Geeky Stereotypes

Hello, everyone, and welcome to The Potted Lid’s first ever real post! Starting now, we will be updating every Thursday for the remainder of forever. I’m Uta, also known as Dame Uta, and I will be you blogger for today. Next up, you’ll get a lovely post by somebody else, which will be about things, because there is no Grand Dictator of Post Subjects. All five of us will be taking turns, so you will not hear from me for another five weeks. But when that comes, just wait. I have things planned. So many things.

Anyway, to the post.

Once upon a time, I found in my possession, a copy of Cosmo. For purely academic reasons, I found myself reading said Cosmo with Basil and Luna. It contained an article with the moral “if your boyfriend wants to do X and you don’t want to, you should tell him you don’t want to.” Which is a lovely moral. But their example of X was a “Big Bang Theory” marathon. At which point I though to myself “but why choose a geek-themed show? Clearly this isn’t the height of stereotypical masculinity?” But I realized it was. Because Cosmo doesn’t believe female geeks exist. Which upsets me, as a female geek. But I didn’t want to do a post about Cosmo and how it annoyed me. Because that would be ranty. Instead, I bring you a post about stereotypes of geeks in “The Big Bang Theory,” a show which I like, but I also like to whine about.

But before that, plot summary: TBBT is a sitcom about four geeky dude scientists and their hot neighbor Penny. The four guys engage in geeky things and attempts at romantic relationships and hilarity ensues, much like in other sitcoms, but with occasional references to Star Wars. The characters are as follows:

Leonard: the main main character. He’s an experimental physicist. He tries the hardest to be normal.

Sheldon: Leonard’s roommate. A theoretical physicist with an ego the size of Texas, the state from which he hails.. He’s the smartest of the group, so long as you don’t count social reasoning as a part of intelligence.

Howard: A friend of the first two who works as an engineer building things for the international space station. He was a womanizer until he started dating Bernadette (see below). He’s also Jewish, which tends to be significant primarily for comedic purposes.

Raj: The fourth friend and an astrophysicist. He immigrated to the U.S. from India several years prior to the show.

Penny: the aforementioned hot neighbor (to Leonard and Sheldon). Leonard’s on and off love interest and a waitress as she awaits her break into the acting business. She’s the not-genius one.

Bernadette: Howard’s girlfriend and later fiancee. She’s a microbiologist.

Amy: Sheldon’s kinda-girlfriend. She works in neurobiology. She doesn’t really get social convention, but she tries.

And now it’s stereotype time.

Geeks are Smart

“The Big Bang Theory” is a show about smart people. It’s only a minority of characters who are average or below average in intelligence. For the most part, these characters have no interest in stereotypically geeky things. The exception, however, is Penny’s sometimes-boyfriend Zach. While just straight-up dumb, Zach expresses an interest in both comic books and cosplaying in one episode. And from that, we learn that geeks range everywhere in the intelligence spectrum and we shouldn’t think less of those who weren’t on the honor roll in high school.

Just kidding. Zach reads “Jughead” and “Archie,” not “Batman.” Clearly, this is a mark of his failures as a geek and as a human being. Now, to be fair, the episode does address the fact that the main characters are all douches to Zach at first because he isn’t as smart as the rest of them (or a dolphin). But we’re still left with the fact that he’s really only a sometimes geek. I’m trying really hard not to make a “cookies are a sometimes food” joke. I failed apparently.

I’ve never really been sure of how true this stereotype is. My geeky friends are all smart, but then again, most of my friends are pretty smart. I feel like that’s just how things tend to shake out. You get to high school and start taking AP classes, so you interact more and more with your smarter friends. Then you go to college, where you assume everyone is reasonably intelligent, then you bond with people like yourself. Then you just live in your little world where you think “of course everyone is well-acquainted with Voltaire and understands why one would wish to punch him in the face a little.” Then again, I did know some people in anime club in high school who weren’t really academically oriented. We weren’t close, so they could secretly be geniuses and I’d never know. And yes, I did start three sentences in a row with “then.” Deal with it.

So, in conclusion, I really don’t know if geeks tend to be smart or not. I’d assume we run the full range, but I have little to go on. But I don’t think this stereotype is going anywhere. I get the feeling that most geeks enjoy it.

Geeks are Sciencey

Every main character on TBBT is a scientist, save for the lone completely “mainstream” woman. Leonard, Sheldon, and Raj are each some manner of physicist, Howard is an engineer, and Bernadette and Amy (neither of whom are really geeks, but more on this later) both work in biology. As those of you who have read our About page may have guessed, this has not been my experience with geekdom. Out of the people I know who are of a geeky persuasion, it’s a fairly even split between science majors and social science/humanities majors.

This stereotype, I think, goes hand-in-hand with our current academic elitism. It seems to be linked with an idea of inaccessibility. Just as subjects like particle physics are inaccessible to the “average” person, many believe geek culture is inaccessible except to those who are already in it. People tend to assume they understand humanities with no training, while saying you majored in physics generally gets a “ooh, you must be smart.” Not saying that scientists or geeks aren’t smart, but there are many smart people who aren’t scientists and many non-scientists, of a variety of intelligence levels, who are geeks. And of course, these sciencey geeks understand the humanities, they’ve read all the classics and pick up languages like nothing (how else would they know Klingon and Elvish?).

I find this stereotype to be annoying. Like I said, The Potted Lid itself is slanted towards the humanities. And one assumes that those who create geek-products probably didn’t all major in genetics. Someone has to write and draw the comic books, design the board games, and make up the languages. My main issue with it, though, is the academic elitism. And that’s not the point of this post. But I think it’s time us non-science geeks make ourselves known. I’m gonna go forge Anduril with medieval smithing techniques now. (That’s a lie. I’m far to lazy. And lack the necessary forge.)

Geeks Do All Geek-Things

“The Big Bang Theory” follows four actual geeks–Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj. They’re into superheroes. And figurines. And fantasy/sci-fi literature. And rpgs. And anime. And ren-fest. And computers. And video games. And kite fighting. Et cetera. Now, I personally enjoy many of these things. Not all of them. I’m not a big “Star Trek” fan. And I hate computers. I mean, I love mine so long as it obeys my every whim, but I know that it’s thinking about ways to overthrow me. I can sense it.

I think this stereotype comes from the fact that geek subculture is a subculture. There probably isn’t much of a need for non-geeks to learn the differences between the sub-subcultures. At the end of the day, an otaku and a brony (clearly better with y than with ie) are still adults watching cartoons. So long as, y’know, you and your friends don’t belong to one of these groups and not the other.

I’m of two minds about this stereotype. On the one hand, I don’t do all geeky things and the assumption I do (or assertion that I should do them) gets a little old. But I like having some semblance of unity with other geeks.  Even though I don’t care about the Doctor and Rose, I like things that are vaguely similar and perhaps me and my Dr. Who friends will discover something that combines both of our interests and it’ll be awesome. And I want computer geeks around for when my dear laptop finally rises up against me.

Geeks are White

Except for their South Asian friend. And maybe you could argue that having a Jewish character could give the show a  diversity point. Now, whether or not Potted Lid’s composition is eerily similar to this, the lack of non-white geeks in the show outside of Raj is a little off-putting. Even when they go to places where there are geeks, like a comic book store, most if not all of the extras are white. (Though, part of me wants to hedge on this assertion–I don’t have a super great recollection of every time there were in geek-public. But I’m pretty sure their version of geek-culture is almost all white.)

I also feel that this is a pretty pervasive stereotype in society. The stereotypical geek is white. Maybe he could be East Asian, assuming anime was somehow involved. Or math. We can’t forget that one. (Side note: I had never heard this stereotype until I was almost out of high school. Having a last name at the end of the alphabet and going to a school where Vang and Yang were really common last names, I commonly sat by my Asian classmates in math class. I was on math team. They weren’t. Someone had to explain the reference to me when it came up. Stereotypes really only work when you don’t know people.)

Now, I’ll admit right now that I don’t know what it is to deal with this. I’m about as white as you can get (no, I don’t know how you measure “whiteness” in this context and I’m not proposing a paradigm). But I can see where it would be very frustrating to have everyone assume that the media you’re consuming  or the games that you’re playing aren’t for you.

And the fact that people believe that geeks are white probably aids the fact that geek-media are geared towards a white audience. Just look at all the white-washing of casts, like in “The Last Airbender” or the proposed “Akira.” Or look at the fact that almost all fantasy worlds are medieval Europe, with no immigration. Or that the last two Huntress comics I read were about her fighting horrible, woman-hating Mediterranean men. Or everything about race in Conan the Barbarian works.

Overall, I feel that the geek community at large need to look at its media and really think about what it’s saying about race. And “everyone is pale” is, in fact, saying something. Going back to TBBT, would it really be that hard to throw in a geeky side character of color? Or at least mix up the extras a little?

Geeks are Male

This whole post started because of that article I read in Cosmo. The assumption was that men like geeky things. These things aren’t for women. And, as much as I enjoy “The Big Bang Theory,” I feel like this is the stereotype they almost explicitly perpetuate.

When the show started, Penny was the only female and the only non-geek. Then, there was a woman named Leslie that was in a number of episodes. She was a decent character and she was smart. She was a physicist along with the main male characters. But, because she was more of a minor character, we didn’t really get to see her interests outside of the viola (violin?) and sleeping with Leonard.

Then we eventually get Bernadette, followed by Amy. Now, I enjoy both of these characters. They’re fun. They’re just not geeks. And the show doesn’t know this. Bernadette and Amy and smart and nerdy. But that’s as far as it goes. They both explicitly don’t like comic books. Amy, at least, doesn’t understand the difference between “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.” And there’s a list of things that Bernadette is established as not liking in her intro episode, none of which are shown to change or are even addressed afterwards. And it would be fine to have a geek who didn’t like all geeky things, except in a universe where it’s been established that this doesn’t happen. And being smart and being a geek aren’t the same, despite what the creators when you to think. To be a geek, you need at least some geeky thing to do or like.

Moreover, the female characters seem to look down on the male characters’ geeky habits. They act as those these are interests that the guys just need to grow out of. It seems that geeky things are juvenile, and only men are allowed to do juvenile things. This is unfortunate, since TBBT did address this issue with a different conclusion back in season 1. At one point, Penny does convince Leonard that his stuff is for kids and he almost gets rid of it until Sheldon calls Penny out for being a Hello Kitty fan. I thought the message was that we all have things that may be seen as a little childish by some, but that shouldn’t diminish that fact that we like them. But maybe the moral was that there are childish things women are into and childish things men are into. Women like Hello Kitty, men like action figures. And we need to accept that about the opposite gender.

Except I like action figures. And comic books. And I’m really sick of the “no girls go willingly to a comic book store” joke.

This goes back into similar problems to thinking every geek is white. Because if we can pretend that women don’t do geeky things, you don’t need to make geek-media not offensive to women. I feel like this all plays into why comic book stores are rated for how woman-friendly they are and why women who play video games online often pretend to be men.

And again, would it be hard to throw in a few female extras at the next run to the comic book store? Or even have an established female character like one geeky thing. Make the renaissance festival Bernadette’s favorite time of year. Something. All geeks being male is an incredibly ingrained stereotype. But it’s also one that causes problems, as anyone familiar with the whole Anita Sarkeesian kickstarter campaign is aware.

But, at the end of the day, I still enjoy “The Big Bang Theory” and I’ll still watch it. It does perpetuate certain stereotypes of geeks. I can live with ignoring the fact that I never intend to be a scientist and the fact that my friends to be geeky in certain way and not others. What I do take issue with is the fact that geekdom is seen as the domain of predominantly white males. I like that they have one geeky non-white character, but why not a couple more? And while we’re at it, how about a couple female geeks? Even in the background, it would help  to see some generic geeks who weren’t white men.

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2 responses to “Geeky Stereotypes

  1. Nice analysis on the show. I watched season 1 to 4 and so far I am loving it. Of course, these stereotypes do bother me time to time. I agree with you about “Geek Do All Geek-Things” stereotype. I am a music and science geek but definitely not a gamer nor a comic reader. I didn’t no about the difference between DC and Marvel until I started watching the show! I do kind of wish they had geeky females too. Plus, some diversity in races will be nice too. I kind of miss Dennis Kim (from North Korea).

  2. Thanks.

    Now that you mention it, I really do miss Dennis Kim. Though, part of me understands not wanting to put a kid in the show with a bunch of people in their late 20’s.

    But yeah, I’m gonna continue to watch the show, even as I whine about it. I make a passtime of complaining about things I love and the stereotypes aren’t really bad enough to make me actually offended. It’s more of an annoyance thing. But I’m glad you’re enjoying the show. Season five is a good time, so I encourage you to keep going on it, though the episodes may be hard to find right now.

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