‘The Big Bang Theory’ misses the mark with its scientist stereotypes

March 15, 2017 — by Caitlin Ju

On any given weekday, America’s favorite comedy “The Big Bang Theory” can be seen blaring on my TV, my dad laughing along to the reruns.

Airing on CBS since 2007, the show averages more than 20 million viewers per episode. With its perfect prime time slot at 8 p.m. on Thursdays and memorable catchphrases like “Bazinga!” it is easy to see why viewers flock to the show.

Still, the stereotypical portrayals of scientists as socially incapable geeks have drawn disapproval, especially from the scientific community itself. After all, “The Big Bang Theory” centers around the nerdy physicists Sheldon Cooper, played by Jim Parsons, and Leonard Hofstadter, played by Johnny Galecki, at California Institute of Technology and their interactions with friends such as the aerospace engineer Howard, astrophysicist Raj and attractive waitress Penny.

Sheldon, Leonard, Raj and Amy, Sheldon’s neurobiologist girlfriend, are purposefully portrayed to be socially tactless losers who are unable to show appropriate emotion in their relationships. In the case of Sheldon, he is constantly condescending toward anyone he deems less intelligent. These stereotypes often assigned to scientists are almost entirely off the mark.

In normal conversations, the scientists I have met in my past summer programs and internships, whether in biology or astrophysics, lose the lengthy scientific references and are some of the most charismatic people I have interacted with. These professors and researchers communicate their research findings succinctly to people beyond their field in both journalistic articles and symposiums, so they are certainly not lacking in any social skills.

Actress Mayim Bialik, who plays Amy on the show, is a perfect example of what true scientists are like. Bialik has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA and much like her on-screen character, who has a Ph.D. in neurobiology, shares an appreciation for science. Along with the other female character Bernadette on “The Big Bang Theory,” Amy has become a role model for women in science, shown occasionally in the series to be working in her laboratory.

However, the stereotypical simplicity that was assigned to Amy as a socially awkward, unfeminine scientist and the other extreme stereotypes, such as Raj having a strong Indian accent and simultaneously the least success with women, detract from an otherwise phenomenal take on the scientists’ friendship.

One of the show’s most obvious stereotype can be found in Penny’s character, and critics of the show often identify it as also the most offensive. Played by actress Kaley Cuoco, blonde and risque Penny is depicted as a direct contrast to her dorky neighbors — unintelligent, attractive, social and much better at relationships. The writers essentially made her the typical waitress and aspiring actress, despite there being numerous examples of both brilliant and beautiful actresses like Natalie Portman and Emma Watson.

As the show nears its 11th season, the characters have fortunately evolved beyond their stereotypes, even if the change has been gradual. Penny is now portrayed as more intelligent, Amy more socially confident and Sheldon and Leonard more socially adept. Now, the characters in “The Big Bang Theory” are far truer to their real-world counterparts, as they should be.

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