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When talking about asexual characters on television, the American situation comedy show The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) is one of the most widely mentioned in online asexual spaces. The show was created for the CBS network by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, who also act as executive producers. Lorre has created several successful sitcoms, such as Dharma & Greg (ABC, 1997-2002) or Two and a Half Men (CBS, 2003-2015), and served as an executive producer for Roseanne (ABC, 1988-97) and Mike & Molly (CBS, 2010-2016). Bill Prady has also worked on Dharma & Greg, as well as Married… with Children (FOX, 1987-97), Star Trek: Voyager (The United Paramount Network (UPN), 1995-2001) or Gilmore Girls (The Warner Bros., 2000-07).

Currently in its 11th season, the sitcom started airing on September 24th, 2007. One month later, the network ordered a full season, with the rating of 3.4/8 for adults age 18-49 for the first four episodes, which translated into an average viewership of 8.58 million. The first season received mixed reviews and only ranked 68th in the 2007-08 television show ratings, with 25 episodes, an average of 8.31 million viewers and an average rating of 2.9. However, its popularity grew steadily – seasons 6, 7 and 8 attracted an average of 19 million viewers and consistently rated in the top 5 programs, at times surpassed only by Sunday night football (Patten n.p.), which makes this sitcom an important and potentially influential part of contemporary popular culture. In addition, statistics from 2010 indicate that the audience of TBBT is evenly distributed between men and women, with roughly 45% men comprising the audience of adults age 18-49 (“Ladies Night” n.p.). In comparison, among the 63 broadcast primetime shows on the list, only six had more male than female viewers and three had an even ratio of male to female audiences. In this regard, TBBT becomes an important source for analysis when discussing the creation of masculine identities based on role models presented in television fiction.

Because of its rising success, TBBT is probably the most noteworthy of examples of asexual characters on contemporary US television. The premise of the sitcom is simple: an attractive wannabe-actress, Penny (Kaley Cuoco), moves across the hall from two socially inept scientists, Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), with the regular appearance of their two friends, Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar) and Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg). But while TBBT


certainly pays attention to the science aspect and employs experts to create plausible dialogues, the appeal of the show indubitably lies in its various and plentiful references to the popular – and so-called geek culture. As mentioned in section 2.2, being considered a geek has become the proving ground for many young men in the 21st century. Geeks establish their masculinities through competition which often hinges on knowledge about a specific subject instead of physical attributes. The male characters of TBBT illustrate this struggle in nearly every episode. From the very beginning, all four male protagonists are established as geeks in more than one sense: they are shown to have deep appreciation, even obsession, for science-fiction and fantasy works, comic books and video games, but they are also scientists employed by a prestigious university. Sheldon works as a theoretical physicist, Leonard is an experimental physicist, Rajesh is an astrophysicist, and Howard is an engineer. Throughout the show, their status as geeks is frequently explored not only through their interests and hobbies, but also through establishing them as members of the scientific community: Sheldon in particular is recurrently heard flaunting not only his superior knowledge about comic books or television shows, but also mocking other men’s scientific achievements in order to build himself up as better. These instances will be further explored throughout this chapter in relation to Sheldon’s masculinity as well as his asexuality.

Regarding asexuality, the show established Sheldon Cooper as asexual very early on, even though there has been no official statement concerning his sexual orientation and he is never explicitly labeled asexual on the show. However, many people knowledgeable about the existence of asexuality as well as many members of the asexual community were hopeful for representation in Sheldon’s character within the first few episodes of the show. In the pilot, it is immediately apparent that while Leonard is curious about their new attractive neighbor, Penny, Sheldon shows no interest in establishing even basic social ties with her: when Leonard asks if they should invite her for lunch, Sheldon wants to watch Battlestar Galactica instead (Lorre and Prady, 2007, 1.18). He seems to understand sexual attraction on a theoretical level, seeing as he comments that Penny is not going to have sex with Leonard, or that they are stuck doing her chores because Leonard is thinking with his penis (1.1). However, his disinterest in any sexual or romantic relationship with Penny is quite clear.

8For the sake of clarity and to avoid unnecessary repetition, further references to the show include only the number of the season and the episode.


Furthermore, neither Leonard nor their two friends, Rajesh and Howard, even hint that Sheldon could possibly be interested in Penny, suggesting that his asexuality is wordlessly accepted as a fact.

In episode 5, Sheldon is shown to be uncomfortable when Leonard brings a woman to their shared apartment. He even spends the night on the living room sofa instead of sleeping in his own bedroom. It is possible that Sheldon feels uncomfortable overhearing the sounds that Leonard and his female companion could be making, or that he is simply uneasy in close proximity to a sexual situation (1.5). The eighth episode shows Sheldon talking to a woman without much difficulty: accidentally, he ends up going on what others presume to be a date with the woman originally supposed to enter into an arranged marriage bond with Rajesh. However, when Sheldon returns home and his friends ask him if he will see her again, he seems confused and says that he already has a dentist – the woman in question is an odontologist, and even if they had a pleasant evening, Sheldon sees no reason to see her again except her profession (1.8). He is thus established as having no interest in romantic relationships and disinterest bordering on repulsion regarding sex: several episodes later, he explicitly states that the need for human contact is, in his opinion, “inexplicable” and that “social relationships will continue to baffle and repulse [him]” (1.12).

However, the main selling point for Sheldon’s asexuality, and the most often quoted in debates on his issue, is the scene from the sixth episode of season 2, where Penny asks Leonard, Raj and Howard about Sheldon’s sexual preference:

Penny: I know it’s none of my business, but… what’s Sheldon’s deal?

Leonard: What do you mean, deal?

Penny: You know, like, what’s his deal? Is it girls, guys, sock puppets?

Leonard: Honestly, we’ve been operating under the assumption that he has no deal.

Penny: Oh come on. Everybody has a deal.

Howard: Not Sheldon.

(2.6) The men then go on to make fun of Sheldon by suggesting that he would reproduce like a plant or like an alien. Harmful stereotypes aside, it is significant to note that while we have seen in previous chapters that a man without overt sexual interest in women is often assumed to be gay, Sheldon’s friends instead assume that he “has no deal”, i.e. is asexual, even without using that specific term to describe him. However, Leonard, Raj and Howard have previously witnessed Sheldon’s lack of interest in either sex, which


makes their assumption rather logical: in the same episode, he was shown to be completely oblivious to romantic advances from both women and men. In the next episode, Sheldon’s disinterest in women as sexual objects is made clear again when Penny comes over to their apartment to watch a supermodel show. Leonard, Howard and Raj immediately divert their attention from the game they have been playing to the screen, but Sheldon seems completely unaffected and ignores the display of attractive women without a second glance in the television’s direction (7.2).

This chapter will further focus on the possibilities for the creation of asexual masculinities, as shown in seasons 1-10 of TBBT through the character of Sheldon Cooper. Masculinities will be discussed with regard to the four basic rules of traditional masculinity, as mentioned by Kimmel and explored in the debates on masculinity in section 2.2. It will take into consideration the asexual masculinities present in TBBT and explore how asexuality factors into the creation of masculine identities in a male asexual character, Sheldon Cooper. The analysis of the show serves to illustrate how asexual and masculine identities potentially interact, and whether they complement or negate each other.

4.1 ‘No Sissy Stuff’

Out of the four basic rules of masculinity, as used by Kimmel in The History of Men, the first one builds on the principle of men constantly having to strive for a marked difference from women and from anything feminine. Sheldon appears to fulfil this obligation in many instances, and one of the most pronounced ways of doing this is by expressing misogynistic attitudes and ideas. The roots of his misogyny could potentially be traced back to his upbringing in East Texas. His mother, Mary Cooper (Laurie Metcalf) is shown to be very religious, with strong standards about how a woman should and should not behave. She talks about her other son’s girlfriend as “that whore”

and when Sheldon points out that Mary Magdalene was also “a woman of ill-repute”, Ms. Cooper says: “When your idiot brother redeems mankind, he can date whoever he wants” (9.1). Sheldon’s father is deceased, but Sheldon sometimes talks about him and it is apparent that Mr. Cooper was an alcoholic and often expressed views such as

“women aren’t anything but flipping pains in the bottom” (5.19). However, the protagonist has formed his own opinions on other matters which his parents felt strongly about, such as religion, evolution etc., and thus it seems impossible to assume that his misogynistic attitudes are merely the result of his parents’ behavior.


Considering that Sheldon expresses his most misogynistic views in situations when women appear to have an upper hand in a discussion, it is much more likely that misogynistic remarks are a tool to deal with the loss of power, or with doing something he finds unpleasant but unavoidable and blames a woman for causing it. The first example appears at the very beginning of the show, in the second episode of the first season, when Penny asks Leonard and Sheldon for help with moving furniture: Sheldon tells Leonard that helping Penny will have no effect on the odds of Leonard having sex with her, to which Leonard retorts that men can do things for women without expecting sex in return. Sheldon’s reply is: “Yeah, those would be men who just had sex” (1.2), implying that in Sheldon’s opinion, men never help women or do favors for them without being rewarded – or bribed – by sex.

Another example would be the situation when Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik), Sheldon’s female friend and later girlfriend, asks him to hold her hand in the cinema. She looks pleased, but Sheldon feels uncomfortable and rolls his eyes at the gesture, claiming that “[t]his insistence on hand-holding is preposterous” and when Amy replies that she likes it, Sheldon comments: “Yeah, of course you do. You’re a girl. You like all kinds of hippy-dippy things” (6.2). Several episodes later, they have a fight when he fails to defend her in a disagreement with his friend, Wil Wheaton (playing himself). It is important to note that the show depicts the argument in a quite misogynistic way: Amy is the one who starts acting rude towards Wil, and when he retorts, saying that he will not stay if Amy continues to be “a huge pain in the ass” (6.7).

Amy then asks Sheldon to defend her, as if she were incapable of speaking up for herself, requiring her boyfriend to stand up for her no matter whether he considers her actions right or wrong. Sheldon does not come to her defense, and while Amy is upset about his behavior, Sheldon goes to discuss the situation with Penny: “The trouble isn’t with me, Penny, it’s with your gender. Someday, scientists will discover that second X chromosome contains nothing but nonsense and twaddle” (6.7). He perceives women as completely irrational and unreasonable, distancing himself from what he sees as feminine and perpetuating the view that gender is a strict binary, and that masculinities are constructed as a direct opposite of anything considered feminine, as mentioned in Kimmel in “Masculinity as Homophobia”.

One of the misogynistic ideas expressed on the series, and also explicitly stated by Sheldon, is that women should be subordinate to men. While the show’s humor often works on the basis of gender role reversal, the underlying attitude appears to be that


men should have a say in how their girlfriends or wives behave. Already in the second season, Sheldon gives Leonard some advice, claiming that women need to see a display of physical domination from men in order to fall in love with them: “When a female witnesses an exhibition of physical domination, she produces the hormone oxytocin. If the two of you then engage in intercourse, this will create the biochemical reaction in the brain which laypeople naively interpret as ‘falling in love’” (2.9). Sheldon is shown to rely on the purely biological explanation of human behavior. Yet, as discussed in previous chapters, it is often impossible to ascribe human behavior solely to the biological drives, since such an approach frequently fails to take into account various cultural and social factors, and often erases agency and possibility of change or improvement (Edwards 44). The rhetoric of biological impulses is regularly adopted by the proponents of opinions such as that men’s biology is at fault for violence or sexual aggression (Kimmel and Messner xiii). However, Sheldon also equates biology with the feelings of romantic love.

Later on, when Bernadette Rostenkowski (Melissa Raunch), Howard’s girlfriend, and Penny unknowingly hurt Amy’s feelings and Amy seeks physical comfort with Sheldon, he tells Howard and Leonard that they should “get [their] women in line” (5.8). While at first sight it might appear that Sheldon is merely expressing outrage at Amy being in pain, or his discomfort about being persuaded by Amy to hold her, the words that he chooses clearly indicate that he believes that Leonard and Howard should have a way to modify, or even directly script, their girlfriends’ behavior. A similar idea is expressed several episodes later, when the men want to stay home for the weekend and play online games. Howard advises Sheldon to act like a grown man and tell Amy directly that he does not want to go to her aunt’s birthday party: “Maybe she’ll dig it. Women like a firm hand on the tiller” (5.19). This instance highlights the role of misogyny and power-asserting discourse about women for the construction of the characters’ masculinities, as explained in section 2.2. Distancing oneself from anything feminine and claiming power over women often works as a reaffirmation of one’s masculinity. While Howard is often controlled by women, either his mother or his girlfriend, his misogyny is supposed to assert some power over the women in his life – and other men are expected to respond affirmatively, hinting at the constant policing of men by other men explored by Kimmel (Guyland 47). Sheldon is thus directly influenced not only by his parents’ views, but also by the men around him, who express their thoughts about women’s behavior and preferences.


While Sheldon previously expressed the opinion that men should be able to influence or change what their girlfriends do or say, he furthers these claims by stating that doing something his girlfriend wants is considered enslavement. He even talks about Amy in a derogatory way: “I always thought if I were ever enslaved, it would be by an advanced species from another planet, not some hotsy-totsy from Glendale”

(5.19). Considering how many times Amy has done something against her will or wishes in order to make Sheldon happy, it is clear that he thinks that is how their relationship should work: Amy makes compromises while he is not required to do the same. As Calvin Thomas explores,

most heterosexual men are so concerned with the maintenance of their sovereign selfhood that they cannot tolerate its infringement by another. They seek instead to be always the destroyer, to refigure women in their own interests but to resist such refiguration themselves. In this case the transformational possibilities offered by the limited destructions of erotic intimacy are perverted into the very real destruction of one partner, the woman, whose sense of self is not merely refigured but systematically dissipated.

(Kegan Gardiner 73) In Sheldon’s behavior, it becomes apparent that heterosexual in this definition may be understood as men in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a woman, considering that the inability to tolerate infringement into their selfhood pertains to asexual men in relationships with women. Amy’s self and her needs and wishes are systematically repressed, undermined, and even dissipated, as Thomas claims, throughout the show:

despite the fact that Sheldon sometimes makes compromises for Amy’s sake, it is always after a great deal of persuasion from either Amy or their friends, and Sheldon expresses his irritation rather clearly and loudly. When a woman wants something, she is enslaving a man and being unreasonable. Sheldon also expresses outrage at the idea that Amy has “refigured” him, even though his friends say she has changed him for the better: “No, I’ve changed. Like the frog who’s put in a pot of water that’s heated so gradually he doesn’t realize he’s boiling to death” (7.16). Any influence a woman can have on a man is thus perceived as negative by Sheldon, an infringement on his sovereign selfhood.

This character’s most misogynistic moments appear in season nine, after Amy breaks up with him. His hurt feelings manifest in a rather overdramatized negative outlook on women in general: “Women are the worst […] they thrive on our suffering”

(9.1). When he talks to Penny later in the episode, Sheldon states that it is not enough to


be “sweet” to keep a woman: “I blame Madonna” (9.1). This moment, coupled with his previous claims that men do not do favors for women without the expectation of sex, is strongly reminiscent of a specific idea pervasive in the sphere of geek culture: the idea that ‘nice guys finish last’. What this particular phrase claims is that women prefer men who are physically stronger and more aggressive, often treating women badly, instead of men who are nice, understanding and helpful. Still, the phrase’s underlying meaning is even more harmful, stemming from the male feeling of entitlement to female attention and bodies and from the belief that if a man behaves nicely towards a woman, she is

be “sweet” to keep a woman: “I blame Madonna” (9.1). This moment, coupled with his previous claims that men do not do favors for women without the expectation of sex, is strongly reminiscent of a specific idea pervasive in the sphere of geek culture: the idea that ‘nice guys finish last’. What this particular phrase claims is that women prefer men who are physically stronger and more aggressive, often treating women badly, instead of men who are nice, understanding and helpful. Still, the phrase’s underlying meaning is even more harmful, stemming from the male feeling of entitlement to female attention and bodies and from the belief that if a man behaves nicely towards a woman, she is