It was 2007. A simpler time. I had only started university a year before, nerd culture as we know it was only beginning to gain mainstream social acceptance, Windows Vista had pushed hordes of people into the open arms of Steve Jobs, and both Lost and Battlestar Galactica were the shows that had people talking week to week. It should therefore come as no surprise that, in the midst of that pop culture universe, the premiere of The Big Bang Theory made waves. After all, here was a show about nerds, for nerds, and oh, it also happened to have a neurotic, socially awkward lead with a supposed heart of gold who was an Aspie in all but name – Dr. Sheldon Cooper. Fans ate it up! It was a hit! And on some level, it made the concept of an Aspie nerdy intellectual both mainstream and normalized. It brought Neurodiversity to the masses.
Except it didn`t. Not really.
I could give a laundry list of reasons why BBT is a problematic show from a social justice standpoint, but such lists are a dime a dozen on the internet these days (trust me…in the lead up to writing this article, I checked). Instead, I`d like to focus solely on Sheldon, since he`s the one I`ve come to have the most issues with. I should also be clear; I haven`t watched the show in quite a few years – I started to find it boring, hackneyed and superficial. In light of that, it`s entirely possible that I`m off the mark and that Sheldon has received a great deal of character development since last I watched. I highly doubt it, but it`s possible. Sheldon has also never explicitly been identified on screen as an Aspie, but even despite that it’s a commonly accepted idea in the fan community that Sheldon Cooper has Aspergers. Even though the show has never made it ‘canon’, it’s basically the case, and it comes with a boatload of unfortunate implications because of it.
So why exactly is Sheldon a bad representative of the Aspie community? It all comes down to one word; stereotypes. Dr. Cooper’s behaviour is chock full of them. Don’t believe me? Think about what comes to mind when you ponder the words Aspergers and Autism. I’m willing to bet descriptors like ‘socially awkward’, ‘aloof’, ‘neurotic’, ‘emotionally distant’ and ‘lacking in social graces’ come to mind, don’t they? Now, consider how many of these apply to Sheldon. All of them you say? Gold star for you! Sheldon is a walking textbook example of the DSM definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder, and this couldn’t be more harmful to the public perception of those of us who are on the spectrum. While the neurodiversity community has worked hard to encourage the idea that knowing one person on the spectrum literally means knowing only one, and that everyone is different whether on the spectrum or otherwise, Sheldon’s popularity in the mainstream has led people to consider him the defacto mascot for Aspergers. You can see why this is a problem.
Contrary to Sheldon’s portrayal of a man with Aspergers, we are not all aloof, nor are we all self-centered jerks. In fact, many of us feel our emotions far too deeply and truly, and while we may be neurotic, it is often a neurosis born of our deep-seated emotions coupled with our misinterpretations of the social world. Granted, we can at times be arrogant with our own knowledge, and we can talk far too much about the things that interest us, but for the vast majority these aren’t harmful to our lives or our friends. The way Sheldon treats people, coupled with the way viewers just assume he’s Autistic based on a stereotypical definition of the term, presents a view that it is okay to treat people badly simply because one has Aspergers. As Glee taught us when they lampshaded this with Sugar, this is not okay.
I want to make it very clear that I’m not against the media trying to represent neurodiversity (and indeed any marginalized group) fairly and decently on TV or in any other format. We NEED representation, as it’s the only way that differences get normalized and accepted by greater society. The problem is, it’s not often done very well. All too often (as is the case in Big Bang Theory), writers fall on tired old tropes to help them write such characters instead of developing fully three dimensional human beings with their own complexities. Even well-meaning shows such as Scorpion face this problem (centering a show on hyper-intelligent, almost autistic stereotypes with names who need a ‘normie’ to help them function is so problematic on so many levels). I can literally count the amount of well-developed, well-written autistic characters I’ve seen in the media recently on two fingers; Pidge Gunderson of Voltron: Legendary Defender, and Billie Cranston from the new Power Rangers movie. I know there are more out there, but the fact that we have a visibility problem in the media remains.
What can we do about it? Well, besides boycotting shows that embrace these kinds of characters, we can speak out. Engage in meaningful discourse and think critically about the things we watch and the types of people they portray. Media is, after all, a business…and businesses will embrace any progressive social value as long as there is money in it and a demand for it. I mean hell, it took a while, but even the fact that we’ve received this level of representation is an improvement over where we were even a decade ago when BBT began. Talking about things and demanding them from our service providers works, and it’s a tactic we need more of.
Because I may be an Aspie, but I am not Dr. Sheldon Cooper. I refuse to be stereotyped that way. And so should all of you.
As always, yours in diversity,