How "The Big Bang Theory" Represents Women in Science
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.
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.
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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