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Penny versus Peggy

A few weeks ago, my brother Joel returned from China, excited to tell me about a new show he had watched while he was away, The Big Band Theory.  “You’d love it,” he said.  “It’s about geeks!”

While the presence of geeks is usually a fair indication that a TV show will be to my liking, Joel was surprised to find that, a few episodes in, I hated The Big Bang theory.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because it’s terribly, horribly sexist,” I replied.  “The female characters are stupid, mean, and only there to serve the sexual interest of men.”

Of course, as soon as I pointed it out, it was obvious.

The Big Bang theory is, in theory, a pretty cute show.  A hot girl, Penny, moves in across the hall from two geeky friends who have PhDs in Physics .  Hilarity ensues as the less-geeky of the two attempts to woo her.

Unfortunately, Penny is an awful character.  While the characterisation of Leonard and Sheldon, the geeks, is simplistic and cliche (Geeks play X-box! Geeks speak Klingon! Geeks eat badly!), it is at least sympathetic, and the characters have both their awkward charm and their intelligence to recommend them.  Penny, on the other hand, has nothing.  She is not smart.  She is not professionally successful.  She wishes to be an actress/singer, but shows no talent for either acting or singing.  She lacks the basic self-awareness most adults possess.  But worse than any of these other characteristics is the fact she’s mean.  She’s very mean, especially to Sheldon.  She shows no grace or kindness, or willingness to make concessions for his eccentric ways.

Penny has one purpose: to be Leonard’s sexual interest.  The fact she has little to recommend her- and that she certainly has little in common with Leonard- is of no consequence.  She’s hot, remember.

It’s funny, because the show really suffers for it.  A more sympathetic character would change the dynamic in a way that would undoubtedly improve the show.

So I gave up on Big Bang Theory, because I believe some valuable female characters are important.

What a contrast it is to the other show I started watching recently, Mad Men.  I’ve no doubt most of you have seen it, but for those who haven’t, Mad Men is a series set in a 1960s advertising agency, where the men sleep with their secretaries, drink through the day, then go home to their surburban wives.  It’s fascinating, because though the characters are overtly sexist, the show is largely concerned with female resistance the culture.

One of the main female characters is Peggy, a young woman who is assigned as secretary to the show’s protagonist, Don Draper.  As time goes, she shows talent for copywriting ( I won’t go any further and spoil things).  What is remarkable about Penny is the way she progresses: her rebellion against the mysoginistic environment is subtle and wholly within the bounds of believable 1960s femininity.  She is not “I am woman, hear me roar,” but her success is subtle, gentle and undoubtable. In the male-dominated world of advertising in the 1960s, women are still presented as strong, intelligent, capable and complex.

Such a complex and sympathetic portrayal of a female character- and, to be honest, all three of the major female characters in Mad Men are interesting- is a stark contrast to the awful, less-than-two-dimensional Penny.  I honestly think characters like Penny are socially irresponsible, reaffirming both stereotypes and a way to value women that we ought to wish to undermine.

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