Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Problem with Penny (and The Big Bang Theory)

When The Big Bang Theory came out a few years back, I wrote a review of it on my then-blog (which I hope none of you find because it was awful). I called it mean-spirited and just generally rude, seeming to make fun of the characters that were supposed to be at its center. A few months later, having kept up with the show, I recanted, saying that it grew into its premise and had become a better show.

Well, now it feels like I’ve come full circle again, because I’m back to thinking the whole thing is just plain offensive.

If you haven’t read this already, it’s a clear explanation of why so many self-professed geeks and nerds can’t stand that show. It’s not because of the traditional multi-cam format, or the laugh track, or even that it’s on CBS and made by the same guy who made Two and a Half Men (even if all of those things are true). We don’t like it because it’s mean.

Allow me to explain.

The whole premise of the show rests on a group of nerds, but mainly Leonard and Sheldon, trying to ingratiate themselves with their pretty blonde neighbor, Penny. In so doing, they run into wacky hijinks, get beaten up a lot, and make lots of nerdy references that Penny can roll her eyes at.

On the surface this seems like just another battle of the sexes comedy, which it would be, were it not for the fact that we are supposed to side with Penny.

“What losers!” we’re supposed to think. “How can they even imagine that a girl like Penny will give them the time of day?” We’re meant to think it’s all ridiculous, and to think that Penny’s decision to humor the guys is a great favor to them. When she eventually dates Leonard, we’re supposed to be just as surprised as he is, and just as grateful on his behalf.

Which is of course shit.

Look, the few things about this show that don’t grate me as a geek grate on me as a woman. The whole problem with Penny comes down to a pretty hardcore case of idolization. Leonard is supposed to be counting his lucky stars that he gets to be with Penny, because she is so perfect and pretty and funny and normal.

Leonard puts Penny on a pedestal the instant he meets her. Ignoring the fact that Penny’s behavior in the pilot is really weird (sending two guys she doesn’t know to go get her stuff back from her ex-boyfriend) and kind of mean, we have no reason to think that she’s any better than these guys. They’re highly educated men with good jobs who happen to enjoy Battlestar Galactica and comics. I fail to see the issue.

But Penny is held up as the gold standard, both to the boys and to the viewers themselves. When other female characters are finally introduced (a couple of seasons into the show), they are invariably female geeks themselves. Amy Farrah Fowler is a female Sheldon, with no social skills and a perpetually laughed-at curiosity about sex. While I actually find her constant queries and interest in exploring her bisexual tendencies interesting, the show plays it for cheap gags and insinuates that it would be weird.

More than that, though, is Bernadette, Howard’s love interest. While Howard is portrayed (incredibly stereotypically, I might add) as the horny nerd, he eventually finds a woman who loves him and also happens to love a lot of the nerdy things he loves. What does he do? He talks about how amazing Penny is and how Leonard won the lottery with her. No, Howard. You won the lottery. You have a wife who not only loves you, she is also smart, capable, financially-secure, and likes the same stuff you do. What the hell more do you want?!

This doesn’t even mention that the boys view Penny as someone to be “won”. She is the prize. She is not a person, she is a thing to be gained when she finally “gives in” and “lowers her standards”. I find this offensive on two counts. First, that as geeks they consider themselves something that is lower than “normal people”, which is just weird and a little creepy. And second, I object to the fact that they want to “wear her down”, as if dogged persistence is the ideal characteristic in a lover.

Penny’s character has the potential to be a fascinating study on friendship and personal growth. You saw it in the first season or so, when her relationship with the guys didn’t just change them, it changed her. Unfortunately the tipping point was found quickly. In an episode that is actually reasonably funny, Penny discovers online gaming. She discovers that she’s very good at it. So she plays it. A lot.

A lot of jokes are made about how Sheldon, who introduced her to the game, “broke” Penny. Now that she’s playing, she cares little about her social life and is enjoying the achievements she can unlock online. She’s good at it and she likes it. That’s cool.

But the guys want the old Penny back. The one who made fun of them for liking that same game. They try to reason with her. They insist that she’s using this game as a substitute for real life, where she’s a frustrated waitress.

Who cares?

If the game made Penny happy, and she wasn’t neglecting her job or her responsibilities to play it, then it makes absolutely no sense why Leonard wanted her to stop. He could finally do something with her. Something they both could share. But the narrative doesn’t support this.

Instead, at the end of the episode, we see Penny playing the game intently. She’s got messy hair and is wearing a sweatshirt. Clearly we are supposed to infer from this that she is a horrible gamer now. A moment into play, Penny realizes what she’s doing and shudders, horrified. The next time we see her, she’s back to her immaculate hair and dress.

The thing is, I fail to see what was so bad about her playing the game. Leonard’s objection actually seems to imply that he didn’t want to share things like that with her. That if she were to like the same things he likes, she would be tainted. And that means that deep down, Leonard thinks that the things he likes (and therefore the person he is) are bad.

The self-loathing is disgusting. But more than that, Leonard’s self-hatred seems to make it clear that the show is not on the side of the geeks. The show is on Penny’s side. The normal side. And no matter how much Penny’s character might seem to want to switch sides, the narrative won’t let her.

We’re all educated enough to know that “normal” is really just a result of cultural conditioning and norms. Geek is normal now, what with Avengers breaking box office records, Hollywood freaking out trying to woo their audience at Comicon, and everyone on the planet knowing the story of Harry Potter. It’s not actually that weird.

The problem is that The Big Bang Theory still thinks it is. It seems to assume that nerd is still hilarious, that no one gets these weird references the guys make, and that we’ll all be on Penny’s side when she rolls her eyes.

It claims that if we want to keep Penny as the idol of female perfection (which we don’t but that’s a separate issue), then she can’t like these things. She can’t be a gamer, or else she’s not a prize to be won. All of that is bad to me. Every last drop.

So, producers and writers of The Big Bang Theory, please, I’m begging you, make your show a product of love, not revulsion. Let us laugh with the nerds, not at them. Let us have a show that actually represents our subculture. Let us be the comedians, not the punchline.

And for fuck’s sake, let Penny be a gamer if she wants to be.

Because fictional characters deserve to make their own choices.


  1. Well, ick.

    I caught a few minutes of what I think was this show a few months back (and google confirms) - the one with most of the male cast on a train, where they happened to see that Summer Glau was in the same carriage and took turns hitting on her.

    I suppose it was in the "laugh at the losers" phase from your description, but really it came across as completely creepy.

    1. Ooh, that episode really is a swing for the fences on ickiness. Though, it doesn't hold a candle to the one where they track down the address of the America's Next Top Model house so that the guys (Howard and Raj) can go try to scam models. That one was horrifying.

  2. It's a fu**ing sitcom!Do you think you might want to stop over-thinking it and simply watch and enjoy or perhaps go back to reading as a first choice of entertainment?

    1. Why is it bad to demand excellence from our popular culture? This is the most popular sitcom in the country, why shouldn't I examine it and see whether or not it is a good portrayal of women? I'm sorry, but I guess I don't understand why "simply watching it" is better.

  3. I think you are absolutely spot-on in much of what you've said here. I don't agree with everything in this post (if anything, I'm even more sympathetic to the male characters than you are, plus I don't like the addition of Amy or Bernadette, at all.) But, the thoughts you've expressed here are ones that I've often thought in regards to BBT, myself.
    I'm a female viewer, and I have never related to Penny. The guys are merely eccentric and a bit neurotic, while Penny is an abject loser who barely seems to be keeping her head above water in terms of the basic functions of everyday life: paying bills, etc.
    The insinuation that the guys are supposed to be *grateful* to her for even acknowledging their existence has bugged me from day one.
    In regards to Penny, I think this show is guilty of "telling, not showing." We are told that Penny has good social skills and is street-smart, in contrast to the nerds who are "book-smart." In my opinion, we are almost NEVER shown these supposed social skills of Penny's.
    As you said, these guys are highly educated, accomplished, and successful, probably in the top one percent of the population. And then this show asks us to believe that *they* are the pathetic ones? Massive anti-intellectualism and "sour grapes." Yes, they each have their personal problems and quirks, which are exagerrated for the sake of comedy, but who *doesn't* have a few foibles and issues, in life?
    The show tells us that Penny is the "normal" one, yet so much of her behavior doesn't make sense. Again, breaking one of the key rules of a narrative by telling, not showing. She's rude, lazy, and even violent.
    There's a lot of anti-intellectualism on this show, and also a lot of mixed messages and misplaced priorities.
    Leslie Winkle is/was the only recurring female character on this show that I've actually enjoyed. She could be mean, too, but at least she fit nicely into the show's universe and seemed like an organic, believable part of it.
    It's like Penny believes she is the heroine of the show, when in fact she is Kramer, the intrusive and mooching "wacky neighbor."

  4. You people need to relax. It's a television show that's not too far from spot on as real life. Penny is "that" girl we all wish for and all of us are not nerds. I for one was a baseball player with the same insecurities any nerd would have. What the show gives us is that we're all just people no matter if we're nerds or hotties. It shows that people are able to put their so called differences aside and be friends or spouses if you will in the shows case. You all are comparing the show to life in high school or junior high. But once you leave adolescence you pretty much straighten up and fly right, nerd or not. Penny and Leonard are just like any other real couple where each feels they are lucky to be with the other. That's how it's supposed to be.