Tag Archives: Penny

Nature Vs. Nurture: A Case Study In “The Big Bang Theory”

mv5bzjg4mgnlzdgtmmm5oc00zmmxltg3y2etzmzjogjlndu4ngnhxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtgxotiznzk40._v1_

What makes someone an uptight, narcissistic control freak who refuses to admit when they’re wrong and will never let anyone else sit in their spot on the couch?

What makes someone a needy, whiny, emotionally stunted man-child who is chronically insecure and in constant need of approval?

What makes someone an outgoing, overly social free spirit who is also habitually irresponsible, exercises poor judgement, and intellectually dense?

These are all personal questions that have a multitude of answers, none of which are definitive. There are entire fields of study devoted to answering such questions, none of which are perfect. It often comes down to a question of whether someone was born with certain traits or are simply a product of their environment.

It’s the classic nature versus nurture debate and, in almost every case, it’s neither one nor the other. Some people are born with certain traits or personality quirks that physically manifests in their brains. Others are heavily influenced by the people and environment they grow up around. In between all of this is a multitude of other factors that are difficult to quantify.

Figuring people out what makes them tick and how they got that way is challenging, even if you consider yourself a very insightful person. People, in general, tend to be complicated. Human beings might have basic drives to survive, reproduce, and find a tribe, but there are countless variations beyond those drives.

Many of those exaggerations are also pushed to hilarious extremes with fictional characters. Between the Hulk’s anger issues and Lex Luthor’s narcissism, fictional worlds can provide useful insights into the whole nature/nurture dynamic. Whereas someone like Lex Luthor was born with little empathy and way too much ego, the anger issues of the Hulk were a more complicated, as well as disturbing.

These characters, like real people, often have a combination of nature and nurture that helps influence who they, how they got that way, and what they eventually become. It’s often subtle and building a story around it is difficult. However, there’s one group of fictional characters that I believe embody the nature versus nurture dynamic better than most.

Those characters are the cast of “The Big Bang Theory,” a show that recently ended it’s remarkable 12-year run as one of the highest-rated sitcoms of all time. While the show has garnered plenty of criticism and outright hate, there’s no denying that the show struck a chord. No show involving the same group of characters lasts for 12 years without resonating with audiences on some personal level.

While there are certainly parts of the show that I don’t care for, I still consider myself a fan of it. I even admit that I got emotional when I saw the series finale. I thought it was incredibly well done and it marked a fitting end for the journey that Leonard, Howard, Raj, Sheldon, and Penny began 12 years ago. Many other fans of the show agreed with that sentiment.

Love it or hate it, and plenty did hate it, the show had a great deal of appeal outside its cheesy jokes and comical portrayal of geek culture. After seeing the finale and watching a few reruns, I think one of the most endearing appeals was how much the characters grew over the years. Given that it was a sitcom and character growth in sitcoms are notoriously slow, I think it’s one of the show’s biggest accomplishments.

From the beginning, the personalities of each character are established with distinct traits that were heavily exaggerated for comedic effect.

Leonard was needy, insecure, and weak-willed. He was basically the ultimate beta-male nerd from every 80s teen comedy.

Howard was obsessive, selfish, and immature. He also had some stalker-like creepiness baked into his approach towards getting women.

Raj was passive, effeminate, and quirky, but largely defined by his inability to talk to women.

Sheldon was self-centered, stubborn, and egotistical. He might have also been autistic.

Penny was a bubbly, upbeat, lovable free spirit. However, she was also irresponsible and exercised poor judgement, especially when it came to her personal life.

Like every sitcom, every major plot and iconic gag was built off these traits. From Leonard trying desperately to win Penny’s affection to Howard’s efforts to pick up women to Sheldon’s inability to keep a secret, “The Big Bang Theory” had plenty to work with in terms of eccentric personality quirks. I believe a large part of the show’s success is a direct result of how well it made use of those quirks.

As the show progressed and we learned more about these character, we also learn more about where they came from and what influences them. We find out that Leonard’s insecurities might stem from the relationship he had with his mother. He also learn how much living with his loud-mouthed mother has effected Howard. We learn where Penny came from and how that informed her personality.

We learn plenty about Sheldon too, but it would take a long time to go over his many issues. He was, by far, the most eccentric character on the show and one of the most controversial.

For each character, we get a strong sense of their nature. More than most sitcoms, “The Big Bang Theory” belabors and reinforces the core personality of each character. If you watch just a few episodes, you can get a fairly decent feel for their behavior and how they would react in most situations.

At the same time, however, the show also demonstrates how new influences change these characters over time. In fact, the foundation for this change is established in the pilot episode when Penny first moves in to the apartment across from Sheldon and Leonard. She is a very different kind of influence on these two and vice versa. You could even argue that it’s the most important catalyst for the entire show.

It’s only after we learn about the nature of each characters that we appreciate what a critical moment that was in the context of each character’s journey. Before Penny’s arrival, Sheldon and Leonard didn’t have many disrupting influences. They were surrounded in familiar territory. They had nothing prompting them to change or grow in new directions.

The same goes for Penny. Before she arrived, she was just a simple girl from the mid-west who had never lived around hardcore geeks and accomplished scientists. She never even showed much interest in science, geek culture, or anything of the sort. While it didn’t seem to affect her at first, there were signs of their influence as the show progressed.

Both Howard and Raj went through similar transformations. In the early seasons, there were many sub-plots built around both of them trying to get the attention of women, despite Raj not being able to talk to them without being drunk. Most of them fail spectacularly. Some were downright pathetic at times and not in a funny way.

 

Then, new influences came into their lives. Howard met Bernadette, who underwent her own transformation as she became a bigger part of the group. While their relationship had its upheavals, it did more than anything to humanize Howard. It still didn’t fundamentally change him. He was still immature and obnoxious at times, but he also showed that he could be a respectable family man.

Raj’s growth wasn’t quite as dramatic, but he did eventually learn to talk to women without the aid of alcohol. He also went from just wanting to get the attention of women to seeking love, marriage, and family. He even gains more self-confidence and assertiveness as the show went on, some of which was a result of interacting with Penny and the rest of the group.

Then, there’s the growth of Sheldon Cooper. More than any other character, Sheldon demonstrated the value of having quality influences.

His nature is, by far, the most eccentric and extreme. It’s the nurturing forces, however, that I think had the greatest impact on both his character development and the overall progression of the of the show.

There’s no getting around it. In the first few seasons, Sheldon was a stubborn, selfish egotist. For a time, it was even a popular refrain to note that Sheldon was just one lab accident away from becoming a supervillain. Given that most supervillains tend to be petty, eccentric, and self-centered, I think that’s an accurate statement disguised as a joke.

Thankfully, that accident never happened. Instead, Sheldon was frequently nudged and, in a few cases, shoved into being less insufferable. Penny was usually the one to get him out of his comfort zone in the early seasons. Then, Amy Farrah Fowler came along and gave him a nurturing force that seemed almost impossible in the earlier seasons.

Amy brought issues of her own to the table, but like Bernadette did with Howard, she proved to be a stabilizing presence for Sheldon. She didn’t fundamentally change him, nor did she even demand it. She simply provided new influences. Granted, he stubbornly fought them, at first. He fought harder than anyone else in the group. In the end, though, he still embraced these changes and was better because of it.

It was that change that made his Nobel Prize acceptance speech at the end of the show so perfect. In that moment, he achieved something he’d been hoping to achieve since the earliest season. It was the ultimate affirmation of his genius and his abilities, which he’d bragged and boasted about to no end. It could’ve been the ultimate ego trip for him.

Instead, he thanked his friends. He demonstrated humility on a stage in front of a huge crowed of people. For someone who started the show seeming incapable of empathy and nuance, it was a powerful moment. It showed that this weird, colorful character that we loved and hated at times had really grown. He even acknowledged the source of that growth in a genuine, heartfelt gesture.

When you look at that moment in the context of the entire show, you can see just how powerful those influences can be. These chaLracters, all of which were set in their ways to some extent, showed just how much those influences can change. Even for characters with idiosyncrasies like Sheldon Cooper, people can change in positive ways.

Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, Raj, and Penny wouldn’t have undergone those changes without nurturing one another to some stent. At times, that nurturing took the form of annoyance and frustration. That only makes the change more fitting because most people resist that change. Even in the real world, our default reaction is to keep doing what we’re doing and make every excuse along the way.

While many sitcoms have their characters undergo plenty of upheavals, “The Big Bang Theory” goes the extra mile in showing how people can be changed by the people and influences around them. They’ll still stay true to their nature.

Sheldon will always have that distinct Sheldon-like persona, as will Penny, Leonard, Raj, and Howard. However, with the right kind of nurture, they can become endearing characters in their own right. Say what you will about the quality of the show, but its place in TV history has been secured.

Bazinga!

Leave a comment

Filed under health, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, media issues, psychology, romance

Love Or Obsession: Big Bang Theory Edition

It’s okay to love things that are flawed. Hell, if we weren’t able to love things that are flawed, romance as we know it would be impossible. It’s our ability to overlook, understand, and even appreciate flaws that allows us to love each other and the things that bring us joy in life.

That brings me to one of my favorite TV shows, The Big Bang Theory. I’ve talked about it before, specifically when discussing toxic relationships. I don’t doubt that plenty of fans of the show disagree with my assessment. I still stand by my criticism. Remember, I crafted that post with the full disclaimer that I love this show, despite its flaws.

With that love and admiration in mind, I’d like this show to be the subject of my next entry of “Love Or Obsession.” I’m actually enjoying this little exercise, breaking down iconic romances and assessing whether they constitute love or obsession. It helps add a new perspective to my understanding of romance and erotica. For someone in my field, that understanding is vital.

In the spirit of such understanding, I’d like to do this exercise for the three major romances on the show. To fans of the show, I understand I’m leaving Raj out for the moment. I was going to assess him and Emily, but that plot seems to have fallen to the wayside. If that changes, I’ll do a follow-up post. For now, I’ll be focusing on the big three, which is Penny/Leonard, Sheldon/Amy, and Howard/Bernadette.

Again, I’m open to discussing these assessments. If you disagree with me, let me know. I’m certainly willing to discuss this topic. I think, if we’re going to appreciate romance in media, it’s a discussion worth having.


Penny/Leonard

Love Or Obsession?
Obsession

This one is, by far, the most important and iconic romance to the show. It also happens to be the one that bothers me most, as I’ve said before. This romance began at the very beginning of the show and has been a major driving force for every episode since. It’s presented as cute and it does lead to many entertaining subplots, but there’s no getting around how flawed it is.

Leonard is obsessed with Penny. He was obsessed from the moment he saw her. He was obsessed with being with her, being the man for her, and being the guy who ends up with her. There are times when I don’t think he separates the concept of loving Penny as a person and loving Penny as an idea. The concept means more than the person. Being a socially awkward nerd, this does make sense, albeit in a pathetic sort of way.

With Penny, I don’t think there’s quite as much obsession involved. I think on some levels, her love for Leonard is genuine. However, there are also times with her when I think she loves the concept more than the person. What I mean by that is she loves Leonard because he’s not the same as the guys who have hurt her in the past. That’s not a good basis for any romance.

On top of that, Penny knows she can control Leonard. She knows he can never get someone like her. She controls the relationship. She controls Leonard in pretty much every way. It’s not a healthy relationship. There is love, but it is grossly overshadowed by the flaws and the obsession behind them.


Amy/Sheldon

Love Or Obsession?
Love

This is probably the second most important relationship in the show, if only for the entertainment value it constantly brings. Amy and Sheldon are not a normal romance because they’re very abnormal individuals. They have extreme quirks that constitute major personality disorders.

Despite this, or because of this, they find a way to work. They find a way to complement each other. They annoy and challenge each other, but they’re better because of it. Amy is stronger because of Sheldon. Sheldon is less of a self-centered asshat because of Amy. This is one of those relationships that makes both sides better. I’d argue it’s probably one of the strangest, but most productive relationships on TV right now.

That’s an odd thing to say because these two characters are so odd. Sheldon, especially, takes oddities and proclivities to such an extreme that anyone who puts up with him deserves incredible sympathy. While Amy does get annoyed at times, she still puts in the effort and, despite needing a nudge every now and then, Sheldon does the same.

Every episode, it seems as though these two find a new way to annoy each other. In the end though, they find a way to be closer. It’s an incredibly odd, but fittingly beautiful thing.


Howard/Bernadette

Love Or Obsession?
Love (Mostly)

This one is hard to assess, especially since Howard was such a creepy jerk early in the show. He grew up over successive seasons, becoming more likable along the way. He’s still self-centered, lazy, and arrogant at times, but there’s no doubt that he loves Bernadette. He will go out of his way for her. He will do what he has to do to prove that he loves her, even if she needs to twist his arm.

I rule this as love not just because they were the first couple to get married. I render this ruling because I never got the impression that these two were obsessed with one another or that their relationship was built on pure infatuation. They learned to love each other as individuals and not be totally defined by their relationship.

I still added the “mostly” there because, like Penny and Leonard, it’s an unbalanced relationship. It’s not nearly as unbalanced, but it’s still a relationship where one side, namely Bernadette, exercises a larger role. She makes more money than Howard. She’s more assertive than Howard. She can get him to do things like a trained pet.

Despite this imbalance, their love does come off as genuine. They do complement each other in some respects. It’s not a wholly healthy relationship, but it works and there is a fair amount of love guiding it.

2 Comments

Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights

A Relationship of Unequals: Penny and Leonard of “The Big Bang Theory”

Earlier this week, I talked about the importance of romantic relationships between equals. It’s too common these days that strong female characters have to overpower male counterparts. That makes finding examples of a romance among equals, even if it’s as simple as an X-men comic, more important as our culture evolves. By that same token, it’s just as important to acknowledge relationships between apparent unequals. That brings me to one of my favorite shows on TV right now, “The Big Bang Theory.”

Now let me make this clear, just in case I didn’t make it clear enough already. I love this show. It’s one of my favorite shows on TV. It’s funny, it heartfelt, and it’s has lovable, compelling characters. That’s the most you can ask of any TV show these days. However, there’s one component of this show that bugs me and it has to do with the never-ending romance of Penny and Leonard.

I know that this is, by far, the most important romance of the show. From the show’s first episode, this romance has been the driving force behind many plots. It’s perfectly understandable. A cute girl moves in across the hall. A lonely, single guy is going to notice. There’s nothing wrong with that being the foundation of a relationship. There are many wonderful love stories, real and fictional alike, that begin this way. It’s what happens after the beginning that make Penny and Leonard an unstable relationship at best and a toxic one at worst.

We’ve all heard it before. Opposites attract. It’s a common theme in many romance stories and it definitely works in some respects. It’s cute and concise so of course it isn’t entirely reflective of reality. Even science doesn’t offer a clear-cut answer. According to Psychology Today, research involving relationships among opposites tend to have mixed outcomes. It can work. It can also fail. In the fictional world of TV and within the limits of a half-hour show, those failings often get overlooked with Penny and Leonard.

Let’s look at the basics first:

  • Penny is an outgoing, bubbly, impulsive, irresponsible young woman who caters to nearly every “blonde” stereotype imaginable
  • Leonard is a shy, repressed, awkward, neurotic, needy young man who caters to every “nerd” stereotype imaginable

There’s definitely some appeal to seeing these two come together. Love finds a way, right? Well, love is only part of the equation here. Love is an important element of a relationship, but making that relationship work requires a lot more.

As I’ve written about before, doomed romances tend to have a common theme. Chief among those themes are the inequalities among the characters. It’s one thing for a princess to fall in love with a smuggler. It’s quite another to make that relationship work, given the differences between these characters. When two people come from different worlds and have different interest, it can hinder communication between them. Any relationship expert with any degree of competence will agree. Poor communication is toxic to a relationship.

Communication between Penny and Leonard is rarely clear. It leads to many of the hijinks within the show. Early in Season 2, they send each other a lot of mixed messages by dating other people. Penny dates one of her stereotypical dumb jock types while Leonard dates another stereotypical nerd type. Having already gone on a date at this point in the show, there’s no excuse for ambiguity. They know where they stand.

Later in Season 3, it gets even more erratic. In Episode 19, “The Wheaton Recurrence,” Leonard tells Penny he loves her. Her response, “Thank you.” It leads to yet another break-up between them, which is a recurring theme. Yes, they eventually come back together. Yes, Penny eventually does admit she loves him, albeit several seasons down the line. Along the way, the inequalities become more and more striking.

These inequalities go beyond just being different personality types. Good relationships can overcome different personalities. It’s the inequalities that become toxic. What makes this relationship so unequal is that nearly every major decision, every point of progress, and every major turn is done by one person: Penny.

She decides if and when they go out on dates. She decides if and when they begin/resume a relationship. She decides if and when she and Leonard have sex. Leonard, being the quintessential beta male, never does anything to assert himself. He tries at times and often fails hilariously, most notably in Season 3, Episode 23, “The Lunar Excitation.” In that episode, he tries to do exactly what Penny did with him, get drunk and assert that they’re going to have sex. It works when Penny does it. It doesn’t work when Leonard does it.

Now I know there’s a double standard in that scenario. A man asserting sex with a woman is still taboo, but the comic ineptitude that Leonard demonstrates makes this taboo a moot point here. It further reinforces that Penny is the one with all the power in this relationship. She can end it, start it, and guide it as she sees fit. Leonard, being so meek, can never assert himself convincingly.

These sorts of inequalities don’t just create bad dynamics. It also makes jealousy a whole lot worse. In Season 6, Episode 8, “The 43 Peculiarity,” Penny and Leonard are together again. Then, Penny gets an attractive male lab partner while going to community college and this is enough to freak Leonard out. While it is funny at how he deals with it, this kind of jealousy hints at another troubling trait that is toxic to relationships.

Jealous, namely the unhealthy variety, can go beyond simple envy, which we all have whenever we see someone driving a nice car. The jealousy in this instance becomes possession. Leonard sees his relationship with Penny as a precious piece of property that he must guard from those who may steal it. He doesn’t trust Penny. He knows she has a promiscuous past. He lets it get to him.

Penny is just as guilty of this as well. In Season 6, Episode 3, “The Higgs Boson Observation,” Leonard connects with Sheldon’s new female assistant, Alex. Penny flat out admits this bothers her. Despite her having so much power in this relationship, she still gives the impression that she owns Leonard’s affection for her.

When jealousy becomes possessive, it’s usually a sign that a relationship is entering dangerous territory. Jealousy is supposed to remind us of how we feel about our partners, not that we own them. That’s the biggest flaw with Penny and Leonard. Their relationship is something they both think they own. They can’t discern the concept from the person.

What makes this even worse is how Penny’s power extends beyond this relationship. Throughout the show, her promiscuity is well-documented. It fits into the “blond” stereotype that Penny seems to embody at every turn. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it does expose what I think is the most egregious inequality of this relationship.

If she wanted to, Penny could end the relationship and find someone else just like Leonard or someone the exact opposite of him. Due to her looks and her social skills, she can find another relationship fairly easily. Leonard, being so socially awkward and weak, cannot do this. While he certainly could find someone else, his poor social skills limit him in ways that don’t limit Penny.

Naturally, these flaws don’t derail the relationship on the show. TV always takes liberties with certain relationship dynamics. Authors do the same. I know I have, but I like to think the stereotypes I use in books like “Skin Deep” aren’t as egregious or excessive as we see in “The Big Bang Theory.”

I don’t doubt the appeal of Penny and Leonard’s relationship. It certainly helps make the show entertaining. However, when I take a step back and look at the dynamics of this relationship, I see in it a lot of flaws that reflect outdated themes. I hope to avoid these flaws and explore new themes in my books. At the very least, “The Big Bang Theory” can offer a guide on what to avoid.

18 Comments

Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights, Uncategorized