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  • 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.

  • Sheldon: "Did you just shut the TV off in the middle of the classic Deep Space 9, Star Trek

  • the Original Series Trouble with Tribbles crossover episode?"

  • I suspect this is one of reasons why so many people involved in geek 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.

  • Leonard: "So it's cool if I cry a little?"

  • Penny: "Yeah, I probably wouldn't." Leonard: "Yeah..."

  • Beyond its general mocking of geekdom, the show is relentless in making fun of

  • its male characters 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.

  • Leonard: "Yes, but our society has undergone a paradigm shift. In the information age, Sheldon,

  • you and I are the alpha males. We shouldn't have to back down.

  • I'm going to assert my dominance face to face."

  • 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.

  • Howard: "Get it? They're laughing. We're laughing. Then we get them up to about

  • .15 blood alcohol level, and tell them we're millionaires."

  • But I think it's also worth examining how they treat each other...

  • Raj: "The first thing we need is a theme. I'm thinking...turn of the century Moulin Rouge."

  • Leonard: "I'm thinking you need a testosterone patch."

  • ...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.”

  • Leonard: "Beer, wings, sliders. We can watch the football game. I even painted my stomach."

  • There's a running gag on the show about how Leonard doesn't understand sports or

  • other activities that are stereotypically associated with men.

  • Penny: "Go sports?"

  • Leonard: "Well, in case you were in the mood for baseball, I didn't want to look ridiculous"

  • Leonard: "Go, go, go, YES! Are you people watching this? Is this amazing or what?!"

  • Penny: "Sweetie, that's a highlight from the '98 championship game."

  • Leonard: "Oh. I did not know that."

  • The joke relies on the assumption that all men are supposed to like sports,

  • and therefore it's inherently funny and absurd if a guy doesn't.

  • Now 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?

  • Howard: "Hey."

  • Notice the laughter in this scene stems almost entirely from seeing Howard

  • wearing an apron.

  • Raj: "What's with the gloves?"

  • Howard: "They complete my ensemble. What do you want?"

  • The humor relies on the sexist idea that domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning

  • are women's work, and therefore, Howard's masculinity is somehow diminished by

  • being forced to clean the house. This reductive mix of sexism and emasculation

  • is really at the heart of the show's comedic formula.

  • Sheldon: "When I fail to open this jar, and you succeed, it will establish you as the

  • alpha male. I'm not strong enough, Leonard, You'll have to do it."

  • Sheldon: "Go ahead. It's pre-loosened."

  • 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."

  • "Do you want some help with that?" Leonard: "No, no, no."

  • Instead, the punchlines reinforce this notion that guys who aren't physically strong,

  • tough, or athletic are unmanly.

  • Leonard: "That's enough cardio for me. I'm gonna stretch out before I hit the weights."

  • And therefore worthy of ridicule.

  • Howard: "Hold on. Pause. Something doesn't make sense."

  • In order to move forward in this discussion, we're going to 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.

  • Howard (gravelly voice): "I'm Batman."

  • So much so, that simply seeing them dress up as their favorite superhero is

  • in and of itself a punchine.

  • Howard: "Ow!...I mean [gravelly] Ow."

  • 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 really 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 that

  • Hegemonic ideal.

  • Hypermasculinity includes things like aggressive competition,

  • sexual conquest, and destructive or risk taking behaviors like fighting,

  • reckless driving, or heavy drinking.

  • Hypermasculinity is also obsessively anti-feminine.

  • Now keep that in mind because it's going to be imporant a little later.

  • Hypermasculine behaviors are how men are taught to perform their manhood, to prove

  • that they are closer to that fictional ideal than the other men around them.

  • Leonard: "Oh no!"

  • The four geeks on the Big Bang Theory are shown constantly attempting to perform

  • some version of hypermasculinity.

  • Sheldon: "Now prepare yourself for what may come."

  • Wil Wheaton: "Oh Sheldon, do you really think we're going to fight?"

  • Their spectacular failures in their quest to prove their manhood then provides

  • the ironic hook behind much of the shows comedy.

  • Leonard: "I say this one time, instead of wimping out, let's be bad-asses!"

  • Raj: "Ok. I'll be a bad-ass, but only if you pinky-swear to be one too."

  • Now you'd think 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.

  • Sheldon: "I see you decided to go with pathetic and frightened."

  • Raj: "It's one of his best moves."

  • Sheldon: "I'm having female problems."

  • Leonard: "If you're cranky and retaining water, I have a theory."

  • Raj: "I have to talk to her about this."

  • Howard: "Geez, why do you girls always want to talk about things?"

  • 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 ways men learn to perform manhood...

  • Sheldon: "None shall pass."

  • ...is by exerting power over others.

  • Remember when I said that one of the characteristics of Hypermasculinity was

  • an obsession with being anti-feminine?

  • Sheldon: "A girls' night? I don't know if I'm up for an evening talking about

  • rainbows, unicorns, and menstrual cramps."

  • Time and again we see the men on the show demeaning women and expressing a casual

  • distain for anything considered "girl stuff."

  • Howard: "Sex In the City? Yikes!"

  • Penny: "Hey, I happen to love this movie."

  • Howard: "Fine, let's watch it. Maybe all our periods with synchronize."

  • Anti-feminine attitudes are also connected to the ways that men police each other's

  • presentation of manhood.

  • Sheldon: "Because of your lactose intolerance you switched over to soy milk. Soy contains

  • estrogen-mimicking compounds. I think your morning Coco Puffs are turning you into a

  • hysterical woman."

  • Just so we're clear, when men insult and belittle other men by calling them women,

  • that is an extension of misogyny.

  • Leonard: "You're controlling, you're irritating..."

  • Sheldon: "There you go again: nag, nag, nag. You're only proving my point little lady."

  • Nowhere is this dynamic as clear as in the show's treatment of Raj.

  • Raj: "Edward's only pushing you away because he loves you."

  • Raj: "I've got everything we'll need for the big game: low-fat turkey jerky,

  • low-carb beer, 100 calorie snack packs."

  • Leonard: "Pick up a Y-chromosome while you were there? You might be short one."

  • Howard: "I won't be making fun of you or the things you like, or the fact that you

  • [singing] just wanna have fu-un."

  • In practically every episode over ten seasons, the other characters on the show

  • make fun of Raj for acting too much like a woman.

  • Raj: "It wasn't a pajama party. It was just a couple of bros hanging out, giggling,

  • eating cookie dough, and watching Princess Bride."

  • Howard: "Please stop talking."

  • As you might expect, the jokes targeting Raj for not being manly enough

  • are steeped in a thick layer of homophobia.

  • Howard: "Wow!"

  • Raj: "And that's not even the best part. See, I have one too."

  • Raj: "Check it out, you can wear yours and we can have little sword fights whenever we want."

  • The humor consistently codes Raj's more effeminate behaviors and interests as gay

  • and that's always the punchline.

  • Raj: "May I have a Grasshopper with a little umbrella, please?"

  • Howard: "No, you may not." Raj: "Why?"

  • Howard: "I'm not sitting here with a guy drinking a Grasshopper with a little umbrella."

  • Raj: "Fine. I'll have a chocolate martini."

  • Howard: " Wrong! Again!"

  • Raj is the only one of the four guys who after 230 episodes still doesn't have a

  • steady girlfriend.

  • Raj: "Do have any idea what it's like to be the only one without a girlfriend?"

  • Raj: "Even if I get one someday, I'll still be the guy who got a girl after Sheldon Cooper."