Ranking the leagues

I found this by accident – via a discussion of the annoying stereotypes on The Big Bang Theory that was in my Twitter feed. I follow about half the population of Earth on Twitter so it’s always very random what I see – this time I happened to see a discussion of the annoying stereotypes on The Big Bang Theory. One of the discussers linked to a ScienceBlogs post from 2007, about a trailer for the show, which hadn’t made its debut yet. What’s entertaining about it is that the post got Bill Prady’s attention – he’s the co-creator – and he put quite a lot of effort into explaining and defending it in comments.

Confession first: I agree that the show is full of annoying stereotypes and that it’s sexist as fuck, but at the same time for the first few years I found it pretty funny and somewhat touching. That always did baffle me, given the involvement of Chuck Lorre whose previous masterpiece was that dire thing with Charlie Sheen in it, which even an accidental second of while flicking through the channels would make me want to scream with anguish – it baffled me but so it was. Mind you, I thought the subordinate characters were awful, and that the subordinate women they added later were even worse, which is why I stopped watching even now and then. But with that background, along with longstanding interest in how popular culture shapes how we think about women, scientists, intellectuals, loudmouth real estate promoters, etc, I find Prady’s comments interesting.

He explains a little of the background, and gets a lot of responses, most of them challenging. (What makes the whole thing intriguing of course is that nobody in the conversation knew the show was going to be a hit. Most new tv shows bomb.)

Bill Prady: To clarify, there is no character based on Richard Feynman. His books were just one influence as we wrote. The greatest influence were my former colleagues from my previous career as a software engineer. People like Hawking and Wozniak and my friend Rebecca’s father who’s an astrophysicist at Harvard were an inspiration. My father-in-law who is one of the country’s leading pediatric rheumatologists was an inspiration.

I must say I have never before received such criticism for work that has not been seen by the critics.

My son is six months old. I hope you’ll give him a chance to grow up before you call him an offensive loud-mouthed crotchety drunk.

(By the way, were the paleontologists this upset when Ross on “Friends” was depicted as hapless and unlucky at love?)

A bunch more comments, then


This whole long comment thread has made obvious to me once again just how very taboo it is for women to point out even the most minor manifestations of sexism in everyday life. We are meant to choke it down and keep moving, day after day, year after year, without a word of complaint, without even a sign that we are aware of its existence. Point it out and we get told: no, that’s not what you think it is, and why are you so upset, and besides you are focusing on the wrong thing, and you shouldn’t be talking about this, you should be talking about that, and you can’t hope to address this unless you address these 10 other things, and why are you concerned about that if you don’t care about these other things which are really much more important, and I really care about your issues but in this case you are wrong, and….blah blah blah.

Later again –


For the record, I’ll set down the chain of events that has led us here. Years ago, I was a software engineer. I had a few good friends who were brilliant — off the charts — but were painfully socially awkward. (And if you knew me at the time, you would have discovered that my skills weren’t much better.)

The best projects, I think, come when the writer is fond of his main characters and I was (and am) very fond of my friends. I decided to explore the theme that extreme intelligence doesn’t give a person an advantage in a social situation over average folk (and, some might say, is actually a disadvantage).

So I and my partner created a piece featuring characters based on the guys I knew (and me to a great extent). We then wondered what would happen if one of these guys fell hopeless[ly] in love with a woman who was “out of his league.” Now let’s be clear here: I am not saying that this woman is “out of the league of smart people,” I am saying that she’s out of this particular character’s league.

[It’s interesting that he doesn’t even notice what he’s saying, even when talking to this crowd. “Out of his league”? How? Because she’s hot. Not in other ways – she has a working stiff job, she’s from Nebraska, she has no money. She’s not stupid but she’s undereducated. The sole sense in which she’s out of his league is that she would win a gorgeosity contest. Anyway.]

Then we wondered what journey we might give this woman. We decided on an attractive woman who has always been objectified by men. Our feeling is that our character, who failed to learn the Cro-Magnon approach to women, is going to be the first man this woman encounters who actually treats her like a person, responds to her potential and ultimately allows her to shake off the self-image that’s been imposed on her sociologically.

[Says the guy who just objectified her himself in explaining her to hostile critics. Hmmm.]

Now remember, this is a sitcom — so this movement will happen very, very slowly. Remember how annoying the Frank Burns character was on M*A*S*H was after he got “nice”?

For most of the development process, the characters were software engineers like the people they were based on. Unfortunately, programming is a difficult occupation to photograph in a four-camera proscenium sitcom; the biggest challenge is how to light for film faces that are turned down and facing monitors. After deciding we didn’t want years of being yelled at by our director of photography (the guy who hangs the lights), we changed their profession. Because my partner and I are science geeks, we made them physicists.

A lot has been made in this thread over the fact that these men aren’t women, or that women are not depicted as scientists. My response is two-fold. First, when we go with them to their workplace we will see other scientists. They will be men and women, they will they will be of many ethnic persuasions (because we cast color-blind [which is why those men in that clip weren’t all white — go look again]). There are no women scientists in the first episode (and, consequentially in the clips that have been released because only the first episode has been shot). Second, this is a story about these three people. They happen to have the jobs and genders that they have. As I noted earlier, when ER fails to show male nurses, I don’t believe they are making the statement that men cannot be nurses, I simply believe they don’t have any characters that are male nurses (there was one once, I think).

I sign off wishing you all the best. I believe the battles you fight against are worth fighting. I firmly hope that my daughter grows up in a world where she believes that all career opportunities are open to her — including and especially science. I simply wish you had been more open to dialogue. I think this community would have been a great resource as we proceeded with the series.


Interesting. Ten years on, I wish Bill Prady’s daughter were growing up in a world where men didn’t judge which “league” she was in by how hot she is and nothing else…but alas, I know she isn’t, and I know even her own father doesn’t get it.


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