I was excited at first when I saw WIRED had a post about The Big Bang Theory and its faults. I became less excited when I saw it was a two-minute video by someone called Angry Nerd, but I thought I’d give it a watch just in case. Here it is:
Now, I don’t expect anyone to mount a full takedown of The Big Bang Theory in less than five minutes. I have had hours-long conversations about it in the past. The Big Bang Theory is a bad show for so many reasons, it can be tough to tackle all of them at once. I don’t intend to do that here. Instead, I’m more interested in the implications of choosing Angry’s Nerd’s particular beef to talk about, especially in a publication like WIRED, which has in the past shone a big spotlight on some of the very people both Angry Nerd and The Big Bang Theory are pushing to the side.
Who am I talking about here? It’s not that Angry Nerd is wrong, exactly. The Big Bang Theory’s laugh track goes off every time a character mentions anything related to geek culture, as if reference were humour. That’s not very funny. And the show does have a laughing-at rather than laughing-with vibe to it to a sizeable portion of the geek population. But let’s be real, self-identified geeks only make up about 17% of the population according to a survey done for the Modis Group for Geek Pride Day 2013.
So who makes up a larger portion of the world? How about women? Women make up slightly more than half of the world’s population. Ten out of 24 members of the National Science Foundation’s Board are women. One quarter (two of eight) of the National Research Council’s executive are women. And yet, it takes The Big Bang Theory two seasons before it writes a female scientist who sticks around for more than eight episodes. And even then, Bernadette and Amy are only in half of the episodes (two thirds of the episodes if we discount seasons before their characters are introduced). For goodness sakes, Penny doesn’t even have a last name. These men have lived across the hall from her for seven seasons and her last name has never come up? Not even on a piece of misdelivered mail?
And we can talk about the lack of representation of real-world female scientists. Why not try to get Roberta Bondar instead of Buzz Aldrin? Or Elisha Cuthbert, who went on to be the babe in House of Wax and Girl Next Door, but who started her career as Elisha from PMK, which every young Canadian scientist watched growing up. What’s Kari from MythBusters up to? Or Grant, for that matter, since there don’t seem to ever be any East Asian people on The Big Bang Theory. (Plus, apparently, Grant drove R2-D2 and is the guy responsible for the Energizer Bunny’s movement cycles. How’s that for geek cred?)
All this is to say that if your biggest problem with The Big Bang Theory is how they treat geek culture, you’ve put women on the back burner. There exist women, both inside and outside of science, technology and geek culture. They have important and influential careers, both as pure scientists and science educators. They have intellectual lives and emotional complexities. They have last names.
When I went to WIRED.com to watch the video, the front page stories were as follows: the main story was about the benefits of the Polar vortex, next to that, we had a story about the new Getty Images Lean In collection of stock photos, a design article about cool playgrounds and a profile of Diana Markosian‘s “Goodbye, my Chechnya” series of photos mostly of Chechen women in all kinds of situation–with kids, at prayer, in school. The most recent cover features Questlove, a black man. I first learned about Limor Ladyada Fried when WIRED did a cover story on her in March 2011 (not that she wasn’t a big deal before then). WIRED’s senior editors are about half women, as are their contributing writers. So WIRED has a pretty good track record showcasing women and people of colour in a subculture that largely ignores them (at best). So why give voice to this viewpoint?
It may well be true that Angry Nerd is “square in the targeting sights of The Big Bang Theory”, but if “[y]ou’d think he’d love the show,” you’d have to just ignore how horribly it treats women. Let’s work on getting network shows through the “accurate and sensitive portrayal of women” and “accurate and sensitive portrayal of people of colour” filters before we start worrying about “accurate and sensitive portrayal of geeks”. The problem is not in recognizing that The Big Bang Theory is engaging in negative stereotyping of geeks. The problem thinking that’s the only negative stereotyping going on.