This Video Examines How The Big Bang Theory Normalizes A Competitive, Self-Hating Version of Geek Masculinity
A few weeks ago, I shared Pop Culture Detective (Jonathan McIntosh)’s first look at The Big Bang Theory, called “The Adorkable Misogyny of The Big Bang Theory.” In that video, he analyzed how misogyny, on the show, “is presented as just another socially awkward personality quirk.” In this follow-up, “The Complicity of Geek Masculinity,” he examines how the show – particularly in its treatment of Raj, the lone male geek of color – normalizes a self-hating, competitive vision of masculinity that encourages men to police and put each other down.
McIntosh points out how the four leading men on The Big Bang Theory are “are constantly attempting to perform some version of hypermasculinity. Their spectacular failures in their quest to prove their manhood then provides the ironic hook behind much of the show’s comedy. Now you’d think a bunch of geeks who are regularly derided for being unmanly would be supportive of each other’s insecurities – and although there are fleeting moments of compassion between the four friends, they spend much of their time mocking and humiliating each other for not living up to the manhood ideal.”
He then demonstrates how the characters perform manhood by policing one another and trying to exert relative dominance in their own circle. “Nowhere is this dynamic as clear,” he argues, “as in the show’s treatment of Raj.”
Raj is the only one of the four main characters who, after ten seasons, still doesn’t have a steady girlfriend. And he’s constantly shown exhibiting behavior which is coded as either feminine or homosexual. “At times, Raj [himself] seems comfortable with his softer, more effeminate version of manhood,” McIntosh observes. “But the show, and the other male characters, are not – and they let Raj, and us as the audience, know that there’s something wrong with him for not being manly enough every chance they get.”
Of course, in addition to promoting toxic masculinity, this pattern is also racist. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the character most ridiculed for being the most unmanly, in a group of men specifically coded to be unmanly, is also the only man of color on the show,” McIntosh says. “As such, Raj fits neatly into Hollywood’s long-running tradition of mocking and diminishing the sexuality of Asian men.”
Of course, while Raj gets the worst of it, he isn’t the only character who’s mocked and belittled every time he falls short of an impossible-to-achieve vision of masculinity. “The relationship dynamic between Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj provides us with a microcosm of how th[e] hierarchy of masculinities works,” McIntosh argues. “Practically every aspect of their friendship, from the personal to the professional, revolves around competition…Now, the women on the show do occasionally join in on the ridicule, but the vast majority of the put-downs of nerdy men don’t come from women. They come from other men…And in so doing, [these men] become complicit in the very structures that harm and exclude them.”
And, as with its portrayal of misogyny, McIntosh argues, The Big Bang Theory doesn’t frame this behavior as damaging or toxic. “All this competitive and anti-feminine behavior is framed by the show as harmless, as good-natured fun, as normal and natural and inevitable for men,” McIntosh summarizes. “But the reality is that the social pressures that society places on men to engage in this hypermasculine competition is anything but harmless…It makes it difficult, if not impossible, for straight men to be vulnerable and caring with others, which in turn makes it very hard to build close, supportive friendships with women, and with other men.”
I try to mix up the content, so I don’t mean to promote two of these videos in a row, but I’ve really enjoyed McIntosh’s breakdown of masculinity and misogyny on this rather shockingly popular show.
(Featured image via YouTube thumbnail)
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