Evidence of the Normalization of American Science

I have only watched a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory on CBS (and don't plan to watch more), but I suppose that a show like this is something that historians of science in the United States will eventually have to deal with. From what I can glean, the show's science content as such plays a relatively small role, but its sense of the scientist/geek/nerd as an important modern/American type sits at the center of the show's concept. Could such a thing have been conceivable before the post-WWII proliferation of engineering and science jobs? Sure, you have Arrowsmith (1925) and works that valorize the scientist in the early twentieth century, but we don't see art that considers engineers or scientists to be normal, if socially awkward, folks. I guess we should read Steven Shapin's The Scientific Life next to an episode and see what happens.
A Lab Bench on TV! (and it isn't being used to solve murders!) -- The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

I would not have thought about the show at all, had I not stumbled upon this call for papers for an edited volume on "The Big Bang Theory and Gender Politics," which specifically calls for investigations into the gendered (and often demeaning) depictions of women, even the women scientists. I'll post the CFP after the jump.

(Also, apparently, Stephen Hawking just guest-starred. I would consider that a step down from The Simpsons, which, come to think of it, is also about the normalization of the engineer!)

Here it is:
Since its creation in 2007 The Big Bang Theory has captured a steady viewer-ship of nearly 17 Million people. After the first four seasons the network added an additional three without hesitation. The show is more popular than ever before and it stands to reason to analyze why this is the case. Does its popularity stem from the show's quirky but lovable characters? Can it be attributed to the clever mixture of science and popular culture? Is it the combination of down to earth scientist and the world of an aspiring actress? Who knows? There are many aspects that make the show a success; however, there are certain facets that need to be addressed since the presentation of the characters often is problematic. Throughout its run the show has shown a remarkable capability to reduce women to bed fellows, which do not necessarily need a brain and/or self-esteem. Penny's (who, alarmingly enough, does not yet have a last name) naivety from the first few seasons was hard to stomach for many viewers, and it wasn't until the introduction of Amy Farrah Fowler that the cast was equipped with a long-term female character whose function did not reduce her to being eye candy or a sex object. Bernadette, however, plays into the blond and dumb (even though she has a PhD) stereotype. Bernadette is bimbo-ized even though she has the PhD and her counterpart Amy is asexualized (though not masculine-ized) even though she „dates and enjoys sex“.
Most of the male characters in this show hardly fare any better. Raj's inability to address women without being drunk, and Howard's desperate attempt to find and shag a woman no matter the costs, as well as the latent sexual desires both characters seem to harbour for each other opens them up to a lot of criticism as well. Sheldon's inability to function in the real world also requires some investigating. Society seems to have reached a state where it appears to be impossible to have it all, the brains, the personality, the social aptness, and the beauty to go with it. Recent TV shows proposed that smart is the new sexy, but what if this attitude comes with a price too high to pay? This depiction of perceived smartness to an audience that may have needs to elevate nerds is complicated by that smartness being depicted as flat and two-dimensional. At the same time, the show also developed a kind of hierarchy for nerd-dom, some nerds are better than others, some kinds of smart are better than others, but above all, those nerds who can have sex are still better than all the other nerds.
This collection will focus on gender and sexuality and I welcome all papers that are related to these topics.
Please send one page (around 500 words) abstracts to the following E-mail address Nadine.farghaly@gmx.net
And include the following information:
Writers submit a 1-page synopsis of their proposed chapter to us clearly stating:
[a] the research question
[b] the methodology
[c] the findings
[d] the bibliography (5 sources)
Deadline: 1st of June 2012
For questions please contact
Nadine Farghaly
Hope to hear from you soon.

Nadine Farghaly
Email: nadine.farghaly@gmx.net


Dan, if you have any thoughts on how *Big Bang Theory* and its depiction compare with *Breaking Bad*, I'd love to hear them. I'm thinking in particular of whether it's still "normalization" if we're talking about a chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-producer..

For such an analysis, Hank, I think you might need to turn to (m)ethnography. I've been waiting to put that joke in print for years now.

In all seriousness, I've recently been thinking about similar issues. Next week, I'm giving a lecture on Michael Crichton and the "mainstreaming" of science fiction. I've been trying to figure out what exactly mainstreaming involves, and Hollywood -- at least -- is a big part of that. On my summer reading list is David Kirby's _Lab Coats in Hollywood_. When I do, I'll post a review.

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