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The Big Bang Theory Is An Epic Failure, At Least When It Comes To Challenging Stereotypes

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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’.

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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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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