Now that “The Big Bang Theory” has moved ahead of “Two and a Half Men” into second place among non-football related television shows, I think it’s time to critique what may be the most ideologically-driven entertainment on TV today.
In its premise, its characters, its jokes and its plot lines, “The Big Bang Theory” constantly promotes some of the most pernicious aspects of American consumerism. Masquerading as entertainment, it serves up a stew of propaganda, much of it either false or dangerous to the well-being of the country. But these pieces of propaganda do support the ideological imperative to think less and consume more.
For those who haven’t heard of “The Big Bang Theory,” here’s a quick synopsis: It is a situation comedy about four single male scientists and engineers, all in their late 20’s or early 30’s, who are socially maladroit, unable to pick up on the social cues of others and immature in their interests and predilections. In the parlance of American mythology, these guys are “nerds.”
I usually do an hour’s worth of channel surfing every night at about 9:00 pm and have the TV on when I exercise in the late afternoons, so I’ve been seeing bits and pieces of the show (and maybe five full shows) in reruns on cable stations. The propaganda barrage I’ve seen is as relentless as a speech by the mayor of a large Soviet city would have been in the 1930’s.
Here are the main ideological points behind “Big Bang,” all of which have made the OpEdge list of the mass media’s major ideological principles:
The characterization of intellectuals, academics and smart people as unsexy, unpopular, bad athletes, unstylish and socially inept.
This old saw is offensively wrong, but it continues to predominate in the mass media, which wants us to believe that those who are very smart or academic are not attractive to the opposite sex.
But the idea that smart people are unsexy and socially backwards does not stand up to the least bit of scrutiny. While most of us knew very smart kids in high school who were socially backward, we also knew lots of average or less-than-average kids who were also weird or anti-social. Most kids at all levels grow out of this awkward stage, yet only the intelligent have the “nerd” label stick to them for life. But here’s what else changes as teenagers grow into adults: Those with college educations start to make more money than those without, and those with advanced degrees make the most of all. Ability to contribute to the family’s finances is a major factor that both men and women consider in a mate. So in fact, once education has been completed, the more educated have an advantage in the mating game.
The “Big Bang” theory drills the anti-intellectual, anti-education ideology into its details: for example, the only one of the four “nerd protagonists” who makes something, as opposed to sitting around all day thinking and engaging in scientific experiments, is also the only one without a PhD. The hidden message: the more you learn, the less active you are in “the real world.”
The infantalization of adults.
Outside of work and the search for mates, the four “nerd protagonists” spend most of their air time talking about or doing things related to continuing childhood pursuits such as comic books, juvenile science fiction movies and old video games. Here they are, established in their careers and living on their own (with the exception of one), and they obsess over the joys and hobbies of their years before college. I have yet to see a bookshelf in any “Big Bang” set, nor see an open book; they’re all too busy with their video games and comic books! Beyond the jobs, they are immature teens.
One of the major trends since the baby boomers reached adulthood, one spurred by Disney and other mass media, is that more and more adults are enjoying the entertainments of their childhood instead of graduating to mature activities.
The danger in infantilization is that it degrades the mature thought process, in a sense, keeping people from thinking like adults. Childhood entertainments are simpler; often there are only “good guys” and “bad guys,” with none of the nuances and ambiguity of characters and situations one finds in adult movies or novels, or in life itself. To contrast extremes, pulling at a joy stick takes a much lower level of sophistication than listening to Beethoven.
The other problem with infantilization is that it keeps people self-centered, as children are before socialization. Much of the work of psychologists and psychiatrists not involved with writing prescriptions for pills has to do with pushing people to confront the unhealthy or anti-productive patterns of childhood. From Pixar and Disney to computer games for adults, infantilization reinforces these childhood and childish patterns.
Life is lived through consumption.
Like in most TV shows, desires, emotions, relationships and celebrations are typically manifested in “Big Bang” by buying something.
Even in plot details, the show depends upon myths and misperceptions. For example, at an academic conference, the short Howard (the one without the PhD) meets the old boyfriend of his girlfriend. The former lover is extremely tall and an African-American. During the remainder of the show, Howard obsesses because he is certain that he has a smaller sexual organ which provides less pleasure to his girlfriend than the former lover’s did.
The show thus promotes two false myths at one time—that men of African decent have bigger sex organs and that women prefer bigger ones. Studies show, of course, that there is no difference in average penis size between races, and that while penis size matters to some women, a majority of women don’t care, or only care if all other things are equal; there are a lot of those “other things” though, including attraction, time of month, appropriateness as a father, tenderness, technique and endurance. Men obsess much more about size than women do, and that’s the point. The objective of promulgating the size myth to men is similar to pushing the myth of beauty to women—to keep them insecure. Like the immature, the insecure are more likely to believe the ads and other propaganda that tells us that buying something is the way to feel, and be, better.
There is, however, one saving grace to “The Big Bang” theory, and that is the character of Sheldon, brilliantly rendered by Jim Parsons. Sheldon is the one with the photographic memory, thought processes that are more computer-like than human and the rigidity of nature that is constantly setting rules about small and large matters. I think that Sheldon is the most original character on TV since Jaleen White created Steve Erkel and energized “Family Matters,” an otherwise dreary 90’s sit-com. Like Jack Nicholson, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin or Johnny Depp, it’s hard not to keep one’s eyes on Parsons when he is on screen.
While I reject the ideology that formed the Sheldon character, I nevertheless thoroughly enjoy Sheldon/Parsons’ monologues, responses and takes, all delivered with truly impressive acting technique. When someone reaches a pinnacle of artistic expression, we don’t forgive and forget their obnoxious beliefs, but we do put them to the side when considering their work. We do it with racists like T.S. Eliot, Ferdinand Celine (French novelist) and Buster Keaton, and we do it with supporters of totalitarian aristocracies like Leni Riefenstahl, Moliere and Aristophanes. It’s too bad that to see Parsons create his character, we also have to watch the rest of this dreadful sit-com.