Friday, September 23, 2011

The Big Bang Theory's Season Opener: Slut Shaming and Racism Are Funny



'Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock' photo (c) 2009, elrohir ancalin - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
The Big Bang Theory is one of the few comedies that I continue to watch.  I know that it has its problematic elements, but sometimes you have to say, hell with it I like it; however last nights episode really upset me. In the season finale, Penny and Raj end up in bed together, and so of course the big to do was whether or not the writers were going to let them become a couple.

This incident occurred when Penny was obviously drunk, and so the writers used this incident to do the usual slut shaming.  When Penny let's Amy Farrah Fowler enter her apartment while holding a measuring cup with wine it, Amy says," I see you're keeping accurate count of your alcohol intake - smart idea considering how trampy you get when you've had a few." Right, cause it's funny to slut shame a woman.  Penny then goes on to say, "God I screwed up everything, I hurt Leonard, I hurt Raj. What is wrong with me? I feel like two totally different people, Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Whore.

So, Penny is a dirty slut, but Raj finally managed to score and does not feel extremely guilty, though his actions also hurt Leonard. Nope, Raj was just doing what comes naturally to an Indian man. Isn't this just classic, he's a stud and she's a slut with a side of racism thrown in for extra seasoning?

Not content with the slut shaming, the writers decided to go for a solid round of racism.
Amy: Do you know the story of Catherine the Great?
Penny: No
Amy: She ruled Russia in the 1700's and one night when she was feeling particularly randy she used an intricate system of pulleys to have intimate relations with a horse.
Penny: I'm sorry, what does this have to do with me?
Amy: She engaged in inter-species hanky panky and people still call her great. I'm sure your reputation can survive you shagging a little Indian boy.
I barely no where to start with this exchange.  Raj is an accomplished, introverted man.  It is both infantalizing and racist to refer to a grown man of color as a boy.  The fact that this was said by a White woman, further complicates the issue, because Amy meant to purposefully emasculate Raj based specifically in his race. Amy's idea of comforting Penny, was to let her know that she was not permanently soiled by sleeping with a man of color. From her comments, it seems that Amy is more concerned that Raj is of color. Amy implies by her commentary that White female bodies are meant for White males.  The fact that she dares to compare sleeping with Raj to bestiality, creates a link between men of color to savages.  Being Indian, Raj is already a colonized body in the mind of Whiteness.

Just in case Penny was not actually comforted by her link to bestality and Catherine the Great, Amy decides to inform her of the "skank reflex".  Fucking it seems is something that women do when they aren't happy to alleviate sacredness. No, women don't ever have sex because they feel a desire to have sex; it's always in reaction to some inner turmoil, or a desire to be noticed, as Penny let's us know in her little story about showing the boys in kindergarten her under pants.  

I had just about reached a point when I thought that a 30 minute show could not have any more isms, but I was wrong.  When Raj finally tracks Penny down at Amy's place to talk about what happened between them, more racism ensues.

Penny sits Raj down as says, "I want to go back to the way we were before - friends no sprinkles." Raj says, "oh alright," and then follows that up with, "as your friend you might want to know that we didn't have sex in the conventional sense."  I should have known at this point that this was a set up for more racism, considering Amy's comments earlier but, I was naive.  Amy responds to Raj saying, "Oh God, did you pull some weird Indian crap on me?"

Really? Weird Indian crap?  Those kinky sexually perverted Indian people just cannot be trusted.  No wonder Penny is upset, she did after all let Raj near her pure unsullied White female body.  The writers could have had Raj call Penny out on her racism, but I guess that wouldn't be as funny as demeaning one of the two characters of color on the show.  Instead of confronting Penny, they have Raj tell her about the fact that prematurely ejaculated when Penny tried to put a condom on him.  

The fact of the matter is that you cannot erase racism, and so it makes sense to have White characters say and do racist things however, when there is no counter balance pointing out that said action or statement is indeed racist, it normalizes the behaviour.  In the case of The Big Bang Theory, not only does it normalize the behaviour, it turns it into a joke, as though negotiating this world as a person of color is hilarious.  In this particular scene in case you missed the point that this was supposed to be funny, there's the wonderful addition of canned laughter.  Yeah, everyone laugh at the man of color for potentially being a sexual deviant.

I have given The Big Bang Theory a pass on a lot of things, because even though Raj is a scientist, he is is not anymore socially inept than the White characters on the show. I do however think it's worth noting that all of the White males have paired up with women, with the exception of him.  When Raj finally gets to have sex, it's only because Penny was drunk.  There was no way she could have possibly consented to sleeping with him, though she did have sex numerous times with Leonard. Keep in mind that this makes Raj a man that is more than happy to attempt to attract the partners of his friends, than find a loving stable relationship of us own. 

For once, I would like to see a comedy that does not rely on isms to be funny.  It allows dominant bodies the opportunity to claim that marginalized people don't have a sense of humor, or that we take everything to seriously, as though these supposed jokes don't work to make our lives harder.  Even if we were to follow the common advise to stop watching if we are offended, that would still mean that people viewing would be internalizing the racism, thus still translating into more racism in our lived experience.  I also think that it worth noting, that the simple don't watch if you don't like it also implies that we don't deserve to have our lives portrayed accurately and respectfully in the media simply because we are marginalized.  

There is nothing in the media that is unproblematic, because it is built from a framework that is already flawed.  However, if marginalized people were to tune out altogether -- it would mean that we would be forced to sit in a room twiddling out thumbs day after day, because there is not a magazine, book, song, movie, or television show, that does not demean one of us in some way.  It reduces our choices to living in a vacuum, or smiling and grinning when we are actively demeaned -- and that in and of itself is a reflection of the fact that we are simply not valued.