I have been less than impressed by The Big Bang Theory since its fourth season (I wrote an article about it jumping the shark two years ago, you can read it here), but the season 9 premiere has stooped to a new low. Despite being thoroughly disappointed by the series, I have trouble letting go. Having already invested in so many hours of TV, I find myself continually tuning in despite the number of jokes in bad taste, making fun of people. My bad habits will be the death of me. But what makes this episode different from the rest? Why did I find it so much worse?
The series often uses prejudiced stereotypes as the basis for comedy – having the socially awkward and inept Sheldon spout awful comments that the others can correct him on. An ‘oh isn’t he funny, he doesn’t understand’ approach; a kind of comedy that is both unpleasant to the person Sheldon’s comments are directed to and condescending to Sheldon himself. But the show gets away with this – to an extent – as the others usually correct him, bringing his views into the 21st century, pointing out where he is being racist or sexist, ensuring that they call out his behaviour as inappropriate or unacceptable. In the latest episode, ‘The Matrimonial Momentum’, however, that’s not the case. Sheldon is allowed to rant about how ‘women are the worst’ for an entire episode with very little in the way of course correction by the others in the group.
Finally, there’s a Mrs. Hofstadter who isn’t disappointed in me.
The episode deals with actual change in the lives of the characters we know and love – something that often happens in later seasons of sitcoms and also generally denotes their eventual unraveling towards cancellation (sitcoms by their very nature require a return to the status quo with each episode). Penny and Leonard decide to tie the knot on a whim (in Vegas) while Amy has finally had enough, ending her relationship with Sheldon. What might have been a happy occasion – a wedding – is far from it. On the drive up to their less than romantic wedding venue, Leonard reveals he once cheated on the stunning Penny. To no one’s surprise (bar Leonard’s), this leads to a massive argument as soon as the two say ‘I do’.
Being cast aside leaves Sheldon the most emotional we have seen him for a long time. But true to character, he turns the blame game entirely outside himself. It could never be a problem with him, could it?! The result of his pain involves lashing out – not just at Amy, but all women. There is the occasional sweet moment where he addresses this pain (‘Women are the worst. I thought it was paper cuts, but I was wrong. No piece of paper ever cut me this deep.’), but for the most part it is characterized by rants about women in general, focusing on negative stereotypes of the gender. While at first the gang half-heartedly points out that ‘not all women are bad’, the episode ends with a disgustingly sexist rant that is left hanging, never to be rebutted.
We make everyone feel awkward. That’s our thing.
I’m not generally a fan of comedy that uses stereotypes and hateful comments to find humour. To make it work, the writers have to do something very clever with it. In The Big Bang Theory, they never seem to even bother attempting to be clever or worry about the negative stereotypes they reinforce with their jokes (such as the jokes about Raj and his sexuality, alcoholism, and culture).
Sheldon is often the mouthpiece for these barbarous comments, with the writers using his lack of social skills as an excuse to be un-PC or simply rude. This kind of comedy requires a balanced approach, however. With each comment delivered, its unpleasantness needs to be highlighted, a clear disapproval of the unkind, incorrect sentiments the character is espousing. Without that second half, it feels as though the writers are condoning the bad behaviour; that Sheldon isn’t wrong for thinking (and expressing) those things. And that’s a serious problem. Some of the sexist comments in this one episode (and all from Sheldon) include:
- ‘Is Penny crying? No, of course not, they thrive on our suffering.’
- ‘Oh, you’re going to a wedding alone… that’s sad.’
- ‘You should think fast because men can sire offspring their entire lives, but those eggs you’re toting around have a sell-by date.’
- ‘I’m done with women. Like when I swore off Pop Rocks. They both hurt you on purpose.’
- ‘Do you want to hear another reason why men are better than women?’
- ‘…You’re a man, the champagne of genders’
- ‘All you hear women say is “I’ll just have a salad”, “Where’s my lip gloss”…’
- ‘She was kind of an honourary man. She had a penis made of science.’
… and the laugh track kicks in after every one of these hateful comments.
When The Big Bang Theory first started, it was great fun but the ratings were not astronomical. What does it say about the viewing public that the show skyrocketed once it embraced a meaner brand of comedy? I wonder how the audience will appreciate such blatantly sexist views on one of the most-watched sitcoms on TV.
I think you nailed the problem when you mentioned that in the sitcom format, things really aren’t meant to change. Your 100+ syndicated episodes are meant to be playable (and repeatable) endlessly, in any order. There are plenty of transgressive comedians (Brendon Burns, Sarah Silverman, Frankie Boyle, Paul Chowdhry and Doug Stanhope, to name five) who by joking about supposedly taboo subjects make them something that can actually be talked about, for the most part provoking the audience to different slant on the matter.
The problem with Sheldon’s inconsiderate arrogance (much like the more overt and nuanced misogyny of How I Met Your Mother’s Barney, or Rules of Engagement’s more repulsive but less believable Russell) is that for most of the character’s lifespan, the format says it can’t change. Other characters might bitch or roll their eyes, but the sitcom’s function is the illusion of a reliable circle of surrogate friends. The character might get called on their behaviour but, unless he’s a one-episode feature, he’s there to stay – a familiar face, a comfortable presence – and that inevitably means slowly starting to laugh with his views, rather than at them. It’s just ‘Classic Sheldon!’ Even if they are eventually allowed to evolve, those episodes will forever be outnumbered by those already in the bank.
These groups are based on basic stereotypes, to make them seem as already familiar as possible. The stereotypes are designed to make us say ‘Hey, we all know someone like that, right?’ But when that someone is voicing opinions sitcom characters would’ve blanched at 15 years ago, in an atmosphere where the viewer should never so much as prickle, can that really be opening any discussion?
I haven’t seen 9/1 yet but I’ve got a couple of comments going up to the end of season 8. First, the dialogue is often subverted by the visuals. Kaley Cuoco is the strongest comic actor and largely carries the show IMO. The impact of what is said is defined by Penny’s facial reaction whenever she’s on-screen. This leads the viewer to see all the characters from Penny’s POV, contradicting the dumb blonde stereotype.
Second, the worst thing in TBBT, not just sexism but full-on hateful misogyny, is the character of Amy. She’s the old stereotype of a sex-starved woman with no sex-appeal obsessed with sex. It’s made clear in such scenes as the one in 7/23 where she turns up at Sheldon’s dressed as a schoolgirl, that because no-one fancies her, her sexuality is disgusting.
I get you, from the standpoint of the format of the show, and I agree. Personal growth is fantastic in real life (where it never actually happens), but it isn’t good for a sitcom. I don’t want Sheldon to grow or change, even though the other characters have (in my opinion) matured positively in small ways. I also feel that there is now nothing to differentiate the show from so many others. BUT I disagree with you about this episode being sexist. Sheldon was hurt and lashing out in a very Sheldony way, and it was sad and honestly how that character was feeling. he was, and is entitled to his opinion. I don’t think that there are a whole bunch of people saying “sheldon says women suck, therefore they suck”. I think society has moved on form there. Nor was he wrong. Women do suck, a lot of the time, but if you have noticed he frequently accuses everyone who isn’t Sheldon of sucking. He’s not wrong there either, people do suck.Next episode he’s over it. you never had a day like that? I know I have. you never thought that about men, women, kids, someoene who did a sucky thing? The difference ina sitcom is that if he doesn’t say it we don’t know what he’s thinking.
I find it hysterical that one of the most anti-*male* shows on television, you are trying to characterize as misogynistic. Are you kidding me? Women continually dominating men, both men and women in similar situations, and somehow the male is wrong *both ways*. Bernadette endlessly bullying Howard. I need to stop now, this could easily become a TLDR.
I totally agree. I once liked the series but they’ve gone too far towards women
DB Fishman’s comment and your article really took the words right out of my mouth. I’m currently rewatching Season 1 Episode 15 and it is one of the most sexist episodes I’ve ever seen. Sheldon’s sister is in town and all the guys are infatuated with her. Leonard, in an attempt to hinder them from getting to her first, tells Sheldon that he is “the man of the house” and that it is his “responsibility to find her a suitable mate”. The rest of the episode is about him finding her a suitable mate that he approves of.
I was going to write a long rant about all the ways in which this episode, and the show in general, is ridiculously sexist. However, I think I might as well just sum it up with one statement: that’s really fucked up.