|Kaley Cuoco as Penny|
Superficially, Penny draws Leonard from his cocoon of boyish activities, an effect she initially has on Sheldon too. (The pilot hints that Sheldon is a compulsive masturbator, and he originally shows insights into human relationships, though this vanishes after the first half-dozen episodes.) She also defines the other principal men, highlighting Howard’s theatrical libido and Raj’s pathological sheepishness. Though the boys remain largely interchangeable in each other’s company, a woman’s presence upends everything.
However, Penny resists analysis because she exists largely as she is. She has no surname, no significant recurrent relationships, and little narrative purpose except to define the boys. Not that she doesn’t exist as such: she loves Nebraska football, for instance, and as noted last week, Leonard tries in vain to watch the game with Penny’s friends. But Penny significantly speaks only to Leonard at this party. Even this personal trait exists only to define Leonard; Penny’s “friends” are Leonard’s props.
In 2007, film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl for a female stereotype who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Penny possesses Manic Pixie Dream Girl (hereinafter MPDG) traits, but the open-ended series format doesn’t let her remain vacant of inner life as cinematic MPDGs do. The MPDG only exists intact in small doses, because life has a way of revealing real people’s less pretty aspects.
Unlike movie MPDGs, Penny has a history: she describes growing up in Nebraska, and on occasion, her troubled relationship with her father scrambles her happiness. She bewails her meaningless job, and makes stabs at relationships with men. But these traits primarily reflect the men’s needs: she complains about her job when she needs to contrast with Sheldon and Leonard’s professional satisfaction. Her father issues emerge primarily when Leonard gets his dreaded visits from his mother.
Notably, each male lead is defined by some deep maternal conflict. Sheldon’s mother affects religiosity that defies his own empiricism, while Leonard’s mother displays starchy detachment against his need for acceptance. Similarly, Howard’s mother infantilizes the son who considers himself quite the Romeo, while Raj’s domineering mother probably influences his muteness around women his own age.
Of the four men, only Raj has a present father: Sheldon’s father died, probably before the pilot, while Howard mentions that his father left the family, and Leonard’s mother casually drops the bombshell that she has divorced Leonard’s father (who never appears onscreen). Though Raj’s father appears with his mother on their online video chats, he seems cowed by her outsized personality, and frequently shrinks under her harsh glare. Women in this world are either empowering or emasculating.
Between those two, Penny is clearly empowering. She has a perky vivacity that Leonard finds infectious. But on consideration, she’s not happy about anything. She disparages her work, her family, her dates, and the kitchen sink. As complaints mount, we realize that, in classic MPDG fashion, she’s happy because she’s happy. Which is unfair, considering she can afford a one-bedroom Pasadena apartment to herself on waitressing wages, and has CalTech’s smartest men fighting over her.
Penny seems outwardly normal, and perhaps that’s why Leonard likes her: she’s pretty, but that may matter less than his desire for approval. And on Planet Sitcom, she certainly is normal, with hip cynicism about her job and socially approved idiosyncrasies—as Sheldon notes in Season One, Episode 14, “The Nerdvana Annihilation,” women may collect stuffed animals, but men shouldn’t keep collecting toys. So she’s normal because her eccentricities have social approval that the boys’ don’t.
But Penny seems most congenial when she tempers her desire to change Leonard with a willingness to be changed. This shows in the Season Three finale, when she admits, after dumping Leonard, that she can’t date dumb guys anymore. She’s more discerning, and though she alienates the meathead demographic, she’s more human to us. Hence, Penny brings the MPDG down to earth. Despite her limitations, this makes her an engaging character in an interesting story.
Part One: The Leonard/Sheldon Disjunction
Part Three: The Raj/Howard Continuum