In the American television show The Big Bang Theory, we see what may appear to be refreshing alternatives to the kind of “hegemonic” and “hypermasculine” male characters we usually see on tv. The main male characters–Leonard, Sheldon, Rajesh and Howard–are overly-educated, intelligent, “nerd” scientists who seem to be more interested in physics, academic theories, video games and superheroes than in more stereotypical manly interests (beer, sex, and women). They also don’t fit the hypermasculine type in terms of their appearance. In the real world, they might be considered “geeks.” Contrary to the “ideal” male stereotype, they possess many “feminine” characteristics. For example, they are often portrayed as openly emotional, empathetic, caring, vulnerable, and sometimes frightened individuals. What’s more, they are frequently unsuccessful in their advances towards women. Sheldon, for example, is so terrified of physical contact that his “dates” with his girlfriend often consist of Skype chats about science. In this way, these characters typically represent a variety of “marginalized” masculinities that challenge many gender role stereotypes. In “Masculinity as Homophobia,” Michael S. Kimmel defines masculinity as “the fear that other men will unmask us, emasculate us, reveal to us and the world that we do not measure up, that we are not real men.” In order to compensate for this fear, he points out that men often feel the need to perform an “exaggerated” form of masculinity which idealizes violence, aggression, and power over others. The BIg Bang Theory proves to be different in that the lead male characters do not represent Kimmel’s definition of an idealized violent masculinity so prevalent in pop culture today.
On the other hand, the show still seems to play into other harmful stereotypes about “geeky” men. Even though they are all well-educated, for example, there are many instances in which the characters are presented as so child-like that they can’t seem to cope with simple, everyday tasks. Howard, for example, still lives with his mother, who terrorizes him by controlling his every move. All of the characters prove to have dysfunctional (or non-existent) relationships with women, and there are even a few gay jokes thrown in for good measure. There is no doubt that the show is funny, but are we meant to be laughing with these characters or at them?
STUDENTS: Please post one pop culture artifact that you believe either reinforces or challenges traditional notions of masculinity. Provide a brief analysis, as I have done above.