A Grand Unifying Theory of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ Show

The “Big Bang” is a popular term for the prevailing scientific view of the origin of the universe; a secular creation story of sorts. For most people of a certain younger generation, though, it is just a funny show on T.V. “The Big Bang Theory” has been a highly successful situation comedy on NBC for all of a decade and given the characters’ backstories, ubiquitous scientific jargon and mathematical references it wouldn’t seem wrong to assume that science is the thematic basis for the show’s title. But if we take off our Einstein-colored glasses for a moment and adopt a less ‘Sheldonesque’ perspective, we might come away with a far more mundane view of the matter.

In our 21st century slang lexicon, the word “bang” occupies a special place. Crossing cultural, class and even racial barriers this verb has become a universally accepted expression for casual intercourse. The one barrier it did not cross is the one between the sexes. In the largely genderless English language, this particular example of urban cant is decidedly masculine and, to some degree, sexist.

The ‘big bang’, stripped of its scientific connotation and placed in the context of comedy and popular culture, can easily be interpreted as a euphemism for sexual debauchery. Taken just a bit further, it closely resembles a term coined by the porn industry: the gang bang. In another, though no less significant, definition of the word it can mean a loud explosion, usually from a gun or a bomb.

By breaking down the structure, elements and characters of the show, a strong case can be made that “The Big Bang Theory” show is an allegorical depiction of sexual roles in society rather than a teleplay about a group of quirky scientists. It can also be speculated that it targets a very specific and uniquely traumatized segment of the American population.

Molecular Composition

The show revolves around the lives of five characters, four males and one female. The men are all high-achieving members of the scientific community, intellectually gifted but socially awkward. The female is much the opposite; portrayed as vastly inferior to the men in mental competence, yet adept at social interactions. These are the basic character profiles upon which the show’s storylines hang; all of which center on sex.

Adding credence to this idea is the fact that producers had originally given one of the protagonists, Sheldon Cooper, the sex-fiend, incorrigible ‘horn dog’ character traits, which eventually ended up as part of the less important role of Howard Wolowitz.

Instead, the tallest cast member is made to play an asexual genius who constantly talks down and passes judgement on the social-sexual habits of his circle of friends. The brunt of his contempt is reserved for the lone female character. Penny is an aspiring actress who is otherwise portrayed as a slut and identified in a running gag as nothing more than an ape with breasts. It is between these two polarities – from the unblemished mind of a theoretical physicist to the alcohol-bruised brain of a promiscuous Midwestern girl – that the creators of The Big Bang Theory want to weave a story about sexual dynamics in our society.

Penny is literally the “girl next door”, a well-established archetype in American culture, which enshrines the permanent male fantasy of an accessible woman. She’s a “one-of-the-guys” kind of gal who’s into sports and unambiguous about her sexual desire. In other words, Penny is the anti-woman. Directly opposite her character is Leonard, who is himself an anti-man figure. He is an emotionally open, if fragile, individual who compensates for the lack of a nurturing mother by seeking solace between Penny’s legs. The girl next door, however, doesn’t want children, which is part of her appeal. She’s at arm’s length – both within reach and requiring no commitment.

The Big Bang Theory has been on T.V. for at least a third and at most half of the average viewers’ lifetimes. In 2014, 84.2 million people watched at least 6 minutes of the show; roughly 30% of the U.S. population. – source: Vulture
Odel Gauri
Writer & Editor

Big Bang Genesis

Procreation, as the ultimate purpose of ‘banging’ is an ever present element on the show through the parental relationships of the characters, who interact with their parents in important ways.

Rajesh, the Indian astrophysicist, regularly communicates with his wealthy parents via internet video chat, who always seem to be concerned with the preservation of his genetic lineage, even as his best friend, Howard, relentlessly makes him the butt of all manner of racist and bigoted jokes. The point is further reinforced by Rajesh’s sister’s doomed relationship with Leonard as a result of her parents’ interference. The dark-skinned immigrant character is firmly established as undesirable by his own impotence around women and only alcohol can help him overcome his crippling inhibitions. It is also worth noting that his parents represent the only parental couple who remain in a traditional bond of marriage.

Both Leonard’s and Sheldon’s parental situation must be considered together, since these are used as plot points to present opposing world views. In each case, the father is absent by either divorce or abandonment. It is through the mother’s differing viewpoints that the conflict between creationism and evolution is engaged and it is through the perceived status of each offspring within their respective families that it is resolved.

According to Sheldon’s mother, her son’s superior intellect is the result of forces beyond her comprehension, which she is happy to ascribe to her religious beliefs. Despite the ideological chasm between her and Sheldon, she considers him nothing less than extraordinary. Leonard’s mother, on the other hand, sees her son as an underachiever whose value as a guinea pig for her child psychology experiments superseded any sort of maternal instinct. The same dynamic is repeated in the relationship of the roommates themselves, where Sheldon considers Leonard to be of inferior intellectual stock, while Leonard begrudgingly accepts his friend’s genius. Closing this odd oedipal circle, Sheldon and Leonard find a kindred spirit in each other’s mothers.

The Freudian nightmare intensifies with Howard. Echoing Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece, the scrawny space engineer still lives with his mother, who exists only as a screeching disembodied voice in his childhood home. They are constantly getting into shouting matches about trite domestic issues like an old married couple. Even though we never see her, we know she is obese and requires special attention, which her son reluctantly provides until she is literally killed off and replaced with a wife/mother figure in Bernadette who moves into the same house. As the proverbial “momma’s boy” with an unchecked libido, Howard resides in a quasi-incestuous reality.

Penny’s family history is not as developed as that of the other characters for reasons we’ll touch on below, but she also comes from a broken home with the salient difference of having been raised by her father, which sets her up for the “daddy issues” stereotype associated with easy women.

Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS

Penny, Penny, Penny

The Penny character is key to our understanding of the show’s underlying message. Among the more subtle factoids about her is that, among all the characters, she is the only one whose last name is never mentioned at any point during the show. This omission cannot be attributed to gender alone since the other two supporting female roles are given last names. In order to fathom why the lead female character would lack such a significant feature, we must delve deeper into the symbolism behind her character.

The lowest denomination of American currency is the penny. The one-cent, copper mint has developed several different connotations in society, such as stinginess, frugality and others. But, the most common association the coin has is with the concept of luck. “See a penny, pick it up. All day long you’ll have good luck” is a phrase most Americans know.

Immortalized in the hugely popular coming-of-age musical ‘Grease’, this melodious expression perpetuates the idea of the lucky penny from generation to generation in one of the few relics of oral tradition. The fortuitous nature of luck makes activities like gambling irresistible for millions of people. The fear of losing it all combined with the possibility of striking it rich has proven addictive in many cases, perhaps because it mirrors a biological imperative. Mating in human society requires a willingness to put ourselves on the line and take a chance on another human being. Penny is no ordinary character in the show, but rather a pivotal and esoteric element in a sophisticated farce, who represents the mating principle in a universe where the four male characters live to “get lucky”. She is the fertility goddess through which the reproductive probabilities of the other characters are determined.

Probability theory, a pillar of 20th century physics, is expressed in mathematical equations where probability itself is represented by the letter “P”. Penny’s name, therefore, is a parable designed for those who understand the scientific “keys” in the riddle of “The Big Bang Theory” and, as such, last names and backstories are of no importance when it comes to her character.

Masculinity Revisited

Across the hall from the cute, bubbly blonde is a constellation of social outcasts striving to “score”. Each of the four male characters represent one particular formula in the grand equation of perpetuating the species.

In this allegory, Sheldon Cooper is the sexually innocent fawn who is constantly flummoxed by the social rituals his clumsy friends perform in order to “score”. He lives in his own mind, protected from the uncertainties of the real world through highly regulated schedules and strictly worded, and literal, social contracts. Blissfully unaware of others’ needs, the brilliant Dr. Cooper towers above everyone else in physical stature and is also meant to tower, metaphorically, over society as presently constructed.

This androgynous, asexual and asocial specimen whose life unfolds with mathematical precision is held up as a beacon to guide the others through the labyrinth of current human society towards a ‘scientifically’ sound future where natural selection will be replaced with calculated election.

His roommate, Leonard Hofstadter, is the probing adolescent with self-esteem issues who harbors idealistic views of love and indulges in romantic escapades. He lives in “our” time, doing is best to conform to the expectations of an entrenched social order. In a sense, Leonard is like a bridge that connects yesterday to tomorrow, sacrificing himself in the process. He’s a martyr who struggles in a world that still values traditional male archetypes and gives a voice to all the nerds that ever tried to hit on the hot girl or wish they could. Leonard is a tragic figure who lives in the professional shadow of his roommate and the eternal disapproval of his mother.

Howard Wolowitz is the fully-grown geek. Never content with merely theorizing about social acceptance, he embraces his sexual exuberance throwing himself at anything that moves. Howard is Jewish – a fact deemed important enough to warrant repeated mention throughout the show – and he is the most accomplished of his peers, having conquered man’s last frontier: space. Despite his diminutive size, the smallest of the group, Howard Wolowitz emerges from under his mother’s skirt to become the victorious dork and the only one who manages to reproduce.

Rajesh Koothrappali is the perpetual third wheel from the third world, relegated by his own insecurities to the realm of platonic infatuations. His ambivalent sexuality and foreign origin underscores his role of the outsider. As an astrophysicist, he gazes on the cosmos from an impossibly large distance, which mirrors the great gap between his need for companionship and his inability to find it. He is the legacy human, ruled by his emotions and destined to contemplate the light of stars that perished long ago.

SEASON 9 POSTER for the Big Bang Theory showcasing Penny, Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Rajesh

Dark Matters

In all character dynamics, Penny (Chance) always has the upper hand with one notable exception: Sheldon. Wrapped in the guise of logic and rationality, Dr. Cooper’s behavior is actually riddled with manipulation and subterfuge directed at the viewers through his relationship with Penny. Sheldon’s role is nothing less than that of a warlock casting spells on the unsuspecting T.V. audience. His robotic demeanor and droning voice are utilized to insert repetitive command cues that underlie the show’s plot points.

Performing like an expert hypnotist, Sheldon always calls on Penny in the same rhythmically spaced knocking pattern and vocalizes her name three times. This is a neuro-linguistic programming technique designed to drill trigger words into a subject’s subconscious mind. This specific trigger is meant to activate base sexual desire every time her name is mentioned. The “Soft Kitty” lullaby is used to deepen this subliminal message. Sheldon teaches Penny to sing Soft Kitty to him in bed, which is a euphemism for masturbation.

In order to assert Sheldon’s authority, all characters are made to adhere to his quasi-legal and completely arbitrary “agreements”. The most often-quoted contract is the so-called “roommate agreement”, which he always manages to enforce despite any resistance. Sheldon is the high priest of this faux scientific universe and his word is not to be questioned.

An important element in this universe are numbers. But on the show, the number 4 makes its presence felt more than any other. We have the four male leads, of course; the apartment numbers are 4A and 4B; the show’s title has four words and in many instances, the characters are written into scenes that occur in groups of four.

The symbolism of the number 4 spans many different interpretations, but for the most part, they all merge into the concept of stability and established truth. The square represents the ‘known’ and certainty, which is something many of the show’s viewers are subconsciously seeking.

The average age of The Big Bang Theory’s viewing audience falls within the range of 18 to 35. These are, of course, the years in which many of us embark on the process of becoming who we will eventually become. But, if we consider the historical context of these particular 18 to 35 year-olds in America, we’ll find that they are especially vulnerable and more likely to seek out structure and reassurance. We are talking about the 9-11 generation, no less. The “Big Bang” is their origin story, too.

Conclusion

Nearly every character in The Big Bang Theory is a highly educated professional and yet they are all portrayed as infantile, dependent and socially immature people. In addition, the permanent backdrop of the comic book store, toys and games that are carefully positioned within the brightly-colored set design has a high visual appeal for young children.

The general bounce-house atmosphere, early time slot and repeated syndication virtually guaranteed that an entire generation of children and teenagers, who are now entering adulthood, have been consuming a steady diet of subliminal messaging about gender roles, sexual behavior and self-worth, presented in a pseudo-scientific packaging.

As it enters its eleventh season, The Big Bang Theory can be considered an important, if subliminal influence on the world view of youngsters who have followed the boisterous clan of nerds for a decade. Just like the show “Friends” created a cult-like following among Gen-Xers who saw themselves in the scripted lives of the six East Coast roommates, this new band of fictional West Coast buddies has been crafted to appeal specifically to the tech-savvy, code-writing youths of the new Millennium, both reaffirming and conditioning their role in society.

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