Nerd Girls on TV

by Emma Raven on April 7, 2015 - 12:58pm

After years of activism, women are no longer expected to stay home raising families, nor to limit their career aspirations to secretary, nurse or teacher. Theoretically, all Canadians are free to study whatever, and however much, they would like. However, while a slight majority of university graduates are female (Hango), some fields remain predominantly female and others overwhelmingly male. The media’s representation of the division is neither accurate nor ethical.

Take science, for example. A science class at Marianopolis is typically at least half female. Girls are encouraged to be successful and independent by becoming doctors, surgeons, dentists, pharmacologists, physiotherapists... health scientists. According to Statistics Canada, the vast majority of university graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees are male, and the difference is the most pronounced in engineering, computer science and mathematics. The educational paths undertaken by today’s young people imply a continuation of this trend (Hango).

The media, in particular television, exaggerates this gendered division of the sciences. For instance, the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory suggests that female nerds are extremely rare. The four main characters are male scientists: Sheldon the theoretical physicist, Leonard the experimental physicist, Howard the mechanical engineer and Raj the astrophysicist. All four are portrayed as stereotypical nerds. Early episodes contain only one female character: Penny, the “dumb blonde,” who quickly becomes Leonard’s crush due to her physical attractiveness. In later seasons, Sheldon and Howard have girlfriends who also work in STEM fields. However, as Amy is a neuroscientist and Bernadette is a microbiologist, this does little for images of women in the pure sciences.

Moreover, when women who resemble the main characters do appear on the show, it is always pointed out as unusual. For instance, Leslie Winkle, a physicist employed at Cal Tech with the four main characters, is repeatedly insulted by Sheldon because her intelligence is comparable to his and therefore makes him insecure. As rivals, the two routinely trash talk each other’s work, but Sheldon goes so far as to use sexist insults to further his point. For example, in “The Bat Jar Conjecture,” Leslie describes Sheldon as “that arrogant, misogynistic East-Texas doorknob that told me I should abandon my work with high energy particles for laundry and child bearing.” While she repeatedly proves herself to be as competent a scientist as any of the men, this only causes Sheldon to hate her more out of jealousy. His comment suggests that because Leslie is female, he feels that he ought to be able to dismiss her and her work as inferior to anything he does by default. It also implies that women do not truly belong in STEM fields, and that if they choose to work in them, they are stealing the time from the gendered work they “should” be doing.

Granted, Sheldon’s sexism is meant to be interpreted ironically, as is made clear by the other characters' responses. The jokes are meant to be interpreted as humorous rather than offensive. However, this example is at least partially representative of the real life disparity between male and female scientists, as well as of some people’s attitudes about female STEM workers. Television is an exaggerated reflection of certain aspects of the world. Thus, the show reflects an actual dilemma while telling to its millions of viewers to conform to the image of the world it projects. It encourages girls – and, admittedly, boys – not to go into the pure sciences because of the “nerd” stereotype embodied by almost every character.

The Big Bang Theory’s representation of women is unethical because it both mirrors and propagates real life sexism regarding the sciences. From a utilitarian point of view, this is unacceptable. The purpose of a sitcom is to provide people with entertainment, and this is certainly achieved given the large number of viewers. However, each of these consumers is subject to the show’s sexist messages. While the sexism may be intended ironically, it remains present both in the show and in real life. Teenage girls who watch the show are learning that there exist two ways to be a woman, of which they may choose only one: attractive, like Penny, or smart, like Amy. Leslie’s infrequent appearances on the show are insufficient to convince audiences of the reality of a woman with social skills working in a STEM field with as much aptitude as her male counterparts. The net result is a negative influence upon viewers, as much of the show’s humour relies on stereotypes based in part on gender. This is only one of many ways in which the media’s representation of women in science is unethical and detrimental to consumers.

 

Hango, Darcy. “Gender differences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) programs at university.” Statistics Canada, 18 Dec. 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.

“Series 1 Episode 13 – The Bat Jar Conjecture.” Big Bang Theory Transcripts, n.d. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.

“The Big Bang Theory.” Wikipedia, 5 Apr. 2015. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.