The Big Bang Theory delights in poking fun at its male characters for their geeky obsessions but there’s something even more pernicious going on just under the surface. Beyond the mocking of geekdom, the show is relentless in making fun of its male leads for not being “real men.” In their quest to prove their manhood the four geeks then end up being complicit in many of the most harmful aspects of hypermasculinity.
This is the 2nd of two video essays about gender on The Big Bang Theory. The 1st focuses on a popular media trope I like to call the Adorkable Misogynist.
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• Masculinities by R. W. Connell
• The Men and the Boys by R. W. Connell
• The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks
• The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy by Allan G Johnson
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A full text transcript of this episode below
CBS’s hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory delights in poking fun at its male characters for their fanboy obsessions with comic books, video games, and “Dungeons & Dragons.” Often the punchlines aren’t really jokes per se; instead laughs are derived by simply referencing something that sounds vaguely nerdy. I suspect this is one of reasons many people involved with geeky subcultures tend to dislike the show so much. It’s essentially one long joke at their expense. But I’d argue here’s something more pernicious going on just under the surface. Beyond its general mocking of geekdom, the show is relentless in making fun of its male leads for not living up to traditional expectations of manhood.
On the surface it might seem like these nerdy nice guys represent a welcome alternative to the macho archetypes that we’ve all come to expect from Hollywood. But on closer inspection we find that, despite their status as nerdy outsiders, these guys are still complicit in many of the most destructive aspects of toxic masculinity.
In my previous video essay about the Adorkable Misogynist trope I discussed the creepy, entitled and often sexist ways in which these geeky guys treat women. But I think it’s also worth examining how they treat each other and by extension how the show’s writers end up reinforcing a whole bunch of regressive ideas about what it means to be a “real man.”
There’s a running gag on the show about how Leonard doesn’t understand sports or other activities that are stereotypically associated with men. The joke relies on the assumption that all men are supposed to like sports, and that therefore it’s inherently funny and absurd if a guy doesn’t. Sitcoms are, of course, supposed to be funny but as with all comedy it’s important to ask: Who are we meant to laugh with and who are we meant to laugh at?
Notice the laughter in this scene stems almost entirely from seeing Howard wearing an apron. The humor relies on the sexist idea that domestic tasks, like cooking and cleaning are “women’s work” and therefore Howard’s masculinity is diminished by being forced to clean the house. This reductive mixture of sexism and emasculation is really at the heart of the show’s comedic formula.
Notice that these jokes aren’t designed to challenge or subvert the limiting and often toxic ideas about what it means to be a “real man.” Instead, the punchlines reinforces this notion that guys who aren’t physically strong, tough or athletic are unmanly and therefore worthy of ridicule.
In order to move forward in this discussion, we’re gonna have to get academic just for a minute and very quickly define a couple of terms: those are hegemonic masculinity and hypermasculinity.
Hegemonic masculinity is a term that’s used to describe the socially constructed ideal of manhood. It’s characterized by things like physical strength, aggression, domination, suppression of emotions, and heterosexuality. The ideal varies somewhat based on factors like geography but here I’m concerned with white western manhood as shaped by Hollywood. For obvious examples think of Conan the Barbarian, James Bond, or Captain America.
All the guys on The Big Bang Theory are depicted as embodying the exact opposite of that hegemonic ideal. So much so, that simply seeing them dress up as their favorite superheroes is, in and of itself, a punchline.
The important thing to understand about this manhood ideal is that it’s a fiction. It only really exists in the cultural imagination, which means that men can never actually achieve it. However it’s still a standard against which men are held and compared. The social expectations and pressures on men to try to achieve some version of it is real, as is the social status either lost or gained based on a man’s perceived proximity to that ideal.
The term hypermasculinity is a little different. It refers to the set of attitudes and behaviors associated with the pursuit of the hegemonic ideal. Hypermasculinity includes things like aggressive competition, sexual conquest and destructive or risk-taking behavior like fighting, reckless driving or heavy drinking. Hypermasculinity is also obsessively anti-feminine. Keep that in mind because it’s going to be important a little later.
Hypermasculine behaviors are how men are taught to perform their manhood, to prove that they’re closer to that fictional ideal than the other men around them.
The four geeks on the Big Bang Theory are shown constantly attempting to perform a some version of hypermasculinity. Their spectacular failures in their quest to prove their manhood then provides the ironic hook behind much of the show’s comedy.
You’d think that a bunch of geeks who are regularly derided for being unmanly would be supportive of each other’s insecurities. And although there are fleeting moments of compassion between the four friends, they spend much of their time mocking and humiliating each other for not living up to the manhood ideal. This may seem a little counter intuitive: Why would nerds who are bullied for not acting manly enough then turn around and replicate that same behavior within their own circles? Well, it’s because one of the ways men learn to perform manhood is by exerting power over others.
Remember I said that one of the characteristics of hypermasculinity was an obsession with being anti-feminine? Time and again we see men on this show demeaning women and expressing casual disdain for anything considered “girl stuff.” Anti-feminine attitudes are also connected to the ways that men police each other’s presentation of manhood.
Just so we’re clear, when men insult or belittle other men by calling them “women,” that is an extension of misogyny.
Nowhere is this dynamic as clear as in the show’s treatment of Raj. In practically every episode over 10 seasons the other characters make fun of Raj for acting too much like a woman. As you might expect the jokes targeting him for not being manly enough are steeped in a thick layer of homophobia. The humor consistently codes Raj’s more effeminate behaviors and interests as gay, and that’s always the punchline.
Raj is the only one of the four guys who after 230 episodes still doesn’t have a steady girlfriend. All the others have had their long-term partners join the main cast. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the character most ridiculed for being the most unmanly in a group of men specifically coded to be unmanly, is also the only man of color on the show. As such Raj fits neatly into Hollywood’s long-running tradition of mocking and diminishing the sexuality of asian men.
At times Raj seems comfortable with his softer, more effeminate, version of manhood but the show and the other male characters are not. And they let Raj, and us as the audience, know that there’s something wrong with him for not being manly enough every chance they get.
In her 1995 book “Masculinities,” R.W. Connell lays out the theory that there’s not just one form of masculinity but rather many different forms of manhood that all exist within a hierarchy.
The white heterosexual hypermasculine ideal is at the top of that hierarchy and then all other forms of masculinity are then made subordinate to it. Forms of manhood that are in any way associated with homosexuality or femininity are pushed further down in the hierarchy. This hierarchical structure then creates a social system wherein men are encouraged to compete with other men for status and dominance, even within their own peer-groups and subcultures.
This is why even men who are bullied for not meeting the hypermasculine ideal often feel that the only way they can be seen as “real men” is by diminishing someone else.
The relationship dynamics between Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj provides us with a microcosm of how this hierarchy of masculinities works. Practically every aspect of their friendship, from the personal to the professional, revolves around competition. In fact they’re lives are defined by a never ending game of one-upmanship.
On The Big Bang Theory, just like in the real world, women are often leveraged as a symbol of status within groups of male friends. The show consistently frames manhood as something that’s either reaffirmed or diminished by the ability of the guys to score with women.
Whenever any one of the four nerds doesn’t have a girlfriend the others ridiculed him for it. Under the narrow constraints of hypermasculinity the only thing worse than being unable to acquire a woman, is being controlled by one.
The women on the show do occasionally join-in with the ridicule, but the vast majority of the put-downs of nerdy men don’t come from women, they come from other men. There’s an unfortunate tendency in our culture to try to pin the blame for men’s emasculation on women, but most of the time the perpetrators are men who are participating in this competition for dominance. And in so doing they become complicit in the very structures that harm and exclude them.
All of this competitive and anti-feminine behavior is framed by the show as harmless, as good natured fun, as normal and natural and inevitable for men. But the reality is that the social pressures that society places on men to engage in this hypermasculine competition is anything but harmless. It can be dangerous for men and those around them, both in terms of physical health and emotional wellbeing. It makes it difficult, if not impossible, for straight men to be vulnerable and caring with others, which in turn makes it very hard to build close supportive friendships with women, and with other men.
But unlike Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj who are locked into a perpetual competition by their writers, men in the real world have a choice. We can choose to reject the battle for dominance and instead embrace empathic and supportive forms of manhood.