The Property Brothers and Permeable Boundaries

Sometimes, readers, ideas arise from the strangest places.

Recently, my car needed some work. So I was in a waiting room with a very large wide screen TV, which plays with the sound so on mute that it might as well be off.

And so it came to pass that I watched The Property Brothers for about 4 hours straight.

If you’ve never seen The Property Brothers, it’s a standard home show: house is desired, house is fixed up to the nines, obstacles are overcome, desires are met, and ultimately all is well.

The wrinkle in The Property Brothers is that the principals of the show are twin brothers. One, Jon, does the contracting work and is shown hammering and so forth. The other, Drew, is the business guy who talks money to the home buyers, and negotiates and irons out the financial details.

But because the sound was off, of course, I could focus on the more meta story of The Property Brothers. The details — were they in Toronto or Austin, with a couple or a single woman, a townhouse or a ranch? — were far in the background.

And I think the meta is this.

The Property Brothers is really about making the border between people who work with their hands and businesspeople/entrepreneurs potentially permeable. For some time now, American society has been increasingly separating the two. Folks who work with their hands are relegated to less and less of the pie. Businesspeople have gotten more and more. There is less and less interaction between the two.

The Property Brothers, though, works against the division while at the same time replicating it.

How? Let’s start with the replication first. In every show, Jon is what we might call “working guy” (tool belt, plaid shirt) and Drew is “entrepreneur guy” (suit, tie) who makes wealth out of the house not with his hands, but with his meetings, cell phone and so forth. Check out the pic below for how this works.

total binary

Then, let’s examine the way it works against splitting the roles. The show works to subtly move each brother out of their respective “working guy”/”entrepreneur guy” role as well, as the series goes on. Jon does occasionally talk to the home owners about the financial trade-offs of this or that alteration. Drew sheds his suit and walks around in an open-neck shirt sometimes.

Also, of course, the division is partly erased simply because of their visual similarity and kinship. They’re brothers, of course, and twins to boot.

I think the show works on a subconscious level as a kind of unification of “folks who work” with “folks who make money from investments.” It’s popular partly because it counteracts the increasing real life division. The imagery tells its audience “if we can morph between these roles, so can you.”

In addition, of course, the potential of rising real estate prices does make this unification between working stiff and investor possible for some people — which establishes the potency of the metaphor even more.

Here’s the pièce de résistance on their morphing between these two roles. The brothers have a web site devoted to themselves, http://www.thescottbrothers.com/, that is quite separate from the show’s web site. On it, Jon and Drew trade sartorial places. Jon, toolbelt guy on The Property Brothers, is dressed not only in a suit, but a three-piece suit. It’s quite spiffy as well. Drew, entrepreneurial guy, is in an open necked shirt. (There is a third brother, who works behind the scenes, and is right between the two sartorially.)

And, get this, they morph. The page that greets visitors is the page where their facial expressions keep changing. It’s as if they are saying: “this is all about morphing.”

Hillary Clinton and Comedy

There’s a momentous election tomorrow, readers, and I want to weigh in on a small piece of it.

And that is the kind of dreary impersonation of Hillary Clinton that viewers of Saturday Night Live see.

I don’t like the Kate McKinnon impersonation of Hillary Clinton, and I feel moved to write this before the election. I was watching some election-inspired comedy recently, and the impersonation really struck me as 1) a retrograde view of powerful women and 2) a not particularly inspired mimicry of Clinton herself.

Why retrograde? Because the SNL version plays Clinton as a crazed, power-mad bitch. She’s not a public servant with a lot of experience; she’s not an unfairly trashed politician; she’s not a lawyer; she’s not the grandmother; she’s not even a particularly savvy pol. Even, on the other side of the political spectrum of views, she’s not the secretive private e-mail hoarder or corrupt.

The crazed power-mad bitch element is seen best, perhaps, in this clip:

The end, where the Clinton character grades Trump as an F, and then promises to be “a stone-cold B” plays on two stereotypes of women.

The first one takes her experience and subtly recasts it as schoolmarmishness.

The second one is even worse — it’s the one that really caused me to write this post. The view that Clinton is a stone-cold bitch is exactly the kind of indictment that has been thrown against women who either do have some power in the world or are seeking it, or both.

The easy equation that powerful woman = bitch is misogynist. Pure and simple.

There’s very little political content, because it’s overwritten by the fact that Hillary is being subject to anti-woman clichés. She’s not being made fun of because of her politics, or anything related (speech, thought patterns, beliefs), as male presidential candidates are.

She’s being made fun of as a bitch.

I’m also surprised that SNL is peddling such an old, tired view of women.

This impersonation gets a lot of praise, like this, which calls it “genius.”

In fact, I don’t think that it is a particularly good impression except for the hair and the suits. Yes, McKinnon looks like Clinton when she gets in character.

But the crazy look in her eye doesn’t really match what one sees in Hillary Clinton. If the impersonation honed in on very real characteristics of the actual Clinton — her wonkishness, say, or her sometimes painfully clear discomfort with listening to voters, or the sense that she’s acting on the stump, rather than being authentic — maybe it would be genius.

As it is, it just falls back on a lazy, tired view of women. If they’re going for something big, it’s because they are power-mad bitches whose private lives are full of throttled rage (a theme in other SNL impersonations of Clinton).

So, to leave you with a genuinely funny woman on politics, here is Samantha Bee on the third presidential debate:

 

Eleven as E.T.: What Brave New World Is Stranger Things?

It’s Fall, readers!

So I’m going to weigh in today on one of the Netflix hits of the summer, which I watched in the (sigh) waning days of it. It’s Stranger Things.

Now, readers, I’m no particular fan of either science fiction or horror, the two main genres. But I also respect the abilities of both genres to be wonderfully, well, deep about what they are saying as they deliver time travel and monsters on the unbelievable side. By way of defining my fandom or lack thereof: I don’t relish Stephen King books, exactly, but I’ve read It. It is a profound look at the problem of human evil dished up with a narrative about scary and otherworldly clowns. It’s about the problem of human evil. The clown often appears — and is seemingly activated by — human evil: family abuse, racially motivated murder, and the like.

So, one of the things I liked about Stranger Things was its grounding of sci-fi/horror mysteries in a quotidian suburban world that in many ways is represented as the opposite of human evil. It’s a type of paradise. The birds chirping on the soundtrack are full of prelapsarian promise. it’s a world of calm and beauty, good friendships (among the four middle school boys), attentive and kindly teachers, and concerned parents. It’s also menaced with evil (a sinister government lab and eventually, an actual monster). Then there are the in-between characters who either let evil in or don’t fight it: family dysfunction (broken families; inattentive fathers, especially; drunk sheriff). It’s a war between good and evil. Sheriffs who can come back from the bottle and handle the weirdness choose the right side.

In that, it is (as many commentators have noted, see here and here) an homage to films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the novels of Stephen King, and the films that were made from them in the 1980s. E.T. was also a movie that represented suburban life as a type of paradise, even given parents who were either absent or without a clue to the goings-on.

So, when the character Eleven came on in Stranger Things, the first thing I thought was “she’s the E.T. of the movie.”  eleven

Eleven is a girl who arrives seemingly out of nowhere. She has a shaved head (visually close to bald) and huge eyes. Those are the initial “visually reminiscent of E.T.” clues. (She’s named Eleven because of a mysterious tattoo on her arm.)

So it is that I take issue with an interesting paean to Stranger Things, published by Ashley Reed in Avidly . Reed posits that Stranger Things is about a feminist re-envisioning of the 1980s films like E.T. to better represent girls’ inner lives and “to create female characters who are not just props in boys’ stories.”

I think in many ways Stranger Things is a retelling that doesn’t particularly recuperate the women’s stories in a more feminist direction.eleven-on-bike

One of the reasons is that Eleven’s story may be one of an unusual girl, but her affinities with E.T. (the character) are multiple. They frame her more as an interesting alien than as an independent girl. It’s not exactly a big step up for portrayals of women that Eleven is (metaphorically) an alien.  et-swathed-in-towel

Like E.T., Eleven finds a home in the room of one of the boys on bikes. Like E.T., she conceals her distinctive head in a covering (towel for him; blond wig for her). Like E.T., she is a passenger on those bicycles, rather than an independent rider.

If she were an independent rider on those bikes, then we’d be talkin’ new roles for girls.

More strikingly, Eleven is the E.T. in Stranger Things because she has a pressing need to get “home.” In what the audience sees, she has been removed from an (unseen) mother to live in the sinister government lab. She has been used as something of a lab experiment on telekinesis in the sinister government lab. There is an appropriately sinister father figure, the lab director. It is implied that her mother was part of similar experiments. Further, the lab director might be her actual father.

Next: more on Stranger Things.

Why Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 Is Like The Hunger Games

I don’t keep up with television, and, frankly, only watch many television shows when they make it to Netflix—which I do watch. Recently, I saw one that relates so much to the current moment—including presidential politics—that I had to write about it.

I recently watched the first several episodes of a show that aired several years ago entitled Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23.b apt 23

Reader, it seemed to me like The Hunger Games of television. The latter, both book and movies, are something of a parable about competition’s role in times of economic and social uncertainty. Young people are loosed to kill each other in a series of bread and circuses televised for everyone’s enjoyment. That’s the game.

hunger gamesThe premise of Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 is simple. A young Midwestern woman, June, comes to New York City dewy-eyed, with a great job in finance, a great medical student fiancé, and a company-paid place to live. All economic and social issues firing happily on all gears, in other words. Love and work, and a nice cushion.

She no sooner arrives in the city than she finds the company—which paid for her move, her apartment, and will pay her salary—has had its assets frozen for CEO fraud. When she walks in her first day, law enforcement officials are cleaning the place out. Needless to say, that means company-sponsored apartment is moot. She is desperate to find a place to live in a highly expensive city.

So, she becomes prey. Now, this is a comedy, mind you. But, after finding a number of predatory/weird situations, they comes upon a more urban young woman, Chloe, who needs a roommate. Our Midwestern woman is ecstatic.

However, viewers know that Chloe has a scheme. She takes the deposits and first month’s rent, and then drives the roommate out by her behavior. In the meantime, she’s a scam artist, with a number of grifter-like techniques to obtain food and clothes.

Then, Chloe sleeps with the fiancé, thereby helping to unmask him as a major philanderer.

June’s engagement is broken, she retaliates against Chloe by behaving outrageously as well. In the end, sitcom style, they have become friends.

Which is just as well, because June doesn’t have any place to fall back on. Her parents, seen on Skype, tell her that, to pay for her MBA tuition, they have skipped their mortgage payments.

Oh! And she takes an unpaid internship which she loses to a woman with a tipped uterus. The boss likes that she can never have kids. She starts working in the local independent coffee shop.

I know this is a long synopsis, reader. It’s long for a reason.

The plot coordinates have to line up to let us see how starkly this is a parable about predatory behavior in the age before Bernie Sanders put on the table a discussion of how predatory the environment looks to young people. Actually, a lot of people, young or not.

Now, what happens is that Chloe is still predatory—she makes a living scamming people in various ways—but the two women bond. Significantly, June pays her back in kind by stealing all her furniture and holding it (with the help of one of Chloe’s ex-roommates) until she gets her money back.

So, if we go with The Hunger Games as metaphor, June learns not to be just nice sunny smart person with a plan, but someone who retaliates in kind. She is a strategist with buoyant optimism when we meet her. She has to learn to become a warrior.

More centrally, however, the fact that Chloe uncovers June’s boyfriend as a no-goodnik bonds them. They become friends.

Oh, let me add one other detail. June’s would-be mentor at her job is, of course, downsized when the firm closes. He ends up as a coffee shop manager. June needs a job. He hires her, saying words to the effect of, “oh, I fired someone for absolutely no reason to make room for one of my friends.”

I find this very grim. In the moral universe of the show, predatory behavior, stealing and dishonesty are all ok. They are a kind of lingua franca, actually. People bond by doing them, and then move on to friendship. But it means that the bedrock is untrustworthiness.

There’s a whole part of academia that examines the philosophical meanings of television shows. There is, for example, a book called The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy.

friends_hContrast this with the universe of Friends, a similar “people come to New York and hang in apartments and coffee shops” kind of show. In the Friends moral universe, they actually are friends—supportive. it’s important to have a social network that is not dependent on economic need. Economic need is hardly ever mentioned. (They are never in danger of being the baristas at Central Perk.) It’s the product of a good economic time.

It disturbs me that the predatory moral universe of Apartment 23 is played for laughs. And I hope Bernie Sanders and his campaign—president or not, elected or not—changes the cultural climate in which it took place.

 

 

Bernie Sanders’s Hair: or, Marked Men

So, having argued in my last post that professional women are less marked than ever, here’s what I think of Bernie Sanders’s hair. Sanders’s hair is commented upon not less than Clinton’s, I think, but more. (Admittedly, this is a personal sample based on what I read and hear, but I think it’s true.) The fact that his hair is sometimes not neatly combed, or blows in the wind, is alluded to and often serves as a frame for his ideas, particularly on television. (For a perfect representation of the icon of his hair, and one that also ties in the upcoming Halloween holiday, see here.) He’s not neatly coiffed according to some abstract presidential candidate standard, I guess. (Although it looks ok to me.) The sense that he doesn’t look right also underlies some of the Saturday Night Live debate satire, which focused on his having one set of underwear (!). He himself played into this, telling reporters that when he was first elected to office in Vermont, he only had one suit.

And I think it’s commented on more because Bernie Sanders himself is marked. Marked isn’t specifically a gender category, I think, it’s a category having to do with marginality or outsiderness. (Tannen’s article was written when only so many women were in the boardroom, so their presence just attracted heightened scrutiny.) Because of his Vermont-ness (rural state, mix of liberal and gun control, and so forth), his espousal of economic issues few people were talking about before he brought them to the table, and his accent, he isn’t just any generic guy running for president.

And this brings me to a third central point. The exchange between Bernie and the Times is a debate of sorts. On the one side, he assumes that hair is a trivial thing to be asking a presidential candidate about. On the other, the reporter says it’s a valid gender issue. I think both are correct if we delete the word gender.

The problem, really, is that the Times relied on shopworn observations and analysis, because it is Sanders who is the marked candidate in the race, not Clinton. The stance also illustrates the perils of relying on outworn social observations as much as political or economic ones in politics. Social observations change and become outmoded. It takes constant testing of the wind to see what is really, in fact, happening, not relying on decades-old truisms.

In that sense, Sanders’s incredulity about being asked what he seemed to interpret as a fashion question when he was trying to get out an important economic message was a breath of fresh air.

Bernie Sanders’s Hair: or, Marked Women

Happy Rockober, readers!

I want to talk today about Bernie Sanders’s hair. (Whenever I have started to write this, I keep thinking about the fact that the cadence of “Bernie Sanders’s hair,” especially if you write it “Bernie Sanders’ hair,” sounds like the improvised Native American chant “John Wayne’s Teeth.” It was written by Sherman Alexie and featured in his movie Smoke Signals. It’s a big digression, but before we start, here is a relevant clip.)

So. Bernie’s hair.

A few days ago, I was looking up the Saturday Night Live skit spoofing the Democratic president debate earlier this month. I enjoyed the debate, and I wanted to see particularly the Larry David version of Bernie Sanders. Which can be seen here.

Ok. I ran across yet another clip. (Reader! Perhaps the secret subject of this post is clips!) This one had two young men talking about a conversation Bernie Sanders had with a New York Times reporter in which he scolded her for asking him whether, and I paraphrase their clip-within-a-clip (!), is it fair that Hillary Clinton’s hair gets more scrutiny than his does.

He responds incredulously, asking her to verify that she is actually asking about hair when he is trying to talk about massive income inequality in this country. Yep, she responds, I am, and then says something to the effect of “I can defend that—there’s a gendered reason.”

At that point, my meta really swung into action.

First, yes, for the past several decades, analysts have been pointing out that women’s appearance is often the focus of comment and criticism, whereas the appearance of public men (politicians, corporate leaders, etc.) is unremarked on, no matter what they look like. It’s been an issue gendered, yes.

But second, the larger point is that women were subjected to this extra scrutiny because they were what the scholar Deborah Tannen calls “marked.” (If you’ve been anywhere near English of Women’s Studies departments, you have very likely read her essay “Marked Women, Unmarked Men.” The text, helpfully, can be found here.)

Basically, Tannen pointed out that the styles women choose mean something, while the styles men choose, if they are basic office wear, don’t. They mean “basic guy” with no inflection. When clothes meant something—when the meaning had to be decided upon—the women could be subject to judgment or criticism. At the least, a higher level of scrutiny, a gender inequality when people simply don’t think about the way men look.

So as part of my discussion, I want to focus on two things. The first is that it is arguable that women today are not nearly as “marked” as they were when Deborah Tannen wrote her article in the early 1990s. Yes, commentators sometimes mention Hillary Clinton’s penchant for bright colors…but the firestorm over her wearing head bands, also in the early 1990s, was exponentially greater.

The proof of the “less marked than ever” theory, as I guess I’ll call it, was that Donald Trump tried a version of “markedness” on Carly Fiorina by deriding her looks. And, basically, he lost. People generally were much more with her. They supported her dignified response, regardless of what they felt about her being a presidential candidate. She dresses and wears her hair like a generic, regular-type corporate woman, and so, to a large degree, does Hillary Clinton. There is a recognizable female professional style, and they recognizably both walk within its boundaries.

In the sense that anyone who follows that style is no more marked than their respective male counterparts, that’s a victory for women. Trump’s remark may have been the last gasp of being able to deride professional women for looking any particular way, and the beginning of acceptance of their looks just as we accept the looks of every male presidential candidate without serious comment.

More on Amy Schumer and Twelve Angry Men

In my last post, I discussed the Inside Amy Schumer parody of Twelve Angry Men. I want to say more about both today, because the more I think about it, the richer I think it is.

As I mentioned last time, I think part of the richness of the parody is how much it picks up on metaphors of citizenship and physicality that are already present the original film, just not so explicit. The jurors are representative men, and as such their physical imperfections represent them as average citizens. They get to do the things average citizens get to do. Speak. Vote. And voting’s less explicit daily analog, weigh in on an issue.

However, perceived physical imperfections in women often mark them as less than, and result in their being ignored and simply unrepresented. They cannot speak, or are unheard if they do. Amy plain jane amy sSchumer often mines exactly this vein, as exemplified in the Miami Vice parody “Plain Jane,” where the eponymous character (see picture) states, in voice-over, that she is “invisible to the perfect” and, in fact, other characters sit on her because they literally don’t see her on a bar stool. One picture is worth a thousand words; see this great clip here.

Well, um. I think the richness of the parody, though, is exactly how much it works within the ambiance of the original film, which is two-fold. Yes, looks are democratized; no one has to be handsome or hot to weigh in. But something else happens in the film about looks as well. Looks are also made a symbol of the inner man. And it is precisely the reliance on image as marker of inner worth that has particularly hit women hard—they are the carriers of it.

What do I mean about looks being made a symbol? I alluded to it briefly in the first post. Most of the characters look slightly odd in some way; only Henry Fonda has a classic symmetrical look—and his impressive looks mark him as morally better, and as the leader.

Outer looks as a symbol for the inner man is quite intentional in the film. I watched the Criterion 12 angry men jammed togetherCollection of Twelve Angry Men and, for anyone interested in film art, there is a highly informative second DVD included that includes interviews with (among other people) cinematographer John Bailey. Several interviewees mention the cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who director Sidney Lumet worked with to create a slightly eerie claustrophobic effect. Indeed, the pictures smash the people together to create a kind of “society and conformity oppress us” feel. (And, as a dance fan, I have to say that one memorable scene, below, where all the jurors distance themselves physically from a hold-out who wants a guilty verdict, and their moral disapproval is shown by distance and silence, looks highly influenced by the physical presentation of ballet.)12 angry men ballet

So, although there are plenty of words in Twelve Angry Men, film art has meant that meanings are often carried through images rather than words. The status of movies as a central art of the twentieth century has meant that images are more and more important to us. Nineteenth-century books are often a word torrent (390 pages is nothing!) with a single graphic in the frontispiece. In twenty-first century Web pages, on the other hand, images are often both frequent and gargantuan. Moreover, on news sites especially, the picture is often shorthand for the entire thing, rather than the headline. One’s looks, also, have increasingly become a short-hand symbol for the entire person. This is true for both women and men, but Schumer tackles the grittier issue facing women, of being invisible depending on how one looks, or being mediated only by your physicality, with no representative place in the world if you don’t have a physicality deemed acceptable. And this is partly a gender problem, but also part of a cultural turn toward image rather than words.

Amy Schumer and Twelve Angry Men

There has been a lot of talk in the critical world about the parody of the film Twelve Angry Men in the comedy show Inside Amy Schumer. (See, readers, I not only write blogs but I read a lot of blogs on Slate, Salon, and New Yorker, all of them abuzz with praises of this parody. It ran a few months ago, but I thought I would at least sing the praises of Inside Amy Schumer before I see her film Trainwreck.)

If you didn’t see/read the media hoopla on this and don’t watch the show, a bit of background: the parody takes the claustrophobic room with a jury sequestered inside from the 1950s film Twelve Angry Men, but instead of debating the guilt or innocence of an accused murderer, it is Amy Schumer herself who is on trial. The accusation: whether or not she is sexy enough to have a TV show. (Alas, although the episode-long parody was available for streaming in May, it now seems to be behind a pay wall, but do check YouTube or Comedy Central for clips. I’m at least giving you a picture that gets the point across. Here on the right, the parody; on the left below, the original, with a special inside amy s 12 angryshout-out to the actor in the center who parodied Lee J. Cobb, the original actor pictured alone on the left. Of a group of great parodists, he was the best.)

Most of the critical conversation has centered around the hilariously accurate mirroring of the film’s 1950s milieu: the black and white film, the clothes, the fan blowing air around in the age before air conditioning, the histrionic debates. Several, notably Salon’s Katie McDonough have gone a bit deeper, noting that the parody hits deeper than skits usually do by pinpointing the pain underlying men’s objectification of women.

12 angry menI want to put out another aspect that I think makes this parody kind of profound, one curiously uncommented on by anything I’ve seen so far. And that is the physicality that the 1950s film shares with the meaning of the parody. I saw the movie many years ago but I remember vividly being struck with the irregularity of the men’s faces in the film. They have wens. They have lumps (bulbous areas in both their faces and bodies). They have tics. Not only that: almost everybody is characterized by large waistlines, receding hair, unattractive lee j cobbeyeglasses.

I don’t say this to diss the guys’ overall appearance. In my initial viewing, I remember thinking something along the lines of “that’s how ordinary people looked in the 1950s.” Not a movie star style of attractiveness: these guys look more like Ralph Kramden or Ed Norton (if dressed in suits) than like 1950s icons of handsomeness Gregory Peck or Paul Newman. (Or for that matter, Henry Fonda, who, as the leader who is the voice of reason and charity, is the only actor with a symmetrical, handsome face. I have to disagree with Salon that the actors look like the originals: many of them strikingly do, but the actor in the “Fonda” role is just as asymmetrical and odd-looking as the others.)

And of course, if you do take them as very ordinary in looks, that’s an unstated part of the point. They are the very ordinary citizenry. They are called upon to do justice as interchangeable, unremarkable parts of a functioning democracy—the jurors. They start out dismissive of that responsibility (most of them want to get it over with as soon as possible, although they are weighing a death sentence). They do, though, in the end, through argument and debate, perform that justice. For all its focus on anger and hostility, the film seems to believe in the possibility of ordinary citizens serving justice (….as long as they have a good leader).

That subtext—that looking ordinary is a marker for an ordinary citizen—and that citizens might be called upon to do duty always implicitly theirs but seldom explicitly requiring action, even if they want to go to a ball game—forms an unspoken commentary in the parody. Because they are trying Amy Schumer for not being “bangable” enough to be on television. By extension, they are weighing whether ordinary women get to be public women with a public voice. (Yes, I know it’s television, but it is a metaphor for point of view and voice here, and also given the content of Inside Amy Schumer.) And it’s quite clear that the democracy of the body they enjoy—they get to speak and have a vote no matter how they look— is a) so implicit that they don’t even think about it and b) something they only grudgingly and ambiguously extend to her.

 

To Boldly Go

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the interrelationship between The Big Bang Theory and Star Trek, saying that the linkages were not only about the references of the former to the latter, but about the structure itself. Today, I want to say a bit more about that.

Ok, you say, I’ll buy that the characters have similarities, but what about the plots? Well, I think the plots too.

In the original Star Trek, the Starship Enterprise was dedicated to seeking out new worlds and boldly going where no man had gone before. To that end, it visited alien planet upon alien planet.

Well, in The Big Bang Theory, the new worlds (for the original three guys) are women, sex, and the larger worlds of relationships. When the series begins, they don’t know much about the first, they haven’t had much of the second, and, because of this, they inhabit a relatively small portion of the third. (They had sociability and relationships with each other from the beginning, of course, but almost none with the non-geek world.) In fact, the third episode shows Leonard being extremely anxious about asking his neighbor Penny out—so nervous and awkward that he sweats profusely, throws up, and finally injures himself to the point of bleeding.

In this new voyage, though, Leonard is the leader. At the beginning, Sheldon doesn’t seem interested in any relationships, it is hinted that Howard has pursued women inappropriately, and Raj has selective mutism, where he can’t talk to women—or even when they are around—at all.

Throughout the entire run of the series, each character has followed Leonard into moving into the larger realm of sociability and relationships; now most have stable relationships. These are their new worlds.bbt all cast

Indeed, a number of episodes present their fascination with science fiction as being about their initial social awkwardness and timidity. Penny even tells a possible competitor that it is about keeping their shields up.

In the plot coordinates of the show, where geek-ness provides the grounds for the guys’ sociability and relationships, Penny—who is at ease with dating and sex, and whose relationships are formed by her friendliness and her prettiness—is something of an alien. The humor is that her friendliness could be one of the elements that mark her as an average American type—but in the world of the show, she’s anything but.

I have to say that it is one of the charms of the show, to me, that in a culture that often assumes that relationships and sexuality for single people are a given, with its corollaries that people who don’t have them are charmless and beyond social redemption, in this show none of that is true. In that sense, it continues the Star Trek tradition of generous inclusivity.

 

Farewell, Mr. Spock; Hello, Big Bang Theory

The recent death of Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock on the original TV airing of Star Trek (and its multiple spin-offs), has caused me to revisit his appearances on a contemporary TV show, The Big Bang Theory. Well, not appearances, exactly—the actor himself never shows up. But the science guys on The Big Bang Theory all love Star Trek—references to it abound, and in several memorable sequences, the voice and presence of Spock are evoked. In the first, Spock serves as the conscience of Sheldon, the ur-nerd whose rigid beliefs and schedule are thought to be close to high-functioning autism, when Sheldon wants to substitute his roommate Leonard’s toy Star Trek transformer for his own (broken) one. Part of the fun of this is that Leonard Nimoy voices Spock just as he did in the original (see clip below). In the second, their neighbor Penny gives Sheldon a napkin Nimoy had signed.


So it’s clear that Star Trek is an obvious and unmistakable presence in The Big Bang Theory. But what might not be as clear is that The Big Bang Theory owes its very structure to Star Trek. I was influenced in this perception by reading about how Pride and Prejudice has influenced many contemporary stories—the teen fave Twilight among them. The unattainable and even slightly dislikable guy who might be the one true love is common to both of them.

So, let us think about how much the characters of Star Trek underlies The Big Bang Theory. First, as the clip illustrates, Sheldon kind of is Spock. He sees himself as ruled by logic; he is (due to his rigidity and a kind of a-sociability) somewhat alien—as Spock says, they are alike in being half human.

Once you see Sheldon as Spock, all the other character fall into place as Star Trek types. Leonard is Captain Kirk in being the leader of the group—and more human than Leonard. Howard, seen through the prism of his early dislike of Sheldon, is Spock’s opposite, Bones McCoy, the Starship Enterprise’s doctor, whose emotional responses were the foil for Spock’s logic. (The original triumvirate represented all heart [McCoy] and all head [Spock], with Kirk combining both.) Howard’s outbursts about Sheldon’s rigid precepts and beliefs have the same “do you have ice water in your veins, man” quality that Bones’s outbursts against the half-Vulcan Spock’s commitment to logic and inability to feel human emotions have.

And Raj? Well, I think Raj evokes the inclusiveness and multicultural nature of the original Star Trek. Star Trek crewJust as Spock indicated that an alien group—the Vulcans—were appreciated and respected, the other crew members indicated that in the future, all nations and all ethnic groups were working together in a high-minded, intellectual mission. Differences were no longer an issue; they all worked together as a matter of course. As the series went on, nearly all the crew members were multinational or multicultural—Sulu was Asian, Uhuru was African-American, Scotty was Scottish, Chekhov was Russian. Raj’s Indian-ness (and his sister in England and parents in India) is illustrative of the multinational reach of the high-minded intellectual mission of contemporary science. (And, since he is also a sci-fi geek, of the reach of that aspect of popular culture.)  Without Raj, this is a program about 3 white guy nerds in SoCal.  With Raj, they are the world.

The series also has fun with mixing and matching certain qualities of the characters—often reversing Big bang theory guysthem. The original Bones had a marked southern accent and a fondness for whiskey. In The Big Bang Theory, it’s Sheldon who is a Southerner, whose Texas accent comes out on occasion, and his father was an alcoholic. Although Spock is Vulcan, Leonard Nimoy was vocal about the influence of his Jewish upbringing on the character. (The “Live Long and Prosper” Vulcan salute was inspired by a similar gesture in the temple of his childhood.) In The Big Bang Theory, it is Howard who is Jewish.

Coming up: the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.