The Big Bang Theory: a science in fiction backflip?

Guest post by: StephS

Sheldon, Leonard, Raj and Howard are the four scientists in The Big Bang Theory that have slowly been taking over and dominating our television screens. Yet they don’t fit into any conventional science show roles, so what makes the interactions between four, somewhat socially clueless scientists, so appealing to audiences?

Typically it seems that science fiction movies and shows the main focus for the plot is a new technology that has the potential to destroy the world, or at least create a dystopia that mankind has fallen into. There are clearly exceptions to this, but as noted by Weingart et al (2003), science in fiction is littered by maniac scientists and dystopias. Of course, science can appear on TV and in movies without this, think of medical shows and crime shows for example. But what I find particularly interesting in the Weingart et al (2003) paper is the apparent lack of comedy in science. Why is comedy under-represented in science shows? Apparently because ‘our society does not find much to laugh about in science’ (p286, Weingart et al 2003). So why then, is The Big Bang Theory, a comedy about scientists, so popular?

After examining the ‘typical’ trends in science movies, scientists are typically, Caucasian, American, male and middle aged (Weingart et al 2003). While the main characters in The Big Bang Theory, somewhat fit this role, they most certainly don’t conform to it. Likewise the show doesn’t conform to the stereotyped female scientist as a young and attractive scientist who is lower on the career ladder (Weingart et al 2003). The token female scientist on the show, Leslie, instead gives the dominant male Sheldon a run for his money. She is intelligent, can solve problems that the boys can’t and can put the brainiac Sheldon in his place with a quick word. In the show she cements her own status as a successful and witty scientist.

Yet there is no doubt in my mind that the show most certainly does use stereotypes, but I argue that  they are stereotypes of the typical ‘geek’ rather than a specific scientist stereotype. The four main characters are interested in comic books, computer games, chess, science fiction and fantasy novels… … the list goes on and on. They are socially awkward too. Haynes (2003) talks about the seven scientist stereotypes, where they can be the’ evil alchemist’, the ‘noble scientist’, the ‘foolish scientists’, the ‘inhuman researcher’, the ‘scientist as adventurer’, the ‘mad, bad, dangerous scientists’ or the ‘helpless scientist’.  Sheldon is the only character that can really be identified with these stereotypes. In some episodes he is the ‘evil alchemist’, but really, these studies don’t come into fruition. He loves adventures, but he thinks a train trip is a huge adventure. He is noble, helping humanity through his discoveries, but in reality he is only concerned for his own advancement, and won’t share the credit. He is helpless when he gets sick, and needs someone to do exactly the right thing to help him get better. He is inhuman, quite literally, because he doesn’t understand humans or human nature at all. In some episodes he is mad and tries to kill people with his ‘death ray’ because they didn’t do what he wanted them to do. While Sheldon can be linked to these stereotypes, he is a parody of them, rather than an example.

The other characters don’t really fit either. They are helpless, in love and in social situations, but other than that they are fine. This fits the ‘geek’ stereotype perhaps more than Haynes’ (2003) idea of the ‘helpless scientist’. While you could argue that the characters are mad, as mentioned before, they are ‘geeks’ and are in reality more eccentric than anything else, and don’t really fit the mad, or evil scientist formula.

Van Dijck (1999) suggests that the main issues in many science fiction novels are political, moral and social issues. Yet while The Big Bang Theory doesn’t appear to be dealing with any political or moral questions, it does deal with social issues. Although this is perhaps not on the scale that Van Dijck implies as for novels such as Frankenstein or The Boys from Brazil which deal with the social issues relating to the science, I think it is equally important. I believe that the focus in The Big Bang Theory isn’t on the science itself, but on the relationships between the characters and the social issues that these people face, especially due to their knowledge about science. It shows us why they act the way they do based on the influence of science in their lives. It seems The Big Bang Theory, despite the geeky stereotype, is actually showing us that scientists are just like anyone else, with their own problems with work, relationships and life in general. Many TV shows trace the interactions of a group of friends, but what makes The Big Bang Theory significant is that science influences a great deal of these interactions.

So what does this mean for the science? It’s just a normal, everyday job. It doesn’t mean there’s a life or death situation. It doesn’t mean the end of the world as we know it. It doesn’t necessarily mean life changing discoveries. But any job will influence the way you interact and the way you think, whether you work for a fashion magazine, or a law firm, or whether you’re a theoretical physicist.  Perhaps the success of the show is due to the fact that the characters are ‘human’, they’re likeable and they’re most certainly flawed.

While the effects of the show may not be so profound and far reaching as that of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Big Bang Theory certainly has its place as science in fiction because it shows a scenario of science being just that, science.

Word Count: 982


Haynes R (2003). From alchemy to artificial intelligence: stereotypes of the scientist in Western literature. Public Understanding of Science 12:243-253..

Van Dijck  J (1999). Cloning humans, cloning literature: genetics and the imagination   deficit. New Genetics and Society 18(1):9-22.

Weingart P, Muhl C and Pansegrau P (2003). Of power maniacs and unethical geniuses: science and scientists in fiction film. Public Understanding of Science 12:279-287.

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