It's no secret that I love The Big Bang Theory, even though in reality it has as much to do with science as Friends had to do with ... well, science. But there's one aspect of the show that drives me quietly insane, and that's the dynamic between Leonard and Penny.
It's become a well-used trope: Beauty and the Geek. It's the same dynamic that linked Ross and Rachel in Friends. And it's wrong, all wrong.
We want these couples to get together. We root for them. The girl is presented as being out of the guy's league, and so we cheer when he finally gets her. But why? Why do we accept the fact that she's out of his league and not the other way around? Why do looks trump intelligence? And why, oh why, do we still believe that a relationship in which both parties are convinced that one of them is way cooler (and, in fact, hotter) than the other can possibly be healthy in the long term?
It's patronising and stereotypical to portray men as being solely interested in looks. Yet as far as I can see, that's the main thing that attracts Leonard to Penny or Ross to Rachel. Instead of going for the girl they'd actually be able to have an interesting conversation with at dinner, these guys are choosing to obsess over the dumb blonde.* They're perpetuating a kind of eighteenth-century mindset that tells us men don't need their women to offer them lively discussion or a sharing of intellectual ideas, because they can always go down to their club and seek out rational company in the form of another man. Both Leonard and Ross are pursuing an adult relationship based on nothing more than an adolescent-level crush. And we're meant to feel as if they've achieved something when they finally snag the cheerleader.
Of course, a good old double standard is in operation here. For instance, there's a vague sense in Big Bang that Bernadette has married beneath her. She earns a lot more money than Howard; she wears the trousers in the relationship. Yet there's no such feeling about the Leonard/Penny pairing, even though Leonard is equally more successful than Penny. Why is this? Why are we invited to laugh at a couple who are intellectual equals and where the woman just happens to be the high flyer**, while there's no problem with a couple in the more traditional (read: stereotypical) 'man as breadwinner' configuration who have nothing at all in common except that she's hot and he likes hot girls? Is it the lingering and unpleasant assumption that a man who contributes less financially than his partner is somehow risible? Or is it the equally pernicious assumption that it doesn't matter what else a woman brings to a relationship, as long as she's attractive? If Leonard and Penny were Leonie and Peter, would we still be asked to admire Leonie's luck in finally convincing pretty-but-dumb Peter to date her? I suspect not. Women who go after inferiors in intellect/superiors in looks are mocked. Men who do the same are applauded.
So what message does this send to the geeky, smart, fascinated-with-science young women out there? That it doesn't matter how switched-on and sparky and passionate about academia they are. The guys with whom they might make an equal connection are more concerned with pursuing the hot girls who think learning is boring and intellectual curiosity is for losers. Forget being able to hold an interesting conversation, girls. If you want the boys to like you, you'd better learn to apply your makeup right.
As I said, I love Big Bang. I love the characters, and I believe it means well as a show about geeks, for geeks – even if it missteps sometimes. But I really wish we could rid ourselves, once and for all, of the idea that Geek is bad and Beauty is good. That no matter how intelligent and interesting a man is, he's still somehow inferior to a pretty woman – and that the same man won't care about a woman's brain, only about her appearance. I would have thought, in the 21st century, we'd be beyond that by now.
* I'm not actually saying that either Penny or Rachel is stupid, by the way. Just that both Leonard and Ross are presented to us as being interested in the girls primarily because of their appearance, and despite the fact that they don't have a great deal in common.
** Yes, I know Howard's an astronaut. Don't take it so literally.