Big Bang Theory’s Autism Simulation
I just posted this over on Tumblr, but wanted to share it here as well.
I’ve criticized The Big Bang Theory for things like its ongoing obsession with fat jokes, its casual sexism (OMG, girls don’t read comics/play D&D/etc), the handling of Sheldon’s autistic/OCD issues, and an ongoing sense of laughing at geeks instead of with us.
But I want to give a shoutout to something the show did recently in “The Itchy Brain Simulation.” Leonard discovered a DVD he had forgotten to return for Sheldon, and started worrying about how Sheldon would react. Because we all know Sheldon can’t let anything go, and would be completely annoying and freak out about the unreturned DVD, right? And then we the viewers can all laugh at the neurotic genius and ask why his friends put up with him.
Only it didn’t play out that way. Sheldon countered by asking why Leonard didn’t consider how annoying and difficult these things were for him. As far as I know, this is the first time Sheldon’s ever stood up for himself in this way. He took it a step further, saying he’d remain calm about the DVD … if Leonard wore an itchy sweater he had gotten as a gift until the DVD was returned.
Animated gifs ahead. (I did say this was being copied from Tumblr…)
I loved it. I love that this show is finally acknowledging that it’s not a matter of Sheldon just being annoying. His brain works differently. As annoying as he comes off to his neurotypical friends, their habits often have the same effect on him. Only he’s outnumbered, meaning he’s getting stress from multiple directions all the time. And the narration consistently sympathizes with his “long-suffering” friends.
The writers are unwilling to label Sheldon’s character autistic, but the actor says that to him, “the character of Sheldon is very autistic in nature.”
My son is autistic, so this is personal to me. Seeing Sheldon used as the butt of various jokes rings too close to some of what my son deals with at school.
So seeing Sheldon challenge Leonard to walk in his shoes, and seeing Leonard completely fall apart because he didn’t know how to cope with it, was huge.
The episode wasn’t perfect, and still had some problematic issues, but I thought this storyline was amazing, given what we’ve seen from the show in the past.
Thank you for this episode. I really hope this newfound understanding continues.
December 7, 2013 @ 10:04 pm
I have mixed feelings about TBBT… Some parts I love, other times I have to turn down the sound or change the channel before I throw something at the TV. One of my peeves is how they have changed Amy Farrah Fowler. I rather enjoyed her being the fairly non-Sexualized, female equivalent in many ways to Sheldon, who finds she enjoys social contact with other humans, but is just not terribly interested in insert tab a into slot b sex. In the last two years, they’ve turned her into a female who lusts after Sheldon (and, horrors, Zack…) I much preferred her when she still had no real interest in sex, at least as it came to herself. After all, they already had the other two female characters having fairly high (well, by my lights, very highly) sex drives. Sigh.
December 7, 2013 @ 11:05 pm
I realize that this is kind of missing the point, but why on earth did Leonard tell Sheldon about the DVD when he knew it would bug him? Why didn’t he just return it quietly and pay whatever fine there was? If I had accidentally done something that I knew would upset a friend, and had the chance to keep it from upsetting them, I would.
Peter V. Brett
December 8, 2013 @ 1:23 pm
I had written this season of the show off for just these reasons. It was kind of fun at first to have a show making comic book and SF in-jokes for once, but more and more I felt like the show’s POV was that of picking on nerds for being weird, rather than give them credit for the great things they are capable of.
But it was the autism thing that really put me off. There is autism in my family, and it has always frustrated me how inconsiderate people can be about having to deal with it. Adding a laugh track to it made the show intolerable to me.
It would be great if they managed to turn that around this season.
December 8, 2013 @ 9:40 pm
The sweater analogy was indeed well done.
I only watch the show sporadically, but I’m not convinced Sheldon is *supposed* to be on the autistic spectrum, though some of his traits do fit that profile. He was also supposed to be a child prodigy (and many largely inaccurate stereotypes apply there too) and to be just plain clueless and inconsiderate (remember the sexual harassment episode). Also, these characters are supposed to be professors (or maybe soft money researchers) at Cal Tech or something, but aside from the Cafeteria scenes, they spend very little time at work, and almost none in their labs, or teaching, or applying for grants etc. It’s a sitcom, so they play everything for gags, even when it’s not something that’s all that funny in real life (like the very real tension and heartache that would result from a love affair between an asexual person and a person with a sex drive).
I have on occasion wondered whether or not they realize that they are touching some nerves with Sheldon’s less than sympathetic portrayal, but to be honest, I’d find it really, really hard to live with someone who was as nit picky and condescending as he was, even if it was down to being autistic. In fact, I briefly dated a guy who was just a very little bit that way in grad school, and it did not last long (he wasn’t on the autistic spectrum, but I suspect he had OCD).
I don’t think the sex drives of the female characters are unrealistic. I certainly remember that level of focus and interest back when most of my female friends and I were single or dating (in college and grad school). It would be nice if they admitted that women can also be into computer games and geeky fandom, and of course, not all exceptionally bright guys (eccentric or not) are into these things.
It’s why I’m not usually into sitcoms, actually. They have to keep things pretty superficial and go for the cheap gags.
Jim C. Hines
December 9, 2013 @ 7:56 am
Didn’t he find it while Sheldon was there? I can’t remember exactly how that played out.
Jim C. Hines
December 9, 2013 @ 7:57 am
There’s been some debate and discussion about Sheldon. I linked to an interview with the writers and the actor both weighing in: http://www.autismdailynewscast.com/the-big-bang-controversy-is-sheldon-autistic/441/todd/
December 9, 2013 @ 2:56 pm
It’s not really the first time that they’ve done this. There have been many episodes where Sheldon’s difficulties with various things have been addressed and not just played for laughs. He has had to be brave many times in order to attempt certain experiences, usually with the support of one or more of the other characters. They in turn sometimes underestimate him because of his issues, as people do, and it’s revealed that he’s managed things better than they knew or are aware of. One of the main reasons Leonard has continued his friendship/roommating with Sheldon has been because Leonard understands that Sheldon can’t help the way he is a lot of the time, but has a good heart and even certain skills and assets that others don’t have. But like any caregiver/helper, Leonard sometimes gets frustrated and tired of dealing with some of Sheldon’s needs. One of the reasons that Sheldon and Penny have developed the friendship that they have is the number of times Sheldon has asked for Penny’s help dealing with his inability to do certain things, with being neuro atypical. Sheldon has also asked for patience from his girlfriend Amy, who also has Asperger’s but is not as asexual as Sheldon, in dealing with his physical intimacy issues which are hard for him. Sheldon also has obsessive-compulsive disorder, though it’s fairly mild, and this may be partly why the show runners don’t want to say that everything is connected to autism, although the two have obvious links. (There is also, I believe, some medical debate as to whether some forms of Aspergers are actually autistic or different neurologically.)
The show both fully supports and makes fun of the various issues each character has, such as Raj’s psychological block talking to women which he overcame through contact with the female characters, or Penny’s realization in an earlier season when meeting a pretty new neighbor who manipulated the men into helping her that she was once like that but now has changed and been drawn into the men’s world — including some aspects of fandom/geekery. (And there have in fact been female fandom on the show; they just haven’t been the main characters. Leonard in fact has an almost romance with one, contemplating that being easier than when he was with Penny who didn’t share his interests.)
The characters are the heroes of the story — we’re supposed to root for them as people who change and grow. Sheldon has been able to develop a lot of skills through his interaction with the group of friends. They in turn have learned things about themselves from Sheldon’s open observations. They are all, except perhaps Penny and Bernadette, the kind of characters who would be the goofy comic relief sidekicks in the usual sitcom, characters like Screech and Urkel, but instead they are deliberately the stars. The things that general society stereotypically say and expect about such people are trotted out and made fun of, while also acknowledging that atypical or nerdy aspects can be annoying, obsessive or very funny. The show will do shout-out tweaking. For instance, they know that there has been a lot of discussion about homoerotic overtones in the bromance between Howard and Raj. And this is the kind of thing that people say about close male friends who seem nerdy — that they are gay. So about once an episode, they will have some incident/joke that highlights that idea, to make fun of this, not to make fun of gay people, but of the uptightness people have towards gay males and being seen as gay males, and the assumptions we socially have about that regarding certain types of behavior.
Lorre is subversive and has a no subject unallowed approach. He put on a sitcom that pushed the levels of raunch allowed, but it was also about a playboy who then puts family first. He did a sitcom where the “nerds” were the stars. He did a sitcom that was a romance of two people who had weight issues — the kind of characters who seldom get to be the stars of the show and have a romance as well. He has a new sitcom where the main characters are women, about family and intergenerational dysfunction and rehab from addiction — ten years ago no one could have gotten that on the air. He’s worked on women-centered, atypical sitcoms — Roseanne, Cybill, Grace Under Fire. I don’t watch all his shows, but I do watch Big Bang Theory because I like the actors and because it has helped to greatly open up what can be done on sitcoms. It is also inspiring a detectable rise in students going into physics and sciences. Not everybody agrees that the portrayal is off or derisive: http://www.thelearningtreehouse.com/letstalklearning/autism-parenting-the-big-bang-theory/
I think it is something that can be discussed. But the show does frequently point out and discuss Sheldon’s difficulties with neuro typical society. Sheldon, in fact, frequently reminds Leonard that he has problems understanding why Leonard is upset about a typical issue.
December 9, 2013 @ 4:38 pm
Thanks for the link 🙂 I’ve often wondered (aloud at times) whether or not Sheldon might be autistic, and people have always said, “Oh, he’s just supposed to be OCD.”
As if mocking people with psychological conditions is all right.
I realize that affectionate inside humor can call attention to issues people have, and even make them more accessible and relatable to people who don’t share them, but there is a difference between laughing with and laughing at.
December 9, 2013 @ 6:17 pm
As a woman in both science and fandom, I laugh when people see this show as a parody of stereotypes.
I have spent more than 20 years in the lab and met my husband almost 20 years ago at a con. I know people who match each of the characters. I married someone just like Raj. If I hadn’t talked to him, we wouldn’t be together. My husband is in computer engineering. He also is very good with almost any craft involving fibers, knitting, crochet, braiding etc. He is a neat freak, still plays D&D and is a fabulous cook.
The Leonard and Howard characters are common in my work and my husband’s as well as in several of the hobbies we enjoy. Sheldon is a little more rare. Not because these individuals don’t exist, but because they are often pushed out of polite company because people do not want to put up with them. Not all of them are on the autistic spectrum. Tactlessness and lack of social graces do not always add up to autism. Sometimes extreme OCD is included, but not always.
The show is a sitcom which sometimes looks at hard subjects. Being insulted or offended by the show is being oversensitive. The first time I ever mentioned being married to “Raj”, my husband laughed then said “That’s true.” The Leonards of the world might not like having their awkwardness exposed, but they can learn from the show. Unfortunately, the “Howards” of the world will never notice that the show is about them. The personal fantasy is very good. The “Sheldons” of the world would not be insulted either, partly because they don’t perceive the insult and partly because they wouldn’t see it as an insult.
By the way, I asked my husband which character is me and he said I was a mixture between Bernadette and Amy. I am logical to a fault, but have full emotional ranges. I just don’t tend to show them in public as I was raise to think it is inappropriate.
December 12, 2013 @ 9:45 am
As a woman in both science and fandom, I repudiate thee.
December 12, 2013 @ 10:28 am
The creators of the show and most of the writers are not the age of the characters. I am close to their ages. I suspect that there is a generational effect on whether or not someone is offended by the show.
I recognize the character traits in people in my own life. So does my father who is a satellite engineer and my husband who is a computer engineer.
You can “repudiate” if you want, but be sure you understand the word. I identified my own atributes and experiences. I did not speak for all women in science and fandom. Disagreement is expected. Rudeness is not.
Jim C. Hines
December 12, 2013 @ 10:38 am
I agree with you about not wanting rudeness here.
“Being insulted or offended by the show is oversensitive.”
“I laugh when people see this show as a parody of stereotypes.”
FWIW, both of these comments struck me as rude, but not enough so for me to worry about until your follow-up comment.
December 13, 2013 @ 12:53 am
The comment left by EJC is quite plainly her own opinion and an observation of her own personal experiences. I found nothing rude about her observations, but then to have a person wander in just to say “I reject you” is definitely bizarre.
December 23, 2013 @ 1:38 pm
My parents love this show, they watch it and see my brother in everything sheldon does. My 19 year old brother was diagnosed with aspergers 3 years ago (I also display some of the traits,) and over and over again they will see sheldon do something that just resonates with mine and my brothers personality and manners. I think it is teaching them that aspies are just different and they need to work with that, when you are close to an aspie its easy to get very frustrated with them not being able to understand, but seeing other people dealing with the same problems (even fictional) casts new light on your own problems, the way fiction has always done, by looking at it from a different angle you think of thing a different way. They definitely seem to understand us more and show more patience. Also there is catharsis for them in being able to laugh at the other characters dealing with sheldons behaviour, its taking my parents problems and frustrations and making them funny which makes them less frustrating.
December 31, 2013 @ 5:07 pm
Hi, Jim. Hope this message finds you well. My English is not good, it’s not my native language, so I kindly ask you to please forgive my grammar mistakes. I have a doubt and I was wondering of you can help me figure it out. If Sheldon had discovered the DVD and paid its fine, how come they still had the DVD at their home ? Thanks in advance. And congratulations on your very interesting article. 🙂
February 24, 2014 @ 1:52 pm
I think some people are just too easily offended these days. Come on – its only a TV show!
Jim C. Hines
February 24, 2014 @ 1:55 pm
What does that say about people who are so offended by a blog post that they feel the need to comment telling people not to be offended?