“Geeks are chic… if they’re white. ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and racialized desirability politics in 21st century television.”
Sarina K. Sharma
Arts and Science 4A06
Submitted to the Vault Publication in tandem with 4A06 Thesis supervised by Dr. Beth Marquis.
South Asians have waited for decades for representation on the Silver Screen. So have geeks. With the premiere of The Big Bang Theory in 2007, it looked like both groups were finally going to have their moment in the spotlight. The Big Bang Theory is about four geeky friends, Howard Wolowitz, Sheldon Cooper, Leonard Hofstader and Raj Kootrappali, whose interests in board games, Star Wars and comic books are presented as cool and quirky, in contrast to previous representations of geeky interests as being dorky and unfashionable. The Big Bang Theory showed that geeks could be chic—and sexy.
Unlike previous portrayals that showed geeks as asexual and/or romantically undesirable, throughout the 11 seasons of The Big Bang Theory, the characters went in and out of romantic relationships. By season 11, two of them have married and one of them is engaged. The fourth one, however, is still single, and has never had a long-term relationship. He has been the most romantically unsuccessful; his success hampered by the fact that he could not even talk to women until end of sixth season. Interestingly, this roommate is South Asian, Raj.
Wine will always be there for you, no matter what.
It’s sadly unsurprising that Raj was chosen to be the romantically unsuccessful one, given Hollywood’s long history of hampering Asian men’s desirability through motion picture codes forbidding them to be shown with white women, depicting Asian men as effeminate and sexually impotent, or shy and nervous around women. These practices and codes are traceable to historical fears white male laborers have had over Asian men taking their jobs and marrying white women2. Wanting to preserve their dominance over white women, white men utilized control of media to propagate stereotypes about Asian men being weak and effeminate. The stock characters of Asian men they created became part of story writing itself, obscuring the insidiously racist origins of the tropes. Thus, it is important to identify where these tropes appear in modern media, like The Big Bang Theory, so they can be linked back to their predecessors and historical origins.
This 1980’s white supremacist propaganda showcases ongoing fears about Asian economic dominance in the United States, which prompted the creation of anti-Asian male stereotypes the century before. The accompanying text contained several slurs and was so horribly racist I had to crop it out.
While The Big Bang Theory went a long way when it comes to making geeks look romantically desirable, it seems that only applies when the geeks in question are white. The Big Bang Theory makes remarkably no progress in making Asian geeks look desirable, and instead reinforces old tropes about Asian men through their depiction of Raj’s lack of romantic success. This is apparent when 1) comparing Howard’s ability to move from casual to serious relationships compared to Raj’s inability to do so, 2) analyzing Raj’s relationship with Penny, a white woman, and 3) analyzing the relationships Indian women in the show have with white men.
In the first three seasons, Howard was a notorious womanizer, who was constantly shuffling between girlfriends and hitting on everything that moves. His techniques were considered by his friends to be overly sexual and “disgusting”. In fact, he was aware of and took pride in his sexual obsession. He also openly mocked long-term relationships as a futile pursuit, preferring womanizing and his self-image as a Casanova. By the fourth season though, he started having longer-term relationships, and even was the first of the roommates to marry and have children. As of season 11, Howard has been married with one daughter and another child on the way. The Big Bang Theory has charted Howard’s character growth from party animal and philanderer to husband and family man.
Tall, lanky, and he has a bowl cut! The ladies must love him!
However, after he began to talk to women in Season 6, Raj has yet to be in a stable relationship. While Wolowitz was able to go from bad boy to boyfriend in four seasons, it has been nearly five seasons since Raj began talking to women and he has yet to be anywhere near that goal, being dumped almost as soon as he is dated. In Season 10’s “The Emotion Detection Automation,” Raj was concerned about why his relationships kept falling apart, and he enlisted Howard to help him call over his ex-girlfriends to understand why his relationships with them failed. Each of the ex-girlfriends cited different reasons for dumping Raj. One of the girlfriends stated Raj was insensitive to her boundaries, another called him too needy, vain and effeminate, and another was put-off by him being a “mama’s boy” who is “dominated by his parents.”
Strangely enough, Howard shows most if not all of those traits before and after finding a stable girlfriend, and he was able to achieve romantic success unlike Raj. Howard’s pick-up tactics were aware of his own desperation, and he even defined the “Wolowitz coefficient” to describe his likelihood of having sex: “neediness times squared”. Howard is even called out by Penny on his lack of consideration of her boundaries in “The Killer Robot Instability.” Howard’s consistent efforts to woo women, and his later efforts to impress his girlfriend, have also resulted in him being quite vain and self-centered to curate his image as a Casanova. Lastly, Howard lived with his overbearing mother until she died in Season 8. Yet, none of these traits prevented the writers from putting him in a long-term relationship, and to some extent Bernadette is unbothered by them.
Why are the writers so hard on Raj for the same things, what is different between Raj and Howard that would affect their judgement? It’s likely race. Indian men were depicted in the past as both ravenous yet impotent, and their sexual urges were often called repulsive. This was especially prominent during British colonial rule, when fears that white British women would mix with Indian men ran high. Literature during this period codified tropes of Indian men being dark-skinned rapists who were a threat to white female chastity1.
Caption: The Yellow Terror in All His Glory. Notice the emphasis on the white woman being trampled.
Yet these Indian men were shown as being impotent and weak, compared to the masculinity of the virtuous, white Christian man, who would guide white women in the right direction1. These tropes still exist today, such as through the Internet’s current fascination of Indian men making strange overtures in broken English to white women. So, it is definitely possible that this Colonial era notion is impacting the writer’s framing of Raj’s lack of boundaries.
It’s “milk truk just arive,” not “milk truk arrive”.
Asian men in general are also depicted as effeminate. Caricatures of Asian men dating back to the 19th century have exaggerated their hairlessness, tendency to dress in long tunics, and speak in sing songy voices2. This femininization was not a coincidence—white male laborers saw Chinese and Indian men, who would do the same job as they would but without demanding labour rights, as threats to their dominance over white women, a phenomenon called the “Turban Tide”, or “Yellow Peril”. So, they sought to make them seem too effeminate for white women, and too vain2. This tactic continued in the 20th century with characters like the vain, thin Fu Manchu, and naturally, into the 21st century as the trope was established. It is thus no surprise that a complaint about Raj was his effeminacy and weakness, and that this complaint was a greater detractor to white women than it was on Howard, who made up for his effeminate behavior by being white and already perceived as more masculine than Raj.
Another thing that stands out is that, save for one set up by his parents, all of Raj’s relationships have been with white women. The relationship between white women and Asian men on film media has been fraught as long as film existed. By the time film became prominent in the 1920s, tropes feminizing Asian men had been around for more than 75 years, and had become common practice. Anti-miscegenation laws forbade Asian men to marry white women, on pain of deportation for the Asian man and loss of citizenship for the white women2. These attitudes and laws were reflected in the Motion Picture Code of 1930, which allowed pairings of an Asian woman and white man, while forbidding white women and Asian men… unless the Asian man was a white man in yellowface, à la Breakfast at Tiffany’s Mickey Rooney2.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released in 1961, so it’s clear that the codes still held weight into their waning days and formal demise in 1968 not too long after. Even today, writers are still hesitant to pair white women with Asian men, and Raj is no exception. The possible love interests on Big Bang Theory are overwhelmingly white, and lack of Asian women’s representation notwithstanding, this hesitation leaves Raj few options.
Hang-ups on depicting Raj with a white woman were especially egregious in the episode where Raj and Penny hooked up. After they were done, Penny remarked that she felt Raj was “impotent”, which already goes back to troubling stereotypes about Asian men, impotence and effeminacy. But even more disturbingly, she wonders aloud if she was “ruined for white men” by the experience.
Why would Penny feel tainted, if not for Raj’s brownness being the adulterant? The ghost of the old code and the anti-miscegenation laws that prompted them linger. Penny (and by extension the writers who gave her that line) feels that Raj is a threat to her chastity as a white woman, and she fears that like the white women before her that dared be intimate with Asian men, she would be cast out of white society as a traitor for her wrong doing.
Strangely enough, no Asian woman who has slept with a white man on screen has ever said that she has been “ruined for Asian men”. The code did not forbid white men and Asian women either. Thus, there is no shortage of submissive or disadvantaged Asian women paired with dominant white men, often called “yellow fever”, or “mighty whitey and mellow yellow.” Examples of this are seen in Madame Butterfly, Good Morning Vietnam, and The Karate Kid. Given that the white men seem to be higher status than the Asian women in these pairings, the prevailing cultural opinion seems to be that Asian women gain status from being with white men, while white women lose status from being with Asian men. An example of this even occurs in Big Bang Theory itself in the rare event an Asian woman is shown: Raj’s sister, Priya, had no trouble finding a boyfriend, and he was-surprise, surprise—a white man, Leonard, who even more quizzically went on to break up with her and marry Penny. In addition, the only Indian woman Raj did date, Lalita, showed more interest in Sheldon, a white man, than Raj himself.
So, it’s evident the hierarchy created specifically advantages white men against Asian men, as the white men are allowed to “claim” Asian women from Asian men, but not the other way around. This two-pronged attack means not only do Asian women, when depicted, get paired with white men instead of Asian men. In addition, Asian men cannot be paired with white women either. This results in a double bind that sadly leaves them single and frustrated on screen like Raj.
So, while The Big Bang Theory did a lot to enhance geek desirability in culture and demonstrates geeks are capable of finding love, this only applies if the geeks in question are white. The Big Bang Theory makes remarkably little progress with Asian stereotypes designed to make Asian men look undesirable, and this is evident when comparing Raj’s romantic life and traits with Howard and Raj’s relationship with Penny versus his sister and Lalita’s relationships with Sheldon. There still seems to be a squeamishness of showing an Asian guy with a white woman on The Big Bang Theory, and pairing an Asian woman with anything but a white man, reservations that sadly are connected to the larger framework of media and are not just limited to the show itself. These two reservations conspire to leave Raj single. While his geekiness and awkwardness are given as in series reasons, clearly, the same justification does not apply for his equally geeky white roommates. So larger, more nefarious factors beyond the show and its writers that have roots as far back as 150 years are likely at play. Kunal Nayyar is most certainly not the problem here 😉
- Webster, Anthony (2006), The Debate on the Rise of the British Empire
- Chiung Hwang Chen. (1996). Feminization of Asian (American) Men in the U.S. Mass Media: An Analysis of The Ballad of Little Jo. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 20(2), 57–71. https://doi.org/10.1177/019685999602000204