Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Why I Can't Watch Big Bang Anymore

So when the new guy, “Nelson,” arrived at work wearing a Green Lantern t-shirt, I assumed maybe he just considered himself “in on the joke.” It wouldn’t be the last superhero logo shirt he wore. Like Leonard and Sheldon, Nelson obviously retained childlike wonder at the prospect of ordinary people using extraordinary powers in pursuit of common justice. I thought: maybe this guy and I could be friends.

The shine wore off that apple quickly. About my age, Nelson showed little interest in making male friends. Instead, his attention soon centered on one pretty Hispanic co-worker, whom we’ll call “Daniela.” Though he verbally protested that he had no romantic interest in her because she’s too young—and that’s true—Nelson’s muscularly intrusive attention became both unambiguous and disruptive. And it began wearing on Daniela.

Nelson would talk to her, which maybe sounds sweet, except he’d barge into conversations or shout over people’s heads to do so. Whenever the line stopped, instead of finding alternate work to remain occupied, he’d thrust himself into Daniela’s personal space, insisting on her attention, talking much too loud or singing along with Cool Disco-era love songs off the radio. Basically, he appeared to be attempting to wear her down.

The CBS television network recently took the unusual step of renewing The Big Bang Theory, the highest-rated sitcom since Seinfeld ended, for an eighth, ninth, and tenth season simultaneously, securing it a place on TV at least through 2017. Fans and TV professionals lionize this show for its broad reach and its popularization of fringe “nerd” culture. I’ve written four essays on how TBBT resonates with core human psychological forces.

But someone (I’ve forgotten who) recently asserted that TBBT is secretly creepy. The central relationship from the pilot episode, that between experimental physicist Leonard and aspiring actress Penny, begins with him forcing himself into her company. Penny’s initial, visible discomfort with Leonard’s affection gives way to acceptance; the seventh season ended with Penny accepting Leonard’s marriage proposal.

I rolled my eyes when first reading that opinion. Everybody knows it’s a sweet sitcom about goofy characters who lack social skills, just trying to fit in. Yeah, I thought that… until I saw somebody who apparently considers Leonard’s in-yer-face courtship technique a how-to guide. Nelson uses many of Leonard’s approaches, not least claiming to be Daniela’s friend to insinuate himself into her life, though anyone can read his intent.

Real life makes this dynamic un-funny really, really quickly

Without scriptwriters to ensure that Leonard’s surrogate is essentially harmless, and our stand-in Penny remains okay with his attention, the humor wears off the dynamic really quickly. Daniela clearly doesn’t want Nelson’s attention; when he’s thrusting himself into her space, monopolizing her time, she looks distinctly uncomfortable. Daniela’s reactions to Nelson’s behavior has progressed from bemused, to nervous, to recently looking out-and-out terrified.

Worse, Nelson remains doggedly immune to advice. When he first began mugging for Daniela, several of us warned him that she, and other women on the line, were flashing fear reactions. Nelson’s exaggerated behavior elicited giggles and laughter from Daniela. However, she never looked happy. Another co-worker warned: “They’re not laughing with you, they’re laughing at you.” But I’ve realized something far worse is afoot in Daniela’s reaction.

Many women who’ve been encultured to play beta roles to men often laugh when feeling threatened or intimidated. You’ll often see this in Spanish-speaking cultures, which have theatrically macho tendencies. Daniela frequently laughs at Nelson’s aggressive clowning, but it’s a tight-lipped laugh, her eyes wide rather than crinkly, her gaze carefully locked on him rather than throwing her head back heedlessly. Poor Daniela practically broadcasts fear signals, which Nelson ignores.

Early on, audiences accepted Leonard’s forceful behavior, and Penny’s visible retreat, because scriptwriters thoughtfully included Howard Wolowitz. Where Leonard appears merely clueless, Wolowitz’s early behavior looks actively threatening. But because he’s vanishingly small, Penny’s rejections essentially neuter Wolowitz’s menace. Notice that when Wolowitz meets Bernadette, his future wife, the writers soften Leonard’s behavior. Without a foil to alleviate our perceptions, Leonard’s initial comportment would look far less funny.

*sigh* I'll miss you, buddy
Nelson has made me aware how pervasive behavior white-collar types would consider “sexual harassment” is in blue-collar environments. Men touching women without consent, or looming into their space, is widespread. Though I’ve never seen anything overtly assaultive, Freudian behavior like tickling and poking is common. And management cannot crack down on one person without enforcing rules on everybody, which would turn time-consuming and disruptive very, very quickly.

Leonard looks harmless because writers carefully script his clueless flirtations, and ensemble characters offset his creepiness. Nelson must improvise, and nobody supports or deflects his behavior. Watching Nelson’s attempts to court a woman who’s completely uninterested, but fears flatly saying “no,” is like watching a slow-motion car wreck. Worse, he’s demonstrated why TBBT is secretly horrifying. And I can’t go back; what I’ve seen, I cannot unsee.

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