The Big Bang Theory provides a perfect lens through which to deconstruct a popular media trope I like to call the Adorkable Misogynist. Adorkable Misogynists are male characters whose geeky version of masculinity is framed as comically pathetic yet still endearing. Their status as nerdy “nice guys” then lets them off the hook for a wide range of creepy, entitled, and sexist behaviors.
This is the 1st of two video essays about gender on CBS’s The Big Bang Theory. Next month I’ll focus on how the show relentlessly mocks its four male leads for not acting like “real men,” and in so doing reinforces a whole bunch of regressive ideas about masculinity.
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The full text transcript below.
The Big Bang Theory is the most popular show on television. It centers on four male friends who are characterized by essentially every Hollywood stereotype about geeks and nerds in existence. Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Raj all lack most of the traits traditionally associated with leading men in Hollywood. They’re not conventionally handsome, they’re not confident, they’re definitely not athletic.
What they are, are dorky insecure fanboys who are plagued with a variety of anxieties, illnesses and awkward personality quirks. They’re also happen to be the perfect embodiment of a media trope I like to call the Adorkable Misogynist.
Adorkable Misogynists are male characters whose geeky version of masculinity is framed as comically pathetic and endearing. And it’s their status as nerdy “nice guys” that then lets them off the hook for a wide range of creepy, entitled, and downright sexist behaviors.
In order to help explain how this convention works, we’ll need to take a quick trip back in time to the 1980s. The year was 1984 and one of the most popular summer movies was a film called Revenge of the Nerds. These weren’t the first socially awkward nerds to grace the big screen but they did help popularize this type of character. Over the next few years this geeky guy archetype quickly gained traction in Hollywood and by the 1990s it had become a something of a mainstay in comedy entertainment. It’s worth noting that this type of characters is nearly always white, though there are a few rare exceptions.
The Hollywood nerd is almost always positioned in opposition to the expected norms of macho manhood. This is usually accomplished through the juxtaposition with the jock archetype. When contrasted with hypermasculine guys who perform a crude, aggressive form of manhood, our geeky hero gets to be framed as the better, smarter, more sensitive alternative.
He’s the misunderstood “nice guy” who’s unfairly bullied and mocked by his peers. He’s presented as the clear underdog in the manhood competition. On closer inspection, however, we start to notice that these type of characters are shown engaging in a variety of harassing, entitled and sexist behavior where women are concerned. They consistently stalk, spy on, lie to, and try to manipulate the women in their lives. They’re overbearing, they refuse to take no for an answer, and they often ignore the basic tenets of consent.
Most of this behavior falls under the rubric of sexual harassment and occasionally it escalates to the level of sexual assault. Both Revenge of the Nerds and Sixteen Candles include scenes in which geeky nice guys commit acts of rape. This kind of behavior should be understood as reprehensible. I say “should be,” because that’s not how these tv shows and movies frame it. Instead their behavior is framed as kinda pathetic but ultimately harmless, and even endearing in an adorkable sort of way. And it’s the adorkable part of the Adorkable Misogynist that makes this trope so insidious.
So let’s return to The Big Bang Theory. The four geeky friends on this show are written to be genuinely likable guys. They’re even capable of fleeting moments of heart-felt sensitivity, thoughtfulness and sweetness. This non-threatening adorkable framing is designed to excuse the other more toxic part of the trope. The four leading guys on Big Bang Theory each present a different flavor of adorkable misogyny.
HOWARD is the creepy pervert with a heart of gold. Throughout the first several seasons he’s depicted as a wannabe pickup-artist. He stalks, harasses, objectifies, and tries to trick dozens of women into sleeping with him. Howard talks about women the way a zookeeper might talk about trapping and taming wild animals. He’s conniving, he’s manipulative, and his behavior sometimes crosses the line into criminal activity. I should note that once Howard is in a committed long term relationship, the way that his male chauvinism is expressed does shift slightly. He stops trying to be a womanizer but he still demands to be taken care of and he refuses to share in any of the domestic responsibilities.
RAJ is the sensitive guy turned obnoxious inappropriate drunk. He’s the show’s token geek of color and is endlessly mocked for being the most effeminate of the four friends. Raj is also the most socially awkward around women. In the first several seasons he can’t speak to women at all, except when he’s drunk or on drugs. And it’s in those uninhibited moments that we see some very extreme levels of underlying misogyny come to the forefront.
LEONARD is the “nice guy” enabler: He plays the more down-to-earth normal one so the group. Still he participate in much of same behavior as his cohorts, just to a lesser degree. Leonard’s character arc is basically the pathetic nice guy who refuses to take “no” for an answer and who eventually gets the girl. One of the roles that Leonard plays on the show is as the guy who excuses and enables the sexism of his male friends. He might roll his eyes at his friends antics but he never seriously challenged their behavior. His mild protests work as springbaords for more sexist jokes.
SHELDON is the innocent bigot. Most of the guys display a general disdain for iky girly stuff, but Sheldon is the one who harbors the most virulent form of casual misogyny. The whole shtick of Sheldon’s character is that he’s too smart to understand, or care to understand, what’s socially appropriate and what’s not. As such he is dismissive of nearly everyone and their feelings; but when he belittles and devalues women, it’s very specifically because they are women.
So how does the Big Bang Theory keep us, as the audience, sympathetic to men who behave is such reprehensible ways? Well it’s done by leaning heavily on a combination of ironic humor and a popular writer’s trick known as lampshading.
Most of the jokes on Big Bang Theory, such as they are, revolve around the following ironic hook: Since geeky guys don’t fit into the macho mold of what we expect sexism or male entitlement to look like, it’s funny to watch them engaging in that type of behavior. Notice the target of the joke is not the misogynist behavior, instead it’s makes fun of men who are not traditionally “masculine” enough to believably pull it off.
Unlike many of our earlier examples from the 1980s, the creepy behavior on Big Bang Theory is meant to be understood for what it is.
And this is where ironic lampshading comes in, which is when media makers deliberately call attention to a dissonant or overly clichéd aspect of their own production. Rather than writing different punchlines the writers attempt to duck any criticism by pointing out the sexism inherent in their own jokes themselves.
The technique of making something super obvious to viewers meant to let us know that the writers are self-aware and to make us feel like we’re all in on the joke. Most comedy writers know that retrograde style bigotry is no longer acceptable on primetime television, but they still want to use sexist, racist and homophobic jokes as an easy way to get cheap laughs. Ironic lampshading provides a clever way for them to keep getting away with it.
The problem with this comedic device is that, by itself, it doesn’t critique or challenge sexism homophobia or racism. It’s simply acknowledges it in a humorous way. Acknowledging bigotry is not the same as critiquing bigotry, especially when the punchlines end up making light of serious social issues like sexual harassment.
So while it’s true that the message of The Big Bang Theory isn’t “sexism is super cool,” I’d argue the implications are much more troubling, because the show’s message is more akin to “sexism is mostly harmless,” and especially when that sexism is coming from geeky guys.
Adorkable misogyny is presented as just another socially awkward personality quirk. As something that’s perhaps deserving of an eye-roll, or an exasperated look or maybe some lighthearted chiding but never something to be taken seriously or seriously challenged.
At it’s core the Adorkable Misogynist is built around the old axiom that “boys will be boys.” And by that phrase really means is, “boys will be sexist” or “boys will be creepy stalkers who sexually harass women” as the case may be.
On the very rare occasions when one of the geeks are called out for his sexism, the audience is are meant feel bad for him because his feelings got hurt. On television men’s feelings and bruised egos are nearly always depicted as more important than women’s comfort or safety.
The adorkable misogyny of the four main characters on the Big Bang Theory is tolerated. It’s tolerated by their peers, by their girlfriends, and by their employers.
The trope downplays the sexism of men who don’t fit into the macho stereotype by framing it as pathetic, as non-threatening, as not that big of a deal. Of course the reality is that sexist is a big deal, as practically any women involved in geek subcultures will tell you. There is sadly no shortage of real life examples of men involved in nerdy hobbies and professions who behave exactly like the guys on the The Big Bang Theory. And it’s not harmless. And it’s not adorkable.
And it’s harmful in all the ways The Big Bang Theory tells us it’s not. It’s damaging to women, it’s damaging to their sense of safety, to their well-being, and to their careers.
If we added a laugh track to that clip it would be indistinguishable from the casual sexism that we can see on practically any episode of The Big Bang Theory. Just because the performance of geeky masculinity is markedly different from traditional Hollywood archetypes, that doesn’t necessarily mean geeky guys are less invested in sexism.
The bottom line here is that there’s nothing cute or harmless about misogyny, even if it’s coming from men who play Klingon Boggle.
It’s really not that difficult to write nerdy male characters who aren’t total creeps. There’s Abed from the show Community. There’s Lionel from the Dear White People the TV series. And there’s Ben from Parks and Rec who created his own super geeky overly complicated board game. All these characters somehow manage to perform quirky, awkward, and often humorous forms of masculinity without the undercurrent of retrograde sexism. It’s long past time for Hollywood to retire the Adorkable Misogynist trope.