Why does The Big Bang Theory hate nerds?
‘The Big Bang Theory’ is ostensibly about nerds, but then why does it secretly hate them?
Once upon a time, there was this show called The Big Bang Theory with very obscure nerd references and over-the-top nerd stereotypes as primary protagonists. Sure, the show also had Penny, a female character that primarily served as three roles: 1) the straight, “normal” character who didn’t get the references, 2) the object of lust by everyone except the not-interested-in-sex Sheldon Cooper and 3) an idiot who struggled to keep up. At first, Leonard was the main character, utterly boring and milquetoast, basically an average version of the stereotypes inhabited by the other characters.
Sheldon was the “Asperger’s without explicitly calling it that” amoral, overly rational one, only concerned with science and obsessions. An exaggeration in some ways, but in others the most consistently realistic and consistently funny character.
Howard was the offensive self-hating Jewish nerd stereotype, smart but not as smart as the others, lustful and perverted to nonsensical degrees. But the only endlessly unfunny aspect was the inclusion of his off camera mother, never seen but with a horribly, ludicrously offensive portrayal of an overbearing Jewish mother. I will never forgive the show for that.
Raj was the token nerd of color, eschewing the more predictable East Asian (meaning Japan, China, and Korean primarily) for an Indian nerd, albeit one literally unable to speak to women without being intoxicated. At first this character quirk was amusing, albeit cartoonishly unrealistic, although the idea of a shy nerd is certainly a real thing. But it became literally a psychosomatic disorder, as Raj could speak to women when he merely thought he was drunk (but had only consumed non-alcoholic drinks).
And then there was dear Leonard, the point-of-view character who was the most “normal,” in that he was relatively decent, realistically awkward, and smart but not inaccessibly so. And his pursuit of Penny as a romantic interest — while problematic in a manner of ways, which I’ll get into in a minute — was the driving character and plot arc for the beginning of the show’s run.
As the show continued, two things happened. Female characters who were also intelligent (unlike Penny) were introduced, and two (Bernadette and Amy) were actually fleshed out more as characters (in a manner of speaking). And all nerd related humor and jokes became flattened and normalized, changing from something like an obscure Star Wars reference (like a joke about Mon Mothma, who is a minor character never named onscreen) to a generic one (like mentioning Chewbacca or C3P0). The former change was a good one, because it helped move away from the dated, sexist nonsense with the “dumb blonde” archetype. The latter change certainly helped the show appeal to a broader audience, but it lost its unique nerdy charm. It became just another sitcom. The ultimate goal was now the common societal one of “guy and girl physically getting together.”
Have there been problematic elements continuously? Sure! The homophobic humor centered around Raj and Howard. The “this would be considered anti-Semitic if the show’s creator wasn’t Jewish” relationship between Howard and his mother. Howard with everything other than his relationship with Bernadette. Slut-shaming Penny and “nerd-shaming” the guys. The weird religious jokes about Sheldon’s background. But at least Sheldon was never wavering from his pride in what he cared about and lack of concern over what other people thought. Leonard was always ashamed, at least a little bit.
But then things got … worse.
Even from the beginning, the guys were portrayed as the “other,” negatively compared to the “normal” people, but at least we were meant to empathize with their struggles and the show didn’t demean their love of games, comic books, and sci-fi movies. It didn’t before but now it totally does. This has culminated in last week’s episode “The Bakersfield Expedition” which was worse because it was actually trying not to do what it did. The guys are off to some random convention, and plan to dress in pretty accurate Star Trek: the Next Generation costumes. This was the best part of the episode, those couple of moments where the guys engaged in a non-ironic love of a meaningful television program about future spacemen flying around with robots and aliens. Love of something, regardless of how popular or mainstream it is, shouldn’t be considered negative. Unfortunately, the episode then proceeded to make me madder and madder.