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The Big Bang Theory and Geek Love

on Wed, 11/17/2010 - 00:00

Leonard Hofstadter developed a crush on new next door neighbor Penny in the very first episode of the CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory, and in many ways, who could blame him? She was an attractive blonde, after all, with a perky personality that was downright infectious. The problem for Leonard, however, is that Penny was drawn to tall, physical men while Leonard is of the short, non-muscular variety. Penny was also a Nebraskan native who moved to Los Angeles in the hopes of making it as an actress but had settled for waitress at the local Cheesecake Factory instead. Leonard, by contrast, was an experimental physicist with an IQ in the range of genius. And while Penny’s idea of a good time was going out dancing with her girlfriends, Leonard was more inclined to stay at home and play Halo with his fellow scientist buddies.

Yet after two lonely years in which he silently pined over his next door neighbor, Leonard and Penny were a couple at the start of the third season. While some might suggest that the “geek getting the girl” was simply a product of a fictional television sitcom, in reality it is part of a growing trend that is slowly becoming more and more common. An early tag line for The Big Bang Theory declared that “smart was the new sexy,” and the statement is becoming increasingly true as more women spurn the advances of the big, tall and dumb variety of males for the intelligent, average-to-short sized opposites instead.

Writer Carrie Tucker, herself a self-described geek, is one of those women. Realizing that her attraction was not something unique to her own personal tastes, she wrote a book in 2009, entitled i heart geeks: The Official Handbook (Adams Media), to assist other women with their own non-traditional infatuations. “You understand the value of geeks and nerds—I don’t need to convince you,” she states in the introduction. “You know they run the world, they’re loyal as hell, and you find their extreme passions fascinating—well, if you could just understand them a little bit better. And you do want to understand them. You just don’t know where to start.”

Tucker goes on to offer a definition in regards to what exactly makes a geek a geek. “Geek has evolved over time and used to be interchangeable with ‘nerd,’” she explains. “With the rise of technology, the ‘geek’ came to be known as, well, your company’s IT guy (or someone supremely mastered in all forms of technology). This love of technology is usually accompanied by stereotypically nerdy interests (more like obsessions) such as playing video games, collecting toys, reading graphic novels, and watching film trilogies.”

Unfortunately Penny did not have such a manual when she first met Leonard Hofstadter and was instead forced to figure out what makes him the unique and loveable person that he is on her own. Then again, maybe it is better that she did not have Carrie Tucker as a guide. Personal experience, after all, is the best way to get to know and understand anything and Penny’s transition from the superficial to something more meaningful is more significant because of the natural growth it involved.

During the first season episode “The Nerdvana Annihilation,” for instance, Leonard and his colleagues Sheldon Cooper, Howard Wolowitz and Raj Koothrappali purchase the actual time traveling device from the 1960 film The Time Machine. When it gets stuck in the stairwell, Penny is forced to take a more dangerous route to work involving going to the roof of their apartment building and jumping the gap to the neighboring structure. Needless to say, it does not go well and when Penny returns she is both angry and unsympathetic. “My God, you are grown men,” she screams at the group. “How can you waste your lives with these stupid toys and costumes and comic books?”

Believing that “girls like Penny never end up with guys who own time machines,” Leonard decides the next morning to get rid of his entire geek-related collection of items. “No more toys or action figures or props or replicas or costumes or robots or Darth Vader voice changers,” he declares. When Penny discovers what he is doing, however, she apologizes for her comments from the day before. “If this is about yesterday, Leonard, I am really sorry about what I said, I was just upset,” she tells him. “You are a great guy and it is the things you love that make you who you are.” In the end, Leonard indeed keeps all of his so-called toys, including his prized comic book collection.

“Ah, the comic book store,” Carrie Tucker writes in i heart geeks in regards to one of the universally accepted badges of geekdom that Leonard Hofstadter likewise shares. “You go with him, kind of stand around the front as he eagerly attacks the new issues of Ultimate X-Men, and aimlessly flip through whatever they have by the cash register. You walk the aisles, feeling slightly self-conscious. Guys line the Marvel and DC section, and you take a peak—but good god, there are fifty versions of Batman, X-Men, Spider-Man and Superman all the way up to the ceiling.”

In the episode “The Hofstadter Isotope,” Penny enters her first comic book store and shares a similar experience with the one described by Carrie Tucker. Her initial reaction that it is a “cute little store” quickly turns to nervousness as she notices that the entirely male clientele—including an overweight, slightly balding Captain Sweatpants—is staring at her. “Don’t worry,” Leonard reassures her. “They’re more scared of you than you are of them.” And while Penny does not experience the overwhelming effect of discovering fifty Batmans on the shelf, she did have to endure Leonard’s roommate Sheldon explain the multitude of titles when she asked him to pick up a Spider-Man comic book for her nephew. “Amazing Spider-Man?” Sheldon inquires. “Ultimate Spider-Man? Spectacular Spider-Man? The Marvelous Adventures of Spider-Man? Spider-Man 2099?”

Once Penny and Leonard begin regularly seeing each other during season three of The Big Bang Theory, she is inevitably drawn even further into other worlds of geekdom. “Old-school geeks are usually found in the Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Lost In Space category; to them, the concept of futurism is more important than well-developed or likeable characters,” Carrie Tucker explains. “New-school geeks find the old-school shows ‘quaint,’ since all that technology is dated now anyway, but still maintain a healthy respect for the classics. New-school geeks would rather watch something with relatable characters and a mix of drama, intrigue, and impossibility.”

Based on Tucker’s definition, Leonard Hofstadter is very much a new-school geek. While Star Trek and Star Wars are constants in his life—he is often seen playing Klingon Boggle and three-dimensional chess with his colleagues—Leonard is also a fan of such contemporary television shows as Babylon 5 and The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. While he has often persuaded Penny to join him for viewing marathons, however, the enthusiasm Leonard portrays does not necessarily carry over to his girlfriend.

“Oh, I say a lot of things, sweetie,” Penny tells him when reminded that she enjoyed the original X-Men movie, and her response is no different than other females who have a penchant for geek love. “He forced me to sit through the entire first season of Battlestar Galactica,” Carrie Tucker quotes artist Jessicka Addams as saying in regards to her own husband. “I actually wound up liking it, but throughout the whole series, whenever someone was faced with a crazy moralistic decision, he’d turn to me and say, ‘What would you do?’ I’d just shrug and say, ‘I don’t know, take a bath?’”

Late in season three of The Big Bang Theory, Penny breaks up with Leonard because she is unsure if they are truly right for each other and immediately falls into her old habit of being attracted to large, muscular men who are not that bright. In the episode “The Lunar Excitation,” Leonard invites Penny and her latest boy-toy Zack to watch an experiment that involves bouncing a laser beam off the Moon. While Penny enjoys the experience, however, Zack is confused. “How can you be sure it won’t blow up?” he asks. While everyone assumes he is referring to the laser, in actuality he means the literal Moon. Later that night, a drunken Penny shows up at Leonard’s door. “Damn you, you rat bastard,” she tells him. “Zack was a perfectly nice guy and then you ruined him, because in the olden days I never would have known he was so stupid. You have destroyed my ability to tolerate idiots.”

Meeting Leonard Hofstadter and then dating him has had a positive effect on Penny’s life whether she is able to truly admit it or not. The superficial blonde from Nebraska has developed into someone different and better, with a touch of geek around her outer edges that she did not have before. “At the end of the day, geeks and nerds are no different from anyone else,” Carrie Tucker concludes in i heart geeks. “Wait, that’s a total lie! They are different, and that’s what makes them great. They have smarts, wit, and superior abilities all rolled up into one package. Who cares if they’re socially awkward? As a wise woman once said, ‘Once you go geek, you never go back.’”

It is a lesson that Penny from The Big Bang Theory has learned firsthand, and she is no doubt a much happier, well-rounded person because of it.

Anthony Letizia (November 17, 2010)

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