Gender, Race, and Stereotypes in “Scorpion”, “Silicon Valley” and “Big Bang Theory”
Whether it be Shaquille O’Neal’s free throw percentage, the fraction of Iggy Azalea’s freestyle lyrics that aren’t incoherent nonsense, or the number of Rihanna notes that are on key during a live performance (to her credit, her vocals have improved over time), sometimes the numbers just don’t look good. Such is the case when considering the participation of women in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) fields. Collected data from the National Girls Collaborative Project [infographic] illustrates that males are 6 times more likely to have taken engineering than women, although women earn 57% of all bachelor degrees. In addition, the National Science Board states that women are awarded a meager 18% of degrees in both engineering and computer science, and underrepresented minority women (who comprise 12% of the general population) earn only 3% of bachelor degrees in engineering and 5% of bachelor degrees in computer science.
While an attempt to teach Iggy Azalea how to freestyle would be an exercise in futility, I think we can make some strides in improving the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields.
If we wish to reverse these startling trends, we have to be intentional. My paths to a STEM career began with my parents being intentional about everything down to the content of my bedtime stories. Whenever I asked my father to tell me a story, he would convey an amazing adventure about a girl named Kleodie who fought bad guys by night, excelled in physics by day, and could handle a steak like nobody’s business. Something as simple as a bedtime story taught me that STEM careers are cool, a positive body image is important, and I could and should be my very own superhero. Unfortunately, my father can’t Santa-Claus travel to every bedroom every night telling bedtime stories in pursuit of a more diverse STEM workforce — laws of Physics notwithstanding, it would be very creepy. However, media could provide a far more scalable medium to intentionally expose women and underrepresented minorities to STEM careers.
For example, dramatic television series have successfully garnered public interest in forensic science (Littlefield, 2011). However, when it comes to portrayal of engineering and computer science careers in the media, it seems that we are hustling backwards. In particular, underrepresented minorities are non-existent, and storylines reinforce negative stereotypes about gender roles and STEM professionals overall. In order to unpack this, let’s examine three currently airing television shows that portray engineers and computer scientists: Silicon Valley, Scorpion, and the Big Bang Theory.
To begin, it’s quite problematic that all three of these shows portray engineers as stereotypical nerds. Take Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper (portrayed by Jim Parsons), the former child prodigy turned stand-out physicist. While his character follows the “awkward nerd” trope, his personality traits would be better read as misogynist, egotistical, insulting, boundary-violating and sometimes even abusive. We love laughing at Sheldon Cooper, but he isn’t a role model — we certainly don’t want to be him. Moreover, the perpetual portrayal of characters like him can be problematic to the participation of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. In fact, according to a study that involved a fun and interactive STEM experience for Hispanic middle school students, participants were unable to picture themselves as scientists and engineers despite enjoying the learning experience; the study cites negative media stereotypes as the cause (Sorge 2000).
While every STEM professional has certainly encountered a Sheldon Cooper in their educational and professional career, Sheldon Cooper is the exception and not the rule. Silicon Valley, Scorpion, and Big Bang Theory have failed to give us one STEM professional that doesn’t look like they smell like Cheetos and wear socks and sandals to the beach (not counting Big Bang Theory’s Bernadette, who clearly wasn’t designed as a scientist from the beginning, but we’ll get to that later). The stereotypical, undesirable nerd is even less realistic for underrepresented minorities, because we simply cannot afford to exist solely as a Sheldon Cooper. In order to survive and thrive, we constantly have to code-switch and understand and navigate a variety of cultures (our own and the majority) with ease. To survive in majority culture, we are constantly required to adapt to our environment as a survival mechanism. Even my nerdiest of nerdy minority friends who love to tell a good black body radiation joke at parties are able to turn their nerd on and off when necessary.
Underrepresented Minorities Need Not Apply
I wish I could critique Big Bang Theory, Scorpion, and Silicon Valley’s portrayal of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields, but sadly, underrepresented minorities aren’t really represented at all. In the case of HBO’s Silicon Valley, as far as I can recall, the only African American female to hit the screen played an exotic dancer. However, I can discuss the portrayal of women to some degree. In the case of Big Bang theory, it took the writers took three years to include a female scientist as a series regular (Amy Farrah Fowler, portrayed by Mayim Bialik). Like the other scientists and engineers on the show, Amy is the stereotypical nerd. Don’t get me wrong, real-world neuroscientist Mayim Bialik is hilarious is this role, but the majority of the comedy stems from stereotypes.
As I alluded to previously, there is another female scientist on the Big Bang Theory, Bernadette, who is far more relatable. However, I don’t count her in the tally because it is clear that her character was not originally intended to be a scientist. Bernadette is a Cheesecake Factory employee who auto-magically becomes a PhD candidate later in the series, and we are supposed to believe that she was a PhD student all along, and not merely a love interest for Howard (an engineer who expresses his particular brand of impossible nerdiness in a creepy perverted saves-locks-of-your-hair in his sock drawer kind of way). They don’t bother to explain why she works at the Cheesecake Factory. Did she not have a fellowship and stipend to support her research? How did she have time to work at the Cheesecake Factory and do her research? In what universe do Cheesecake Factory uniforms look like the dresses worn by Fraulein Maria in the Sound of Music?
As long as these questions remain unanswered, Big Bang Theory will not get kudos for portraying Bernadette as a scientist. All jokes aside, although Big Bang Theory is froth with cringe-worthy stereotypes, and Bernadette (as a scientist) seems to have been thoughtlessly thrown in after the fact, the inclusion of Amy and Bernadette is a step (albeit 3 seasons too late) in the right direction.
Female Technologists Need Not Apply
Clearly CBS pops out stereotypical nerds nearly as fast as they pop out NCIS franchises, because in addition to the Big Bang theory, CBS also features Scorpion. The main difference between the Big Bang Theory and Scorpion is that Scorpion is awful and features hilarious storylines, which would be great if Scorpion were a comedy, but it isn’t (although the show did feature an Asian American female engineer from inception, which is a plus). Scorpion has the feel of STEM procedural with the exception that the science is laughably implausible and incorrect (the writers freely defy the Laws of Thermodynamics, Physics, and basic common sense). The crux of the story is that the scientists and engineers featured on the show are so socially awkward and stereotypically nerdy (never seen this storyline before!) that they can’t function and have to employ Paige (played by Katharine McPhee of American Idol fame), the lead female character to translate the world for them (which is odd because there is a professional behaviorist on their team, but plausibility isn’t a strong suit here).
To a certain extent, Big Bang Theory’s Penny, portrayed by Kaley Cuoco plays a similar role in helping her nerdy friends better navigate the world around them. Penny, the only original female series regular plays a love interest (as do all the other women on the show, for that matter) to Leonard (portrayed by Johnny Galecki), a physicist who is slightly more “hip” and socially gracious than his peers (think one pocket protector not two). As in the case of Big Bang Theory’s Penny and Scorpion’s Paige, the idea of women playing on the sidelines, serving as cheerleader and providing emotional intellect in support of men’s technical intellect is highly problematic.
HBO’s Silicon Valley (though a decent show it its own right) fares far worse in the portrayal of women. In the final episode of season one, there is a cringe-worthy storyline in which a female guest star leverages her sexual prowess to convince two of the male series regulars on the show to fix her code, because despite being a professional software engineer, she can’t code to save her life. This is similar to the storyline of the IT Crowd (a British comedy that aired a few years ago), in which the lead female character lies about being knowledgeable about computers to gain employment as an IT manager. At first her all-male team is resentful of this, but they later embrace her, as she was able provide the “soft skills” her technically proficient, yet uber-nerdy male counterparts didn’t possess — another example of women who lack technical proficiency providing (less valued) emotional intellect in support of men’s technical intellect.
There are a variety of shows featuring other professions that portray diverse, dynamic, likeable characters — such as Greys Anatomy, and the Law and Order and CSI franchises. Why can’t we have the same for STEM careers? There are a plethora of interesting storylines and humor that can be derived from elements outside of the perpetuation of nerd stereotypes and narrow gender roles.
On a grander scale, we need to leverage the media to expose a broad audience to diverse and relatable STEM professionals. (For this reason, I’m currently working on writing a television pilot with this very goal). While increasing the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields seems like an uphill battle, changing the manner in which STEM professionals are portrayed in the media could play a positive role.