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

Posted on August 22, 2014 in Culture-Vulture, Sexism And Patriarchy, Society, Taboos

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’.

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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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