Gendering Intelligence and Sexuality on The Big Bang Theory
Heather McIntosh / Boston College
Intelligence is gendered masculine, and in popular thinking intelligent people often are male. Television representations of intelligence reinforce this gendering, and they reduce these intelligent characters to traits such as possessing multiple degrees, spouting obscure facts, pursuing scientific interests, announcing their intellect, highlighting their photographic memories, overusing logic, avoiding empathy, and overall acting socially awkward. Other characters affirm their intelligence through observations, admiration, and other comments. The CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory features both male and female characters who exhibit high intelligence and scientific accomplishment, which suggests the possibility for challenging these gendered constructions. Two minor characters — Dr. Beverly Hofstadter and Dr. Elizabeth Plimpton — demonstrate the extremes in these constructions, and their representations raise some further questions about gender, intelligence, and sexuality.
Created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, The Big Bang Theory features four highly intelligent men whose interactions with each other, their friend Penny, and the real world make for the hilarious and awkward moments that drive the series. Dr. Sheldon Cooper, Howard Wolowitz, Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali, and Dr. Leonard Hofstadter all work at the California Institute of Technology, and they bond over traditionally masculine undertakings of comic books, superheroes, video games, science fiction shows, and science and technology experiments. While some parts of the show’s humor derive from these four’s interactions, other parts of the show’s humor come from their interactions with the world outside that circle. A few women become part of the regular cast, and many of them exhibit high intelligence and academic accomplishments, including Bernadette Rostenkowski, a Ph.D. in microbiology; Amy Farrah Fowler, a Ph.D. in neuroscience; and Rajesh’s sister Priya, a J.D. holder. The neighbor across the hall, Penny possesses a different set of smarts — street smarts about everyday people, alcohol, and popular culture.
Through their extremes, two minor characters raise questions about the intersections of gender, intelligence, and sexuality, and they provide a contrast to the other female characters on the show. The first is Dr. Beverly Hofstadter, Leonard’s mother, who appears in “The Maternal Capacitance” from season two and “The Maternal Congruence” from season three. Beverly holds degrees in psychiatry and neuroscience. She wears business suits in muted colors and glasses, and she wears her hair in a demure style. She makes analytical statements, exhibits emotional detachment, and shows sexual repression. She speaks in a clinical way. In “The Maternal Congruence,” for example, she casually tells Leonard about her carpal tunnel surgery, her divorcing Leonard’s father, and their dog dying, yet she fails to comprehend why Leonard gets so upset about these pieces of news. She says, “Excuse me, Leonard, I am the one getting a divorce, Mitzy [the dog] is the one who is dead, why are you the one making a fuss?” Her detachment from the emotions and from her son shows her inability to connect with others on those levels. Penny later asks her, “You’re not upset that your marriage is over?” Beverly replies, “Well, initially I felt something akin to grief and perhaps anger, but that’s the natural reaction of the limbic system to being betrayed by a loathsome son of a bitch.” Her connection of those emotions to the body’s processes again suggests critical distance. This response sets up her next bombshell: That she had not had “intercourse” with her husband for eight years. She further reveals that she and her husband had sex only for the purposes of procreation, and both of them wrote papers about the experience.
Despite these analytical statements, the emotional detachment, and the sexual repression, Beverly still “lets go” a bit. In “The Maternal Capacitance,” she finds herself comfortable with Sheldon to sing Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” along with a video game system. In “The Maternal Congruence” her inspiration for “letting go” is a more traditional one: alcohol. As Beverly learns the art of drinking shots from Penny, she maintains her critical distance but begins to desire sex. After her second shot, Beverly observes, “I am noticing an immediate lowering of my inhibitions. For example, I am seriously considering asking that busboy to ravish me in the alleyway while I eat cheesecake.” After she and Penny return to the apartment, Beverly also kisses Sheldon. These moments of “letting go” provide some humor in both episodes, but in the end Beverly returns to her previous self.
“The Plimpton Stimulation” introduces Dr. Elizabeth Plimpton, a cosmological physicist visiting from Princeton University. She has written two books and published several articles, and she is a leading expert in her field. Sheldon and Leonard admire her work, and Sheldon invites her to stay as a guest in their apartment.
Elizabeth appears almost the opposite of Beverly, particularly in terms of sexual repression. Instead of a business professional look, Elizabeth wears her long, red hair down, and she wears bright-colored clothing, with a yellow skirt and a red, magenta, black, and camel sweater. After Sheldon goes to bed, Elizabeth enters Leonard’s bedroom and tells him, “I wrote the section on the Wilson-Bappu Effect completely naked.” (Maybe science is an ecstatic experience.) She explains, “When we consider the brightness of pulsating variable stars, we start to see a possible explanation for some of the discrepancies found in Hubble’s constant” as she removes her bathrobe and reveals that she wears nothing underneath. She ultimately sleeps with Leonard.
In another scene Howard and later Leonard go to Raj’s apartment for their regularly scheduled Halo night. Elizabeth is there, and she sets up a role-playing situation for them: “You [Howard] are a deliveryman. You’ve brought soup but, uh-oh, Raj and I don’t have enough money to pay you. So we’ll have to come to some other kind of arrangement.” Elizabeth revises the scenario when Leonard arrives: “What’s going on is you and Howard are my moving men, and Raj is my new landlord. And I don’t have enough money to pay any of you.” Leonard and Howard step outside, and Raj locks them out, turns, and asks her, “So you say you can’t pay your rent?” Elizabeth places her fingers on her lips and shakes her head “no” while looking up at him in a seductive way.
On one level these women challenge the masculine nature of intelligence. Both Beverly and Elizabeth are accomplished science professionals. Both demonstrate some of the intelligent stereotypes, and both receive affirmation of their intelligence. But as much as these women possess high achievements in typically masculine fields, Elizabeth and Beverly represent opposites in sexuality. While Beverly represents the emotionally detached and sexually repressed scientist, Elizabeth represents a pleasure oriented, but even more sexually motivated, scientist. These two could be seen as paralleling the binary of virgins and whores that can define women’s representations in visual media, though a closer reading shows some nuances in sexual openness and age. While Elizabeth asserts her sexual availability, Beverly possesses the potential, particularly after drinking alcohol. While Beverly’s repression could be part of her middle age, Elizabeth’s openness could be considered part of the generational post-feminist reclamation of sexual identity as a form of empowerment. Ultimately, Beverly gets rejected by her husband for her sexual repression, but Elizabeth gains at least temporary acceptance from both Leonard and Raj.
So while these women can work and be accomplished in masculine fields, their sexuality becomes a representation of the extremes with no middle ground, which becomes fodder for the humor in these episodes. Comedy provides a release for cultural tensions, and The Big Bang Theory exploits these extremes of gender, intelligence, and sexuality through Elizabeth and Beverly. Few comedies, though, advocate for acceptance or understanding of these extremes. Instead, they show us these extremes in order to mock them, elicit some laughs, and reinforce gendered norms.
1. The Big Bang Theory promo photo.
2. Still of the four in their Flash costumes.
3. Still 1 from “Maternal Capacitance.”
4. Still 2 from “Maternal Capacitance.”
5. Still from “The Plimpton Situation.”
Please feel free to comment.
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Great piece. I’m sorry it hasn’t generated more discussion. (To be accurate, they never officially state on the show that they work at Cal Tech, although that is a fair inference. And I liked how you remembered that Howard does not have a PhD.) I would love to see a follow up, one that talks about how the show depicts women in the months since this article was written. The show has given more airtime to Bernadette and Amy Farrah Fowler, allowing those characters richer personalities. They way the Bernadette/Howard and Sheldon/Amy relationships have evolved is funny and interesting and continues to mine the realm of male/female dynamics. Amy in particular echoes some of the personality traits of Dr. Hofstadter articulated here. Although over time, the writers have given Amy a fuller personality. At first, she was a cold, scientific nerd. Lately, she’s blossomed, choosing to expand out of her comfort zone, try new things, assert her needs in her relationship and even entertain moments of same-sex attraction for Penny.
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This article was a real eye opener. I enjoy The Big Bang Theory, but I didn’t realize how gendered the representations of women were– at least in the beginning. Compared to the characters as they were when the show first aired, it has come an incredibly long way. The character of Penny is a good example: back in 2007, she was the archetypal hot dumb blonde. The Penny of 2014 has a much more developed personality. With the “street smarts about everyday people, alcohol, and popular culture” you mentioned she possessed, I’ve found that she serves as a sort of liaison for the show’s ‘less nerdy’ viewers. In fact, Penny, Amy, and Bernadette have claimed half of the plot-lines of recent episodes, proving that they are far from marginalized.
The characters of Dr. Beverly Hofstadter and Dr. Elizabeth Plimpton are strong examples of the two “representations of the extremes” for female sexuality. The v/w dichotomy is certainly a relevant concept here, although I’d assert that each utilizes their sexuality (or repression thereof) as a strength rather than a weakness. By rejecting emotions and attachments, Dr. Hofstadter completely taps into her intellectual side, allowing her to achieve great professional success. Elizabeth, on the other hand, uses her sexuality (and intellect, in Leonard’s case) to achieve a more basic desire, and succeeds in her efforts as well.
Of course, as a typical sitcom seeking out the easiest laughs, The Big Bang Theory does not try to conquer the task of offering deeper analysis of gender or sexuality. However, I’d argue that since both Elizabeth and Dr. Hofstadter were intelligent, assertive women with agency, their portrayals aided in the increasing progressiveness of the series in terms of its representation of women.
The author seems to have missed the simple point of the episodes, in that they introduce for contrast a female equivalent of both Sheldon (Beverly) and Howard (Elizabeth) the point being to hilight and extract comedy from the social double standard applied to similar behavior when carried out by members of different genders.
This is a constant theme in the Big bang Theory and one that is commented on, several times by Leonard “I’m beginning to think there is a double standard here”
Such a double standard has been a staple in comedy since the beginning of female emancipation in the 1970’s.
Attempting to force a feminist reading on to the text in this way a is doomed and ultimately pointless act since the point of the show is the the allegorical demonstration of the flexibility of science in the face of unexpected variables.
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