How Is ‘The Big Bang Theory’ Doing On Gender Stereotypes? Depends On Who You Ask

The Big Bang Theory has always been about men in science and their attractive neighbor across the hall. Over the past 10 seasons, the show has added a few female scientists to the main cast, connecting them to the core group of men through marriage or family relationship. Amy and Bernadette are romantically linked to Sheldon and Howard, Leonard’s mother is a noted psychologist and many guest stars, including Sara Gilbert’s Leslie Winkle in the early seasons and Judy Greer’s physicist houseguest Elizabeth Plimpton, have shown that there are women who pursue a career in the hard sciences. But is this effective, and does the show in fact sometimes flip gender stereotypes on its head?

According to Glamour blogger Jessica Radloff, last week’s new episode, “The Property Division Collision,” signaled a departure from gender stereotypes as both main storylines — Sheldon and Leonard’s allocation of communal items and Raj and Stuart’s fighting over their places in Bernadette’s life — showed the male characters acting out conflicts usually reserved for women on television. Radloff compares the situations to how they may have played out on another beloved sitcom, Friends.

“[W]hen was the last time you saw two guys in a movie or TV show go at it over their personal belongings? And the ladies, meanwhile, don’t care about any of it. It’s safe to say Monica Geller on ‘Friends’ would have had PDFs and spreadsheets drawn up.

“Stuart and Raj fought over Bernadette and her unborn baby… Even Peter, Michael, and Jack from ‘Three Men and a Baby’ were never this gung ho.

“It’s refreshing to see these stories not be about which female character really owned the gravy boat or whether Amy or Penny would be the godmother.”

Despite the circumstances of this most recent episode, there has been plenty written in past years on the role of gender in The Big Bang Theory, and it’s not all praise. Heather McIntosh of Boston College wrote on Flow Journal in 2011 that Leonard’s mother, Beverly Hofstadter, and Greer’s Plimpton represented opposite ends of the spectrum of sexual liberation, making both a caricature in the process.

“So while these women can work and be accomplished in masculine fields, their sexuality becomes a representation of the extremes with no middle ground, which becomes fodder for the humor in these episodes.

“Few comedies, though, advocate for acceptance or understanding of these extremes. Instead, they show us these extremes in order to mock them, elicit some laughs, and reinforce gendered norms.”

CBS, for its part, likes to promote the three main female characters as good role models. In a post on its website, CBS describes Penny as a hard worker with street smarts, Amy as a woman with enough career success to enjoy other areas of life, and Bernadette as someone who makes her own choices while still being feminine. Whether any of these descriptions reinforce gender stereotypes may be a question for academics to answer.

Surprisingly, The Big Bang Theory has received criticism for another alleged stereotype: that of the science nerd. A 2013 Vice article noted that the percentage of women in computer science and engineering has actually declined since the 1990s. The article pointed to a study from the University of Washington and UC Berkeley which singled out The Big Bang Theory as reinforcing a stereotype that the scientist was incompatible with “the female gender role,” which the Vice article author, Meghan Neal, noted was an odd assertion because it was itself based on a stereotype, one that was even difficult to define.

In March, 2015, a computer science professor, MaryAnne Egan, made a similar point about the negative stereotype of the computer scientist on The Big Bang Theory — even though, strictly speaking, the men are physicists and engineers. She noted in a Quartz article that the field of computer science was 30 to 40 percent women at the time of her graduation in the 1980s; in 2015, it was less than 20 percent women. In the 1980s, there was no stereotype about the computer scientist; after The Big Bang Theory, however, the grating personality of Sheldon Cooper was the nerd with whom everyone even casually watching television was familiar. According to Egan, Cooper’s character and the show’s jokes, although funny to laymen with no connection to the sciences, are “not exactly a strong recruiting tool. Not many people would enjoy going to work with such a condescending personality.”

The conflict The Big Bang Theory has with gender is perhaps epitomized by “The Contractual Obligation Implementation,” which aired in Season 6 and featured Amy, Penny, and Bernadette going to Disneyland. While dressed up as princesses, they speak over the phone to a class of female students about the virtues of going into science, saying in the same breath that society tells women to “care more about the way they look than the power of their minds.” After the episode aired in 2013, Mayim Bialik wrote a blog post on Kveller to remind viewers that “[n]ot all girls like to dress up as princesses.”

The Big Bang Theory airs Thursday nights on CBS.

[Featured Image by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images]

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