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I have written about the stereotypical portrayal of scientists in earlier columns (Dr. Cockroach, PhD, in Monsters vs. Aliens comes to mind) and noted the relatively rare times when scientists are portrayed positively (How to Train Your Dragon and MythBusters are two examples). CBS has put physicists and engineers into prime-time comedy with great success over the last four seasons in the hit series The Big Bang Theory (TBBT). The series has the distinction of a physicist consultant, Dr. David Saltzberg of the University of California, Los Angeles, who publishes a related blog at thebigblogtheory.wordpress.com. TBBT is popular with my science licensure students, but I am concerned its portrayal of science will discourage students from majoring in physics and engineering.
Films have been depicting science and scientists since the very early days of the genre. A Trip to the Moon (1902) shows a group of astronomers vacationing on the Moon, and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (circa 1920) depicts the medical treatment of mental illness in a rather frightening light. While the public perception of science and scientists is not solely based on their depiction in the media, reiterations of the “mad scientist” stock character work against the humanizing of science that I think helps young people consider science as a possible career.
A scene from the TV series The Big Bang Theory.
In TBBT, two physicists (Sheldon and Leonard) working at California Institute of Technology share an apartment across the hall from Penny, a friendly young woman from Nebraska employed as a restaurant server . Rajesh, an astrophysicist, and Howard, an engineer, are also regulars on the series. The men are stereotypical science geeks: They are very intelligent, they have a deep and abiding love of science fiction, and they have difficulty relating to non-scientists. In addition, Sheldon is obsessively concerned with order, and Howard still lives with his mother. Penny, on the other hand, is attractive and funny, and can relate to people, though she is not academically talented. Early seasons included a romantic relationship between Leonard and Penny, which has ended. Two female scientists have been featured on TBBT: Leslie, a physicist, appeared in the first three seasons; Amy, a neuroscientist with many antisocial mannerisms similar to Sheldon's, was introduced in season three and returned in the fourth season. Another regular character is Bernadette, a server at the same restaurant as Penny. Penny, Bernadette, and Amy spend time together discussing Leonard's new girlfriend, Priya (a lawyer and Rajesh's sister).
My concerns about the representation of science and scientists in the series intersect with my objection to its depiction of women. The current main characters are four male scientists, two female servers, and a female scientist. I think this communicates several negative messages to young people:
- Scientists are predominately men.
- Scientists are antisocial.
- Female scientists are strange creatures who do not comply with many of our society's expectations of women.
While being "different" is not inherently "bad," TBBT presents only one way to be a female scientist, and that is clearly incorrect. Taken together, the caricatures lead people to believe scientists and engineers are socially awkward "outsiders."
A few scenes from a recent episode, "The Wildebeest Implementation," illustrate these points well. In this episode, Bernadette is dating Howard, and they plan to meet Leonard and Priya for dinner and a game of Jenga. Amy and Penny want to know how Leonard's relationship with Priya is going, so they enlist Bernadette as a spy. Bernadette is worried that she won't be able to be disingenuous, but Amy reassures her:
"Don't worry, I'll teach you [how to lie]. I did two years of Cub Scouts before they found out I was a girl."
Amy is probably TBBT's smartest female character, and this line shows that (according to the writers) she is so smart and androgynous she could “pass” as a boy when she was younger. The writers are telling young women interested in science that they must suppress their femininity to succeed in science—a truly negative message.
With his sister occupied on the double date, Rajesh feels lonely and goes to Sheldon and Leonard's apartment. Sheldon has just invented "three-person chess" and is busy playing against himself when Rajesh knocks. Reluctantly, Sheldon lets Rajesh in, but does not reply to any of his personal or emotional comments. Sheldon simply continues to talk about the ridiculously complicated rules of three-person chess. This is a typical interaction between Sheldon and other characters on the series: He fails to relate to the other characters' feelings, and buries himself in obscure facts or rules (leading some viewers to theorize he has Asperger's Syndrome). Contrary to this stereotype, scientists are not always so absorbed in details that they cannot interact with other people.
Some argue that comedy has to exaggerate characters to be successful. I believe a program like The Big Bang Theory, which takes pride in its scientific accuracy, bears a responsibility to depict scientists and engineers as people, not just caricatures.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is teacher education programs manager for the American Physical Society. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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