One of the “bad feminist” struggles I face every day is my taste in media. When my eyes became opened to the truth of feminism a lot of things I love started to look very different. The lyrics, dialogue, and subtext I used to dismiss as relatively harmless became insidious. Shows that I used to love lost their shine and artists that I used to dig became downright offensive. Yet, I still love some of these media and I constantly wonder if that makes me a bad feminist.
The consequences of reinterpreting some of my favorite media through a feminist lens was especially clear when applied to one of my favorite TV shows, The Bang Theory. In short feminism ruined this show for me. The Big Bang Theory is a hilarious show. There’s no denying that. I still watch it and I still bust a gut at least once an episode. However, when I took a closer look at each female character I was shocked to discover that none of these women are really their own three dimensional characters; they are simply female counterparts to the male characters, down to the fact that they only exist on the show as love interests.
The character of Penny is the most glaring example. Penny has been a central character on the show since the first episode, but the entirety of her screen time in the early episodes focuses on her being an object of lust for one of the male main characters, Leonard. On top of the fact that she only exists as a love interest, Penny is the quintessential dumb blonde. A recurring joke on the show is that she’s too dumb to understand what the men are saying because they are lofty physicists and she’s only a waitress/struggling actress. Most of the laughs involving Penny are at her expense.
Despite the fact that they have absolutely nothing in common, Leonard is obsessed with her because she’s “the pretty girl”. This is denigrating to both characters. It suggests that all Penny has to offer someone as smart as Leonard is her looks and it suggests that a brilliant man like Leonard should be more interested in someone for her looks than her brains or their common interests. Another recurring joke throughout the series is that Leonard would be living the dream by dating such a beautiful woman because as a smart nerd he shouldn’t expect to get attention from someone like Penny. Though their eventual relationship becomes based on more than this dynamic, the dynamic is ever present. Leonard is lucky to have a pretty girl and Penny should be grateful such a smart man would be interested.
The two other recurring female characters, Bernadette and Amy, also started out solely as love interests. Bernadette seems to be the full package. She’s a smart scientist and she’s beautiful. Of course, she is compared to Penny often, implying that she is Penny’s superior because she’s managed to be blessed with brains and looks. Bernadette’s major character flaw, according to the show, is that she is a bitch. She is loud, outspoken, and controlling, often paralleled to her partner’s overbearing mother. Instead of being an all-around good character, Bernadette’s beauty and smarts must be counterbalanced by a fatal flaw that makes her difficult to endure. In reality, Bernadette is probably the take no shit feminist that we’d all love to roll with, but since the show is told from a male perspective she is portrayed as kind of scary.
Bernadette’s interaction with her male counterpart, Howard, is based on the dynamic that Howard is lucky to have found such a beautiful woman. However, in contrast to the dynamic between Penny and Leonard, Bernadette is seen as gracious for accepting a nerd like Howard. A running joke around their relationship is that she “settled” for him “in spite of herself”. Again, this dynamic is denigrating to both characters.
The last recurring female character on the show is Amy, and in my opinion, her representation is the worst out of all three of the main female characters. She is a brilliant scientist, but she is not “beautiful” or “popular”. She is the quintessential “nerd girl”. Like the other two women she is introduced as a love interest, though unlike Bernadette and Penny, Amy is fighting for the attention of her male counterpart, Sheldon. Though Amy is brilliant and kind, Sheldon, a largely asexual character, barely notices her. When he finally deigns to date her she is shown as simply thrilled that a man would be interested in her at all. The rest of her existence on the show is centered around her mad pursuit of the attention of a man who really doesn’t care that she exists unless it suits him. The implication under all of this is that Amy should just deal with it and be glad that anyone is interested. Unfortunately, she rarely stands up for herself and largely does just deal with it. In the later seasons she does dump Sheldon and date other men, but ultimately returns to Sheldon when he finally, after four years of dating, makes a marginal attempt to express his feelings. Again, the implication is that she should take what little he is willing to give.
An even more troubling dynamic surrounding Amy on the show is her interactions with the other women. Amy is the epitome of pity friend. She is desperate to get the “pretty girls”, Penny and Bernadette, to like her. She follows them around like an overeager puppy, literally begging them for attention. She is overjoyed and gracious whenever they do pay her any attention. The development of their “friendship” plays out as Bernadette and Penny getting so annoyed by her presence that they finally just give in and accept her. Obviously, Amy is overjoyed that she has been allowed in to the cool girls club and continues to do everything she can to please. Eventually the women do begin to like Amy for who she is and encourage her to end her one sided relationship with Sheldon, but it is still clear that Penny and Bernadette are the superior women because of their aesthetic.
The dynamic between these women bothers me more than anything else on the show. Obviously the fact that all the women are shallow stereotypes who exist to further male storylines is troubling, but the relationship between the women is anti-feminist on a whole other level. The “friendship” between these three women is indicative of everything women have been taught about the value of other women and how to interact with them. First, it reinforces the idea that the most valuable thing a woman offers the world is her looks. That’s why Penny is queen bee of the triad even though the other women are drastically smarter than her. This is also reinforced by the fact that Bernadette can be a “cool girl” even though she’s smart. Second, it bolsters the idea that women should establish “insider” and “outsider” groups. Every woman is intensely familiar with the clique. You’re either in or you’re out. We are sold the illusion that this will end once we get in to the real world, but the triad on The Big Bang Theory proves this to be false. Penny and Bernadette actively form the in group and police the boundaries of that group, only letting Amy in with the utmost reluctance. Finally the dynamic between the triad enforces that women should constantly be in competition with each other, even if a man is not involved. At no time during the series are any of these women interested in the same man, yet the competition between them is always made clear. Penny is constantly trying to prove that she’s not just a dumb blonde compared to Bernadette and Amy. Bernadette is always trying to prove that she’s not too much of a bitch to keep friends. Amy is always trying to prove that she’s not less than everyone around her because of her looks. When you look close enough the triad is actually engaged in a toxic friendship more familiar to high school than the adult world.
Being enlightened with the ideas of feminism has caused me to look at many things differently: my life, the way I interact with men and women, and even my taste in media. Though I still like the Big Bang Theory, I will never look at it the same way again. I will forever see the dynamics that feminism has allowed me to uncover, and I will always wonder if I’m a bad feminist for supporting a TV show that perpetuates such awful representations of women with my viewership.
Tune in tomorrow for my thoughts on how feminism ruined my enjoyment of hip hop.