The Big Bang Theory: Penny is actually pretty cool

The Big Bang Theory is a newish sitcom from Chuck Lorre, best known for Two and a Half Men(cue chorus of groans and growls). Like that show, it has plenty to object to, notably the two lead characters, both white male physicists. Leonard (Johnny Galecki) is the audience surrogate for the Nice Guys in the audience, with all that entails. Sheldon (Jim Parsons) clearly has Aspereger’s and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and we are encouraged to laugh at him for this. Their friends include Howard (Simon Helberg), who is Jewish and lives with his mother, and Rajesh (Kunal Nayyar), who is from India and whose domineering parents have left him unable to speak in a woman’s presence.

The object of Leonard’s unspoken affections (we knew this was coming, of course) is Penny (Kaley Cuoco), who had moved into the apartment across the hall. She quickly befriends Leonard and Rajesh (despite his inability to talk around her), while tolerating Sheldon and Howard.

And here we get to the part that surprised me: Penny doesn’t take crap. Every time Howard hits on her or makes a double entendre in her presence, she politely but firmly tells him to stop, but becomes actively threatening whenever he doesn’t get the message. Whenever Sheldon condescends to her, she calls him out on it. When the male characters condescend to her about assembling the entertainment center she just bought, she quietly assembles it lwhile they posture to each other about the best course of action.

The show as a whole is full of sexist material, and I certainly am not recommending it, but Penny is an unusual bright spot in the morass that is American sitcom TV.

Comments

  1. Genevieve says

    I’ve seen this show. And I too was pleasantly surprised to find that the writers did not use the setup of Very Very Smart Men In the Presence of a ‘Normal Woman’ as an opportunity to mock the normal woman to death. Of all the silly sitcoms my boyfriend watches, here’s one I can actually stand.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Let’s just hope it sticks to that. I’ve seen set ups like that devolve into “But all that time she was standing up for herself, she really secretly liked how he treated her!”

    Don’t mind my cynicism. Every once in a while someone gets it right, and keeps it that way.

  3. says

    I’ve only seen an episode or two and I just can’t figure out why the hell she spends time with them. Do they ever do anything that she wants to do, or is she just always kind of always tagging along when they enter science competitions or not ever bothering to tell them straight out how annoying they are when they decide to tag along when she goes grocery shopping?

  4. SLW says

    MICKIE- I’ve always figured it’s a combination of, a. because they need her to for the show to work and, b. because she lives across the hall and keeps running into them- or they knock on her door to ask her about something- in order for her to get to do her groceries or to support the characters she does like, she has to just put up with the ones she doesn’t. Mainly though, I think it’s a. It is a TV show after all and they do need to keep their premise running.

    The character I wonder about in TBBT is the one played by Sara Gilbert who is a female physicist and kind of a love interest for Leonard but she’s also clearly meant to be seen as unattractive, as a bitch, as being sexually abnormal, as unfeminine in her relationships with others. She’s the only woman that I’ve noticed as working in the physics department, and many of the things she does aren’t any worse than Sheldon, but Sheldon is acceptable and she is not. And I can’t see what the reason for that is other than the fact that she’s a woman.

  5. says

    Is Sara Gilbert’s character a recurring one? Because I caught the episode where she was on the science olympiad type team and she was awesome.

    Which I think shows you why the show often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, I thought she was supposed to be awesome. Of course, I also thought Sheldon’s Halloween costume was the best ever and kept getting annoyed that they couldn’t make at least one person at that stupid party find it funny.

  6. Patrick says

    I wouldn’t say that Sheldon is considered acceptable, as Leonard is clearly marked as the audience surrogate while we are encouraged to laugh at Sheldon for his “oddness” (because mocking people for their disorders is funny).

  7. says

    Patrick,

    I think that’s a very accurate assessment of Sheldon and how the show treats intelligence, disorders, and generally being different, but (from what little I’ve seen) there does seem to be a double standard when it comes to the “battle of the sexes” stuff.

    (shocking, I know)

    When Sheldon says sexist shit, the implication is not that he’s wrong, but that he’s not being diplomatic. After all, he didn’t get fired because what he said to/about his boss was incorrect, he got fired because his ego was so big he couldn’t stand being polite and tactful to the person who is responsible for him being paid.

    Same thing goes for when he makes remarks about what Penny chooses to buy while grocery shopping. It’s funny not because he’s so out there, but because he’s (supposedly) playing the role of court jester – saying the truth that we all are too afraid to say.

    While I saw some of the same court jester type humor in Sara Gilbert’s character, I also got the impression that I saw this despite the writers intentions In other words, not so much because the writers think she is right, but because, as a female physics major, there were times I’ve desperately wanted to act as she does, no matter how it comes across to others.

    Then again, maybe I’m not giving the writers the benefit of the doubt. I must admit that my opinion of the show was colored before it even aired by creator Bill Prady acting like a complete douche on Zuska’s blog. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that while his show is quite often annoying, it’s not half as annoying as he was acting.

  8. SLW says

    Mickie,
    Sara Gilbert’s character was in three episodes. In the first Leonard hits on her while upset when he finds out that Penny has a new boyfriend only to quickly give up on Leslie in order to “trick” Penny into going on a date with him. In the second episode Leslie invites Leonard to join a quartet she’s in and, after practice, tells him that she wants to have sex with him, so they have sex, and the next day, when Leonard assumes that this means they’re having a relationship now, he seems put out when she tells him she was only interested in a one night stand. And the final episode is the one with the science team.

    The second episode bothers me but I get fuzzy when I try and explain. I like that she is upfront about her sexuality and about what she wants but, at the same time, she’s being mocked for it. While she’s at Leonard and Sheldon’s she corrects some Math on Sheldon’s whiteboard and for some reason that seems to be an awful thing to do, unforgivable, even though Sheldon would do the same thing. And when Leonard goes to see her with expectations of a relationship she is cold and distracted and is freezing a banana in liquid nitrogen and then smashing it with a hammer. And the reading I keep getting from that is that, by being upfront about her desires, or lack thereof, she is in some way emasculating Leonard… and doing it in a bitchy manner. And that annoys me.

  9. says

    Then again, maybe I’m not giving the writers the benefit of the doubt.

    I just want to address this because it keeps coming up here: I don’t know why anyone needs to give writers the “benefit of the doubt.” You’re not accusing them of being bad people. You’re stating subjectively that you got a certain sense of their intent, and citing examples that quite frankly back it up well.

  10. Patrick says

    SLW:

    While she’s at Leonard and Sheldon’s she corrects some Math on Sheldon’s whiteboard and for some reason that seems to be an awful thing to do, unforgivable, even though Sheldon would do the same thing.

    My take on that scene was yet another example of Sheldon’s ego. We’ve repeatedly seen that it isn’t that he couldn’t accept a woman outdoing him, he can’t accept anyone outdoing him.

    And the reading I keep getting from that is that, by being upfront about her desires, or lack thereof, she is in some way emasculating Leonard… and doing it in a bitchy manner. And that annoys me.

    Me too. Note that Leslie’s role on the show seems primarily to be emasculating Leonard, by refusing to be what he wants despite showing some interest in him. While Penny has enough layers to avoid being one of the stereotypes embraced by “Nice Guys,” Leslie pretty well embodies the “Heartless Bitch” stereotype. Which is really damn annoying, since she has the potential to be awesome, as seen in the Physics Bowl episode, which have a recurring theme of “get over it” to the cast about various issues.

  11. says

    BetaCandy

    (not that you aren’t making a good point)

    In this particular case, I was mostly just trying to say “but I haven’t see the other episodes with her in it and I don’t really remember the one very well, so I can’t really critique it well” without repeating myself, since I’d already said pretty much exactly that.

    Obviously, repeating myself would have been clearer and therfore the better choice.

    Patrick

    “We’ve repeatedly seen that it isn’t that he couldn’t accept a woman outdoing him, he can’t accept anyone outdoing him”

    See, but from what I do remember of the Physics Bowl episode, as bad as it is for “anyone” to outdo him, it’s even worse when the anyone is a girl.

  12. Laura F says

    Wow, this has given me a lot of food for thought. I’ve watched most of the first season of the show, because I enjoyed the utter geekiness of the four boys and relate to that. The way that they KNOW that they’re big fat nerds, and yet revel in it anyway, that’s what I do. I do wish that TV would show that girls can be like that too. I found Penny a bit annoying because I couldn’t relate to her at ALL, not liking any of the things she likes, and knowing all along that she was going to get with Leonard despite their huge differences because That’s How It Works, Folks. I’d rather that Leonard find a girl who’s just as geeky as he is, and who appreciates him for himself instead of trying to change him. But this, of course, would be way too far outside the Hollywood mold.

    And yeah, Penny is cool in her complete self-confidence and unwillingness to take their crap. I found her friendship with the guys realistic enough, in that it’s not like they’re the only people she hangs out with–she just ends up doing things with them because she’s a good neighbor, and does seem to genuinely like Leonard and Rajesh.

    So I loved Leslie. I loved her a lot. She is who she is–awesome and non-conformist. I didn’t see her as a bitch at all, so if that’s how the producers wanted to portray (and I’m not saying that’s not true–that very well may be what they wanted) they didn’t succeed with me at all. To me she was never anything but pure awesome in a can. I wish she was on the show much, much more often–THERE’S a girl I can relate with.

    But yeah, it’s always possible that they could ruin her.

  13. says

    “So I loved Leslie. I loved her a lot. She is who she is–awesome and non-conformist. I didn’t see her as a bitch at all…”

    lol

    See, but that’s why she is awesome! Because she’s such a spectacular bitch!

    (sorry, I know what you meant. I just couldn’t help myself.)

  14. Torri says

    TBBT is one of the very few sit com comedies I can stand and even enjoy.
    It may be my personal bias not seeing what the writers are doing but when I see Leslie and Sheldon insulting each other I usually get the impression that Leslie is the one most people would side with. The last episode I saw Leslie and Sheldon were in the dean’s office because Sheldon had put up a roster for certain resources and filled out a whole month’s time for himself.
    I was disappointed though in that the first episode I saw was one where Penny was helping Leonard pick out an outfit for an award… I had assumed they were already together and thought it was great that they were avoiding the ‘geeks don’t have girlfriends’ trope… *facepalm*
    I mostly watch it for the nerd jokes myself and I do wish there were more female nerd characters.

  15. TBBT Fan says

    I’m predicting and hoping that THE BIG BANG THEORY will match or even surpass the ratings of 2.5 MEN. I want it to be the top rated sitcom next season.

  16. Pipenta says

    You do realize that the show isn’t simply reinforcing stereotypes about sex and gender, but also about scientists and intellectuals. We, the viewers, are supposed to feel terribly threatened by any intellectual activity and your average sitcom rushes to reassure you that (A) nothing that smart people say or are interested in is of any importance (So, it’s okay, you can get back to your busy life of consuming so you will fit in, and that’s the important thing, after all, isn’t it?) and that (B) Scientists are weird, not normal, so you don’t want to do anything that a scientist might do (This includes critical thinking and research, because we don’t want you questioning big oil, big agriculture or Wall Street. We just want you to mindlessly consume, consume, consume…) and (C) science and tech types are pathetic and to be mocked (Whereas you, sitting on your recliner and shoveling down the Doritos and Bud, are fine.).

    These sitcoms with their mailed-in scripts are the Big Mac n’ fries of visual entertainment. They seem to appeal to a lot of folks, but they make some of us gag.

  17. Patrick says

    I disagree with your take, if only due to the sheer number of science jokes the show contains. Most of the show will pass right over the heads of what Hollywood considers to be the “average sitcom viewer.”

  18. Pipenta says

    @ Patrick, perhaps I will have to go back and give it a second try, with an empty stomach to minimize my sitcom queaze reaction.

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