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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

The Big Bang Theory and cultural appropriation

I started watching The Big Bang Theory in my last year of university. A friend introduced me to it via the tried-and-true method of pressing some torrents on burned DVDs into my hand. (We were such rebels!) I quickly devoured, what, three seasons? Then I started watching it on TV. And, for a time, I really enjoyed it.

But eventually that enjoyment dulled into a vague sense of ennui, which then sharpened into a more sour distaste for the entire enterprise. Unfortunately, the pressure of carrying on for 9 years has understandably diluted the quality of the writing. What I had once thought of as a “sitcom for nerds” now seems more to my eyes like “another sitcom about how nerds are socially awkward.” So I stopped watching.

Yet it’s still around. And lately I’ve seen a couple of articles hating on the series—yes, still wildly popular, it’s now popular enough that hating on the series is nearly as mainstream as liking it. Counterculture is so confusing!

We can debate whether or not the show’s “jokes” are funny and the degrees to which they seem original. But I feel like that’s ignoring a whole dimension of the issue, which is the way The Big Bang Theory appropriates and mis-represents geek/nerd culture.

Wait, “Geek/Nerd Culture”?

I know those are some loaded terms. Geek/nerd culture in particular is so broad as to be practically meaningless; for the sake of this post, I’m using it as a catch-all to refer to people who self-identify along geek/nerd lines and attitudes. You know who you are. And regardless of how exactly you construct your definition, this is a subculture, or a community of interconnected subcultures. We have traditions and customs, clothing and salutations, mores and folkways.

Viewed in this light, then, The Big Bang Theory's use of geek/nerd culture is like cultural appropriation. While I’m certain that many among the writers and producers of the show self-identify as members of geek/nerd culture, by and large, that is not how the power dynamic of the television industry works. Instead of representing geek/nerd culture authentically and in good faith, the show borrows elements of that culture for its own purposes, often distorting and misrepresenting it along the way. At its most innocuous (but no less annoying), it’s a string of unconnected references to “nerdy” stuff—as seen in the viral tweet from the BuzzFeed article above.

At its worst, it begins to distort perceptions of what it means to be geeky or nerdy. I’m not just talking about stereotypes, here, although those are bad enough. For some people, The Big Bang Theory is their go-to cultural touchstone for geekiness.

Case in point, I’m not infrequently likened to Sheldon by people. I like to think of myself as a pretty mellow person. I used to just shrug off this comparison—but now it has started to hurt a little. Sheldon is a terrible icon for nerd/geek culture. He’s a petulant man-baby who throws tantrums when he doesn’t get his way, and he’s arrogant and misogynistic. None of these are qualities I would like to be identified as having. And I know, of course, that’s not what people mean to say when they say I remind them of Sheldon. I know they’re well-intentioned and trying to tell me I seem very intelligent but also single-mindedly non-conformist. They mean it to be a compliment.

But it’s really not.

And that’s why The Big Bang Theory’s appropriation is so problematic. There are plenty of other more acceptable icons from pop culture someone could compare me to—but the show doesn’t care about accurately portraying geek/nerd culture. It only cares about getting the ratings it needs to keep getting advertisers. But it’s fundamentally shifting the cultural shorthand we use when we talk about geekiness/nerdiness. I’m not an “Einstein” anymore, I’m a “Sheldon.” (Note: I’m not all that thrilled to be compared to Einstein either, but I hope you get the point that the latter is kind of replacing the former.)

Why This is Harmful

Now, when we talk about cultural appropriation, it’s important to talk about power structures, privilege, and oppression. I have to acknowledge that the proposition that nerds/geeks are an oppressed group is problematic in and of itself—while, historically, the nerd might be seen as a marginalized figure, we actually have a huge amount of power (or at least, the white, straight, male ones do). So I understand if some take issue with my use of the term appropriation, because there are many other, more oppressed identities who find themselves victims of cultural appropriation. That’s why I’m using the weaselly “like” qualifier.

Certainly there’s much more serious cultural appropriation happening. But think about it for a moment: many of the members of these marginalized groups find refuge in geek/nerd culture. Here’s a culture that, especially in the halcyon days of Internet anonymity at the turn of the century, didn’t care what you were IRL: all that mattered was that here, at this moment, you were a Level 20 Elven Mage who could kick some serious goblin ass.

So look now at the icons The Big Bang Theory gives these people to choose from. You can be a white, straight guy. Or another white, straight guy. Or a Jewish, straight guy. Or an Indian, straight guy. Of course, in this context, “Jewish” and “Indian” correspond to the television sitcom varieties thereof. Look, you are fortunate; you have choices! I really liked Amy when she was introduced, but her character has become creepy (maybe it’s better now? I haven’t watched in a while). By and large though, the show seems to say that women aren’t geeks. Because that is apparently funny?

And if you’re trans or ace or Wookie, you’re pretty much out of luck.

The bottom line is this: The Big Bang Theory presents a specific vision of what geeks/nerds look like, and it is not an inclusive or authentic representation at all. It’s harmful and beyond stereotypical. And while I can shrug off the comparisons to Sheldon and fall back on my white privilege, there are many people in more oppressed groups who look at that show and see nothing that matches their conception of geek/nerd culture. Meanwhile, the show makes money off the ideas and symbols of nerd culture without authentically engaging with that culture.

You Can Do Better

Here’s the thing: there are already better representations of geek/nerd culture out there, waiting for you to watch them. I’ll leave you with one such recommendation.

The Guild is basically a non-appropriative version of The Big Bang Theory. It inclusively, authentically, and sympathetically portrays a group of geek/nerd gamers as they try to negotiate tricky social situations. We can laugh at their plights, but we aren’t laughing at them. Felicia Day talks about the epic fail that was pitching The Guild to television executives in her memoir, You’re Never Weird On the Internet (which I highly recommend). Day went on to found Geek and Sundry, a network devoted to producing awesome shows about geek/nerd culture.

The Big Bang Theory is bad, and it should feel bad. But the damage it has done is not irreparable, and there is already plenty of awesome, nerdy content out there that is accessible, whether you self-identify as a geek/nerd or not. And, look, I know that when you sit down in front of the TV after a long work day, the last thing you probably want to do is think about gender/race/cultural politics. You just want to laugh. But if you want to be a responsible, empathetic citizen of this world, then it behoves you to consider who/what you’re laughing at.