The most eye-catching moment of the third season of the Big Bang Theory was the first appearance of Amy Farrah Fowler—a dedicated, intelligent, and confident female scientist who seemed to embody exactly the type of character I had most craved in primetime television. There is no debate in the lack of representation; writers just don’t seem to have a purpose for a scholarly female academic. Sure, there are female investigators in crime shows and dramas—Molly Hooper in Sherlock, for example—but there just doesn’t seem to be any significant female researchers, a sad reflection of what is actually a slowly improving statistic in the scientific world.
However, over the course of a few episodes, and now to what has become a few seasons, my hopes have been dashed by her static storyline. Amy’s scientific work is never taken seriously. While the guys (Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj) all seem to be making great leaps and strides in the field (Sheldon facilitates the discovery of a new element, Leonard joins Stephen Hawking’s team on an expedition, Howard goes to the ISS, Raj is named one of the top scientists to watch), Amy’s work is overshadowed and ignored, while her plots mainly turn to her relationship with Sheldon. Like most of the women on the show, she is consistently portrayed in a stereotypical fashion, one which is often negative. In fact, the one time Amy finally gets a big break—an invitation to consult on a project at Caltech, the main focus of the episode is on Sheldon’s reaction and its impact on their relationship.
The widely accepted reading of Amy Farrah Fowler is something similar to my first reaction. It seems like people are so unfamiliar with the idea of a female researcher on screen that they are willing to accept anything and purport that the show has really done something amazing. Mayim Bialik (who herself holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience) is held up as the real-life scientist accurately portraying her profession on screen. When, in a New York Times overview of the series and its characters, the only mention of Amy (who is a major character) is about how Sheldon’s “continued rebuffing of the advances of his girlfriend, Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) — is alone worth any half-hour spent on the show”, it becomes clear that her relationship is the only aspect of her character important enough to mention (Hoerburger). Furthermore, when the Hollywood Reporter introduces the shows’ actresses in an interview as, “Bialik, who fittingly has a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA, joined the show as a recurring foil for Parsons’ Sheldon late in Season 3 and was promoted early the following year, while Rauch [who plays another female scientist] entered the picture as a love interest for Howard midway through Season 3 and was promoted to regular around the same time as Bialik”, it is evident that the creation of roles of both female scientists are meant to be nothing more than plot devices to further their significant other’s character development (Goldberg).
Specifically, this is apparent in the Season 7 episode “The Workplace Proximity”. The main premise is that Amy has been invited to consult on a project at Caltech, a wonderful opportunity for her. Amy mentions to Sheldon that she will be working there for a few months, and states that she hopes that he is okay with it, mentioning the idiom “don’t shit where you eat”. Sheldon is confused, and Amy explains that its meaning is not literal. The scene then ends where Sheldon heads off to the bathroom. In this entire sequence, no focus is given to Amy’s career advancement, the idea of which is instead turned into a joke so that the audience can laugh at Sheldon finally being able to relieve himself in restaurant restrooms. It is important to note that as a comedy, the show is not expected to address the issues of underrepresentation and obstacles in the workplace for women, but favoring scatological jokes over character development seems overly biased, especially because her work doesn’t become important to the plot at any point during the episode.
Still, it is a welcoming change of plot to be able to see Amy in her environment as a scientist. She has a few brief scenes in Caltech, but again in all of these, the focus is shifted to Sheldon, and her relocation is only the vehicle for more workplace-related jokes. When Sheldon finally accepts that Amy will be working there, he seems to embrace it. He observes Amy eating lunch with a few other scientists and joins them—unintentionally but seriously embarrassing her. Sheldon’s social ineptitudes should be considered, but the intent of the writers is still to get the audience to laugh at Sheldon belittling Amy’s status as a scientist and the importance of her work. This is frustrating, as it further emphasizes the coding of the camera as male. Not only do the plots always focus on the four guys, but we are also meant to side with them in their perspective, align with them, and laugh at them. This is in a way similar to what Laura Mulvey describes as Hitchcock’s strategy in “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema”, stating that “the skillful use of identification processes and liberal use of subjective camera from the point of view of the male protagonist draw the spectators deeply into his position” (Mulvey). Amy’s response is again passive, as there is nothing she can do, especially not chide a well-known physicist in a crowded cafeteria. The gaze may be different here, but the camera aligns with the idea of active male and passive female roles. In a society where women in science already face so many obstacles challenging their ability, perpetuating this idea, even in comedy, is harmful.
Later into the episode, when Sheldon walks into the lab, Amy is finally seen doing her research (evaluating fear response levels in monkeys by exposure to images), but again faces the same line from Sheldon as he describes her work as “goofing off”. Even the writers seem to be challenging her as well, turning her experiment into an opportunity to poke fun at Sheldon. Sheldon acting exactly like the Capuchin monkey that Amy is observing is admittedly quite funny, but it highlights the fact that her work lacks the rigor of actual scientific experimentation and instead turns it into a joke.
These critiques extend beyond this specific episodes to the overarching plot of the series. Amy is a relatively static character, changing only in respect to her relationship with Sheldon. She slowly opens up to him as the two become closer over the course of the series. Interestingly enough, Amy spends her time searching for a male gaze from Sheldon, in any form possible. She is portrayed as increasingly sexually deprived, and will do anything to gain attention from Sheldon. It is understandable and natural for her to do so, to seek some form of physicality in their relationship, but the over-the-top manner in which her actions are portrayed seem misconstrued. In her case, she embodies the opposite of the voyeuristic looking (unlike Penny, their neighbor, who seems to have an endless supply of low-cut shirts), but still searches for that kind of attention. This is problematic in the way that Amy (and her opposite, Penny), seem to be openly inviting the male gaze, while Amy actively revels in being objectified.
As a woman working in a scientific field, this is incredibly frustrating. Being in this kind of environment means that I my appearance is judged, and I often have to dress in a certain way in order to get taken seriously. The idea that this has any merit in my work is ridiculous, yet I have to try hard to avoid looking like any stereotypes, lest people criticize me for it. In a way, women in science must often fight to avoid the male gaze. And even despite that, the writers seem to enjoy consistently fulfilling these tropes.
Amy is portrayed as the “ugly duckling” of the show. Her clothing is unstylish and old-fashioned. Here it seems as if the writers specifically showing who is worthy of the male gaze. She follows the trope of the nerd girl getting made over by her hot blonde friend, in order to attract the attention of her crush (in this case, her boyfriend Sheldon). In fact, the show seems to have only two possible roles for any female scientists to play—the boyish and unfashionable characters, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, the overly sexualized and outwardly feminine characters. Amy fits into the former, as does experimental physicist Leslie Winkle. These two embody the trope of the unattractive but smart nerdy girl who seemingly has no other characteristics.
In the latter group, Bernadette is one of the main examples—her voice is very high-pitched (not the actress’s real voice) and her usual outfit consists of a tight sweater and short skirt. She is an accomplished microbiologist with a doctorate, and one of her larger plot points dealt with her prenuptial agreement with Howard, because she makes more than he does. However, her work is rarely mentioned on the show, despite her status as a main character. When it is brought up, it is in the context of her fulfilling the powerful, bossy woman stereotype. Another particularly egregious example is that of Dr. Elizabeth Plimpton (“The Plimpton Stimulation”), where a world-famous scientist visiting Caltech spends the entire episode seducing the members of the main cast, and wearing nothing more than lingerie for most of her scenes. Even Leonard’s mother, a widely successful neuroscientist and psychiatrist, is shown flirting in many of her scenes, and kissing Sheldon while drunk.
There is no middle ground. There are no female scientists who love the things that the guys in the show love—the TV shows, games, comic books, movies—and who also happen to care about how they look. There are no realistic characterizations of these average, normal women. In a show with so many recurring and incidental characters, many of whom are scientists, how come there isn’t even one who can relate to the guys but also be a girl at the same time? This gender binary perpetuated by the dominant reading generates the idea that women have to be different in order to be accepted.
But, these portrayals are widely received and lauded. Mayim Bialik has received multiple Emmy nominations, and Melissa Rauch (who plays Bernadette) even stated in an interview that, ‘“I think the addition of the girls has been interesting because the writers have done such a seamless job of transitioning what works so well with the guys into female scenarios,” Rauch adds, noting positive responses she’s received about the portrayal of the lady geeks from female fans at Comic-Con’ (Goldberg). People are accepting that these are accurate and representative characterizations, when in fact they do not seem to operate as characters in the same way that the guys do. Despite being main characters, they don’t have their own plot arcs, and when they do, they only apply to “female scenarios”, wherein they essentially only participate in stereotypically female activities.
However, this critique in no way signifies any aversion or dislike to their characters on my part. Amy is engaging—intelligent, quirky, and lovable. Bernadette is incredibly kind, smart, and relatable. The problem lies in the difference between portrayal and potential. There is so much more to these characters that is never shown on screen; their relationships dominate their storylines to the point where their jobs are mere conveniences that allow them to fit into the plot.
This is where my oppositional reading fits in. My gaze stems from the perspective of a woman in science who has felt marginalized and not taken seriously. It is disappointing to me that the show wastes such a great opportunity to show male and female scientists in the same light, but instead under and mis-utilizes its female characters. But that is not to say I cannot find enjoyment in it. I enjoyed the first few seasons because the science jokes were genuinely funny. There is an innate satisfaction from understanding and laughing at a reference that a character makes. Even now, after I have lost interest, there are surprisingly touching emotional moments between the characters which are genuinely enjoyable. The amount of nerdy jokes seems to have decreased, and the amount of jokes poking fun at Sheldon’s social problems has increased, but there are still moments of clever humor.
In watching a mindless comedy like this, the problematic aspects of representation are often ignored, because the viewer isn’t looking for a deep and comprehensive analysis of society. Karen Hollinger, in Feminist Film Studies, paraphrases Lola Young, stating “films need to be seen as constructs and fabrications…rather than authentic representations of reality” (Hollinger). This is especially important because the volume of consumption of this kind of media is incredibly large—The Big Bang Theory is one of the highest rated shows on television. And when a show like this consistently perpetuates harmful stereotypes, people mindlessly watching will oftentimes learn to conform to those ideas without thinking. This translates to stereotypes that are perpetuated within daily life. By looking in an oppositional light, we can analyze and critique the problems of media while still enjoying it, and can even help us understand more of what it can mean to be under and misrepresented in both society and in media.