An unexpected lesson on mature relationship-building from The Big Bang Theory.
A sitcom about awkward men blindly trying to navigate the dating scene with no clue at all, where everyone’s neurotic and half the cast have what in real life would be considered serious childhood trauma, is the last place where you’d expect to watch someone behave sensibly and give profound life advice. But a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, “The Raiders Minimization,” was nicely different from its usual tone.
On one hand, there’s the Penny/Leonard pairing, the most shameless iteration in existence of the blonde/nerd stereotype, which has nonetheless subverted many of its associated clichés. In this episode, Leonard discovers that his girlfriend has a compassion button he can press whenever he feels like having sex. When Penny discovers she’s been tricked, she confronts him with his mother, usually depicted in the show as the epitome of abusive parenting, but this time incredibly wise and able to see through Leonard’s manipulative tactics.
This B-plot rests on the tired assumption that, however geeky, men are by default sex-hungry, and however hot, women are by default sex-avoidant, so pleasure is a prize men must coax from women, one of the traps of patriarchy that the show itself often admits falling prey to. Leonard ends up forced to face his mommy issues by listening to his mother, renowned psychologist and author of the bestseller The Disappointing Child, discuss in detail how her sex life has affected his. That’s tough love for you.
On the other hand, there’s the C-plot between Rajesh and Stuart, who make an interesting point about online rejection probably being much more heartless and painful than in real life; that is, until a visit to a bar reminds them how much it sucks to be rejected in your face. These two have so much in common that by this point one must wonder what they’re waiting for to start dating each other, but probably the screenwriters won’t go that far. One of the most consistent (and regrettable) features of this show is that it treats homosexuality as the punch line, never as a viable plot point.
This reluctance to grant any space to other possible masculinities may have something to do with the fact that The Big Bang Theory is a brainchild of the same guy who gave us the outrageously insulting Two and a Half Men, where “Men” is only allowed to mean what it does in its opening credits song: Men, men, manly men, men.
In view of the limitations imposed by the show’s premise, it’s refreshing to watch Amy Farrah Fowler be the sole voice of sanity in this episode’s A-plot. After she pointed out a story flaw in a movie Sheldon loves, he resolves to avenge his wounded inner man-child by exposing every inconsistency in one of her favorite movies. This exchange was the gem of the episode:
“Sheldon, we’re in a relationship. When you get angry, just tell me. You don’t need to seek revenge.”
“Are you sure? Every time my dad stayed out all night, my mom put hamster poop in his chewing tobacco.”
“Well, that’s not how we’re gonna do it.”
Those words should be carved in golden letters on marble: That’s not how we’re gonna do it. Amy refuses to repeat the vicious circle of mutual harm they both come from, and dares to propose something new: what if we are open with each other, negotiate what we’re willing to put up with and not, and make our own relationship the way we like it?
That’s the most important lesson for couples in this century: Question your role models. Talk. Build the kind of relationship that works for you, which doesn’t have to be the one your parents had. Do it even if nobody has tried your model before—especially if so.
The results may be surprising, and that’s the point. It’s an important part of keeping your spark alive.