How "The Big Bang Theory" Represents Women in Science

big band theory promo

The Big Bang Theory is currently the most popular TV show on Thursday nights—and it's the only sitcom that tosses Schrödinger’s Cat into casual conversation. During its seven seasons, the show has grown from revolving around the tired tribulations of geek boys trying to get laid into a genuinely funny sitcom that includes robust and original female characters.

The Big Bang Theory is unique in that it revolves around the everyday lives of scientists—when it debuted in 2007, it was all about two male Cal Tech physicists, Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Leonard Hofstader (Johnny Galecki), and their friends, engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar). The show got praise from real-life scientists for its story lines about unsexy topics like fundraising for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) research and the day-to-day tediousness of scientific work, which takes place on-screen in labs that look nothing like the glamorous autopsy rooms on CSI or Bones. Science and geek culture icons like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, George Smoot, Stephen Hawking, Stan Lee, Leonard Nimoy and George Takei have all made appearances on the show.

Not everyone was a fan, though. Many viewers were annoyed by the Penny character (Kaley Cuoco), a waitress/actress next door that the show treated as pretty much a trophy to be earned—a hot, dumb woman who was supposed to be opposite of the smart guys. 

Where, critics asked, were the geek girls? And for that matter, where were the science-minded professional women? In the first two seasons, physicist Leslie Winkle (Sara Gilbert) made some appearances, but she was quickly written out of the show. The Big Bang Theory felt frustratingly like just another show following the familiar trope of “nice smart boys can’t get a date.”

However, at the end of season three, things changed. Two female STEM characters joined the core cast: neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler (played by real-life neuroscientist Mayim Bialik) and microbiologist Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz (Melissa Rauch). Amy hewed closest to the sexist stereotype of female scientists—she’s badly dressed, blunt, cold and deliberately masculine—while Bernadette went in the other direction, as the cute tiny blonde whose smarts are undercut by her squeaky voice. Not being taken seriously for being girly is something that affects not just STEM women’s credibility, but any woman in higher-paid professions such as medicine, law and finance. 

But to the show’s credit, both characters have grown immensely in the seasons since their debut. They are no longer cookie cutter women or romantic accessories—they have their own work crises and triumphs. They have also formed their own friendships with each other and with Penny. In the most recent season, the show was not just about the bonds between Leonard, Sheldon, Raj and Howard, but about how women interact with and support each other outside their intimate relationships. 

amy fowler

Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler (above) was originally introduced at the end of the third season as a romantic interest for Sheldon Cooper. The joke was that she was the female version of him, most prominently sharing his dislike of physical intimacy. Despite being cold and frumpy, she clearly had been successful in her field, and was able to give Sheldon good advice on fundraising (schmoozing is important and her lab gets its money from a Saudi prince) and teaching (she tells Sheldon an instructor must both enlighten and entertain). Over the course of the show, she’s grown into more than just a “girl Sheldon.” Thankfully, she has not been made over (let’s please not ever go there, BBT writers), but she has been allowed to explore her need for intimacy and sex without also giving up her professional interests.

But therein lies the rub, because now it’s frustrating to see someone as capable and interesting as Amy settle for Sheldon’s romantic crumbs. Sheldon clearly likes Amy for her brain, but he has a long way to go when it comes to accepting women as intellectual equals, particularly in his own field. He tells Leslie Winkle she should give up science for childbearing, and there are several examples of him sneering at Amy’s work, or downplaying her accomplishments. While he treats his male colleagues much the same way, his view of her is definitely colored by sexism.  And yes, this is fiction, but in reality, it is not uncommon for the male-dominated “hard” sciences to sneer at the more gender-balanced “soft” sciences. Ultimately, the best thing for Amy would be to dump Sheldon, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. This dynamic exposes an uncomfortable reality for many STEM women. As much as they may be lauded for their professional achievements, single female scientists are nagged by friends and family to find a romantic partner. For example, much has been made of physicist Lisa Randall’s marital status, with people asking why such an attractive and accomplished woman remains single. 

bernadette is a blonde woman with glasses

Dr. Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz (above) also started her role on the show as a romantic interest. At the time, Bernadette was a grad student waitressing at the Cheesecake Factory on the side, and a fairly bland character who only came onto the show because of a “girlfriend pact” between the boys. Howard’s status as a Jet Propulsion Lab engineer and possible future-astronaut gave him the professional power in their relationship, exaggerated by how Bernadette is very petite and speaks in a little-girlish tone. 

But then, Bernadette got her doctorate and a well-paying job at a pharmaceutical company, and everything changed. On a panel at a conference, she states: “As a microbiologist, I can tell you even the tiniest organisms can still tear you a new one.” That is clearly a reference to herself and the fact that she knows her petite appearance often makes people underestimate her. While she doesn’t meet the frumpy female scientist stereotype that Amy does, she has to go out of her way to prove that she’s not dumb just because she’s small and feminine.  Seeing female scientists who act traditionally feminine as possessing less gravitas is not just a dude problem—on the show, Amy is at first dismissive of Bernadette’s career and looks, and that only changes as the two grow closer.

But back to the relationship with Howard. Bernadette’s degree and new job marks a big shift in the power dynamics: Howard only has a master’s degree (for engineers, higher degrees aren’t usually needed), and by the current season he’s making far less money than Bernadette. It’s an interesting commentary not only on how different fields in STEM can be more or less lucrative, but also on how many millennial women can now expect to make more money than their male partners.  When he realizes Bernadette earns more than him, Howard is initially a little upset—something couples certainly have to deal with in real life.

Does the show still need work when it comes to gender or geek culture or STEM worker portrayals? Sure. But it remains one of the more realistic ones on television, and may very well help the next generation consider careers in STEM. 

Related Reading: Five Female Scientists Who Are Missing from "Cosmos."

A.K. Whitney is a journalist in Southern California. You can see more of her work at www.akwhitney.com.


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Comments

28 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Still not going to watch it.

This show is basically nerd face for the masses. As a woman, a scientist, and someone married to an Autistic, it's massively offensive and full of worn out tropes not only about women but scientists and nerds as well. This show seriously annoys the shit out of me.

So don't watch it. As well as

So don't watch it.

As well as millions of others I find it intelligently written and acted, VERY funny and occasionally educational. And if you're expecting total reality on a TV show, I have four words for you---"willing suspension of disbelief."

Way to miss the point?

drekimond raised criticisms of the show that aren't erased by simply choosing not to watch it. The narrow and offensive portrayal of autism spectrum disorders (and how that might affect popular understanding and treatment of autistic people), to take just one of them, isn't going to disappear just because s/he closes hir eyes.

Popular media has an impact, and if you're concerned or upset about that impact you're absolutely right to criticize it. In fact, criticism is useful, because sometimes it leads to creators actually trying to correct problems and make a thing better than it was (like, by adding a broader variety of female characters!)

But, knee-jerk defensiveness that ignores valid criticism and basically amounts to telling the critic to shut up? Yeah, *that's* what's not so useful.

Way to make an irrelivant point

Trying to criticize the show about autism is irrelevant and makes no sense. Autism is NOT a disorder portrayed by any character of the show. Sheldon is not autistic, Sheldon is a narcissist who has an intellectual level that renders him cut off from certain aspects of basic social interaction. Not because he's autistic but because his very high intelligence makes him and his sense of humor very literal. He misses the nuances of sarcasm and doesn't often understand slang. Reminds me of an engineer I knew who was so smart he could grasp the simple because he always over thought it. Nor is Sheldon sexist as the article would suggest. He doesn't think his being male makes him better than his female counterparts. He believes his intellect makes him superior to ALL his contemporaries. He's a walking ego that brings humor to the show through the absurdity of his disconnect. He is C3PO.

I find the show humorous and enjoy a banter between characters that is, on occasion, comprised of words consisting of more than 3 syllables. It is in fact the only television show I have ever watched of my own volition as opposed to being held captive by friends watching television. Really anyone who puts so much importance on any television show as to think it should impact the way a group of people are treated or change the conditions of society needs rethink how much they engage with the television. Its just entertainment, complete acts of fiction. If someone wants to impact society... criticizing a television show is probably the very least impactful way of going about it.

Simply calling Sheldon a

Simply calling Sheldon a narcissist is extremely naive and doesn't fit at all. The character has many complex traits that narcissism can not explain away.

Well said, I agree with you

Well said, I agree with you 100%!

I agree with you up until the

I agree with you up until the end. I think TV is an incredibly important media and one that does need to be criticized. Just the comments we've received so far prove that. It show us what we believe as a society or what people (tv networks, news conglomerates, etc.) want us to believe. That's what Bitch is all about isn't it? Thinking critically about pop culture? TV is pop culture.

BBT

drekimond; You say "This show seriously annoys the shit out of me". In order for this to be true, you must still be watching it. Why don't you stop watching instead of torturing yourself?

To Drekimond

"Still not going to watch it" That statement simply disqualifies you from commenting on the content of this program. Get back with us when you've sampled the latest seasons of the show. But thank you for your comment. You may now return to watching your beloved Kardashians.

So because you are married to

So because you are married to a downy and you are and you are a scientist lol
you feel you have to hate this show? and dont ever watch it,

well your loss for being so small minded,
you aint a scientist, you a joke, you'd make a good joke in the big big teary.

I'm glad that BBT has been

I'm glad that BBT has been brave enough not to tip-toe around the Asperger's spectrum aspect of Sheldon. Comedy has always brought human character under the microscope. As someone with an Asperger's parent (and who also teaches plenty of kids with the syndrome), I am grateful that BBT has been brave enough, through the journey of Sheldon, to make it clear which behaviours are to be expected as part of the Asperger's package and which ones are just plain selfishness and/or rudeness. Thanks to Sheldon (and Jim Parsons' brilliant portrayal), less and less people on that spectrum are excusing away their actual anti-social behaviour with "oh but I have Aspergers" and are now saying to themselves, "I have Aspergers, I have to work harder socially".

How many children/teens have

How many children/teens have you turned toward a career in science? My little sister(15 years younger than me) just graduated high-school and because she loves TBBT she is looking at a degree in microbiology or possibly chemistry. If you were a decent scientist I would think you would be all for a show that has influnced so many. It is a comedy and it is TV so controversy sells, if it wasn't there nobody would care. Don't watch it if you like but it is only you who are missing out.

To quote the end of the

To quote the end of the article:

"Does the show still need work when it comes to gender or geek culture or STEM worker portrayals? Sure. But it remains one of the more realistic ones on television, and may very well help the next generation consider careers in STEM. "

Where do you irate fans come from? The person who wrote this article clearly thinks that the show is smart and funny and overall has gotten better in its treatment of female characters.

Also are you sure that your sister is considering these fields because of a tv show, or because she is good at and enjoys science?

it is a television show

Why does everything have to be analyzed to death? Especially a television show. It's called entertainment. It's a diversion from real life. If it reflects real life, great. If it doesn't - it's a television show. It is well written, thoughtful, well acted and directed. It's fun. If you don't find it so, if it doesn't live up to your expectations - stop watching. After all, it's a television show!

And this is a forum devoted to analyzing pop culture . . .

In other words, if one were going to analyze a TV show from a feminist angle, this is where one would go. Dismissing BBT as "just a television show" doesn't really work in this context.

Back on the main topic, yes, there are some things about the show that are annoying, but the portrayal of the women is one of the real bright spots.

Yes, I would also like to

Yes, I would also like to know why these things have to be relentlessly analyzed and debated. Watch the show if you like and change the channel if you don't. I'm a chemistry loving bitch who thinks it might be time for us to carry on enjoying the hell out of our brief time on earth instead of searching for relatively trivial stuff to become offended about.

I'm incredibly surprised that no one has pointed out the true problem with the show; Sheldon's complete lack of respect for the science of geology. Geology must be one of the last acceptable groups to torment in America because no one here has taken their side. There are many female geologists too and surely that must compound the horror of the geology disregard problem. Why is no one here discussing the hell right out of this? Outrage I say. My family is contaminated by a rich vein of professional geologists but not a single one of them seems to be offended by the pronouncements of pompous Sheldon.

It's fiction. Maybe it's fun! Maybe it's not! But in either case, it isn't a life threatening attack on all that we hold dear. Come on people, we're all a little bit tougher (and hopefully a little more fun) than that.

Are you serious?

Okay, your first paragraph just annoyed me, but the second one made me laugh out loud.

First, finding trivial things to get offended about: sexism doesn't fit this criteria. Women's work in "traditionally" "men's" fields is not trivial, especially not to the women whose research is underfunded, who are not promoted, who are paid less, and who are consistently not taken seriously. Those are large problems for science, academia, and you know, women.

Second, "geologists must be one of the last acceptable groups to torment in America." Are you serious? Do you really think this? And as a follow up, are your conferences heavily patrolled by police because it is culturally accepted that geologists in large numbers are threatening and potentially violent (read, what actually happens to teenagers in groups, especially teenagers of color, not to mention grown ass humans of color)? Are geologists regularly stopped and frisked for being geologists and thus "suspicious"? Are geologists' names then kept on file as having been stopped, even if they were let go and not charged, so that they are then hassled if they are pulled over and/or stopped again (read, well, read anything about stop and frisk in NYC and the lawsuits that have been brought as a result)? Are geologist disproportionately jailed and given higher sentence for the the same crime committed by chemists (read people of color, and people of color convicted for drug related offenses v. white people for the same crimes)?

No right?

Yeah, geologists are not "one of the last acceptable groups to torment in America." Fear not, they aren't gonna be coming for you for a while. You may now safely watch TV and not be worried about the trivial messages it sends that certain people's lives are less valuable and/or entertaining. At least until they start portraying geologists as, you know, torment-able.

Yeesh.

I agree with your post and

I agree with your post and think a great storyline for an episode would be if Sheldon came in contact with and somehow had to respect one of the "dirt people". That way maybe geology would get the respect and exposure it deserves. Anything to encourage young people to pursue careers in the sciences, of whatever branch.

I like it.

I actually don't feel that they made Penny dumb at all. Maybe she is when compared to the guys but I feel like they made her average, like a person that really would live across the hall. If they made her dumb, then the show would annoy the hell out of me.

honestly, I don't think they

honestly, I don't think they made Penny out to be a bit part that was dumb at all. Even in the first series, she was the opposite the guys needed. They were book smart and well educated, BUT, she was the averaged "street-smart" life experienced character that needed them as much as they needed her. It was a give and take on both sides. Having added the other female characters has only helped to show that BOTH gender sides are equally susceptible to the downfalls of society. In many examples of the show, the writers have shown how the girls (in specific scenarios) are WAY more apt to be the "leaders" in comparison, and the same can be said vice-versa too. This show is just well written and well balanced. It shows life reflecting entertainment that is reflecting specific aspects of life.

IMO I Feel

honestly, I don't think they made Penny out to be a bit part that was dumb at all. Even in the first series, she was the opposite the guys needed. They were book smart and well educated, BUT, she was the averaged "street-smart" life experienced character that needed them as much as they needed her. It was a give and take on both sides. Having added the other female characters has only helped to show that BOTH gender sides are equally susceptible to the downfalls of society. In many examples of the show, the writers have shown how the girls (in specific scenarios) are WAY more apt to be the "leaders" in comparison, and the same can be said vice-versa too. This show is just well written and well balanced. It shows life reflecting entertainment that is reflecting specific aspects of life.

Good points, bad reference

In the scene where Bernadette is at the conference, her statement about tiny organisms tearing you a new one, is not about her dimunitive stature. It's a reference to Howard being afraid that his penis is not as large as her ex boyfriend's. I thought that was pretty obvious since that was the entire point of Bernadette's and Howards whole plot line in that episode. Or, were you just taking a statement out of context so that it fit your point?

Sheldon

Sheldon doesn't look down on Amy's accomplishments so much because she's a woman but because her field of study which involves "yucky things". Remember, originally Amy belittled Sheldon's field as well. The thing with Leslie had more to do with the fact that she gave him a run for his money. After she left, the show brought in Barry Kripke who Sheldon also has an adversarial relationship with. Barry picked up where Leslie left off. Penny isn't dumb, she's the normal one who is more in the mold of a typical average person as were her friends who we saw a bit more of in the early seasons.

Penny had to frequently save the guys when they found themselves in situations that they didn't know how to deal with. Penny protected the guys from bullies and women who were just using them and she was their "hero" in those circumstances. Penny is pretty and is very strong which is why she's usually running things even when Amy and Bernadette are involved. Penny because of her looks, has been given a few more breaks so she's more fearless and has encouraged both Amy and Bernadette to stick up for themselves especially with Sheldon and Howard.

Sheldon is not sexist

"...there are several examples of him sneering at Amy’s work, or downplaying her accomplishments. While he treats his male colleagues much the same way, his view of her is definitely colored by sexism...."

Sorry, I must disagree. Sheldon is best example of someone is purely objective. You rightly point out that he also derides Howard's work. He has equal disdain for anyone whom he deems not his equal. He doesn't put down Amy any more than Howard, or in any way more intensely because she is female.

He just purely and objectively feels that most people (notice I didn't say most "men" or most "women") do not match up to his intellectual skills.

Funny

I find it interesting how quickly BBT fans of the show in my own surroundings can be irritated when I say I don't like and that the series relies on lazy humor. I'm a STEM scientist myself and though in the first seasons , I was interested in BBT, I now find it an annoying show (and yes, I've stopped watching it, though caught some episodes on a plane ride lately).

The reason I find it a lazy show is that it doens't laugh with nerds/geeks/scientists (which it did a bit in the beginning), but at them. The jokes are unclever, often just based on pop culture references, rather than smartly constructed jokes that invert common tv tropes. On the contrary, it relies on tedious stereotypes regarding scientists. Geek culture and science are not celebrated in this series, they are just played up to laugh at.

We're not expected to laugh at a joke about coding some computer script because it's a recognizable situation (getting frustrated because something won't compile, or whatever). We are expected to laugh because 'hahaha, silly geeks making a fuss about doing some coding, haha, silly geek'. Likewise, anything AFF does becomes a joke, because she is the joke we should be laughing at. The same goes for Sheldon.

Anyway, I can't relate to it and find the scientists in my own life very unlike any of the characters.

From your post I can

From your post I can understand why you wouldn't like the show and may even find it insulting, but I really do think it is introducing young people to careers in science that they might not have otherwise considered. Does it have problems? Of course it does, but even if this show encourages only 1 young person to pursue a career in science that would not have normally gone there, the show will have been worth it.

Sheldon is God! or maybe he's just crazy?

The Big Bang Theory is funny, inciteful, interesting, educational, introspective, intelligent, romantic and ridiculous all at the same time, even within one show. Those of us who are smart but socailly awkward, inhibited but long to be accepted, lonely but have a group of friends, attractive but shy, or trying to outgrow a repressive childhhood and escape our parents meddling, can identify with the characters on this show. We can all find a bit of one, or more than one, character's personalities in ourselves. This is why we watch, to laugh at ourselves, or others like ourselves, however different we may think we are. The writing, the acting, the direction, and character development are all excellent. If Leonard can find Penny, Howard can find Bernadette, Sheldon can find Amy, how come we can't find a girl for Raj? Maybe this is a strange idea, but am I crazy or what. No, my mother had me tested. Bazinga!

Clipping Path

Thank you. It's great. :)