The “Big Bang” you hear from your TV is the trivialization and disparagement of intellectuals

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.

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One comment on “The “Big Bang” you hear from your TV is the trivialization and disparagement of intellectuals
  1. Laura says:

    I have too many points of disagreement with you to know where to start. Maybe with you should watch more the 5 episodes plus ‘bits and pieces’ before ripping into it like you know what you are talking about. The comparison of this show to racists and totalitarians at the end is staggeringly absurd to me.

    This is a show about nerds, but it is also a show about people in general. There is a aspiring actress/waitress character, Penny, on the show who gets into a long term relationship with Leonard, one of these nerds, finding him a superior potential mate than her revolving less intelligent dates. In an episode shortly after the couple broke up, the woman is frustrated that she now knows how stupid the other guys she dates are. Isn’t that a good lesson for her to learn? As the show goes on, Penny is evolving out of the stereotype of dumb aspiring actress from Nebraska into a more interesting and layered person.

    In the episode where Howard is obsessed over Bernadette’s former boyfriend’s size, the show is allowing a character to deal with a commonly held misconception and overcome his insecurities – Bernadette tells him that she is with him. In fact, in the story arc of the whole show, she ends up loving him enough to marry him – showing that she really doesn’t have an issue with him as a mate regardless of who she had dated in the past. Rather than it being analogous to showing women (or men) unattainable levels of beauty as normal, it would be analogous to showing women (or men) who are average or even unattractive being able to not obsess over attaining perfection but instead being happy and successful with the appearance that they naturally have. Do you have a problem with Mike & Molly acknowledging self-image issues with being obese? Or can you see that the show is portraying people, people who happen to be obese, dealing with the normal issues of being in a serious committed relationship? Yes weight is an issue for them, as it should be since it is also a health issue, but it doesn’t define them. These are regular people with regular problems. Would you prefer that insecurities and stereotypes never be discussed in television shows?

    Why don’t you see these characters reading books and doing physics? Well, sometimes you do – sometimes the whiteboards come out and there are equations galore as Sheldon works through a problem. But the show isn’t about their work – that would be boring television. Instead, it is about their down time. And if they choose to spend their down time reading comics or watching Star Trek, what is the problem? The world isn’t as simple as Superhero good, Villan bad, but then neither are comic books – I don’t read them myself but even the watered down simplified movies have more complexity then that. Take Ironman – Stark is both superhero and self-important, glory seeking jerk. The moral tends to be get over your issues and be a hero, but aren’t those good morals to take home? Star Trek is one of the most complex fictional worlds ever created – I won’t get into it here but if you can’t recognize the complexities either you are ignorant as a non-watcher or your stereotypes are showing because the complexities are there.

    Additionally, I think it is absurd to say that listening to Beethoven is somehow inherently ‘more adult’ than playing video games. It depends on how you do it. If Beethoven is on in the background and you aren’t critically engaging with it, appreciating the complexities and mastery of the music, then well, you probably aren’t having complex ‘adult’ thoughts. If you are completely engaged in the world of a video game, appreciating how the story is built, supported and executed; knowledgable about the design, programming and algorithms that are producing this virtual world you could be having much more complex, ‘adult’ thoughts than the person tuning out Beethoven.

    I’m sorry that you don’t appear to be open minded about nerd culture. There is a sub-set of the population that openly embraces nerdiness, which I might add seems to be getting larger as superhero themed movies become more pervasive and shows like The Big Bang Theory are able to maintain an audience in one of the most premere spots of primetime television. Nerds often take things that were/are cool to children and make them more sophisticated and engaging to adults. There are neuroscientists who have constructed a theory of what the Zombie virus does to the human brain to produce zombie behavior that they have been sharing at invited lectures and in posters at major conferences. Is this immature behavior? Or is it scientific, nerdy fun? When the group of scientists (the characters on the show) get into an argument about the species of the cricket that appears to be living in the apartment go to the trouble of capturing the cricket, researching the species then consulting an expert (who by the way points out some of the funding issues of academia as business), are they being childish? Or are they showing the viewer how they take their critical thinking, research and problem solving skills to heart and allow them to permeate their non-work lives?

    Obviously, there is some reliance on stereotypes in the show. It isn’t perfect. Howard’s Jewish mom is a ridiculous character that has no dimension and no face. Its a bit crazy that Amy (a neuroscientist who is Sheldon’s non-girlfriend) has never had any real friends in her whole life. There is a certain amount of hyperbole and absurdity in any comedy. But the main characters are not one-dimensional 30 something year old teens. They are multidimensional characters who know the stereotypes about them and try not to care – they continue to be true to their identities and interests even if it might result in others not liking them. They embrace science in their work and in the rest of their lives. They maintain a work-life balance which is an incredibly good thing for graduate students and other academic types to see. We as people don’t have to be adult and mature in the sense you use it 24/7 – we don’t have to be serious workaholics to be successful ‘real’ adults. Life can be fun, even – particularly – the life of scientists who can embrace wonder at the complexities of the world around them.

    As a scientist and graduate student, I don’t feel trivialized or disparaged. I see the positives and negatives of portrayals of complex characters that could very well be my friends. I do take offense at many of the disparagements you put forth about the nerd stereotype. Geek-chic is a positive development, showing young people that they don’t have to be a loner to be interested in a career in science.

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