Stereotyping in The Big Bang Theory. Dyer, Medhurst and Perkins. (Representation Theory).

I put this together a couple of years ago to help my Media students. The key theoretical approaches are really useful for both the old and new A Level Media Studies specifications.

How does the representation of a particular group of your choosing, in a particular product of your choosing, demonstrate features associated with Dyer, Medhurst and Perkins?

Group: Scientists.

Product: The Big Bang Theory 2007-present. Airs on CBS. Warner Brothers Television. Created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady.

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Teacher’s note – In choosing to look at the presentation of scientists in The Big Bang Theory it is worth noting that this is a slightly unusual group in terms of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Gramscian hegemony considers the operation of dominance by one group over others. In the U.S. this is usually considered as the dominance of white, heterosexual, males over all other genders and races. There are, however, white, male sub-groups which are marginalised, either through poverty, class, religion, lifestyle or occupation.

The Big Bang Theory chooses to represent a group of males who are all outside the normal hegemonic structure. All are scientists or academics and so are placed outside of conventional financial power and employment structures. They are all also outsiders or minorities in some way: an asexual Asperger’s afflicted Texan atheist (Sheldon), a short Jewish Lothario (Howard), an emasculated neurotic hypochondriac (Leonard) and an Indian immigrant who can’t speak to women (Raj). Even though Raj is not white he fits within the scientist grouping the producers have created and occupies a similar space (although it could be argued that he is made even more pathetic as a result of his status as a foreigner). 

The early series focused on the relationship and sexual failure of the male characters, their nerd-obsessive habits and their oppositional status compared to mainstream lifestyles. They are hyper-exaggerated geek characters and their stereotype is thrown into relief by the juxtaposition with conventionally attractive blonde waitress (and aspiring model) Penny. The comedy is often reliant, in the early shows, on the lack of desirability of the male characters, in short, on their failure as men.

The early show’s dynamic relied upon the juxtaposition of the undesirable with the desirable.

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1: Dyer: Dyer contends that stereotypes are always concerned with power and that those with power stereotype those without.

In this case the producers are American sit-com moguls Lorre and Prady. They are Los Angeles media insiders, a world which relies on social dexterity (very different to the characters in the show).

In some ways, the male characters in the sit-com represent those that are the typical bullying victims in school-based stories. They also represent those who could wield a form of real power (Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein would be examples). In this sense the show presents a space where the clever people can be ridiculed, and so symbolically annihilated, in the same way as gay men are presented as camp to reduce the anxiety the mainstream viewer feels about them.

2: Medhurst:  Medhurst’s theory postulates that stereotyping is a form of media shorthand which allows producers and audiences to quickly identify characters and narratives.

The outsider- scientist has been a stock character in media texts for nearly 200 years. Whether mad (Frankenstein, Rotwang in Metropolis), eccentric (Professor Brainstorm, Tin-Tin’s Professor Calculus) or benignly obsessive (think Doc Brown from Back to the Future or The Muppets Dr Bunsen Honeydew). In the 1980’s teen movie The Breakfast Club high-school scientist Brian is an example of the science-geek who ends the film with no love interest.

In early episodes of The Big Bang Theory audiences were quickly able to identify, and so laugh at, the character dynamic between the science-geeks and Penny. Either it was failed lust (Leonard and Howard) or complete disinterest (Sheldon) This speed is essential in building up audience rapport, and so numbers, in a series and certainly was responsible for the show’s successful launch. Over time, as noted by Medhurst, the characters became more complex and rounded. Most gained significant relationship success and their other-status became less pronounced.

3: Perkins: Perkins contends that stereotypes are not always negative and contain some element of truth.

With regard to the truth element of the theory there have been numerous, famous, examples of the eccentric scientist with Albert Einstein as the archetype of the modern, absent-minded, professor. In order to succeed in the rarefied atmosphere of high level science many people need to have obsessional (geeky) characteristics and devote huge amounts of time and effort, to the detriment of their social activities and skills. The audience can recognise some elements of The Big Bang Theory’s male characters from individuals such as Mark Zuckerberg.

What is interesting about The Big Bang Theory is the way the audience positively identified with certain aspects of these stereotyped characters. Their geeky characteristics became celebrated and people felt that they could relate to these people in a way that they couldn’t most T.V. characters. As Rachel Berkey wrote for the online magazine The Mary Sue, “The show is about “nice” guys who want to find love.”

 

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