Television constantly bombards the masses with stereotypes that encourage people to believe that they are supposed to fit into certain categories. Taking a closer at how popular shows portray women and femininity can result in a better understanding of how the media wishes you, the viewer, to think a woman should be. The show “The Big Bang Theory” is about two men living together in an apartment. They each have doctorates in their respective fields and live across the hall from a pretty blond who struggles to understand their “nerdy” ways. Penny, the blond across the hall, is a perfect example of how media tries, and succeeds in shaping America’s image of a woman.
For those not familiar with the show, there are five main characters; the two men living in the apartment, Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper, their two friends, Howard Wolowitz and Rajesh Koothrappali, and lastly Penny. The absence of Penny’s last name in the previous sentence is no mistake. Of the five lead characters, the only woman character, Penny, has no last name ever mentioned in the show. There is a subtle message in not giving Penny a last name. Her role isn’t as a character you relate to but instead merely represents that pretty girl from across the hall. She lacks a full identity and becomes more of a symbolic representation of all women.
Aside from her lack of surname, the part she plays as the beautiful woman also sets up a very specific stereotype for women and femininity. Penny is seen in nearly every episode, countless times, to be stumped by one of the four men’s statements or references. The show portrays a lack of communication between Penny and the men because of the difference in their education levels. Leonard, interested in Penny, is often found “dumbing down” his roommate’s statements so that Penny can understand and participate in their conversations. This representation of woman in the show is reinforced with every episode and the message is clear. To be beautiful is also to be unintelligent, which has never been exemplified better.
In Jennifer L. Pozner’s The Unreal World she talks about how a woman’s intellectual level is very important. Women are mocked for being unintelligent but, like Penny’s representation; if you’re pretty you shouldn’t be smart too. Pozner quotes the celebrity star, Tyra Banks, stating that having a higher education gets in the way of being a model. Later Pozner says, "No one wants to see a brainiac in a bikini in reality television." (Pozner, 97) Although "The Big Bang Theory" isn't reality television the same idea applies, there is no market for smart and pretty. Because of the lack of smart women in television the audience gets the idea that if you want to be beautiful you shouldn’t pursue higher education. (Pozner, 97)
Penny’s portrayal as being “dumb” isn’t limited to her education level but also to her ability to choose the right guy. Penny often finds herself clinging to men who have great bodies, looks, and a lot of money. Her search for guys on these standards normally leaves her broken hearted, yet again filling the stereotype set by television. To make matters worse Penny doesn’t blame the men for doing wrong things in the relationship but instead convinces herself that she did something wrong. Regardless of the situation at hand Penny decides it is her fault the relationship didn’t work and she should try to fix it. This depiction that femininity teaches that to be female is to be the one who is wrong and it is up to the woman to correct “her” mistakes. Women need to be with a man and they should do anything to keep that relationship.
The definition of Hegemony, according to James Lull, is, “The power or dominance that one social group holds over others.” (Lull, 61) Lull goes on to explain that not only is hegemony the power but it is also how this power is used to keep power. Men, being the holders of power, use their power to keep women below them. Television and this show in particular, demonstrates that women need to attach themselves to a man because without a man they are nothing. The role of a woman is to get a guy and then maintain this relationship. (Lull, 61-62)
Penny represents the woman in constant search for a man in the episode, The Tangerine Factor. Leonard finally gets his wish to date Penny. This only occurs directly after Penny breaks up with her old boyfriend. Penny becomes a woman with no man and because of this immediately agrees to be with Leonard. No representation of Penny’s desire to date Leonard has ever been shown before, even after obvious attempts made by Leonard, but once she is single, her mind changes. This representation of a woman doing anything to be with a man shows the hegemony system we live in and that television enforces. Men have the power in society and women must be connected to a man if she wishes to be “successful.”
Penny is the representation of television's twisted image of what a woman should be. Throughout the show the focus on her beauty and "dumb blonde" characteristics reinforce the idea that women cannot be beautiful and smart. Her only power is her beauty, which she can only use to get a man. She also demonstrates that a woman cannot be independent, but instead she must constantly be with a man. "The Big Bang Theory" is a source of entertainment and is enjoyed for its comedy value. Penny's very stereotypic role is accepted as part of the comedy yet quietly reinforces a negative example of femininity.
Dines, Gail, Jean McMahon Humez, and James Lull. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: a Text-reader. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003. Print.
Pozner, Jennifer L. "The Unreal World." Learning Gender. By Amy Kesselman, Lily D. McNair, and Nancy Schniedewind. 4th ed. McGraw-Hill, 2006. 96-99. Print.