For those of you unfamiliar with the show The Big Bang Theory, here’s the skinny: the show revolves around Sheldon and Lenard who are roommates, their across-the-hall neighbor Penny, and their two close friends Howard and Raj. Basically, everyone’s trying to find someone else to be with and have their quirks that prevent them from succeeding at this endeavor. Season 5, episode 4, “The Wiggly Finger Catalyst” focuses on Raj’s inability to speak to women unless he’s drunk, by introducing a woman to whom he can speak to. The catch? She’s deaf. When Raj first meets Emily he stays mute, but once he knows that she can’t hear him speak and their friend Howard mediates their conversations by interpreting spoken English to American Sign Language (ASL) and vice versa, all seems to be working out well… except for a few little things.
The way that Emily is portrayed and discussed by the other characters on the show is woefully trite. To start with, her hearing loss is apparently total; as in, she can’t hear any frequencies on the show at all, which is incredibly rare in American society, but is a common misconception of deaf/hard of hearing individuals. Raj clearly emphasizes her deafness (and acts like a complete idiot on their date) by trying to make jokes about her deafness—“did you hear that joke about___? Oh no, I bet you didn’t…” Eek.—which Howard decides to interpret as something completely different such as “it’s so good to see you again.” Also, after Raj and Emily’s first date (during which Raj acts like a complete skeez) Emily kisses Raj before departing, despite the fact that Raj has done absolutely nothing to warrant such a behavior… further contributing to the hypersexual portrayal of deaf/hard of hearing individuals in pop culture. (It may also be worth noting that it is Emily who gives Raj her phone number and tells him to text her for a date after a very awkward introduction from Penny and Howard.) A number of inaccurate stereotypes are also employed, such as Emily not being able to engage with music (everyone can at least feel the vibrations that a good speaker can provide and many people can hear specific frequencies).
But here’s where I really have an issue with Emily’s character and subsequent storyline development: she’s portrayed as a gold-digging whore. After dating each other for a month Raj has given her a pair of diamond earrings and leased her a car. When the gang asks Penny if Emily could be taking advantage of Raj, she innocently responds, “of course not, she’s deaf.” When Lenard asks, “Deaf people can’t be gold-diggers?” Penny responds, “handicapped people are nice, Lenard, everyone knows that.” Sigh. But as a gold-digger is exactly how Emily’s character continues to develop. Raj’s parents threaten to cut him off if he doesn’t start dating an Indian girl, he tells Emily he has to return the car and the jewelry, but that they’ll still be able to have a great life together. She dumps him. Ouch. So deaf people are super sexual, only look out for themselves, are selfish, and can develop no forms of human intimacy beyond what the other person can materially provide for them? Seems so in this episode.
Big Bang Theory, you might be a comedy, but you also help to shape peoples’ understandings of those whom the average viewer may not be familiar with. Take Sheldon for example. His character is oftentimes described as having many Asperger’s-like traits. If someone didn’t know anyone in real life who was labeled somewhere on the autistic/Asperger’s spectrum, they might come to form certain opinions about that group of individuals based on the singular representation that they receive from television. So too with Emily. Someone would have to have a background in disability studies or a close deaf friend or family member in order to really pick out all of the stereotypes presented (which I have truncated in this blog post… there are actually more present) and identify the flaws in Emily’s character as personal character flaws and not Deaf character flaws. Again, many people will likely be unmotivated to engage in such an endeavor because it is not the way we are encouraged to engage with pop culture. It’s also frustrating that the one character who has an apparent disability (Sheldon’s is contested) also has to be one of the only seriously morally flawed characters introduced.
Perhaps it’s redundant to say, but I was certainly disappointed by the construction and portrayal of Emily’s character and sincerely encourage the writers of all shows to consult with some type of diversity specialist who can talk with them about their portrayals of certain types of people in order to ensure comedic integrity—equitable representations of all types of people, while still enjoying a good laugh.