Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Another TV post (ducks head)

Latoya Peterson is correct that "The Big Bang Theory" is both hilarious and, well, racist. For one thing, the three characters that matter (Penny, Sheldon, and Leonard) are the white ones, while the two sidekicks providing comic relief are Indian (arranged marriages!) and Jewish (Portnoy-like sexual perversion, a repulsive appearance, and an overbearing mother with a New York accent!) respectively. Whereas the white characters go by their first names, humanizing them, the others go by their last, highlighting their ethnicity.

The notion that a TV show or movie somehow 'embraces diversity' because the drama between the white folks takes place against a mostly-silent background of non-whites is, of course, BS. Yet the show is kind of hilarious. While I'm supposed to be offended twice over - as a woman, by Penny the dumb blonde, and as a Jew, by Wolowitz the cliché - I'm... not? I don't know, it could just be that even if we see more of the white characters, they're not exactly portrayed in a flattering light. Leonard is in many ways a Jewish stereotype, both physically and as a character, yet he's meant to be an all-American nerd, whereas the tall, Germanic-looking Sheldon is both asexual (as in, never expressing romantic interest in anyone) and perhaps clinically socially awkward.

One gets the sense, both from the show and in real life, that (allow me to generalize) while not all Asian- or Jewish-Americas are nerds, of those who are, many grew up in cities or suburbs where they could find like-minded friends. Whereas many unhyphenated-American nerds grew up in small towns where they were, ala Sheldon, beat up or otherwise made to feel out-of-place for not, say, watching football. Furthermore, city or small town, the stereotype is for a Jewish or Asian kid (well, boy) in America to be nerdy, so there'd be less expectation for a naturally math-and-science-loving guy from either group to act otherwise than there would be for a non-'ethnic', native-born American boy, black or white. In a sense, I can imagine Leonard or Sheldon having had a harder time of it growing up than Koothrappali or Wolowitz. Does that matter for the show? Kind of, because it gives an alternate explanation for why we're supposed to care more about the white physicists, other than the fact that someone behind the scenes decided this would be a 'white show' and as such had to feature whites.

While I mostly agree with her analysis of the show, I do have to take issue with Peterson's question: "So, we only get one nerd of color?" It seems clear to me that we get, at the very least, one and a half. As Peterson notes later in the post, "the character of Wolowitz is coded as heavily Jewish as Raj is coded as a the perpetual foreigner, but with a bit more malice. Wolfowitz [sic - Freudian slip?] lives up to a great many Jewish stereotypes, including having a mother who appears only as a shrieking, disembodied voice determined to ruin any chance Wolowitz has at a normal life." While the actor who plays Wolowitz looks remarkably like Jason Schwartzman, who is most certainly white in "The Darjeeling Limited," Wolowitz is not white in the context of the "The Big Bang Theory." It's not at all hard to imagine that this same actor, in another role and context, would be seen as white, thus the Jews-and-race conundrum.

P.S. Thanks to Matt for the link, and thus for leading me to this post!


Nick said...

sheldon is gay!

Phoebe said...

OK, I haven't seen any of the most recent episodes, but unless something's changed in those, no, he is asexual. What evidence is there of his liking men, other than his not liking women?

Matt said...

Glad you commented, Phoebe. I haven't seen the show, so there was only so much I was prepared to say about it.