Big Bang Theory: Challenging Traditional Masculinity and Femininity

In previous posts we have discussed television advertisements and shows that actively encourage “hypermasculinity” and “emphasized femininity”. In this post we will look at the show The Big Bang Theory and discuss the masculinities and femininities that are presented as alternatives to “hypermasculinity” and “emphasized femininity”.
The Big Bang Theory is a comedy series which revolves around four scientist friends, Leonard, Sheldon, Rajesh and Howard. These four men are, according to common societal stereotypes and expectations, considered nerds. They are certainly not traditionally masculine with typically masculine bodies, neither do they tend do display typical masculine behaviors. The four friends are also very “average looking” and either physically smaller, less muscular or slimmer than what is considered truly masculine. In comparison to stereotypical masculinity, the four men would be considered less attractive and physically weak. For example, Leonard is short and suffers from asthma, lactose intolerance and panic attacks. Howard likes to sing karaoke and still lives at home with his mother. Rajesh cannot muster up the confidence to speak to women while Sheldon is in a relationship that is characterized by a shared fascination with science and which lacks physical and sexual contact.
Education, intelligence and academic achievements are the most important aspects of these men’s lives. All four men are accomplished scientists and researchers with doctorate degrees (the exception being Howard who ‘only’ has a Master’s Degree from MIT). The comical focus of the show is advanced jokes and dry humor that relates to physics especially, but also to science in general as the friends primarily discuss different scientific theories and hypotheses. We are also introduced to these men’s many hobbies, which include Comic Con, comic books, video games, role playing, conventions and many more types of interests that are usually considered “nerdy”.
The type of masculinity that is presented in The Big Bang Theory is one that is sensitive, educated and very caring of friendships and relationships, instead of the traditional depictions of heavy drinking, partying and casual sex (even though sex and sexual relationships are discussed). The four friends consume alcohol at times but rarely drink heavily and the focus is not placed on partying or heavy drinking as something that these men are expected to do. Overconsumption of alcohol sometimes results in embarrassment for the friends. Furthermore, these men are not comfortable around women and Rajesh is so overwhelmed by female company that he cannot speak in the presence of women. The men often mention desiring casual sex but inherently appear to want to date women and be part of serious and committed relationships with women that they truly like. For example, after spending the night with a woman, Leonard is expecting a serious relationship and is surprised and slightly embarrassed when the woman in question is simply interested in casual sex. Sheldon, on the other hand, can be described as an asexual person who is very uninterested in sexual contact and physical contact of any sort. His girlfriend, also a very intelligent and talented researcher, has to bargain with him in order to receive any physical contact such as cuddling.
The four friends’ emphasis on serious relationships is further acknowledged in one of the episodes when Howard and the woman he is engaged to, Bernadette, discuss having children. Bernadette is not comfortable around children and states that she does not like children very much and is not sure whether or not she wants to be a mother. She says that she does not want to ruin her body and to give up work to stay at home. Instead, she wants Howard to stay at home so she can have more freedom and keep working. Howard, who is upset about the fact, tells his friends that “not having kids is kind of a deal breaker”. In an earlier episode, Bernadette and Howard also argue over the fact that Bernadette makes more money than Howard does and celebrates her new well-paid job by buying him an expensive watch. The show deals with, and discusses, expectations of men and women in relationships.
When it comes to depictions of femininity, The Big Bang Theory does not assume an overall focus on “emphasized femininity”. The women featured in the show are foremost the women that the four friends want to date or are dating. These women are primarily well educated, very intelligence and successful, and they are not hiding or restricting their sexuality. When it comes to the attractiveness of the women, they are very much, “regular” women who are good looking but whose looks vary depending on their character. Therefore, we are introduced to a range of women instead of the stereotypical size zero, model woman who is always presented as incredibly attractive and desirable. None of the female characters are the typical size zero model and it is refreshing and unusual to witness this.
In terms of depictions of femininity, Penny is perhaps the character that most closely resembles the characteristics of traditional femininity. Penny is featured the most as she is living across the hall from Leonard and Sheldon while also being the constant love interest of some of the men. Penny is not a well educated and successful researcher but is instead an aspiring actress who works as a waitress and only attended junior college. Penny is however a strong woman who is independent, outspoken, ambitious and in charge of her sexuality (for example buying condoms at the drugstore). A common trait for the female characters is that they are outspoken about sex and often talk about what they would like to do in bed.
Instead of promoting a typical and stereotypical masculinity or femininity, the characters of The Big Bang Theory appear to attempt to balance their masculine and feminine actions, behaviors and traits. For example, Sheldon’s girlfriend would typically be considered a masculine woman who is inexperienced when it comes to female friendships. She is a very intelligent woman who works in a male dominated area and who sometimes wishes to be more feminine. The four friends often also wish that they could be more masculine; however, they never really attempt to change, which tells the audience that being stereotypically masculine is not really that important. Instead, the character Rajesh is often expressing softness and emotion that goes against what is considered proper male behavior (which is characterized by a lack of emotion and not speaking about one’s feelings, not crying etc.). For example, Rajesh’s desire for a meaningful relationship is expressed by saying: “Who do I have in my life to watch my figure for?” something that one would typically expect a woman to say. Rajesh also knows about “womanly” interests such as what constitutes a sweetheart neckline in regards to bridesmaid dresses. When dumped by his girlfriend, Raj also cried, indulged in cake and went to Penny to talk about his upset feelings.
The four men are very close friends who value their friendships, as demonstrated by the fact that they discuss their hurt feeling and betrayals by girlfriends with each other. Another example includes the statement by Raj when he said: “Love between men is not wrong”. Despite this, all four men are heterosexual and make sure that people around them know of their sexual preferences. When Leonard and Sheldon are mistaken for a gay couple they actively deny this by stating that they are two men with their own heterosexual space in the apartment.
The Big Bang Theory appears quite unique in its depictions of masculinity and femininity of young men and women because these alternative masculinities and femininities are the stars of the show. Although the show still presents heterosexuality as the norm it is very positive in its depictions of acceptable behavior for men and women and presents alternatives to the usual stereotypical presentations of men and women. The men in the show are not strong, masculine and aggressive or violent. Neither do they appear to only value casual sex and partying. Instead, the men depicted are in many ways the opposite of what is expected of men and what is so often societally reinforced and also punished by exclusion. The Big Bang Theory is refreshingly non stereotypical in regards to the expectations on masculinity and femininity. Perhaps this is why the show has become so incredibly popular.

Elin Weiss has a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies. Hennie Weiss has a Master’s Degree in Sociology. Their interests include feminism, gender stereotypes, the sexualization of women and the portrayal of women and men in media.