The Big Bang Theory, Nerds of Color, and Stereotypes

by Latoya Peterson

“Though you do add some much needed cultural diversity to an otherwise homogeneous group, your responses to [The Friendship Survey] were deeply disturbing.”

—Sheldon to Rajesh, The Friendship Algorithm

A few weeks ago, I discovered a new favorite show to watch. My boyfriend has been a How I Met Your Mother devotee for the past couple of years, and tends to always make his way to the couch around eight-ish on Monday nights.

One night, I was working in the bedroom when I caught an errant nerdy reference.

Oh, love! A discussion of the physics involved in Superman with a comic book reference challenge at the end? Be still my heart!

The next time I wasn’t paying attention, but I was in the living room, so I caught the reference that changed my life:

Rock, paper, scissors, lizard, spock. Genius!

But as I continued watching, a little nagging thought started interfering with my enjoyment of the series:

So, we only get one nerd of color?

I shouldn’t be surprised – after all, I’m getting adjusted to the idea of “white” New York, that mythical area where Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and other shows take place among a bunch of white people who only come across people of color when they need a one-episode love interest or some cultural comic relief.

Kunal Nayyar plays Raj Koothrappali and, surprisingly bucking trends for designated friends of color, he’s been in every episode of the show thus far. And yet, only five episodes mention a subplot involving Koothrappali – “The Middle Earth Paradigm,” “The Grasshopper Experiment,” “The Pork Chop Indeterminacy,” “The Peanut Reaction,” and “The Bad Fish Paradigm.” “The Griffin Equivalency” (which I haven’t seen yet) appears to be an entire episode devoted to Raj – which features him getting an inflated ego because of being featured in People magazine.

The Uberdesi blog lets me know I am right to be skeptical about the characterization and development of Rajesh’s character. In “The Grasshoper Experiment,” Raj goes out to meet an arranged marriage his parents set up. Santosh writes:

Raj, played by Kunal, is the token Indian guy among the bunch of geeks who:
#1. Has a thick Indian accent
#2. Walks around with his 17″ Macbook Pro
#3. Is afraid to speak to women

Just when you thought the cup of generalizations overfloweth, we also find out that Raj’s parents are trying to arrange his marriage. Get it? Indian geek. Arranged marriage (#4).

Which brings us back to Raj’s role. Watching “The Friendship Algorithm” episode and hearing Sheldon openly acknowledge that Raj brings the group “diversity” struck a chord in me. Not just because of the television representation aspect of this, but the fact that things like hyper-intelligence, fandom, comics, and other bastions of nerdiness are automatically the realm of whites. I’ll write about this a bit more when I talk about otakudom and cultural appropriation, but there’s an interesting assumption that plays out that fans of nerdiness/nerd culture are white or are exceptions (despite all the evidence to the contrary.)

The NY Times Magazine Idea Lab published a piece by Benjamin Nugent on nerdiness being linked to whiteness in 2007, drawing some odd conclusions:

Though [linguist Mary]Bucholtz uses the term “hyperwhite” to describe nerd language in particular, she claims that the “symbolic resources of an extreme whiteness” can be used elsewhere. After all, “trends in music, dance, fashion, sports and language in a variety of youth subcultures are often traceable to an African-American source,” but “unlike the styles of cool European American students, in nerdiness, African-American culture and language [do] not play even a covert role.” Certainly, “hyperwhite” seems a good word for the sartorial choices of paradigmatic nerds. While a stereotypical black youth, from the zoot-suit era through the bling years, wears flashy clothes, chosen for their aesthetic value, nerdy clothing is purely practical: pocket protectors, belt sheaths for gadgets, short shorts for excessive heat, etc. Indeed, “hyperwhite” works as a description for nearly everything we intuitively associate with nerds, which is why Hollywood has long traded in jokes that try to capitalize on the emotional dissonance of nerds acting black (Eugene Levy saying, “You got me straight trippin’, boo”) and black people being nerds (the characters Urkel and Carlton in the sitcoms “Family Matters” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”). [...]

Even more problematic, “Nerds’ dismissal of black cultural practices often led them to discount the possibility of friendship with black students,” even if the nerds were involved in political activities like protesting against the dismantling of affirmative action in California schools. If nerdiness, as Bucholtz suggests, can be a rebellion against the cool white kids and their use of black culture, it’s a rebellion with a limited membership.

However, this idea of nerdiness being a white cultural thing ignores a few key issues.

The first is that there are some very vocal, self-identifying black nerds who also reject the race-based stereotypes associated with nerdiness and fandom and choose to embrace the nerd label. The Village Voice published an article in 2002 chronicling “The Rise of the Black Nerd.”

The second is the crushing perpetual nerd/foreigner stereotypes that Asian-Americans labor to get out from under – something characters like Raj on TV reinforce. While Latinos and Blacks are only portrayed as nerdy for extreme comic relief (see Urkel), that is often the only role available for Asian Americans in pop culture. As Carmen noted almost a year ago, the specter of Long Duk Dong still looms large as a major image of Asian American masculinity.

However, there are some redeeming qualities to Raj’s portrayal. Far from being the solo nerd representation, he is one of a geeky quartet, which actually puts him on par with his peers. In contrast to the socially inept Sheldon, the heavily stereotyped Wolowitz (more on that in a minute), and Leonard’s semi-successful fumblings with the opposite sex, Raj’s alcohol induced moments of cool come across as surprisingly suave and well adjusted in the context of his peer group. So is this progress?

In a sense, one could argue its a step forward. Raj is considered a nerd, but given a bit of a personality to play with. However, there are also some interesting steps back – the character of Wolowitz is coded as heavily Jewish as Raj is coded as a the perpetual foreigner, but with a bit more malice. Wolfowitz lives up to a great many Jewish stereotypes, including having a mother who appears only as a shrieking, disembodied voice determined to ruin any chance Wolowitz has at a normal life. Eventually, both Raj and Wolowitz find some form of redemption through attracting partners of the opposite sex (which provides an interesting twist on what Leonard’s mother termed their “ersatz homosexual relationship“), but neither comes off as a developed character the way that Sheldon and Leonard do.

Then again, I suppose that’s the fate of any side character in a sitcom.

So I guess if we are to measure progress, the question remains – would a character like Raj be able to carry a sitcom? Or better still, will Kunal Nayyar be able to land a different type of role once the Big Bang Theory completes its run?

Random – More Reasons I Love Sheldon: