What is nerd culture?

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The Big Bang Theory: Celebrating nerdculture or confirming stereotypes?
After twelve seasons The Big Bang Theory has come to an end. The last episode has been broadcasted in both the US and the Netherlands. The Big Bang Theory was both praised and condemned by critics for its representation of a ‘nerdculture’ and ‘stupid blondes’, but still managed to stay at the top for twelve years. On the basis of the critiques, we discuss the social relationships between the characters and explain the success of the series.

Watch out! The text may contain spoilers about the course of the series.

The Big Bang Theory had its premiere in 2007 and received a lot of criticism as well as Emmy’s, Critics’ Choice Awards and a Golden Globe for Jim Parsons’ role as Sheldon Cooper.

In addition, the sitcom became one of the longest running series on American TV with almost continuous high ratings. Eighteen million people watched the latest broadcast on CBS alone.

The Big Bang Theory in figures
* The first episode was aired on September 24, 2007.
* Twelve seasons of the sitcom appeared.
* A total of 279 episodes were made.
* Actors Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco, Kunal Nayaar and Simon Helberg reportedly make $1 million per episode.
* The last episode attracted eighteen million television viewers in the U.S. alone.
* The series won 69 awards according to IMDb.

The story of The Big Bang Theoryd revolves around the friends Sheldon Cooper, Leonard Hofstadter, Raj Koothrappali and Howard Wolowitz who are mainly interested in physics, superheroes, comic books, science fiction and Star Trek have little experience with relationships and women.

When they come into contact with their new neighbor Penny, their lives change and it turns out that they can still learn a lot of social skills from her.

A good representation of nerdy culture or ridiculous stereotypes?
Every episode of The Big Bang Theoryis is brimming with references to superhero movies and science fiction series. The main characters dress up regularly and have extensive discussions about their favourite comic books and films. Several actors from Star Trek (such as Wil Wheaton) even make their appearance on the sitcom.

The series was soon praised for how the so-called nerdculture became more popular. “Nerds are no longer the suckers, but the heroes. The Big Bang Theory has therefore contributed greatly to normalizing what used to be seen as a subculture and socially less desirable,” says Dan Hassler-Forest, lecturer in popular culture at the University of Utrecht, to the AD about this.

Bill Beachy, an expert on nerd culture, agrees that the series made culture more popular, but that this is at the expense of the people in this culture, because they are often the target of ridicule. “The writers of the show reinforce the stigma that men in this culture are not real men, but children who play games and worship superheroes,” he writes for Odyssey.

Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki).

Morris M. van Grunge disagrees. “The makers of the series do everything they can to present the scientific side of the storylines in the right way and the same goes for the references to the culture of geeks. For every mainstream reference there is also talk of obscure science fiction films and series,” he writes.

Noel Murray, who describes himself and his wife as a geek in an article for The Verge zonder gene (The Verge without a gene), thinks nerds will one day look back on The Big Bang Theories as something positive. However, he notes that all the female characters in the series are equally uninterested in their partners’ hobbies, confirming the bias that video games, science fiction and comic books are not for women.

Leonard, Sheldon, Penny and Amy play pictionary

Successful female scientists and the stupid blonde
The Big Bang Theory has received a lot of criticism from feminist circles over the years. Television critic Anna Murray sums up her problems with the character Penny in the New Zealand newspaper NZ Herald: “She is seen by the others as a stupid blonde or as a trophy to ogle at”.

In the third season, Bernadette Rostenkowski, a microbiologist played by Melissa Rauch, and neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) are introduced. Although the ladies are initially used as romantic partners for the male protagonists (Bernadette starts a relationship with Howard and Amy is, according to a computer system, the perfect match for Sheldon), they soon become protagonists with their own storylines.

Journalist A.K. Whitley thinks the show has taken a step in the right direction. “They are no longer romantic accessories, but we also see their problems and victories in the workplace,” she writes on Bitch Media . Morris M. joins them there in Grungebij. “Name another series starring two successful women in science and dedicating full episodes to their storyline.”

Penny (Kaley Cuoco), Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) and Amy (Mayim Bialik).

Although Whitley believes the series could have done even more with the storylines surrounding women in science, she concludes on a positive note: “The series provides a more credible representation of women in science than most television shows and could help the next generation considering a career in science.

The female-unfriendly side of Sheldon and his friends
However, criticism of gender roles in the series more often focuses on the male characters, because they do not treat the women with enough respect. Especially in the beginning of the series, the four friends are all awkward when dealing with women,

The theoretical physicist Sheldon (Jim Parsons) knows little about social conventions and invariably sees his female colleagues as inferior. He continuously reduces Penny’s emotions to a menstrual cycle. His friend Howard, an engineer by profession, is even worse off. Journalist Rakhi Bose describes in an article for News18 how Howard comes across as sexually frustrated in the first seasons, filming women against their will and trying to get them into his bed.

Sheldon embarrasses his assistant

“The episodes always end with Howard’s pathetic story. As an audience, you apparently have to feel sorry for him, even though he has absolutely no respect for women’s rights and privacy,” said Rose.

Recognizable characters who are evolving
However, Morris M. believes that the strength of The Big Bang Theory lies in the personal development of the characters. “Howard shakes off his dirty image and forms a family with Bernadette. He does what we all do and grows up,” he writes. The same goes for Penny. “She puts her dream of becoming an actress behind her and becomes a real career woman.”

Over the years, the clumsy boys all become mature men with relationships. Leonard marries Penny and by the end of the series is a father-to-be, Howard and Bernadette have children together, Raj – who at first couldn’t even talk to women – has several girlfriends throughout the series, and even the peculiar and distant Sheldon eventually marries Amy.

Melissa Locker of The Guardian attributes the long-running success of the series mainly to the recognizable development of the characters. “We see them chasing their dreams and struggling with the high expectations of parents,” she writes. “The characters give us the idea that even brilliant scientists are like us and fans like that”.

The cast on the set.

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