I’ve gotten sucked into the trap before. I’m spending a casual evening with neighbors or family and in the background, some TV starts to show a rerun of The Big Bang Theory. “Oh!”, they declare excitedly, “Isn’t this show the greatest? Do you guys just love Sheldon?” No. No I don’t love Sheldon. I love not one thing about the show. And when this truth bears out in front of them–eye rolls and scoffs emoting wildly from my face–they act shocked and surprised. “We thought you guys would love this the most!”
Why? Because we are nerds. Real nerds. Not Johnny Galecki fake-ass nerds. My husband and I work as a chemist and an accountant, respectively. We have a board game collection, and we attend board game conventions where we dress up in homemade cosplay. We play Dungeons & Dragons, and other assorted RPGS, and damn, am I proud of my dice collection. I would have married Mario when I was younger if given that chance. I wish I could pet a dragon, visit Hogwarts, and take a ride in Howl’s Moving Castle. A cherished Friday night activity can be Magic: The Gathering deck building for a husband-wife showdown. And I think the U.S. tax code is damn sexy. You wanna hear about it for hours? Because I can go all night.
And damnit, as a nerd girl, (nay, nerd woman!) I find The Big Bang Theory to be not only unfunny and disgraceful to all nerd-kind, but also patently offensive. Let’s examine why.
#1 – Those Aren’t Jokes
Pop culture references and nuggets of academic information aren’t jokes on their own. “Stannis Baratheon”. Boom, laughter. “String theory”. Boom, laughter. Or, should I say “Bazin-” [glurp] “Bazing-” [wretch]. No I won’t say the catchphrase, which, by the way, is also not a joke.
You know what? I will just let this really justifiably angry YouTuber explain exactly my feelings on this topic. Please, to watch:
#2 – The Laugh Track
Most of us threw off the yoke of laugh tracks back in the late 90s after we realized Friends and Seinfeld didn’t need them and has retroactively made those shows a little worse. The live studio audiences, made so popular in the 1950s, were a throwback to a really irritating time when television was a very forced and restrained live theatrical artform. I don’t want a theatre experience where I hear the guffaws of dozens of yokels. Arrested Development, 30 Rock, and Gilmore Girls trusted that you could figure that shit out yourself. And you did. I did. We could hear the jokes and decided for ourselves. Damn, people, not even Sesame Street has a laugh track. Television trusts preschoolers’ sensibilities more than our grown asses.
But, just in case you go for that kind of stuff, the people over at ClickHole made a special laugh-enhanced version of BBT just for you. I hope you choke on it:
#3 – They’re Laughing At Nerds, Not With Them
So why does it matter that the audience is prompted to laugh at the sight of a fantasy-based board game? Or at the mention of Doctor Who? Or by a quantum physics theory? Moving past the obvious outrage that those aren’t actually punchlines, there is a deeper problem: This show is pointing at geeks like caged animals in a zoo. “Ha! Look, he said something nerdy! Did ya see that? Do it again, nerd! Do it again!”
It all started the first time Penny knocked on the door. From go-one, she wasn’t just the “hot neighbor chick”, she was the “every person”–the average American who was walking into a foreign world of nerddom. Especially in the earliest episodes I’ve seen, she practically breaks the fourth wall to point and say, “Crazy, right?”
Let’s be clear: This show was not written for nerds to laugh at themselves. It’s for anyone else who doesn’t identify with that sphere. It’s for the Ted McGinley Alpha Betas of the world. I need my parents and neighbors to understand this so they stop presuming otherwise.
And I need the rest of the world to realize that the show’s entire premise is to laugh at a worldwide culture of people who prize intelligence and learning, puzzles, exploration, innovation, creativity, childhood joy, games, and fantasy. Fairly often, that culture also includes difficulty with social situations and norms to the point of dysfunction. People of the nerd culture are often ill-accepted and misunderstood in everyday life, so we hardly needed a show that practically has a blond bim pointing and laughing at us. We already know that in many situation we’re the “other”, and we’ve been laughed at enough.
#4 – This Show Has a Serious Woman Problem
Leave it to notorious television misogynist Chuck Lorre to create a show where, to start, the only woman in the foreground is a surnameless, “promiscuous”, bubble-headed waitress. She is trotted out so that the nerds might stumble over themselves, slipping in drool in order to gain her acceptance and attention. But it’s heavily implied that her own worth is very low since she has a blue-collar job and confesses to having several sexual partners. Because, of course, it’s a binary choice: Smart, successful, bossy, repressed uggo or hot, low-achieving, vacuous bim. That’s us ladies, alright. Nailed it, Chuck!
Wait, wait. Penny filled the first role. Where are the nerd ladies? At first, they don’t exist on The Big Bang Theory. I cannot guess whether that was a read against nerd men finding any women at all with whom to socialize, or if the insinuation was that girls don’t inhabit the nerd sphere.
Fast-forward past the vanishing Leslie Winkle (Sara Gilbert) and jump three seasons ahead, Chuck Lorre finally decided the nerd world does have room for women after all.
Finally! A representation of my sphere. Bold, crazy women who love learning, science-fiction, and a well-placed Belt of Giant Strength reference! Women who aren’t afraid of their bodies, their sexuality, or expressing their interests in creative, if slightly over-the-top ways! Women with talent for sewing, literary analysis, drawing comics, martial arts, debating politics, and rolling ten D-20s in a single bound! Of all the mighty women I have met at conventions–in their bold, unapologetic, magical homemade cosplay, or sporting t-shirts with pictures of Nathan Fillion or Studio Ghibli characters–who will step in and represent us lady nerds?
Ohhhh. It’s Amy and Berndette. Captain Frumpy Masculine-Mustachio and her sidekick, Squeaky Psycho Lollipop McGee. Both terrified of their own vaginas’ shadows and so paralyzingly awkward that it’s hard to imagine they would ever get one foot through the door in any sort of real professional sphere.
See, the thing is, in order to be a nerd woman–even today–a lady has to be fearless, brilliant, and colorful. Sure, there is always room for those who are shy, modest, and self-conscious. But the very nature of assuming a cultural stance that pits you as an “other” against most of society, inherently requires an inner light. Most women in Amy and Bernadette’s careers would have been glass shattering in their march through typically male educational and professional spheres. These two women don’t express that inner light in any way that seems authentic or representative. They are just bad cartoons of how we are poorly perceived, glasses, meekness, and all.
Chuck Lorre, sir, you do not know women one bit, and it is a pity for us all that you are allowed to write for them. Or write at all.
#5 – They Just Get Nerds Wrong
It’s bad enough that they’re laughing at us and that women are so flatly and insultingly represented. Worst of it all, though, is that it’s just so wrong. They’re putting on nerd suits and painting on “nerd face” and trying to pass it off as an accurate depiction.
What in the name of Gene Roddenberry are they wearing? And in which decade do they think they’re living? That is some awful 1970s action going on right there, and I have to tell you that no modern nerd in his right mind would wear a turtle neck. It’s simply too suffocating and clingy for those nerds who lead a more sedentary lifestyle, and maybe don’t employ deodorant as one might wish. Get that guy a slightly baggy t-shirt with a pop culture reference on it (and a stain or two), and some jeans that don’t hug every flap of skin.
Now, let’s talk hair. Just because we’re nerds doesn’t mean that we are time travelers. No one is wearing a bowl cut with sideburns in modern times (I’m ignoring the hipsters). Let’s make that into either a close-cut, or–even better–long hair with a sloppy ponytail. And no shaving. Stubble and facial fuzz would be much better. Nerd dudes often need to be able to roll out of bed and head right for the computer or card shop with no detours. Or, if he’s a neat and clean nerd dude with a career track to climb, keep him neatly shaven and in a sharp t-shirt with a button-down worn over it, but kept open. (Dear gods, don’t tuck any of it in.)
As with the gents, those are a LOT of layers they’ve packed on to this woman’s torso, the result here being an ultimate frump look. Sure, nerd ladies can be frumpy if that’s their bag, but most of us are anything but buttoned-up school marms. Do you understand the ovaries it takes to be a lady nerd? We are some serious weirdos. That lady above needs to let her freak flag fly.
This isn’t just a costume and styling issue, of course. It’s clearly more about the showrunners not understanding or immersing themselves in that about which they write. I think maybe Chuck Lorre saw Grease a few times and decided that Kenickie should write a story about Eugene. That is the level of callback they’re doing–such tired old tropes that the whole punchline was supposed to have been retired after the theatrical release of Revenge of the Nerds 2: Nerds in Paradise in 1987. After that, they couldn’t even get Nerds movies made for the big screen anymore. It was over.
Okay, there was a 90s Urkel problem, but most of us hopefully have blocked that out.
It’s been decades, Chuck. You’re super caucasian ensemble is a relic of a time thankfully gone. We deserve better, especially since there is actually a story to tell about us. We’re an incredibly diverse community that has long been a target of bullies, both during our youths and as professional adults. Nerds have taken that awkwardness and built ties and bonds to each other through shared interests and experiences. We tell each other it’s okay to be weird. Go for it. It’s kinda heroic if you ask me. It’s a tale worth capturing.
The Big Bang Theory does not even begin to tell our story, and worst of all, just perpetuates grotesque stereotypes.
#6 – The Proof Is In the T-Shirts
I’ll admit to you that this disdain has been bubbling in my gut for a few years now, and often surfaces when I am visiting my parents–who adore this show, by the way. And because my mother is who she is, and because we have the type of relationship we do, she has dismissed my above arguments as “not understanding” the show. It must be my problem, right?
“Lots of nerds find it funny.”
Really, Mom? Really? Because you really don’t have any nerd friends, neighbors, or acquaintances. Except me. And I’m telling you it fucking stinks. On ice. (Ohh, Ed McMahon burn!)
So, because I am a snotty daughter, I decided to set out and prove her wrong. I attended a board game convention in the midwest, which was packed with over 60,000 fans, gamers, and general nerds. This was my chance to survey the crowd. The best way to do it? Check their t-shirts. Con attendees love to brag about their favorite pop culture past-times and interests on their t-shirts. So I scanned every passerby as I pushed through the sweaty crowd full of body odor issues. Yep, there were plenty of nods to Doctor Who, Buffy, Batman, Star Trek, Firefly, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Breaking Bad, Smurfs, Monty Python, dinosaurs, and the periodic table. And I checked off a surprising number of X-Files and Animaniacs nods (who knew?). One after another I mentally checked them off, and more than once, chuckled at a cute pun or funny reference. I was surprised to see how many shirts called for MORE COWBELL! A few Dharma Initiative symbols flashed past me, and more than once I saw the Merlotte’s logo (which made me a little jealous). The t-shirts that year also seemed to have a lot of animosity against sparkly vampires, but that’s another story. Schrodinger, Einstein, and Tesla (the man, not the car) all made frequent appearances.
But you know what didn’t? Bazinga! Nothing from the Big Bang Theory appeared. Not once. Even I was a little surprised. I mean, statistically, there had to be at least a couple people in the crowd who really loved the show. And after all, there were dozens of t-shirt vendors in the dealer hall SELLING BIG BANG THEORY SHIRTS. But, apparently, no one was buying. Guess the vendors got it wrong, too.
Then finally, on the third day of the convention, I saw a Big Bang Theory shirt walk down a corridor. I wanted to chase him and ask about it, but the dude got away. An hour later, I saw another guy in the exact same shirt. This time I snagged him and got all awkward asking, “So, I’m taking a survey of people with Big Bang Theory shirts, and I want to know, are you a big fan?” (Hand to the gods, my husband was witness that this awkward exchange actually took place). “Oh, no!”, he replied enthusiastically, “That booth across the way is giving these away for free.” Instantly, my poor husband was mercilessly dragged across the dealer hall and through the convention center to the spot where they were handing out the BBT shirts. There I stood and watched. And to my delight, very few people took them. Over the course of the convention, I saw maybe three more people wearing the free swag shirts.
Nerds know when we’re being mocked, and we don’t like it. Most of us ended up as nerds because we were ridiculed and stood apart from the crowd. And while I’m proud of who I’ve become and embrace the nerd culture with loving open arms (and coupons for deodorant, which I can circulate, if anyone’s interested), being mocked still stinks (ironic pun totally intended).
The Big Bang Theory, stop pretending to understand us or to be like us. At the end of the day, you’re just Alpha Betas in drag. We see the Ted McGinley of your souls, and it is rotten.
My sister (not a nerd) loves this show and talks to me like I should know every episode by heart. I watched in the beginning and bored with it. I didn’t like that the “nerd” female characters werent nerds in the sense of nerd culture. They are brilliant scientist but are annoyed with their partners interest mostly and follow behind princess Penney. I’m a nerd and a PE teacher. Meaning I’m actually good at sports. And I like make up and fashion, although my life doesn’t revolve around it. As you said this show just furthers stereotypes and makes fun of nerd culture.
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Exactly. I wouldn’t trail after Penny if she was dragging chocolate bars and hundred dollar bills. I hope you keep letting your freak flag fly.