In this eye-opening video, Pop Culture Detective is taking a closer look at one of the most-watched comedies today: The Big Bang Theory. To fully understand the issue, Pop Culture Detective goes back to the first films featuring geek characters, such as Revenge of the Nerds or Sixteen Candles, both released in 1984.
Bullied in the jungle that is high school by the popular jock type, the nerd is constantly belittled for its look, its unflattering physique and for his lack of proper macho hobbies. His masculinity is put into question, which makes him, inevitably, funny and endearing.
In this context, his quest for love (we’re talking about heterosexual relationships, of course) takes a comic turn and so everything is forgiven, including things like sexual harassment. He spies on women in their intimacy, invents a thousand lies to get a date and so on and so forth because you see, the poor bugger has never seen boobs in the flesh in all his life and all he wants is love (well, sex, really).
The Big Bang Theory perpetuates this pernicious trope in its own way. Our four geeks sometimes have touching behaviours towards women, but unfortunately, these moments are supposed to gloss over all the other sequences that are resolutely problematic. Each one of them shows a facet of the "cute misogyny" syndrome.
Howard is "the creepy pervert with a heart of gold". He harasses and targets women, sees himself as a predator in constant search for a new prey. Then when he shacks up with Berdanette (who spends most of her time telling him off, which makes of her a rather hysterical character), it is to reveal himself as an alpha male who refuses to do any household chores.
It's OK, it's only sarcasm
Let’s turn to Rajesh, "the sensitive guy turned inappropriate drunk". Teased for being the most effeminate of the gang, Rajesh simply cannot even talk to a woman without drinking or taking drugs in the first seasons. And when he’s pissed, his behaviour gets out of control and becomes extremely misogynistic: he will show up naked in front of a woman who’s never asked for anything of the sort or will talk to Penny as if she was a maid.
Leonard is described as the "nice guy enabler". His character is the most "normal" of the lot, but he’s in fact simply complicit in his friends’ behaviour: he forgives them, eggs them on or at best contents himself with rolling his eyes at their silly remarks. He’s the pathetic type who can’t take no for an answer and ends up wearing women down (Penny actually says so in an episode).
Finally, last but not least, Sheldon is "the innocent bigot". Although he doesn’t make dubious jokes about women and how to bed them, his misogyny takes another form that is just as awkward and, after all, much more commonplace.
His character is conceived as being too intelligent to worry about other people’s feelings or about appropriate social behaviours. His piques towards women are very specific however and concern, for example, menstruation. The only woman he venerates is Marie Curie, who had, according to him, "a penis made of science".
So why isn’t this series being criticised for its sexism, I hear you wonder? Well, that’s because it’s only sarcasm apparently, you see. That is to say the scriptwriters, conscious of their characters' behaviour, often (but not all the time) make one of them point a weak finger at the creepiness of his mate’s remarks before the next joke. Hey, it’s OK, can’t you see we’re making fun of the guys?
However this technique (used since the dawn of TV series, notably in heavily puritan American sitcoms), perpetuates easy sexism, homophobia and racist stereotypes, and that to a very wide audience. To the average guy viewing The Big Bang Theory and taking these jokes at face value, the series is validating this behaviour under the guise of sarcasm and humour, instead of questioning it.
The Big Bang Theory never takes matters such as women's safety or sexual harassment seriously, and constantly exonerate the adorably misogynistic dorks. The video ends with a chilly reminder that in real life, many women working in the tech industry, notably in Silicon Valley, have been victims of sexual assaults.