Justifying My English Degree: The Strange Case of Shamy in “The Big Bang Theory”

The Show: The Big Bang Theory

Principal Actors: Jim Parsons, Mayim Bialik, Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco

The Characters: Dr. Sheldon Cooper, B.S., M.S., M.A., Ph.D., Sc. D.A genius-level yet socially inept theoretical physicist that forms the core of the social circle that comprises the cast of The Big Bang Theory.

Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, Ph.D. A highly intelligent and also social inept neuroscientist who serves as the most recent member of the BBT circle.

The Critique:

I often wonder how I’d react if I met Dr. Cooper in real life. Chances are we’d bump into each other at a Mensa meeting, and he’d be one of those guys who only goes to ridicule the guest speaker and call out every one of his inaccuracies, while I’d be the guy who’s there for the buffet table and free coffee. Despite our proud membership in geek culture, Dr. Cooper and I would find ourselves on opposite sides of the line. He’s hard science, I’m one of those people who studied the humanities. He went to prestigious universities for his studies, and I went to a grad school that until recently had a proud tradition of an annual co-ed nude volleyball game. He’d dismiss me as wasted potential and I’d probably roll my eyes and wonder how someone ended up with screwed up priorities. Also, I’d inform him that it’s “wasted potential” like mine that supplies him with his precious comic books. 😉

While Sheldon Cooper’s social graces are often attributed to Asperger’s, which even Jim Parsons, the actor who portrays Sheldon, claims inspires his performance, there’s another aspect to Sheldon that I often see bandied about, namely that Sheldon is asexual, and that he’s being ruined by the writers who are forcing him into “a binary gender relationship” with a bisexual woman in order to enforce societal relationship mores on them and ease the concerns of the traditional viewer.

I respectfully disagree.

Now, even though asexuality and bisexuality do catch some flack, especially from the gay community (often derogatorily referred to as “closet-clingers” and “half-gay”), I wholeheartedly believe that yes, there are people who simply don’t seek sexual relationships with people, as well as there being people who prefer both.

Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, played by Mayim Bialik, has been thought of by some fans to be bisexual, primarily through her involvement with Sheldon and her apparently infatuation with Penny, played by Kaley Cuoco. Originally, Amy was almost an exact duplicate of Sheldon, being aloof, superior, highly intelligent, and lacking humility. However, as the series continued on, she began to open up, forge friendships with other women, and take her place in the social circle that comprises the show. In my opinion, Amy represents an accelerated version of what’s essentially happening to Sheldon throughout the series. Much like Sheldon, Amy’s past includes being ostracized by her peers due to her intelligence and social ineptitude, though her educational advancement wasn’t as pronounced as Sheldon’s. This, I believe, stems from a throwaway gag where Amy mentions that she’d been ostracized by women through elementary, junior high, senior high, undergrad, graduate school, and doctoral work. While that’s a long period of seeing other women as primarily traitorous and mocking, it also underlines Amy’s long exposure to social dynamics, and her eagerness to form bonds with other women however many attempts it takes. As the series progresses, it displays Amy not emerging from her shell per se, but rather feeling comfortable enough to be herself, though her overreaching is often played up for laughs. It’s that overreaching that, I believe, leads to the fan’s suspicions that Amy may be bisexual. While I do fully believe that people can be bisexual, I also believe that there are different “types” of bisexuality much as there are different “types” of homosexuality and heterosexuality. Personally, I would classify Amy as a male-biased bisexual woman. What this means is that while she does find other women sexually attractive, and would engage in relations with women, she would rather pursue a long term relationship with a man instead of a woman. Or, at the very least, she’s heterosexual with bi-curious tendencies, but I’d lean more toward fully bisexual. Still, bisexual people can maintain long term relationships with members of the opposite sex, or the same sex, hence being bisexual.

Sheldon, on the other hand, while still reportedly a virgin in the lore of the show, and not having shown any interest in engaging in sexual relations, and being portrayed by an openly gay actor, I do not believe is asexual for one primary reason: lack of normative socialization. It’s well-established in the lore that Sheldon not only achieved a Ph.D at 16, but has several degrees by his mid-20s, which implies a heavy focus on education and his studies, with most of his socialization with other children being in the form of bullying or ridicule. It’s Sheldon’s immaturity and selfishness that implies a lack of psychological as well as psychosexual development. It’s established in the series that Sheldon’s father was an alcoholic while his mother is a deeply religious woman. In fact, the majority of influence in his childhood came from women, namely his mother and “Meemaw”, who lavished him with attention while his father died from heart disease. That combined with his selfishness (which was never corrected, apparently) and high intelligence paired with a superiority complex could explain Sheldon’s complete lack of tact social skills that most people learn in the gauntlet that is public education. Also, it’s important to remember that when most guys are figuring out what their dangly bits are for, all of Sheldon’s attention was on quantum physics while he went for his Ph.D.

It’s Sheldon’s development over the course of the series that, in my opinion, provides the foundation of the narrative. This is the story of Sheldon learning how to be a person, not just a mind to someday upload into a robot or computer network, and how he met the woman who would help him get there. The Sheldon of season 7 is markedly different from the Dr. Cooper of the pilot, having gone through over seven years of socialization with people he wouldn’t have given a second look at. Throughout his relationship with Amy, we see the slow process of a man reviving his psychosexual development, in particular in season 6, where after being mocked by their friends during a session of Dungeons and Dragons, and Sheldon’s character is forced to fall in love with Amy’s character. To Amy, her lack of progress with Sheldon is underlined and laughed at, and understandably, it’s humiliating for her. But there’s an important moment in their relationship, when he describes in fumbling terms how his character would seduce hers. It’s clearly the erotic fantasy of a virgin, but it’s a turning point in their relationship. When they began their relationship, Sheldon termed it as “intellectual”, a relationship of minds. In that scene, Amy, as well as the audience, is shown that Sheldon is beginning to see his girlfriend not as just a mind, but as a woman as well, and a woman that he does find physically attractive as well as intellectually.

While I can see why fans would view Sheldon as asexual, I don’t agree with it. I believe that asexuality is simply the way that a person is, not that it’s a choice or the result of social or psychosexual retardation. That would imply that if you’re asexual, something or someone screwed you up badly and you can, somehow, be “fixed”, much as some still believe about homosexuality and bisexuality. Instead, it’s easier for me to believe that forgoing social experience can having a lasting effect on anyone, and that Dr. Cooper provides an excellent example of this.


Filed under Commentary

3 responses to “Justifying My English Degree: The Strange Case of Shamy in “The Big Bang Theory”

  1. Jo

    I like the term QUILT BAGS to encompass human sexuality and gender
    Queer, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay, Straight. Does that cover it all?

    • Well, you left out Omnisexual and Pansexual, and there’s likely a couple others that haven’t seen the light of day yet. I think there are always going to be new terms that we’ll use to describe our sexualities, because it represents the interesting dichotomy of wanting to be able to put everyone else in a box, yet still think of ourselves as unique. 🙂

  2. Jo

    Damn. Yes you are correct. I forgot the term polyamorous as well. What about the term PEOPLE. I was going to suggest HUMAN but that’s a bit limiting in the world you write about. EARTHLING? UNIVERSLING? Or how about we do whatever we want as who we want to be, with who ever we want (if they want) however we want as long as it is done nicely and with kindness.
    I am in the middle of marking student essays at the moment and procrastinating by reading your blog, which is much more entertaining.

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