“Oh, the humanities!”

by Jeroen Bouterse

The Big Bang Theory has been one of the most successful sitcoms in TV history. Last month it ended. In many ways, it ended a long way from where it had begun; many commentators have noticed how the show has evolved together with cultural norms in the past decade. Its first seasons milked gender-stereotypes to an embarrassing extent; later, the main cast included more women, and generally changed its tone on gender and science – even making it a theme in several episodes.

Still, a sitcom like BBT needs its stereotypes, and BBT’s idea of geek culture did remain stereotypical; if not on the level of gender, then in other ways that I want to explore here.

Spock Vaporizes Water Balloon

A lot of ink has been spilled on BBT’s portrayal of geek culture. The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage called the show “the TV version of someone wearing a ‘GEEK’ T-shirt because they liked a Facebook post about the moon once”, and some viewers identifying as geeks felt the show was laughing at them, not with them.

And sure, the number of jokes whose punchline is simply that nerds don’t get laid is rather exhausting. On the other hand, BBT didn’t need its characters to be sad loners; it gave them meaningful relationships, and its implicit message seems to be rather that the quirky geniuses of the show have something to offer in those relationships. Or, in the words of one of the characters:

STUART: “Uh, well, I feel like you guys make each other better. Penny brought Leonard out of his shell. And it seems like Leonard makes Penny think more deeply about the world. I don’t know. Together, you two kind of make one awesome person.”[1]

According to Vox’s Emily Todd VanDerWerff, BBT wasn’t really about geek culture in any real way. And in a sense, she is right: BBT is primarily a conventional sitcom, it’s Friends but with nerds. And yet. Just this week, I noticed one of the science teachers in my school wearing a “Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock” t-shirt. This refers to Sheldon’s extension of Rock-Paper-Scissors, prompted by research on how the original game ends in a draw more often than you would expect, but comically leading to all the games between the characters leading to draws, as they all keep picking Spock.

Friends has a Rock-Paper-Scissors-adaptation too, but it’s much less satisfying. Joey and Phoebe add ‘fire’, which beats everything, and ‘water balloon’, which beats fire. Cute. The BBT treatment of the game, while self-consciously frivolous and ostensibly just an occasion for Sheldon to go off on an overexcited explanation of the rules, is elegant and symmetrical. It makes sense, as does its inevitable backfire.

BBT doesn’t just reference pop culture; it goes the extra mile to imagine how someone prone to abstraction and logical rigor would digest it. The show thinks its characters and their interests are laughable, but treats their laughability lovingly. People who incorporate flowcharts and Venn diagrams in their everyday lives may be quirky and obnoxious, yes; but aren’t you also just a bit jealous when you see the group treating their evening schedule as a complicated traveling salesman problem?[2] Sometimes, the ridiculous caricature and the fantasy ideal overlap. That’s why there are Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock-shirts, and why science teachers wear them.

“I Am a Physicist”

PENNY: “Has he ever been involved with someone who wasn’t a Brainiac?”

SHELDON: “Oh! Well, a few years ago, he did go out with a woman who had a PhD in French literature.”

PENNY: “How is that not a Brainiac?”

SHELDON: “Well, for one thing, she was French … For another, it was literature.”[3]

Having established that being portrayed as a geek by BBT (or a nerd – as you may have noticed, I use the terms interchangeably) is not that bad, I want to move on to my main topic, which is the question of who counts as a geek in BBT.

Actually, this question has a rather simple answer: with very few exceptions, the smart guys and girls in the series are natural scientists, and none of those exceptions have ever come close to being part of the main cast. Two physicists, and astronomer, an engineer, a microbiologist and a neuroscientist, and then nothing. Geek culture, it would seem, is exclusive to the STEM disciplines.

This doesn’t mean that BBT doesn’t take material from humanistic disciplines as substance for jokes. Sheldon is bothered by historical inaccuracies at the Renaissance fair, plays games about counterfactual history with Amy, serves as a source of unsolicited grammar advice, and has a YouTube show about flags. Being a know-it-all does seem to mean knowing it all. Sure, Sheldon may never have heard of Radiohead, but otherwise it seems that his arrogance is justified: “I am a physicist. I have a working knowledge of the entire universe and everything it contains.”[4]

It’s not that BBT completely forgets about the humanities, then; it’s just that the vehicles for delivery of jokes about the humanities are STEM scientists who, because they are geniuses, manage to master multiple languages and read up on early modern German purity laws next to their day jobs and their comic books. Some things are just easier than others. Sheldon is especially sensitive to this intellectual hierarchy when giving Leonard career advice:

SHELDON: “[… ] If I may suggest, consider changing disciplines. Yeah, to the humanities, perhaps history. One of the advantages of teaching history is that you don’t have to create things, you know, you just have to remember stuff that happened and then parrot it back. You could have fun with that.”[5]

What’s the point of mentioning this? Sheldon is not the voice of reason of the show, and anyway, judging a tv sitcom for its lack of subtlety is moot. However, the point can be made without judgment that representatives from the liberal arts could very well have fit within the BBT caricature of geek culture. It’s just that nobody missed them. BBT understandably and naturally goes along with a broad cultural stereotype that says Brainiacs have degrees that suggest mathematics and/or lab equipment. It reinforces the idea that these are the alpha nerds; that these beautiful minds can effortlessly learn about history and language, but that it doesn’t work the other way round.

To be fair, when BBT needs to mock a field, it usually takes a natural science: geology. BBT has Sheldon spend a drunken night with a geology textbook after breaking up with string theory, for instance, and explain to Penny that if the Kardashians aren’t real celebrities, geology is “the Kardashians of science”.[6]

However, this could be simply because the main characters at least interact with geologists (Bert), while the humanities are seen as too far off-field. This much is suggested by the hilarious interaction Sheldon and Amy have when Sheldon is stubbornly refusing to go to a university fundraiser. Amy tries to convince him that without him, money may not find its way to the right departments:

AMY: “Well, then prepare to be terrified. If your friends are unconvincing, this year’s donations might go to, say, the geology department.”

SHELDON: “Oh, dear; not, not the dirt people!”

AMY: “Or worse, it could go to … the liberal arts.”


AMY: “Millions of dollars being showered on poets, literary theorists and students of gender studies.”

SHELDON: “Oh, the humanities!”[7]

Delving Into Flatland

There is one shining exception to the rule of neglect or ridicule of the humanities in the show, which demonstrates that this neglect is not born out of ill will but of the internal logic of the stereotypes that the show employs. In one episode, Rajesh begs Sheldon to go out together. At first, Sheldon suggests they use their imagination instead, for example by visiting the two-dimensional world of Flatland.

Raj bribes him to go to a social activity at the university that involves both the sciences and the humanities – “whether you split atoms or infinitives, this is the place to be”. They come home with two girls, one of whom later lectures Sheldon about the many layers of Flatland: “[it’s] more than a mathematical essay. It is also a treatise on Victorian social mores.”[8]

Sheldon – Sheldon! – is fascinated by this literary insight. “Wow, that’s going to completely change my visits there.”

That’s got to count for something. In a sense, this is just the exception that proves the rule; the humanities get this one moment of fame in one episode out of twelve seasons, as an incidental plot device.

But it also confirms BBT’s general take on geek culture, and its optimistic message about its broader cultural significance. People that are intellectually far apart may still have something to offer each other. When it gives the thing a try, BBT effortlessly shows this about the sciences and humanities. If otherwise the show fails to bridge that specific gap, it does manage to bridge a much larger one. Through the seasons, Sheldon and Penny are drawn to each other, grow to respect each other and to notice the hidden similarities between their problems. One of the results is their playing a geeky breakfast game “to expand their respective knowledge bases”. Penny now recognizes a Venn diagram; Sheldon has worked on naming celebrities.[9] In that scene at least, Sheldon has forgotten his superior lack of interest, and he even knows how to tell the Kardashians apart.

BBT may not give a fair or complete view of geek culture, and even its later seasons may not be inclusive in all interesting and relevant ways; but it is inclusive in this deep, human way. It believes that lives that have curiosity of whatever kind as one of their centers of gravity are both amusing and meaningful. That’s a very humanistic legacy.


[1] https://bigbangtrans.wordpress.com/series-7-episode-18-the-mommy-observation/

[2] https://bigbangtrans.wordpress.com/series-2-episode-14-the-financial-permeability-2/

[3] https://bigbangtrans.wordpress.com/series-2-episode-01-the-bad-fish-paradigm/

[4] https://bigbangtrans.wordpress.com/series-2-episode-18-the-work-song-nanocluster/

[5] https://bigbangtrans.wordpress.com/series-5-episode-10-the-flaming-spittoon-acquisition/

[6] https://bigbangtrans.wordpress.com/series-7-episode-20-the-relationship-diremption/

[7] https://bigbangtrans.wordpress.com/series-4-episode-15-the-benefactor-factor/

[8] https://bigbangtrans.wordpress.com/series-3-episode-12-the-psychic-vortex/

[9] https://bigbangtrans.wordpress.com/series-9-episode-23-the-line-substitution-solution/