It’s the most popular sitcom on television, and it’s full of supposedly lovable, always male, assholes. Catherine Hart explains why she’s not watching The Big Bang Theory or its ilk anymore.
I’m sick of watching male ‘lovable’ assholes on our screens. They’re everywhere and I’m over it.
These lovable assholes treat those around them with constant disrespect, making jokes aimed at minorities, blaming others for their own mistakes and using people for their own gain. But they do it with flair, confidence and a pretty face, so who cares, right?
One of the worst perpetrators of the lovable asshole trope is The Big Bang Theory, one of the biggest TV series ever produced. Worldwide, it averages 18 million viewers per episode; it’s currently in its twelfth and final season. For such a commercial hit it is maddening that it contains at least four of these lovable assholes.
The egotistical and misogynistic fictional character is not a new development, of course. It’s possible that the lovable asshole is simply embedded in our pop culture unconscious: you can see its roots in some of the most acclaimed characters of 20th Century literature – all unsurprisingly created by men – like Jay from The Great Gatsby, Holden from Catcher in the Rye and Alex from A Clockwork Orange.
Why are characters like this so popular? The most common justification is that the lovable asshole is an ‘everyman’ character – but he’s a noticeably more accomplished everyman than exists in real life. Invariably he is charming, attractive, intelligent, rich, straight, white and cisgender. And invariably his story is the same: after a moment of weakness (acting like a dick in a different way than he usually acts like a dick) he is consumed with regret, and because of this remorse we forgive his transgressions. It’s a narrative that suggests that as long as you feel shame you can act however you want. But let’s be honest here, being an asshole to your whānau, friends and loved ones is never really okay, and guilt is not the same as absolution.
The lovable asshole trope is rampant in modern television. Look at this list: Dr. House from House, Barney and Ted from How I Met Your Mother, Don Draper from Mad Men, Chris from Shortland Street, Chuck from Gossip Girl, Dexter from Dexter, Bojack from Bojack Horseman, Charlie and Alan from Two and a Half Men, and all of the men from Friends (I’m not even exaggerating with this last one). Most of these characters were written as assholes or antiheroes, but The Big Bang Theory is different. It tries to convince us that its characters are inherently good, and I’m not buying it.
At this stage The Big Bang Theory feels like a show on autopilot. When it began I was an impressionable student and it seemed amusing and original. But recently I know exactly what I’m going to get from an episode: I will laugh because it’s easy-to-watch humour, and I will possibly cry because occasionally the plot lines are genuinely moving (it was impossible not to get upset after Howard’s mother passed away). However, any touching moment will be overshadowed by a cheap joke about sex that will leave me unsatisfied, frustrated and angry (cue Howard making a joke about marriage).
Each of the male characters in The Big Bang Theory have their own issues. Leonard has been perpetually possessive of Penny, from calling “dibs” at the beginning of the series to getting jealous of her career advancements later on. For the first few seasons (i.e. before Bernadette came into the scene) Howard was revolting, acting like a hormone-fuelled teenager, making sexist jokes at every turn. Raj flip-flopped for years between being a quiet scared boy-man and a rude and disgusting drunk, and even after he gained the confidence to talk to women he still delivered horrible one-liners at their expense.
But it is Sheldon’s character that I (and many others), have the biggest beef with. Sheldon is a unique protagonist, and Jim Parsons plays the part beautifully, with Golden Globes, Emmys, and countless People’s Choice awards to show for it. But the series never really explores who Sheldon is, beyond a collection of quirks.
Sheldon is often considered to have ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), a fact that is joked about constantly with the recurring line: “My mother had me tested.” By creating a caricature of ASD – that is, a character who has no official diagnosis but who presents the appropriate traits – Sheldon is able to take advantage of his friends and act selfishly, something that is no doubt offensive to the estimated 65,000 people with ASD in Aotearoa. Since Sheldon is quirky and seemingly innocent his actions are OK – he’s just a lovable asshole.
The classic lovable asshole is promiscuous and, invariably, successful romantically; that’s one criterion that Sheldon only meets halfway. Despite being seemingly uninterested in sex, he still ends up in a monogamous relationship.
But is it a successful one? Sheldon often treats Amy terribly, to the point that she finally stands up and says she’s had enough. “Being your girlfriend is so challenging, emotionally [and] physically,” she says, finally finding words for the painful truth of dating Sheldon. But instead of recognising her emotions and her strength, Sheldon produces an engagement ring. The lovable asshole has stolen the moment.
The Big Bang Theory‘s male characters owe their success and personal growth to their relationships with women. Leonard has more confidence and social skills because of Penny, Howard is devoted and loyal to Bernadette, Sheldon has opened up himself due to his relationship with Amy, and Raj can experience real relationships with women because of his friendships with all three.
The women of The Big Bang Theory are strong and intelligent in their own right: Penny doesn’t put up with Leonard’s emotionally manipulative behaviour, Bernadette is an assertive and skilled-communicator, and Amy refuses to conform to normal expectations (although she has been moulded into a perfect Sheldon shape – implying that a women’s purpose is to serve male needs). Still, for all their strengths, the female characters still love their lovable assholes, thereby both normalising and condoning their behaviour.
It has been suggested that the show’s writers created such problematic characters in order question and challenge the masculine norm: these are nerdy, antisocial men who nonetheless enjoy successful careers and loving relationships. But I call bullshit. If these lovable assholes were created to challenge norms, maybe they should stop ridiculing the more “feminine” Raj.
The offensiveness of The Big Bang Theory goes deeper than thoughtless jokes. The show itself lacks in diversity, with only one main character a person of colour, far fewer female-identifying characters than male, a total of five queer characters in the entire twelve seasons (editor’s note: Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon, is LGBTQ+) and a young and classically attractive cast. It doesn’t represent the world at large, meaning our lovable assholes can’t be challenged by real-world issues – and if characters aren’t challenged they can’t grow. Their behaviour can never progress past stunted adolescence.
So how does The Big Bang Theory get away with all the cheap jokes and casual bigotry? It’s down to charm. This show is just so damn charming. The quirkiness of the script is charming. The characters are charming. Any drama is met with amicable resolutions that are charming. Even the theme song is. So. Damn. Charming. We get swept away in the charm and it blurs our better judgement. The Big Bang Theory is lovable in its charm, and an asshole in its offensiveness.
The cloud of charm exuding from The Big Bang Theory is easy to get lost in. It’s why we find ourselves laughing, crying, and rooting for the characters. But look closer, and we realise it’s bogus. Any real, emotional interaction on the show is immediately undermined by a crass joke aimed at minorities. After Sheldon and Amy’s emotional wedding Barry Kripke sings so we can laugh at his speech impediment; Raj’s femininity is ridiculed immediately after a serious conversation about Howard becoming a stay-at-home dad. Basically, it’s a bunch of lovable assholes performing in a lovable asshole of a TV show.
The lovable asshole character conforms to social norms while presenting the same cheap, crass humour we’ve been drip fed on TV for years – and since he represents the ‘every man’ he tells the viewer this kind of behaviour is OK. But imagine if the lovable asshole was played by a person of colour: how would he be received? Any show that made that choice almost certainly wouldn’t enjoy ratings as high as The Big Bang Theory’s.
This is a character type that reflects our patriarchal culture; he is a rich, cis, white man who doesn’t need to deal with real issues like poverty, race or gender. In fact, he actively exacerbates these issues through dated and often offensive humour. As many of us are becoming more aware of movements aimed at creating political, economic and social equality, a lovable asshole on our TV screens isn’t just anachronistic, it’s infuriating.
The men of The Big Bang Theory are all lovable assholes in their own way, yet they are celebrated around the world; Sheldon’s character even has his own spinoff series, Young Sheldon. I said it earlier and I’ll say it again: I am over it.
When we watch these lovable assholes on our screens we give them power in our world, and this power allows them to multiply. If we don’t stop watching them we’ll have a lovable asshole epidemic, which will only result in more shitty people in real life. So, let’s say goodbye to The Big Bang Theory once and for all, and let’s not allow its story to be repeated.
You can watch all of The Big Bang Theory on TVNZ and TVNZ OnDemand. You can also, for whatever reason, watch Young Sheldon there too.