"The Bakersfield Expedition" – The Offensive Nature of The Big Bang Theory

A terrible show

I’m a vocal opponent of CBS’ hit show The Big Bang Theory, despite having mildly enjoyed the show in its first two seasons. Since, the show has trended toward an absolute vitriol toward the geek community and their interests, displaying little respect for their main characters and constantly berating and insulting them. As a member of that community – and a very unashamed, and at times, even proud, member – the show is offensive.

But, earlier this evening, The Big Bang Theory aired what is beyond a doubt the most offensive and insulting episode they’ve ever aired – and that, constant reader, is saying quite a lot.

I do not watch the show any longer, but I was tipped off by the A.V. Club’s uncharacteristically negative review (they tend to give the show a pass for its offense to geek culture and give it high marks; this episode received a D). There was a line in their review, quoted directly from the show, that angered me more than anything I have ever seen the show say.

The four of them work at a major university, they’re all super smart, how can they still be into something made for 12-year-olds?”

I am a big fan of comic books. I’ve been collecting monthlies for a little over half a year now, and have read and enjoyed graphic novels and trade paperbacks (collected editions of monthly comics) for years. The mere insinuation that they are made for 12 years olds is false enough – but it is made worse by the implication that doing so somehow degrades my intelligence or makes me somehow a lesser person. Have the writers of the show ever read a comic book? I don’t think so, because if they had, there’s no way a line like this would have been written. The tale of a father trying to reach his son who was raised apart from him by his mother, but failing to do so due to his son’s sense of rebellion and upbringing that conflicts with the father’s philosophy is hardly a story that a 12 year old will fully appreciate, and even less a story that is insulting to anybody’s intelligence. But that’s precisely what Batman and Robin under the authorship of Peter Tomasi has been.

Infuriated as I was by this insinuation, perpetuating this horrible public perception of comic books, I decided I needed to watch the episode. I criticize the writers for writing what they do from a position of ignorance and, if not hate, then dislike, rather than from one of understanding and affection – I certainly cannot criticize them for this if I do not make an effort to understand their show. So I watched it.

And that line is the least of the episode’s problems.

First, two minor things I want to point out. One – Penny, bow ties are cool. Two – the character that the girls were debating wasn’t actually Thor from the comics, but rather Thor from the film. Good show proving your ignorance of the material you’re writing about, writing team. But on to the major grievances.

Early in the show, one of the girls makes the comment that the guys like comics so much possibly because they were bullied so much as kids, and they need the superhero escapism. This almost immediately follows the above discussed line, and decides to delve into pop psychology to describe why people like something. I won’t even begin to address the problems associated with that – because that would take a long, long time – but I am going to challenge their assertion that people read comics for superhero escapism.

I am not going to pretend to know why a lot of people read comics – but I know why I read comics, and I can tell you upfront it has nothing to do with any sort of discontent with my own life, troubles with bullying in my past, or some sort of victim complex as a geek. I read comics because they contain serialized, emotional stories on a scale that most media can’t compete with simply due to format. A story told in parts per month across several different titles spanning multiple creators, styles, and themes? That’s not something that film, TV, or literature can do. It’s a very comics thing to do. Now, do I appreciate that because I need to escape some sort of horror in my past, or my inability to fight back against bullies? No. I appreciate that because it’s damn good art. I don’t need another reason, and the inability of the writers to understand that demonstrates their lack of understanding – to them, comics are an alien thing that somebody can’t possibly enjoy on its own merits – after all, they’re apparently designed for 12 year olds.

Then, after that line, Penny reflects back on her past and explains why she bullied a kid – which gets a laugh track. So, the message we’re sending here, writers, just to make sure: bullies = funny, kids reading comic books because, you believe, of those bullies = weird. Nice.

Second. There is a scene when the girls walk into a comic shop. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – all the guys in the shop turn and stare, wide-eyed, at the apparently rare sight of girls. Not just girls walking into a comic shop, oh no – the show explicitly mentions that the sight of girls at all, much less in a comic shop, is what makes them surprised. Oh, you’ve heard that before? What’s that? ON THIS VERY SHOW? Oh my! I thought the masters of comedy at The Big Bang Theory were above repeating jokes!

Oh wait – that’s not a joke, that’s a horrible inaccurate and insulting stereotype insulting to both men and women who read comics? Nor is it funny? Well that sounds… exactly right. I’m going to offer some anecdotal evidence here. I went and picked up comic books on Wednesday, because new books were out. The person working the counter? A woman. A different one, too, from the one that often works the counter. Standing in front of the counter? A man, tending to his child. Hmm. I wonder how he has a child if he never ever sees girls? Oh, there was also another girl browsing the comic selection. As there usually is. Guess what wasn’t there? Anyone – man or woman – standing agape at the sight of a girl in a comic book shop. Everybody was friendly, cordial, and completely sociable to others regardless of gender. Because everyone in that shop is united by a common interest, gender independent. I know people who read comics who are married. I know plenty of women who read comics. It is not a foreign thing at all, and the writers of the show are only perpetuating a mass cultural delusion and stigma that reading comics is something that women cannot acceptably do, and that men who do are somehow unfamiliar with women. It’s ridiculous. I mean for god’s sake, there are women who WRITE comics (screw you DC for screwing over Gail Simone).

Now, if the show wanted to address some gender issues related to comics, there are plenty they could discuss – the horrible misogyny prevalent in many mainstream comics (POWER GIRL? Are you freaking kidding me? Not to mention the original Star Sapphires’ costumes…), the unfortunate paucity of women authors and the dominance of male administrators – but they chose an easy joke that is patently untrue.

The whole plotline with the girls in the show was poor enough, but they had to end it with them getting involved in a petty argument about the mechanics of Thor’s hammer. But let’s talk about that in a minute, because it involves the conclusion and clear theme of the show, one I have objections with.

There’s a moment in the exploitative odyssey of the four main male cast members on their trip to Bakersfield Comic-Con in which, after having their car stolen and failing to hitchhike a ride to civilization after stopping to take pictures at a set location for Star Trek in the costume, Leonard says: “We’re the crazy people.”

It is at that point that I took the notepad on which I was writing observations and grievances upon, and threw it against the wall.

Okay. Having geek characters is fine. Having self-depreciating geek characters is also fine. But this is a show that has self-depreciating geek characters, and still feels the need to tear them down and make them feel like pathetic people because of something so ridiculously superficial as their hobbies. Because these guys like science fiction, because they like to read comic books, because they like to attend conventions about their interests, the show feels the need to make not only the audience pity them, but make the characters themselves insecure about themselves. They have no self-esteem because the writers give them none. These are not characters simply embarrassed. These are people who are horribly ashamed of who they are.

Thanks, writers of The Big Bang Theory. Thank you for showing me, and those who share my interests, that we should be ashamed of ourselves. Because, and I’m going to speak for the geek community here, I didn’t know that. I’m not ashamed of myself, and I don’t know anyone who shares my interests who is. I’m perfectly and totally comfortable with the fact that I am a geek. I love comics. I love science fiction. I love Doctor Who, I loved Lost, I love Batman, I love Green Lantern, I love Watchmen, I love video games, I love my Rorschach costume, I love all of these things so very, very much. And I am damn proud of who I am. But you seem to think I should be ashamed of myself. Because I like these things. Because I have worn a costume of one of my favorite characters in any medium. Well, speaking for the geek community, our bad. We didn’t realize we should be ashamed of ourselves because we like these things.

“But wait!” you may say, “Didn’t you watch the end of the episode? It got better because their girlfriends were talking about that stuff! They got over their snobbery at the beginning!” Oh, that’s cute. You think that that plotline somehow redeems your message. Well let’s look at that, shall we?

The girls finished reading their comic books (Thor, a choice they made because “he’s hot”), and immediately dismissed it as stupid, wondering still how they could argue over something made for 12 year olds. Then they start to argue about the mechanics of Thor’s hammer, in a series of sequences that escalate from rereading the comic book (while chiding Penny for her “stupidity”, which was just mean-spirited), raiding their boyfriends’ stashes of books, and then a shouting match heard through a door.

Did they experience a revelation off-screen about the artful nature of comic books? Did they come to understand why people like this fantastic medium, and I just missed it? Because all I saw were people arguing about something trivial, not from a place of passion and interest, but out of pettiness and juvenility. Comic books aren’t for 12 year olds, but your characters discuss them on that level. There’s no passion there. Just squabbling. For a counterpoint, let me share with you a discussion I had with a friend earlier today, in fact. We were discussing one of the recent events in the Batman comics, the Joker’s return and torment of Batman and the “Bat family” of superheroes. The conversation turned quickly to a discussion of the best villains in the DC universe. He posed Thaal Sinestro, a longtime Green Lantern foe, as the best villain. I disagreed on the grounds that Sinestro was more of a misguided anti-hero, a man with somewhat noble intentions but no empathy and a very loose moral code. A man fiercely loyal to his home planet, but blinded by his own arrogance and lost love. We agreed on this, and gave the Joker the title of best villain, because as Scott Snyder’s “Death of the Family” arc is proving, the Joker is a force of absolute, pure chaos – there aren’t redeeming qualities, because he is a force of evil more than a human.

Now, where was that sort of discussion? A discussion of characters and their motives, of their development? Absent. Because the writers of this abhorrent show that is so insulting to who I am as a person write from a position of ignorance rather than one of understanding. Instead of a nuanced discussion of character morality, they gave us a juvenile debate about the mechanics of Thor’s hammer – something that most veteran comics readers will immediately dismiss as suspension of disbelief and move on.

So no, writers. The girls did not gain a new appreciation for the hobby of their significant others. Instead, they got involved in a petty argument about it, gaining no understanding of the hobby in the process. And while that argument happened, you tore down the main characters, the constantly besieged geeks of the show, and made them ashamed of themselves.

It is not we, the geeks, who should be ashamed of ourselves. It is you, writers, who should be ashamed of yourselves. Your name is on this piece of work. You wrote this, you okayed this, you accepted everything in it and did not stop to question what your work was saying. And what does it say? That geeks should be ashamed of themselves, and that the value in comics is in juvenile squabbling over minute details.

That’s a message more worthy of 12 year olds than anything I’ve ever read in a comic book.

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