s ok to have rains and clouds and… well, nights.

  4. Monistaf

    It is a sitcom!! You have a choice NOT to watch it. If we cannot let a group of people who have a different sense of humor enjoy a sitcom without ridiculing it, we all need a lesson in tolerance. Not to mention the fact that there are many sitcom’s that have men acting stupid and no one seems to be complaining. We have a lot of material on TV that is offensive to both genders, and thankfully, most people can separate entertainment from real life. if you are offended by a sitcom or think that it influences people to act and think a certain way, the problem lies with the people, not the sitcom or the millions of others who just want to enjoy it for what it is. Let us not be a hypersensitive society because, everything, regardless of how you portray it, is offensive to someone in this world. I personally do not care for the “Big Bang Theory”, but I will defend someone else’s right to enjoy it.

  5. balayogi

    Why we prefer “BIG BANG THEORY” over Bollywood nonsense?

    We Indians suffer from unloving criticism, more virulent if it is combined with xenophobia, and uncritical love leading to hero worship of worthless fellows in Bollywood.

    I have read lakhs of quotes on art and criticism but this one I feel is more appropriate here as in the very title the great Oscar Wilde injected both terms ‘The critic as Artist, 1891’ wherein he says, “Science is out of the reach of morals, for her eyes are fixed upon eternal truths. Art is out of the reach of morals, for her eyes are fixed upon things beautiful and immortal and ever-changing. To morals belong the lower and less intellectual spheres”.

    Let us study art in very general terms based on mere observations rather than any expert analysis.

    Any form of art is expected to provide entertainment, education, enlightenment [if that also can emerge].

    What art is? How it emerges and how various art forms impact a variety of human beings?

    In the process of doing this it manifests the attributes and attitudes of the society to various aspects of life in different ways trying to capture the various dimensions/facets of life and perceptions and the many methods through which human beings try to deal with different situations and contexts that they force themselves into or forced to face due to fate.

    Art does these things broadly through abstract representations; surrealistic presentations; exaggerated and/or twisted humor; if it is visual media visual comedy too; either superficial or in depth critical analysis of many social practices and issues; aesthetic appeals, deep devotions, or sometimes produces unbelievable masterpieces which are the result of revelations to the soul or through the soul of the some artists, we label them as prodigies/geniuses etc who are otherwise ordinary mortals in all other aspects like the rest of human beings; sometimes certain artists seem to come out with certain unbelievable creations in a state of trance to which they are transported either through devotion or drugs or other hitherto scientifically unexplainable and unexplained means [there are many examples and vast scientific literature too available for this facet of art].

    So, in brief art emerges out of the emotional feelings, intellectual perceptions, spiritual vibrations [for those who are not willing to believe or accept such terminologies] or from realms beyond the physically tangible, emotionally felt and/or intellectually perceivable.

    Art while doing these, sometimes soaks the sentiments and emotions through high levels of pathos through projections of insurmountable physical discomforts, emotional troubles and mental problems etc; sometimes transports the human spirit away from all seriousness into a realm of enjoyable humour that makes us forget everything and swim in the ocean of laughter; sometimes appeals to the aesthetic sensitivities of human beings; sometimes slides us into our basic sensuous sensations through great romance; sometimes strikes a chord with the spiritual dimension of human being wherein it takes both the artists and the audience/spectator/reader/fan into realms beyond the normal cognitive consciousness.

    Human beings generally are easily attracted to various art forms or various standards of productions within a particular art form as the impact of art is piercing and powerful because art permeates directly into the three major aspects every of individual human being emotional and/or physical, intellectual and spiritual manifestations of three vital parts of human life body, mind and soul/spirit [ this aspect of our life itself is abstract we can neither see it in mirror nor grasp it with our intellect].

    Art is able to do these because it is by nature a spontaneous expression of creativity/enjoyment/devotion so it neither tries to convince any intellectual correctness nor bothers about social/traditional acceptance nor overburdens itself with the necessity to synthesize with any ideology/specific culture/socio political view etc.

    From these above indicated exalted inherent credentials of arts we are expected to enjoy it, get engrossed in it or engulfed by it, exported into aesthetic arenas, get enlightened etc.

    Still nothing prevents us from evaluating, critically analyzing or trying hard to synthesize with our pet socio cultural perceptions. We shall now see why we do all these?

    Why we evaluate art, critically analyze it and try to synthesize it with socio cultural standards/perceptions?

    What has happened to art that we all try to evaluate it rather than enjoy it? What has happened to art that we subject it to critical analysis rather than getting engrossed in it? What has happened to art that instead of getting enlightened by it we try to synthesize it with our views and practices of life/life styles/cultures etc or seek syncretism with our various belief systems or social acceptance etc?

    As in every evolution, in art too, there are many art forms which have evolved into something more polished and sophisticated able to withstand different onslaughts of socio-cultural changes and there are many art forms which have become extinct too.

    The process of evolution throws everything to test, art being no exception, into the huge cauldron of all these:- socially emerging or constantly changing value systems, scrupulously strengthened traditions, petrified ideological indoctrinations and psychological conditionings, political power centers, commercial considerations, carefully cultivated and devotedly developed edifices of religious morals and belief systems, factors of basic human urges, impulses and instincts, the constantly emerging expectations of rational thoughts and scientific vindications, socio cultural acceptance, the ever changing trends , taboos etc

    After throwing into this huge cauldron and subjecting it to constant churning there emerge or float lots of stuff, everything liked and useful for different set of people or sects of society with varying degrees and intensities of appeal, impact and/ or influence etc.

    In the evolutionary churning process various methods are adopted ranging from the very sane to the incorrigibly stupid; from the profoundly philosophical to the silly superficial social engineering; from the time tested value system benefiting the human beings and the environment to the vacillating trends of vacuous inanity; from the very scientific methods to superstitious beliefs and so on and so forth.

    In any age or era in the inevitable evolutionary churning process any artistic expression and/or creation or scientific discovery and/or invention has to necessarily and primarily to ensure its own survival then work towards or do things to attract attention and acceptance.

    Why only some arts, scientific discoveries and sport events survive and are supported more and why?

    Only those art forms and scientific discoveries/inventions that accepted this reality of floating to capture attention survived and sometimes eventually got glorified as well.

    That is the reason many works of art, literature and science which survive and impact humanity were sponsored, supported and sustained by kings and emperors, religious leaders and political leaders for various reasons which again is a vast subject by itself and forms a major part of controversial history. Artist could create great arts; scholars could write great pieces of literature; philosophers could propound great truths; scientists could discover and invent many things; saints, sages and enlightened souls could spell out wisdom but all these required attention and support for continuation of survival.

    So whatever great arts, scientific discoveries, philosophical thoughts, spiritual wisdom that exist, impact and influence us are not necessarily the best or the greatest but those that managed to survive and get supported.

    The supporters and sponsors whether kings or religious institutions or leaders or political leaders had their own vested interests, prejudices, hidden agenda, lurking motives etc to which these arts and sciences had to necessarily confirm by making some compromises or at least minor adjustments.

    In the present age the sponsors and sustainers are the economic powers, commercial interests and supporters are the products of prevailing socio-cultural trends.

    In the present age, besides all these, arts and sciences have to cater beyond geographical, linguistic, national barriers to be more successful.

    So it does not require a rocket scientists to know why Grammy award winning music albums have a greater publicity though they need not necessarily be the best music; Why Hollywood awarded movies have a greater viewership though they need not necessarily be the best movies; Why BCCI sponsored IPL cricket is the most popular cricketing event though it need not necessarily be the best cricketing event; Why European club football has greater viewership of all football events though it need not be the best football event; Why Australian Master chef is the most viewed culinary event though that need not necessarily be the best cuisine.

    So any artistic creation or scientific discovery does not survive purely and/or only due to its inherent quality or greatness or utility but due to all these multiple factors explained above.

    Therefore to make any dissection and analyze any work of art through any specific ideological bias, or moral or cultural policing or doctrinal discrimination or social engineering and worst of all media based judgment peddled by ultracrepidarian[A person who gives opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge.] pretentious know-alls who revel more nowadays on scandals, sensationalism and gossip rather than on any concrete content based evaluation of anything on inherent merits.

    So as an ordinary mortal aware of and taking into consideration all the factors I would prefer to continue to enjoy “BIG BANG THEORY” with all its purported bias and hidden agenda because beyond all these it offers great humour to those who have sense of humour.

    These sitcoms are far more humorous, entertaining, educative than the stupid stereotyped Bollywood movies and sickening Indian teleserials imbued with mother in law daughter in law duels or the social engineering of victimhood portrayals, poverty parading and preaching on national integration and communal harmony.

    Above all these sitcoms have certain inherent merits that one preferably need to look for in sitcoms and films or any audio-visual production in general namely good to great acting, good to great cinematography, crisp dialogues, curt replies, marvelous editing, many useful information of the subject that they deal with rather than masking everything with a masala mixture of veiled vulgarity and preaching with a long dialogue from pedestal even in moments like chasing and shooting a villain as they do in Indian movies.

    From ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘House’ we can learn a lot of interesting facts about human anatomy and modern medical practices.

    Serials like ‘Lie To Me’ and ‘Castle’ can be used in training sessions for detectives and police force.

    Serials like ‘Friends’ have excellent and sharp verbal humour.

    While discussing about pay check do not get distracted by passions, career satisfaction, dreams, ambitions, how far is your place of work, who are your co employees etc though all these are important not when you are bothered and discussing only about paycheck .

    I remember a Chinese Proverb which says, “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills”.

    I would be happy to be one among these categories listed by you below, that you seems to mention with derision, in this part, “No wonder that shows such as The Big Bang Theory are talked about in social circles which include teenagers, newly adults and veteran adults, who pride themselves on being members of the global community having left behind their antiquated ideas and morals about right or wrong.”

  6. pankaj

    This post is an example of political correctness gone mad. Deconstructing a harmless sitcom?? It is posts like these that make feminists look stupid

    1. Shamolie

      It’s just a different way of looking at it, that’s all. Nobody’s stopping you from watching whatever you like.

  7. Nikhil Ravishanker

    This is a joke, right? So fucking ridiculous!

  8. Neha Mishra

    Everything is going to unacceptable to you if you dissect it in such a way.

  9. Saurabh Gandhi

    For those interested in a contrarian point of view: http://theindianeconomist.com/defense-big-bang-theory/

  10. Gunjana

    How, then, do you think would ‘socially awkward’ be depicted on screen? Sheldon is awkward. He’s a nerd who doesn’t understand sarcasm, jokes and social norms. Everyone acknowledges he’s a pain in the arse, but his friends have accepted him as he is because friends do that. And look at the positive side of Cooper as well. He might be depicted as a robot but it’s wonderful to see Cooper being emotional, which proves that if you’re surrounded by a good circle of people, it makes you a better person. It’s a symbiosis where one person brings out the best in the other, like Amy and Leonard, two people who are the closest to Sheldon, do. Penny may not have a degree, but the show always portrays her as having much more common sense than her scientist friends. She is not white trash. And Amy is not controlled by Sheldon, neither is Bernadette controlled by Howard. Amy has put her foot down many a time in the show and Sheldon has apologised numerous times to Amy for being rude. Bernadette earns more than Howard and their relationship is extremely healthy. Bernadette in fact made Howard a much better person than he was at the beginning of the show. Every character has his/her idiosyncrasies, but nowhere is the show sending you the message that “Be like Sheldon Cooper. Insult everyone and become a scientist.” If at the end of the show you draw that conclusion, I am sorry to say, but the problem lies with you, my friend, not the show. Go watch Comedy Night with Kapil. You’d be happier.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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