So The Big Bang Theory returns tonight for its fifth season, and every ad for the show features the four main male geek characters — Leonard, Sheldon, Raj, and Howard — with non-geek Penny at their sides. And while I love these guys as much as the next slightly self-hating nerd does, what made me fall in love with the show were the female nerds in it. And I can justify my love with some choice clips from all four seasons. Oh yes. I can.
I don't mean to say that Penny (Kaley Cuoco) isn't awesome. She is. Though she started out as your stereotypical ditz-next-door whose main job seemed to be to purse her lips and roll her eyes when Sheldon went aspie, she's developed over four seasons into a character more like Doctor Who's Rose. By that I mean she's smart but working class, constantly showing our hyper-educated physicists that intelligence isn't just about earning a degree. Plus, as we learn when she meets Leonard's neuroscientist mother, Penny has always been kind of one of the guys (she weeps when she tells Leonard's mom about how her dad always wanted a son). So not only is Penny a cool working class character who holds her own with a bunch of academics, but she's also more of a dude than they are, too — while still being able to pull off those insane pink outfits she wears sometimes.
But the geeky women on this show, from Leslie Winkle (played by Sara Gilbert, who should get her own spinoff) to sexy visiting physics superstar Dr. Plimpton, have made this show into a lot more than "nerd stereotype jokes can be funny if they are lucky enough to be handled by an amazing writing staff." I know that Big Bang Theory has done a lot to undo geek stereotypes, in part by making its characters such exaggerated versions of geeks that they somehow transcend type and become real. But you have to admit there's nothing particularly startling about a theoretical physicist with Aspergers (Sheldon) or an engineer who lives with his mom until he becomes engaged to a woman who sounds just like his mom when she's angry (Howard). Raj and Leonard stray from geek stereotypes a bit, other than the fact that they are both pathologically shy when it comes to women.
And so allow me to return to my earlier point about Leslie. She's smarter than Sheldon (who is the show's smartest guy), and she treats sex with the same dispassionate interest as she does a breakfast cereal. If she wants some, she eats it. That's right — geeky chicks will correct your quantum chromodynamics formulas and use you for sex. I'm sure I've seen female characters like this before, but usually they star in movies like Basic Instinct and not fun comedies where what they do is treated as a form of charm.
Even more charming, brilliant, and sexually voracious is the famous physicist Dr. Elizabeth Plimpton (Judy Greer), who comes to CalTech to give a job talk and winds up trying to sleep with all our main male characters (except Sheldon, who is asexual). Again, there's something delightful about the idea that the female nerds are just as horny and social awkward as the male nerds on this show — though it seems that Dr. Plimpton, like Leslie, is used to getting her way more often than Leonard and Raj are. Mostly the female geeks on this show aren't there to be sex objects for the men. The men are sex objects for the women.
By the way, Leslie also sleeps with more than one of our main characters. When she hooks up with Howard, she manipulates him by allocating some of her equipment and travel money to his projects. I'm basically a sucker for any show that routinely depicts women as the sexually voracious ones who control financial and scientific resources. This is what I mean about overturning stereotypes, people. These women control the male characters professionally, and just as an aside use them for sex too. Plus, I have a crush on Leslie. Have had since she was Darlene on Roseanne. Ah, Darlene . . .
This overturning of female stereotypes came up again at the end of last season, when Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) got her Ph.D. and was immediately head-hunted by a pharmaceutical company where she'll make a ton of money. Howard is basically about to become Bernadette's kept man, and in a later scene she buys him a Rolex and says she just wants him to have "beautiful things." Even Howard's mother approves of Howard's "doctor fiancee."
Returning to sexually voracious geek women, only on Big Bang Theory would Howard be able to pick up a girl not by using his lame "pickup artist" technique of wearing an eye patch and "throwing negs," but by promising a doctor he meets that she can drive the Mars Rover. That's how he picked up Stephanie (Sara Rue), who winds up making out with Leonard and explaining that she only wanted Howard for his outer space robots. Unfortunately, as you can see in this scene, she doesn't even get that out of him.
When Big Bang Theory brought Mayim Bialik on as regular character Amy Farrah Fowler, it was actually a callback to a joke made on the first season of the show, where the guys joked that maybe they could win their physics bowl match if they recruited "TV's Blossom." Eventually she becomes Sheldon's non-sexual, non-girlfriend, in what I believe is the first and only openly asexual romantic-ish relationship ever depicted on television. Like Sheldon, Amy is fairly aspie (though, unlike Sheldon, occasionally horny). And she's got a healthy disrespect for Sheldon's inflated opinion of theoretical physics. This is a great scene where Amy and Sheldon have their first breakup, over a professional disagreement. As a geek who has actually had more than one romantic relationship (and one asexual romantic-ish relationship) end over academic disagreements, I have to say this scene rings a lot more true than you might think.
The one female character on Big Bang Theory who hasn't gotten a chance to really shine yet is Priya, Raj's sister and Leonard's on-again, off-again love interest. She hasn't gotten a lot of good lines, and she's never given a chance to really geek out over her job as a lawyer (even though at one point we find out that she does some pretty technical stuff with international business law). Hopefully we'll see her rule a few scenes this season, even if it's only via Skype.