A Series of Unfortunate Events: Or “The Big Bang Theory” Does Deafness

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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.

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15 responses »

  1. It didn’t suggest EVERY disabled person is a phony, but that they are people, having good and bad ones among them and shouldn’t be idealized just because the disability.

    • So sorry to be so late to respond to your very interesting comment (I’ve been on an academic hiatus for about a year now and am trying to pick up where I left off).

      While I understand where your comment about Emily’s character is coming from, I don’t think the show upholds the character spectrum that you’re gesturing toward. If that were the case, we’d have more than one character with an apparent disability (again, Sheldon’s is contested) and at least one of those other characters could be labeled as a “good” or at least not an obviously “morally flawed” character.

      I’m not saying that the show thinks every disabled person is “a phony,” but it is showing the ones that it casts to be characters that way. And that’s exactly why analyzing portrayals of diversity in pop culture is so important—we need to find out what the prevailing cultural scripts are and what they are telling us as viewers/consumers. Our understanding of people and of particular groups of people are being shaped by what we see on a daily basis, and if what we see is only a Hollywood construction of such people, and if Hollywood continues to portray such characters in such a narrow-minded and stereotypically inaccurate way, how are we to truly understand the diversity of human existence?

      • As I interpreted the episode, it was empathically proving Penny’s prejudice wrong. Other Hollywood shows do introduce plenty of innocent disabled people.

      • Hmm, interesting. So do you think Emily’s character was constructed the way it was just to prove Penny’s comment wrong?

        If the argument is that Emily’s character is conniving and morally corrupt in order to show the “diversity” among characters (and people) with disabilities, then I’m just not buying it. Such an argument would require other types of characters with disabilities being portrayed in pop culture. As it is, there are particular roles that characters with disabilities usually fit into (i.e.: as a drain on the system, faking it, hypersexualized, charity cases, supercrips/brave victims, etc.), which all serve to enforce hegemonic norms dominant society holds and evaluates individuals by.

        It’s not that I’m interested in seeing more “innocent” characters with disabilities in pop culture (because that is displayed by many of the tropes listed above), but a wider range of personalities, morality, and complex character models would be welcomed and applauded.

  2. I was thinking of those tropes indeed, and that the way of thinking Penny represents, that disabled people aren’t capable of having flawed morality (which is sort of condescending on its own way) must have come from somewhere, probably from these stereotypes.

    • Interesting—how would you reconcile the portrayals of people with disabilities as “drains on individuals/society/the system,” “phonies,” “faking it,” or “not trying hard enough?” Isn’t this also a sort of “flawed morality,” which you’re saying adds to the diversity of portrayals?

      I think the larger issue is that people with disabilities are put into a box where they can either be portrayed as helpless, innocent, brave victims or as the crafty knivers who are only looking out for themselves. I’m saying that this polarity of representations is problematic and that The Big Bang Theory should not succumb to negative depictions of people with disabilities just to say that they’re being “cutting edge”—when instead, they’re falling into the same old media representations that are simply being reframed by a contemporary and witty context.

      • They are rather unfortunate or healthy brats using a condition to get away with everything. I guess they can’t represent as a wide spectrum as The Ringer does.

  3. I watched this re run the other night and when Penny called her Handicapped my jaw hit the floor.

    I can’t believe how dumb they make the Penny character

    I had no other issues with the episode…I realize it’s comedy and shouldn’t be taken seriously. i.e. kissing raj goodnight doesn’t = over sexual behavior. Nor does giving a man your phone number.

    But in my experience, if you want your ass kicked, go up to a Deaf person and call them Handicapped.

    • I agree—the “handicapped” comment is completely inappropriate. There’s a bit of dissension within the Deaf Community about being included under the broader category of “disabled” or simply a unique community, but “handicapped” is definitely an identity that the Deaf Community, as well as the larger Disability Community, shudder at.

  4. “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. ”

    …and further contributing to the he-deserves-your-affection-even-if-he-isn’t-affectionate-to-you portrayal of non-athletic men in geek culture.

    “…But as a gold-digger is exactly how Emily’s character continues to develop…”

    In some subsets of geek culture, pop evolutionary psychology has gained currency, hence some of the guys who have more computer skills complaining “She goes for him instead of me because she thinks he’s sexier?! She’s so irrational!!! It’s logical to go for me because in this day and age my computer skills make me a better provider than his muscles make him!!!”

    That doesn’t stop some of *them* from complaining about gold diggers even after their date-me-for-my-gold arguments. o_O

  5. You watched all 4 seasons before this, without noticing the immense quantity of stereotypes?
    This is the show that started by being about a dumb blonde bimbo and 4 cliche socially awkward geeks, with no girlfriends and no sports abilities. But you complain about a deaf girl not being portrayed accurately? Really? So the satire didn’t bother you until it was targeted at something personal. Typical.

    Well, here’s something personal to me: I am a fat woman engineer, wearing glasses, and working in the science field… I should have been offended on all 5 counts, from episode 1. But I understand the meaning of humor and I am able to enjoy it, cliches and all.

    Also, Sheldon does NOT have Asperger’s. The producers said as much a long time ago. Plus, he is clearly able to adapt to society and give up his “quirks”. He just doesn’t want to.

    I love how you are so defensive about the word “handicapped”. It’s just a word, get over it. Like I said, I am fat. It might not be polite to call me that to my face, but it doesn’t change the fact that I am. And maybe “handicapped” too, in a way, because I am not able to do all the things a fit person could do. And there is absolutely no shame in neither conditions.

    I did not hear about it in my geeky circles, but if it’s true that people with disabilities are portrayed as “drains on individuals/society/the system,” “phonies,” “faking it,” or “not trying hard enough”, it is truly sad, and I understand your sensitivity. However, this was not the case in this episode, so please…. give it a rest.

    • I appreciate you’re interesting comment, though I do regret that you’ve misinterpreted nearly the entire message/argument of my post. I do accept that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, however, I wanted to address a few of your comments for further clarity.

      First, I appreciate that you identified yourself as a fat woman engineer who can enjoy a good laugh from the show. I too enjoy a good comedy and can find humor when stereotypes are played with in complicated, satirical ways. This blog is a place where I specifically analyze pop culture through the lens of feminist disability studies and only through that lens. I do not personally identify on this blog and, therefore, it would remiss for you to assert that it is “typical” of me to not take offense until the satire “was targeted at something personal.”

      In regards to Sheldon’s character, my original post is very clear about the ways that viewers “have read” Sheldon’s characters and actions as falling somewhere on the spectrum (i.e. Asperger’s) but that his disability is contested (para. 4). I’m fully aware of the conversations pertaining to Sheldon’s character, and was briefly referring to the debate in a post that was constructed to focus on a separate, but related matter. This is precisely why Emily’s character is so important: hers is the only character to have had an explicitly stated disability.

      In regards to your comment: “I love how you are so defensive about the word ‘handicapped’. It’s just a word, get over it.” You’re right, I do find the word offensive and I will not “get over it” when people use it in casual conversation in reference to people with disabilities. Here’s the difference between Penny’s use of the word “handicapped” and your self-identification of being “fat”—Penny’s placing a label on someone else, whereas you’re self-identifying. The disability community has actively been working for some time now to reclaim some words for “in group” use, such as “crip.” Those in the community use such language to diffuse and re-appropriate a word that has historically had such negative connotations attached to it. Such reclamation can be seen mirrored in the LGBTQ community’s usage of the word “queer.” However, some words are so negatively associated and so historically degrading that no amount of positive association and usage could remove the negativity associated. This is the case for many racial slurs, for the use of the word “retarded” and “handicapped.” They are simply words that are falling out of favor (both within the disability community, as well as mainstream society and media—see news articles such as http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2013/07/05/push-is-on-to-remove-handicap-from-signs.html, referring to removing “handicapped” language from signage pertaining to parking and state law). Rhetoric is important. Its importance was first popularized by Aristotle and the notion has been developing upon over the last few thousand years.

      Finally, as I’ve pointed out in a number of ways, both in my original post as well as this follow up explanation, it is a lived reality of people with disabilities that they are continuously portrayed as “drains on individuals/society/the system,” “not trying hard enough,” and only “looking out for themselves.” I agree with you that it is sad. But it is not hopeless. Bringing awareness to the situation and starting a conversation highlighting the myriad ways in which these tropes are enacted creates a culture of awareness and inclusivity. As I ended my original post, I’m all for a good laugh—but it can be achieved via comedic integrity where particular kinds of people are not continually found “holding the short straw,” further contributing to their marginalization in our contemporary American society.

      And, P.S. In regards to your second comment, I’m not calling anyone a whore. As you point out, as a feminist, I would never judge anyone’s sexual preferences or choices, let alone label them in a derogatory manner. The line of my post that you’re referring to reads: “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” (para. 3). Obviously, this is not my label of her actual character but of the character the show has created for her to play. The paragraph beginning with that sentence continues to enumerate the ways in which the show highlights her hyper-sexuality, her shallow character, and her attraction to Raj’s material possessions/gifts (as opposed to his actual character). I go on to explicate the offensive I take to this characterization and the ways in which such characterization fits within the larger cultural climate people with disabilities find themselves in.

      Hopefully this brief response has provided some clarity to your reading of my post.

  6. PS And by the way, for someone writing on a blog about feminism and who is sensitive about words like “handicapped”, to call someone a “whore” is…. yeah, nasty.

  7. go rubiorose! Your logic is total. There is another negative reference to deafness in The Big Bang Theory, where Bernadette is wondering who has found out she is pregnant and thinks that her colleague “thinks she great” ever since she got a hearing aid… So negative, so discouraging for the deaf. This isn’t funny, it is cruel in its stereotyping. It reminded me so much of a famous UK show called Faulty Towers where they featured a deaf woman who was rich and rude. There are so many rich and rude folks out there but why, take a cheap shot at the 1 in 7 of the population, who are actually deaf?

    • Thanks, Carol, for your support and for your additional examples — these kinds of representations are so pervasive. I certainly think it’s worth logging them and finding common threads and ways they become normalized within culture, in order to pose counter-examples and more accurate representations of folks.

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