Sheldon the Robot and Penny the Barbarian: Technology, Gender and Embodiment in The Big Bang Theory
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This paper addresses the relationship of technology to the human in the television series The Big Bang Theory and argues that the function of technology in the series is “scientifictional” (pulling from Hugo Gernsback’s term “scientifiction”). The series takes its cue from stories from the “Silver Age” of science fiction and self-consciously uses the tropes of science fiction to interrogate modern-day inequalities along class and gender lines. The article works with Sherryl Vint’s Bodies of Tomorrow to explore how The Big Bang Theory acknowledges the importance of embodiment to ethics. Additionally, the paper examines traditional science fiction tropes from The Big Bang Theory in conjunction with James Triptree, Jr’s 1973 “The Girl who was Plugged in”, a story that similarly questions the intersections of technology, gender and embodiment. This essay focuses on how Penny and Sheldon serve to explore these intersections. The first two episodes of season four, “The Robotic Manipulation” and “The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification”, are central to this analysis. “The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification”, in which Sheldon creates a robotic interface for himself, is the episode that deals most explicitly with technology and its relationship to the body. The third episode in season two, “The Barbarian Sublimation”, is also important to this analysis, as it centres on Penny’s embodiment and her relationship to technology. The Big Bang Theory has consistently reaped well-deserved criticism for its uneven and often sexist presentation of male and female characters, as well as for its stereotyped portrayals of geek culture. However, the series is not uncritical of these aspects of itself, and it plays with gender, embodiment and technology in ways that are both complex and deeply rooted in the traditions of science fiction.
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