Representations of Masculinity in The Big Bang Theory

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In “Advertising and the Construction of Violent White Masculinity,” Jackson Katz outlines four main themes American advertising often uses in order to equate hegemonic masculinity with violence: 1)the working-class male as anti-authority “rebel,” 2) the idea that violence is a natural male behavior, 3)the use of military and sports symbolism, and 4)the idealization of the muscular male body. These themes carry over, of course, to other sites in mainstream culture, such as Hollywood cinema, popular television shows, comic books, video games, and popular music. In the American television show The Big Bang Theory, we see what may at first appear to be refreshing alternatives to the kind of “hegemonic” and “hypermasculine” male characters Katz speaks of.  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” or “subordinate” masculinities that challenge the gender binary that popular culture so often reinforces.  They do not need to perform an “exaggerated” form of masculinity which idealizes violence, aggression, and power over others.  The Big Bang Theory proves to be different, therefore, in that the lead male characters do not represent Katz’s definition of an idealized violent White 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 Katz’s definition of the kind of violent White masculinity so often seen in advertising.  Provide a brief analysis of the artifact, as I have done above. Make sure that your post is between 250-500 words, and please categorize your post under “Pop Culture and Masculinity.” DUE: Mon, March 12.

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