A well-known characterization, the nerd is a beloved take on a trope that we have all come to find timeless and endearing. Bullied and ridiculed by the popular jock type, the male nerd is constantly belittled for his unflattering physique and lack of proper “macho” hobbies. His masculinity is at constant odds with the typical attributes of manhood we have come to expect from Hollywood which makes him the quintessential underdog of pop culture. And so, it does not come as a shock that The Big Bang Theory (BBT), is based on four gangly nerds. With nearly 23.4 million people watching, BBT’s popularity spans virtually every age group, watched by men and women alike.
Upon initial airing, BBT’s ratings were not the astronomical numbers seen today. However, the show’s ratings soon skyrocketed to become one of the most watched sitcoms on TV. It became more popular once it embraced a meaner brand of comedy; namely, one that utilized blatant sexism to induce shock in its audience. Ironic humour is often used to downplay the chauvinism behind the characters’ statements. The writers structure the jokes in a way that makes it easy to identify the sexism, but difficult to be angry about it. For example, the series uses the socially awkward and innocent Sheldon as a vessel to spout ridiculous comments. However, because the punchline of Sheldon’s characterization is his social ineptitude, the show encourages us to contextualize his spiteful remarks as hilarious and meaningless prattle. This is problematic because it encourages the audience to view such comments in a tongue-in-cheek manner instead of with the gravitas it desperately deserves.
What makes the show an unsuspecting perpetrator of sexism is the target of the joke is not the misogynistic behavior of the four protagonists but, rather, the men themselves who are not traditionally masculine enough to be taken seriously. Throughout the show, whenever one of the characters says anything remotely sexist, the producers cue us to laugh at the absurdity of the matter. I mean, how ironic is it for four dorks to objectify women when they themselves can’t even talk to them? So, while it’s true that the message of BBT is not that sexism is acceptable the insinuations are arguably much more concerning. Instead, the show implies that sexism is mostly harmless—especially when sexism is coming from geeky guys.
BBT bears the potential to be a “breakout text” that subverts society’s deeply rooted understanding of what it mean to be a “real” man by juxtaposing the hypermasculinity that is often presented in pop culture. However, it instead repackages misogynistic rhetoric to make it more entertaining and palatable for the mainstream audience. Humorous sexism is, at its core, still sexism and when TV networks begin to recognize this we’ll see an undoubtable change in the comedy we consume.
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