The Big Bang Theory and Geek Culture

Geeks have become a spectacle. Right now being a geek is considered cool. It’s considered fairly trendy. Very few people who self-identify as geeks are the real deal. This statement may cause all sorts of debates, but ultimately it’s fairly inarguable. Things that were once upon a time considered the realm of outsiders have now become mainstream and hyper popular. This isn’t a bad thing, by the way — do you really think you’d ever see a massive blockbuster featuring Thanos if it wouldn’t sell? But it does have a few negative side effects, and they are all The Big Bang Theory.

The Big Bang Theory, for better or for worse, played a part in the rise of the nerd. But the show itself is toxic. While early seasons were more tolerable, recent seasons are increasingly stale and unpleasant. Big Bang Theory is junk food, though; it doesn’t want to be good. The problem with the show is the way it exploits geekery. The word “geek” has ties to freak shows, back when freak shows were a thing that happened. Big Bang Theory is a modern-day, fictionalized, freak show. A huge percentage of the humour is simply derived from the fact that characters are saying vaguely nerdy things. Seriously, watch an episode and keep track of all the times the laugh track cuts in when characters reference super-heroes, or the existence of comic books, or science. To the writers of Big Bang, those things are funny enough that traditional jokes aren’t even needed! Of course, not content to merely use what the show seems to consider an over-abundance of intellect as a source of comedy, other characters, especially Penny, have become increasingly, upsettingly dumb. But it’s fast food. The depiction of geeks is just as bad as the character developments, and in fact, all of the writing. Take the laugh track out of that show and you realize it’s just all the characters being massive dicks to one another. The problem, however, isn’t the show’s existence. The problem is the response.

The problem is that real geeks ate that shit up. Seriously. Attend a comic convention (even a small scale, non-mainstream one), and take a shot whenever you see a shirt that says “Bazinga.” Then, if you haven’t succumbed to alcohol poisoning, leave a comment telling me about the stomach pumping. If you think I’m exaggerating, know this: the last con I attended had about 15,000 attendees a day. On one of those days, I easily saw 30 Bazinga shirts, and I wasn’t there the whole day. Keep in mind those 30 people out of, say, 5000 in the room at any time, are only the people who self-identify with the show enough to present themselves as fans on that particular day. There were, without a doubt, many more fans equally devoted to the show, and many more casual fans.

That’s a lot of people who self-identify as geeks. A lot of people who are geeky enough to attend a local comic convention, who don’t see anything offensive in the way Big Bang represents them. Because Big Bang does represent them. It’s hands down the most watched show that represents Geek Culture. It’s one of the most popular sitcoms going right now, and it’s directly influencing the way the rest of the world perceives geeks. Unfortunately, the thing geeks don’t always seem to realize is that this show doesn’t respect them. At all.

The thing is Big Bang Theory was one of the first hugely popular shows to adopt a nerdy language. There were comic characters referenced and scientific terminology used, and the main characters talk about being bullied and feeling smarter than everyone else. So people clung to the terms, and the comedy, and ignored the tone. They just saw people kind of like them represented on TV and didn’t stop to think about the context.

No episode better displays the show’s understanding of geek culture than season 6, episode 13 — The Bakersfield Expedition. The main plot in this episode sees Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj travelling to a comic con. On the way, their car gets stolen. They have to walk a sizable distance through what is essentially desert to get to the nearest town. No one who drives by offers help, some even throw garbage. We’re told this must be because they’re wearing Star Trek costumes. Apparently, not a single kind person is driving down this busy road. They reach the nearest town, and the show manages to get a lot of laughs out of a police officer hassling them for being nerds. “Do you need me to call someone? I’m assuming your mothers?” Of course Leonard acts all offended right before Howard walks in and says, “I just got off the phone with my mother…” Cue the laugh track. Of course the incident makes the entire group reevaluate their feelings about the things they love. This rings horrendously false, because if you are to believe their frequent whining, most of their lives, right up until recently, has been a waking hell. But this incident is what makes them change their mind? It strikes me that if they were likely to change their minds it would’ve happened long ago in response to something far worse. But I digress.

The B-plot is even worse, and even more offensive. All the girlfriends (why’d they call Howard’s mom anyways?), Penny, Burnadette, and Amy are hanging out. Part way through, they start to wonder how their boyfriend’s could enjoy comics when they’re adults and clearly all comics are intended for children. In case you were wondering, yes, there is a slightly paedophilia-based joke made from this — you can rest easy. The girls decide to find out, and all go to the comic book shop. Of course, no one in the store has so much as seen a girl in there before, and humour ensues. I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain why this stereotype is as maddening as it is. There is a split second where the show feels like it might redeem itself — Stewart, the owner of the shop, suggests Fables, and makes a fairly reasonable pitch for it. The girls ignore this and purchase generic super-hero comics. After a few jokes about how spectacularly stupid Penny is, the girls start arguing the rules around Thor’s hammer. Their epiphany — which up until that point seems like it might be that comics can be adult and interesting — ends up being that comics are stupid but fun to argue about. Believe me yet when I say this show doesn’t understand geeky stuff? Course the boys return to the apartment, hear the girl’s arguing, and immediately change their minds about changing their lives. I think there’s a Star Trek joke afterwards.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. Pretty interesting take on the show.

    I confess that I’ve never watched BBT, only heard of it. By what you describe it adopts many of the familiar rhythms of the “comic book guy” ala Simpsons. Strangely, I don’t see a problem with these characterizations. Many comic books cater to grossly obtuse tropes that are insular and sexually confused. The role of the “uneducated comic book female” is a prime example. Women read comic books, but I don’t think for the same reasons as men. For men it’s very sexual, while women I would assume is a more introspective exercise.

    I have this Catwoman issue from the early ninties that I’m going to review soon on sequart that is facinating for it’s over-the-top sexuality. I mean, it’s about catwoman, right? So women must be the core sales audience? Half the comic book has poses that look like they were ripped out of a screen cap from a porno. So I’m not sure if women go in for that or not.

    Perhaps I’m on the fence. Satire exists to humble. It takes a select group of people and humbles them by poking fun at their eccentricities. Perhaps this show makes fun of the often delusional aspects of being a “nerd” or counter cultural? Who knows… I wouldn’t look too far into it.

  2. Thanks for the comment Stuart! First of all I’m impressed you haven’t seen BBT, I thought that show was unavoidable!

    I’d take the comic book guy over BBT every day, because while the comic book guy is super gross the Simpsons is an insanely geeky show. They actually understand nerd culture.

    I have no problem with satirizing and pointing out the many flaws inherent in comic culture. Those flaws drive me crazy. (the catwoman stuff you mention is such a classic example) But Big Bang isn’t satire: “LET’S COMPARE FIGHT CLUB TO THE MOST FAMOUS SATIRE OF ALL TIME: JONATHAN SWIFT’S ESSAY “A MODEST PROPOSAL” IN WHICH HE ARGUES THE POOR CHILDREN OF IRELAND SHOULD BE TURNED INTO A FOOD SOURCE TO BE OF SOME VALUE TO THE POOR ENGLISH. EVERYONE EITHER REACTS TO THE ESSAY BY GOING A) “HOW FUNNY! HE’S SENDING UP THE DETACHED VALUES OF HOW GOVERNMENT APPROACHES HUMAN BEINGS” OR B) “I CAN’T BELIEVE SOMEONE WOULD WRITE THAT! HOW HORRID!” THAT’S IDEALLY HOW A TRADITIONAL SATIRE SHOULD WORK. THERE’S SHADES OF GREY TO HOW MUCH THE SATIRE NEEDS TO FIT THAT EXACT KIND OF DUAL REACTION, BUT WHAT TOTALLY SHOULDN’T HAPPEN IS PEOPLE GOING “HE’S RIGHT! LET’S TOTALLY EAT THOSE CHILDREN!”" That’s my favourite explanation of satire I’ve read, and BBT does none of that. The problem is the jokes aren’t “comic books are sexist” the jokes are “comic books.” Something like Spaced, or even the IT Crowd, shows far more understanding of nerd culture, both the good and the bad. BBT just finds people referencing comic books quickly fucking hilarious. I’d also like to mention that I’m not taking the show super personally, I don’t particularly fall into the generic “comic fan” box BBT mocks, but I love comics and have friends who do fall in that box, so I’m annoyed on behalf of them. That sentence sounds ridiculous and deluded but whatever ;) That being said I have talked to people who got into comics BECAUSE of BBT, and I have no idea what to make of that….

  3. But it’s a sitcom, and sitcoms have a long history of showing immature dicks. That’s what they do, that’s what one can expect from a sitcom, it’s part of the genre. And for many years they have been constantly making fun of intellectuals (Friends, Frazier, etc.) Why should geeks be different? European movies or superhero comics, what’s the difference?

    I’m not saying that it’s a great show or that I love it. I actually saw one episode today during lunch, and it’s dumb enough, silly enough, short enough, and I didn’t laugh once. I just can’t understand how we take a perfectly regular example of a genre and call it an abomination (you didn’t, I know) for sticking to the rules of its genre. If you don’t want immature dicks, stay away from sitcoms (or romantic comedies).

    I think those Hollywood blockbusters do more damage than this show. But, really, what can one expect from blockbusters?

    • Hey Mario,

      My problem isn’t that the show exists, it’s that self-described geeks love it. You’re exactly right – it’s a generic sitcom (though a sitcom can be great). I think the descriptor I used is “fast food.” The thing is all kinds of people think this show IS a positive representation of them, and that’s a little sad to me when the show so clearly looks down on them.

      I think it would be healthier for geek culture to stop identifying with something so insulting. Especially when there are so many TV shows and movies that DO understand geek culture.

      • My opinion on the show is similar, but I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t even really think about it. I enjoy it for what it is, and I think you nailed it truthfully, “fast food” or “junk food”. I appreciate that it is funny from time to time even if it could be considered offensive to geeks at times. It is what it is, but it is still funny. I don’t watch shows like this for their rhetoric on nerds, I watch it to kill time and escape. If someone believes that this show is what nerds are truly like, then they have more problems than believing in the tone of the show as truth. We will never make those people understand and they are probably the first ones off the “comic book movie” fad. Good riddance. I do what I do for me and no one else and I can appreciate something for what it is and no more. We take too much from TV in this day and age. The fact that we are actually discussing this is more detrimental than the show itself in my opinion.

        The “trendy nerd” fad will end and we can all go back to being ignored or abused or our mother’s basement with our hordes of d20s, comic books and video games.

        Why do we feel so strongly that others must accept us. I read comics, play games, and run my podcast because it is what I enjoy. If people want to join me, so be it. If not, that is fine too. I do not need others’ acceptance to enjoy things and I think that is what many are looking for when they point to how “bad for nerds” BBT is.

      • Fair enough, Harry. I understand. I just think that its fans see a distance between themselves and the characters.

        Don’t waste your time being offended by it. The truth is that we should be mocked. Everybody should. It’s healthy.

        That said, yes, the writing should be better and Community is a better show.

        And Arrow and SHIELD are much worse.

  4. Really enjoyed both this post and the following day’s look at Community. Glad someone called out The Big Bang Theory — your thoughts are essentially mine.

  5. DH says:

    Think you for this article. I have long called this show geeksploitation. It is nice to have an article to explain why it is by just giving a link.

  6. Mai Flower says:

    Very interesting article!
    eventhough I´m a year late I was wondering- since one of your concerns was that `real geeks ate that shit up.` why would you take that from a comic covention where you saw a lot of people wearing Bazinga Shirts.You said yourself that The Big Bang Theory played a part in the rise of the nerd and ´it’s considered fairly trendy`. So in my opinion people begun to have interest in the whole world of the geek by watchting BBT and probably started checking out comic cons. So I would say the people there wearing Bazinga shirts are not the real deal but only people who don´t know anything about being a geek but what they know from BBT. The ´real´ nerds are probably just annoyed as you are by these Bazinga shirts.

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