Why does The Big Bang Theory hate nerds?

The Bakersfield Expedition

‘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 his pursuit of Penny as a romantic interest was the driving character and plot arc for the beginning of the show’s run.

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.

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.

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.

Photo Credit: CBS

13 Comments on “Why does The Big Bang Theory hate nerds?

  1. I didn’t see this particular episode, since I gave up on the show at the end of last season, mostly for the reasons you list here. The first 2 seasons of BBT were fantastic, and very funny–the show was laughing WITH the characters, not at them. They were interested in things besides comic books and sci-fi movies, and were shown as bright, intellectual, productive members of society. By the end of the first season, Penny had grown out of that dumb blonde caricature and was holding her own with the 4 of them, filling in for their lack of social skills and common sense.

    Then the show turned on its main characters. I don’t have too much objection to Howard’s girlfriend (now wife), but I really seriously hated the unfunny, creepy female clone of Sheldon who was brought on to be his “girlfriend”. Her scenes were grating and obnoxious.

    They turned the dial WAY up on Sheldon’s not-Aspergers, and refocused the show around how miserable he made the lives of his 3 friends. They dumbed down the characters and their nerdy interests to make them even more juvenile. It became a noisy, rude sitcom (and I say this as someone who watches, and even sometimes enjoys, “Two and a Half Men”, which is noisy and rude in the right way).

    Of course, with that devolving, the show became immensely popular. What a shame. I sometimes watch my DVDs of the first 2 seasons, and wish that program was still on the air.

  2. I’ve expressed similar complaints about the show in the comments on CC before. The show is just poor and sloppy. We got the first 2 seasons on DVD to catch up with the show, which we did like. Then in season 3 the show stopped being funny to us and we dropped it from the DVR. Right about the time Katie made her “I’m tired of Penny” post. The show got old fast to us. I was upset with the constant recycling of plot and jokes. I went into my Dentists just back in may and we got to talking because he is my Uncle and I made a math joke. To frame this, He is one of the smartest and one of the persons I respect the most, and he compared me to Sheldon on it. Then he gushed about the show for a bit. It was really uncomfortable. Maybe the appeal of these shows is just how every-man it is, or how familiar it is to us, in that it’s laughing at nerds and nerdom rather than with. I’ve seen it other places before, calling BBT the Bully picking on the nerds again.
    I also heard about the “Girls Trip” to the Comics store on Tumblr, and all it felt like was more rampant use of bad and poor stereotypes as jokes for cheap laughs. It makes you feel bad for any girl who is a fan of comics and their characters. I know the DC Nation fandom was full of people upset at the portrayal, but not surprised from where it came from. Regardless, nice write up, I would hope that BBT grows up a little bit, but given who it is, who’s watching it, and it’s numbers I really doubt it ever will.

  3. What I want to know is why some famous geeks in media LOVE this show then. Wil Wheaton can’t say enough good things about it, though honestly he may be biased at this point. But Andy Ihnatko (Sun Times wroter, podcaster, intelligent dude) seems to LOVE it as well. So why are they so quick to gloss over the issues?

    • In fairness, Wil Wheaton had a pretty good set of episodes. But he hasn’t been back in a while. Hmm.

      • Best not to overuse guest stars, its what makes their appearance special. Why we haven’t seen Sheldon’s sister again is a mystery and what about Leonard’s Dad or siblings. As the show continues these things may
        come to pass.

    • Not just “famous geeks in media” but Nobel laureates as well because the show utilizes real, actual science in its jokes (look up professor Kostya Novoselov and this link http://thebigblogtheory.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/s04e14-the-thesbian-catalyst/) I be surprised if any of the critics the Big Bang Theory show has even heard of this guy but oh well.

      There has never been a single sitcom that has this many celebrated academic intellectuals on it. Ever. And please also note that one of its cast main cast members is even a published scientist. Her field of study is exactly the same as her characters’… except with less animal testing maybe.

      If you don’t enjoy the show, that’s fine. Comedy is entirely subjective. If you want to know why some fans such as Neil de Grasse Tyson, George Smoot, Brian Greene and Mike Massimino watch it, you’ll need to ask them. I personally love the show because I’m a Trekkie and I love the science jokes.

      • I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the blog hasn’t been updated since 2011. And my point is that the show has degraded over time, especially since then. I don’t consider this a nerdy show anymore, just a sitcom. That’s the biggest indictment I can throw at it.

  4. ScottH writes: “the show was laughing WITH the characters, not at them.”
    This. The reason I like the shpw less and less is exactly this.

    But even a better BBT would still be a sitcom that pokes fun at things. No clichees anymore would mean being plain boring. Penny reads Thor because he’s hot? That’s just in character. It was in-character statement from season one episode one.
    If this show would become just another show to educate the audience with today en vogue mainstream politically correct pseudo-anti-stereotypes it really wouldn’t help it. It’s got enough of this already…

  5. From my biased perspective, none of these things bother me. That doesn’t mean I find BBT universally funny, but I do watch each week and enjoy.

  6. There is something very disappointing in using the whole “Girls?? In a nerdy place?? THIS HAS NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!” trope being used over and over and over. Jeremy touched on how insulting this is to nerdy guys (and it is), but it’s just as hard for girls when we just want to be treated like any other fan and yet somehow we’re still “the other” when it comes to nerdy places and events. And shows like this just perpetuate those old stereotypes.

  7. Its a sit-com, on a TV broadcast network.Gonna be safe and full of
    TV tropes to attract a broad audience.
    That said, I find it funny and admire the actors and the writing on the show.
    What was true once is still true. Don’t like a show? Change the channel.

  8. Yes, Sheldon Cooper of the sitcom Big Bang Theory. Lots of us know about this character played by Jim Parsons. You could say that Sheldon is a classic example of a weird friend. Initially, I thought Sheldon was an alien from outer space. The way he behaves, his figurative mode of speech was unusual and seriously discrete. If you take a character analysis of Sheldon ways of living, mannerism, it could sometimes flabbergast you. Why? Because you have a person like his friends Leonard, Howard, and Rajesh have an extensive collection of superhero toys in which Flash is his favorite. Man! You will split into laughter, when you see in an episode where he dresses up as the Flash after drinking five cups of coffee. He gets so energized and intoxicated that he just speeds out of the apartment into the street in the Flash costume. `

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