Thursday, December 6, 2018

It's not "nerd blackface," okay?

I really love Big Bang Theory.  I recently watched the 11th season (hooray for the library, which had it) and liked it as much or more than the rest.  However, I've heard more than once that it is a bad show and I should feel bad for liking it, because it makes fun of nerds.

My opinion is that comedy always makes fun of people.  Some comedies make fun of bumbling dads and control-freak moms.  Some comedies make fun of young, single New Yorkers.  To have a comedy about somebody means that person or group gets made fun of sometimes.  My favorite other comedy is The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which makes fun of just about everyone: black people, gay people, Jewish people, Asian people, rich people, poor people.  And yet all these characters are humanized as well--they have moments when you realize that even though they are complete stereotypes, they are people and can rise above your expectations.

Of course there could be mean-spirited comedies, where the same people are always the butt of the joke and never humanized or allowed to do anything good.  I can't think of a comedy that is like this because I watch so few, but I know I've seen reality TV that was about mocking people.  It's ugly and mean, and I can certainly entertain the idea that a comedy is too mean to be a good show.

But is Big Bang Theory like that?  I don't see it.  Every character has a chance to shine as well as get laughed at.  Pick-up artist Howard gets a chance to explain how rejected he feels because women think he's too short and needy to date--and to eventually learn how to treat women.  Raj opens up about his shyness and is sometimes a great friend.  Leonard, we are meant to sympathize with a lot as the most "normal" of the bunch.  And Sheldon . . . we are drawn into his character more than any other.  Does he do weird and often inconsiderate things?  Sure.  But he also gets a chance to explain his feelings.  In one episode, he makes Leonard wear a scratchy sweater for days to explain what it's like for him when something isn't finished.  He isn't being picky, he's really having a hard time, and we are meant to understand this.  And of course he slowly grows as a person and accomplishes things we never would have thought possible.  All of this humanizes nerds by showing us the stuff they've gone through, the things they think, the ways they change.  They're real characters, never just the butt of a joke.

Then, of course, there are the other characters.  Penny is a "cool girl" who gets mocked just as mercilessly as the nerds.  Amy and Bernadette are just as nerdy as the men but aren't into their fandom, and they get teased too.  Occasionally "jock" type guys appear on the show and are mocked too.  It seems pretty equal-opportunity in its humor.  If I could change one thing, I'd have more women who play D&D and hang out in the comic book store . . . because geek girls exist despite men always telling us we don't.  But they do appear from time to time.

Maybe I'm missing the point of the criticism.  Maybe "nerd blackface" means, "non nerds are playing nerds and that's as offensive as white actors playing black characters in movies."  But "nerd" is not a race.  It's a social designation.  Part of an actor's job is portraying different kinds of people.  How fine-grained is this?  Can a biologist portray a physicist?  Can a Star Wars fan portray a Star Trek fan? 

Of course, even then, this wouldn't condemn Big Bang Theory, because the show is not a bunch of non-nerdy actors portraying nerds.  Several of the actors are really into the stuff they're pretending to be into.  Amy is played by Mayim Bialik, who actually is a scientist.  And many of the guest stars are nerdy heroes, like Stephen Hawking or Bill Gates, playing themselves.

Basically, I don't understand how you can criticize the show without saying, look, you can make fun of anyone else on the planet, but not nerds.  Nerds are permanently off-limits for comedy.  There is comedy about black people and Asian people and gay people, but nerd comedy is a bridge too far.

But! you might say.  Isn't Sheldon's character making fun of the disabled?  He's obviously on the autism spectrum, and he's super annoying!  Everyone is always talking about how annoying he is!

That's actually a big part of the appeal of the show, for me.  Yes, Sheldon has autism (undiagnosed).  He's brilliant, but very routine-oriented and he puts other people out a lot, following his routines.  Sometimes they get impatient and even mean to him because of it.  Other times he's able to show them how important their tolerance is to him.

I guess what I love is that autism isn't treated respectfully, in hushed tones.  Sheldon isn't babied or treated like a hero for existing.  Like every other character, he's mocked for his foibles but has time to shine as well.  Like anyone else, autistic people can be jerks sometimes.  Sometimes their challenges become a challenge for the people around them, and we have to work hard to be patient.  Or else we totally fail to be patient.  That's a thing that happens too, and BBT isn't afraid to laugh about it.

That's what makes it much more meaningful when Sheldon achieves things.  He is one of the best scientists of the batch (equalled, maybe, by Amy) but in his personal life, he really struggles with basic milestones.  Yet, one by one, long after the others, he reaches them.  And though humor surrounds them, we have some serious, real feelings in those episodes.

The last reason I find the show's portrayal of autism to be so important is that real autistic people I know have learned social skills from it.  We can see both Sheldon's point of view and the other characters', so an autistic person watching can think, "Oh, this thing he's doing, which makes sense to me because I do it too, is causing these problems for himself or others.  And here's the solution he discovers by the end of the episode!"  Amy, in particular, is good for this.  She's able both to empathize with Sheldon and to explain the social tactics that will get him out of his mess. 

Should BBT be the only show that ever has nerds in it?  Obviously not.  We should include nerds in more things than comedy shows that make fun of people.  But . . . there are lots of shows like that.  There's Star Trek.  There's Doctor Who.  There's Bones.  Likewise, there need to be lots of characters with autism on TV, so people understand that all autistic people are not just like Sheldon -- they're unique individuals with their own foibles and talents.  But that's hardly BBT's fault.

In short, it's not an offensive show.  It's a comedy show like many others.  If you don't like it, I don't care.  Go somewhere and watch something else, and don't yuck other people's yum.  I love it and am not going to stop loving it just because you don't find it funny.  I like to hear people like myself and my friends and family tease each other.  I like to watch successful scientists tell stories of their awful childhoods--that are over-- while they have fulfilling lives complete with romance and money and scientific discovery.  As a nerdy person myself, it encourages me and makes me smile.  I think that's about as much as anybody can reasonably expect of a sitcom.


The Sojourner said...

As you already know, the whole Shamy story arc seriously resonates with me. Like, I have never before or since seen elements of my actual life represented so accurately on screen.

I do think they need more girl nerds, though. RPGS ARE FUN LADIES GET WITH THE PROGRAM.

Anonymous said...

I have no problem with you liking this show, even though I don't. People have different tastes, and that's fine with me. Anyone who tells you that you should feel badly for liking a television show has problems!

However, I don't think it's fair to say that the show isn't offensive just because you aren't offended by it. If some people are offended by it, then it's offensive to them, and that should also be okay. Their point of view on this subject is also valid. I think there is always room for disagreement and different perspectives about entertainment.

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