Author Archives: Amanda Mac

The Big Bang Theory and The Culture of Geek

List of The Big Bang Theory episodes (season 1)

List of The Big Bang Theory episodes (season 1) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rod recently posted a link to an article by a person who has decided that The Big Bang Theory makes them uncomfortable. The author suggests that Community is a better show because at least on Community the nerds are celebrated instead of mocked:

“And here’s my issue, here’s why The Big Bang Theory makes me feel uncomfortable. We aren’t laughing with Leonard, Sheldon, Raj and Howard. We’re laughing at them. Chuck Lorre has given us four exceptionally intelligent, nerdy main characters and he’s positioned us as an audience against them. When I watch Big Bang it becomes more and more obvious that I’m not supposed to relate to the guys (or more recently Amy Farrah-Fowler). I’m expected to relate to Penny. You only need to pay attention to the audience laughter to realise that TBBT relies on positioning us as an outsider to the nerds, as someone like Penny who doesn’t understand their references, their science, their vocabulary even, and who doesn’t care to learn.”

On the flippant side, I want my response to this article to be this:

But, while that may be cute, it’s not really constructive. So I want to spend some time looking at my response to The Big Bang Theory.

 

A few words of preface:

First, I own all five seasons of the show (yes, even the newest season that was just released. I bought it as soon as it came out). I think this is important to note, for two reasons: first, I only buy tv shows on DVD that I will watch more than once. In the case of TBBT, it has been watched more than once, and is often my “I want some noise in the background, that I can both ignore and pay attention to as needed.” Second, I think that there is a big difference between watching the show on DVD and watching the show on television. I don’t have any tv channels in my house, mainly because I can’t stand all the commercials (particularly the ones that repeat every, single commercial break). I say this because I have found that when I watch TBBT on network television while at someone’s house, the show has a distinctly different feel than it does when watching it without commercials. TBBT becomes less funny when it’s interrupted by commercials every 6.5 minutes.

Second, if you didn’t already know, and because it needs to be said, I am a geek. I am a nerd. I have jokingly said that in this house TBBT is actually called, “These Are My People.” I am a Star-Trek watching, Firefly-loving, super-hero fan. I get the World of Warcraft references. I get the physics and math humour. And most importantly, I, like the four guys on TBBT, have been ridiculed, mocked, bullied and swirlied because I wasn’t a “cool kid”. I was a geek before it was cool to be a geek. My geek cred is solid and official (just ask my husband).

Third, I’m not a fan of Community (sorry basically everyone in Caronport who says that I should be watching Community). I choose TBBT over Community.

So is TBBT laughing at instead of with the characters and is that a bad thing?

I don’t think that it is a bad thing. I think that there is a lot to laugh at, and I don’t think the laughing at these characters is malicious or solely a product of outsiders laughing at geek culture. I am a geek, and I laugh because I identify with the characters. I laugh because, let’s face it, geeks are funny, and we do funny things. I laugh because humans are funny and do funny things.

I don’t think the author of the article is correct that the audience is pushed toward and meant to identify with Penny (primarily). I think that’s the genius of the show, you can identify with whoever you want. Geek or not, TBBT is about a community, a group of people who despite their foibles, frailties, and fanatical idiosyncrasies, care about each other. If you’re not a geek, sure maybe you’ll identify more with Penny (or Bernadette, or Mrs. Cooper, or even Mrs. Wolowitz), but I would bet that even the biggest non-geek could identify at some point, on some level with one of the four guys.

Nor, do I think that the author of the article is correct that Chuck Lorre’s goal is for us to pity the characters:

“He does, however want us to pity them. We don’t root for Leonard and Penny to get together because we think they’re a good match. We feel sorry for Leonard, we think Penny’s out of his league and we root for the underdog.”

I’m sorry, but I’m not rooting for Leonard to get together with Penny because he’s the underdog. I root for Leonard because he is a human being, with a big heart and lots to offer. Penny does not fall in love with Leonard because she is desperate or because he is conveniently located right across the hall. For all the trappings and pitfalls of a comedy show that has only 22 minutes each episode, the characters of Penny and Leonard have found and continue to have a chemistry that works. Have they played the “on again – off again” too much on the show? Probably. But sitcoms are based on the premise of conflict. So of course we’re going to see them dance together and then apart and then together again. Do I find it annoying that TBBT continues the trope of “hot girl gets ugly, fat, or geeky guy” but never the other way around? Sure. But then I also find it hugely funny that the show has done to Leonard what most shows do to women when they want them to be geeky: give them glasses and ill-fitting clothes as if that will truly hide the fact that the actor is in fact beautiful or “hot”.

 

And as for the idea that it’s bad to laugh at Sheldon’s quirks because he most probably has some form of Asperger’s, I think the author of the article misses two things. First, despite how obtuse and annoying Sheldon can be, he is still and will always be loved and a part of the gang of guys. That’s what makes the humour work. He is not just “annoying”, he is not just “affected” or “oblivious”. He is also “family.” Even when Leonard can’t take it anymore and goes to Penny to gripe and complain, Leonard never permanently moves out. Even when the roommate agreement starts to suffocate, Leonard doesn’t quit. Second, this is a comedy show. It is not real life, and it’s not meant to be. Is Sheldon autistic? I don’t know, and I don’t think that that’s the point. Most comedy in North American culture is based on the premise of caricature. Sheldon is a caricature. He’s not meant to be a real person. Neither is Leonard, Raj, Howard or even Penny. Should all Nebraskans, or all blondes, or all women, be offended that Penny is a ditzy blonde waitress who thought it would be easy to move to Hollywood and become an actress? Should all Christians be offended by Sheldon’s mother? (As an evangelical Christian, I really like Mrs. Cooper and am not offended by how she is portrayed.). These characters, no matter how much they are a caricature of some aspect of the human condition, are story-tellers.

Now, that does not mean that all episodes are created equal, or that all attempts at humour succeed. It also doesn’t mean that there isn’t a valid complaint that sometimes they beat a joke until it’s dead, and becomes not only unfunny, but crude and annoying (I think here of the relationship between Raj and Howard). Indeed, there are some jokes that are funny precisely because they continue on and on (for example, everyone being a doctor except for poor Howard. That still hasn’t gotten old, especially as someone who lives in a town that is heavily populated with PhDs). And, I am one of those people who finds Amy Farrah-Fowler annoying. I truly wish she hadn’t become a recurring character past the middle of season 4 even though I am a huge Mayim Bialik fan (I will say the episode where she conditions Sheldon to associate things he likes with her was brilliant!).

Is TBBT saying that being a geek is something to be mocked? I don’t think so. Is TBBT “a pantsing and a punch in the face” instead of “a warm hug of acceptance”? No. TBBT is a microcosm of the human experience. And let’s face it, if we can’t laugh at ourselves and at the human experience, we would become uncreative, boring people who take themselves way too seriously.

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Once Upon a Shrink: Regina Meet M. Scott Peck

This is a guest post by Charles Hackney as part of the ongoing conversation here at Political Jesus on Once Upon a Time and Grimm. Just for the record, Chuck agrees with me 100% that #OUAT is the better show (and no that is not just because he’s married to me).

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This is the second of two investigations of the principal villains in Once Upon a Time. In response to Amanda Mac’s post on the theology of evil in OUaT, I previously discussed a possible Adlerian interpretation of Rumpelstiltskin.

Regina, like Rumpelstiltskin, begins in a position of powerlessness. Although the daughter of a wealthy family, she is bullied by her mother, a powerful sorceress who is not shy about forcefully using magic to get her way. Regina’s mother also uses her as a pawn in her bid for status, manipulating circumstances so that the king requests Regina’s hand in marriage. She later kills Regina’s true love, a common stableboy. Through an act of childish naivete, it was Snow White (the king’s daughter) who revealed Regina’s secret love. Regina not only becomes queen, but a powerful wielder of magic herself, and a common theme that runs through her plots is her desire to avenge herself on Snow in as painful a manner as possible. When her scheme with the poison apple fails, her final stroke is a curse that transports everyone to a terrible place with no happy endings (our world). Here, in the town of Storybrooke, the people’s memories are replaced, and their personalities stunted, and Regina reigns as Mayor, with only Mr. Gold (Rumpelstiltskin) rivalling her in wealth and influence.

Storybrooke presents the appearance of a pleasant small New England town, and Regina makes an attempt at establishing a happy family by adopting a son, Henry. It is, however, all illusion. The town is frozen in time, with none of the inhabitants growing or changing until the arrival of Emma, daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, and mother of Henry. Henry’s interactions with Regina reveal her motherhood to be more about control than about love. Emma’s investigations reveal the degree to which the inhabitants of Storybrooke are under Regina’s thumb. Scratch the surface of Storybrooke, and one finds that it is indeed a terrible place with no happy endings.

Many questions could be asked about Regina. One that occurs to me is this: why did her curse take this form? Why create a superficially-happy small town as her great act of vengeance upon Snow and Charming? Why include herself in the curse, eliminating her magic and her royal status in exchange for domination of an obscure little town? Why did she only begin to torment Snow (named Mary Margaret Blanchard in our world) after Emma’s presence had begun to weaken the curse?

To help explain Regina’s character, I turn to a classic psychological examination of evil, M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie. In People of the Lie, Peck describes the essence of evil as a form of self-deceptive narcissism.

“Malignant narcissism,” says Peck, “is characterized by an unsubmitted will” (p.78). He argues that all mentally-healthy people submit to something other than themselves, be it God or love or truth or whatever else requires personal preferences to be subordinated to a greater good. The core of evil, however, is an unwillingness to submit to anything beyond the self. If anyone wonders why “healthy” is being contrasted with “evil,” instead of “good and evil” or “healthy and unhealthy,” Peck considers evil to be the ultimate form of human dysfunction, akin to a personality disorder. But Peck believes that evil is different from mere psychopathy. Psychopaths lack empathy, the emotional capacity to care about the rights and feelings of others, and so are, according to Peck, blissfully unconflicted about their antisocial actions. Evil people retain a sense that they have done wrong, but they suppress the truth in order to maintain their narcissistic self-concept and see themselves as faultless. But suppression is not elimination, and the unconscious conflict between their vision of their perfection and their deep intuitive sense of their imperfection requires them to engage in constant activity to maintain the illusion of perfection. “The evil are ‘the people of the lie,’” says Peck, “deceiving others as they also build layer upon layer of self-deception” (p.66). The following is Peck’s formal proposal for evil as a personality dysfunction:

“the time is right, I believe, for psychiatry to recognize a distinct new type of personality disorder to encompass those I have named evil. In addition to the abrogation of responsibility that characterizes all personality disorders, this one would specifically be distinguished by:
(a) consistent destructive, scapegoating behavior, which may often be quite subtle.
(b) excessive, albeit usually covert, intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury.
(c) pronounced concern with a public image and self-image of respectability, contributing to a stability of life-style but also to pretentiousness and denial of hateful feelings or vengeful motives
(d) intellectual deviousness, with an increased likelihood of a mild schizophreniclike disturbance of thinking at times of stress.” (p.129)

We can see quite a lot of this in the behavior of Queen Regina. Peck spends a great deal of his book on the scapegoating behavior of the evil person. Because they see themselves as perfect, but with the insecurity that comes from knowing at a deep level that they are not, anything that threatens the illusion of perfection is intolerable. Regina frequently casts herself in the role of the victim in search of justified retribution. Snow White robbed her of her happily-ever-after, so she will do the same to Snow White. When Snow (as Mary in our world) is framed for murder, Regina says “We got her, Daniel. We got her.”, as if all this has been about righting a wrong committed by Snow. In the seventh episode (“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”), Regina says that others “don’t know the wretchedness inside [Snow] like I do.” It never seems to occur to her that Snow’s “betrayal” of her secret was the act of an innocent child being manipulated by an evil sorceress. The true villain here was Regina’s mother, but instead of blaming her mother, Regina blames Snow, and in essence becomes her mother. To admit that Snow was innocent would require Regina to admit that she had misplaced blame and had become the thing she had despised. Similarly, we see no indication that Regina has considered the possibility that her cold and controlling behavior toward Henry might be a large contributor to his belief that she is the Evil Queen from his fairy-tale book. Instead, she places the blame entirely on Emma.

A scene that shows Regina’s intolerance to criticism also comes from the seventh episode. Regina confronts Emma, claiming that everything bad that has happened (including Sheriff Graham’s romantic preference for Emma over Regina) is Emma’s fault. Emma replies, “You ever stop to think that maybe the problem isn’t with me but with you? Henry came and found me. Graham kissed me. Both were miserable. Maybe, Madam Mayor, you need to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask yourself why that is. Why is everyone running away from you?” In one of the few instances of Regina losing control, she punches Emma in the face.
The personal image of perfection can lead to a concern for a similarly-positive public image. Regina can be seen in Storybrooke engaged in many of the pro-community activities of a small-town mayor, including fundraisers and public projects. She presents the appearance of caring for the community, keeps a beautiful house, and her appearance is never less than perfect. This concern for an image of respectability may also be one of the best explanations of Regina’s desire to adopt a child. Another explanation might be the power of thralldom.

Peck devotes a section of his book to the idea of thralldom. He connects thralldom to “the use of power to destroy the spiritual growth of others for the purpose of defending and preserving the integrity of our own sick selves… For the evil to so misuse their power, they must have the power to use in the first place. They must have some kind of dominion over their victims” (p.119). When one enthralls another, the victim is rendered weak and passive, further enhancing the offender’s feelings of power and superiority. Thralldom runs through Regina’s actions in the show. She steals the huntsman’s heart, sapping his will and making him her slave, a relationship that continued in Storybrooke until Emma frees him. When the Genie falls in love with her, Regina manipulates him into killing by her command, and seems quite happy about the idea of him being trapped in her mirrors, making him an easily-accessible and easily-ignored resource. In Storybrooke, the Genie is transformed into a journalist, who remains her miserable but willing puppet. In fact, a major component of the curse involves the enthrallment of the people of Storybrooke. As can be seen in the character of Prince Charming, a strong and courageous hero is changed into a spineless coward. Jiminy Cricket, an unwavering voice of principle, becomes easily manipulable. The frightening Red Riding Hood loses her willingness to take risks. The defiant Grumpy becomes the pitiable town drunk. Only Rumpelstiltskin seems to have retained any of his former willpower.

Perhaps the attraction to evil of thralldrom best explains why Regina chose the kind of curse that she did. Not only did she rob the people of their happy endings, and thus exact revenge, but she caused a collection of powerful and brave characters to become submissive to her, feeding her narcissism. Adopting a child would have given Regina another life to dominate, had Henry not seen through her illusion.
Peck is pessimistic about the possibility that an evil person can change. Change requires admitting that one is wrong, and it is highly unlikely that Regina’s narcissism will permit this first step (this is a common problem among those with personality disorders). Regina will never see the truth. All we can hope for is her defeat.

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Once Upon a Shrink: The Psychology of Rumpelstiltskin

This is a guest post by Charles Hackney as part of the ongoing conversation here at Political Jesus on Once Upon a Time and Grimm. Just for the record, Chuck agrees with me 100% that #OUAT is the better show (and no that is not just because he’s married to me).

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Amanda Mac’s post about Once Upon a Time and the theology of evil got me thinking. So I’ve put on my psychology cap (would that make me a mad hatter?) to take a look at the two primary villains of the series: Rumpelstiltskin and Queen Regina.

Part One: Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin serves as a Faustian devil in the show. A being of seemingly-unlimited power, people make deals with Rumpel, but the deals invariably end up disadvantaging the “customer.” In the second episode of the first season, “The Thing You Love Most,” Rumpel is revealed to be the one who provided the curse that Regina used to bring the characters into Storybrooke, but he requires her to sacrifice the only person she truly loves, and includes the provisos that he will be powerful in their new world, and that she will be bound to obey him (as long as he asks “please”). In the fourth episode, “The Price of Gold,” Rumpel kills Cinderella’s fairy godmother and makes a deal with Cinderella: her perfect evening at the ball in exchange for “something precious,” which turns out to be her firstborn. “All magic,” he says, “comes with a price.” In Storybrooke, Rumpel becomes the wealthy Mr. Gold, and continues to be the one who can make things happen… for a price.

In the episode “Desperate Souls,” Rumpelstiltskin’s backstory is revealed, and that backstory sheds considerable light on his actions throughout the show. Rumpel was originally powerless. He was weak, crippled, cowardly, and impoverished. He had been conscripted to fight in the Ogre Wars, but ran away. Other characters treat him with contempt. His wife couldn’t stand to live with a coward, and so left him. A soldier mocks his weakness and humiliates him when he tries to bargain for his son’s freedom (“What do I want? You have no money, no influence, no land, no title, no power. The truth is, all you really have is fealty… kiss my boot.”). Later in the episode, Rumpel gains immense magical power by killing The Dark One (becoming the new Dark One in the process), and exacts revenge on the soldier. He becomes a figure of terror, later killing a man for accidentally scratching his son.

Many of his further actions involve an insatiable drive to increase his power, and prevent its loss. He kills Cinderella’s fairy godmother in order to steal her wand. He manipulates the relationship between Snow White and Prince Charming in order to produce the ultimate in magic: true love in a bottle. When his son tells him that everyone is afraid of him, Rumpel insists that he needs “more power” to protect what is his, and when the Blue Fairy shows him a way to abandon his power and keep his son’s love, he is so afraid of losing it that he lets his son be dragged into an alternate world, apparently losing him forever. When Belle falls in love with him, and her kiss begins to make him human again, he believes it to be a plot by the queen to “make me weak,” and flies into a rage. In the final episode of the first season, Rumpel manages to open a magic portal, and it appears that he is trying to retrieve his son, but instead he releases magic into Storybrooke. Rumpel’s long-term strategy remains unclear, but it is certain that somehow it will involve bringing him even more power.

When discussing the psychology of power and weakness, nobody does it better than Alfred Adler. Adlerian psychology (also called Individual Psychology) holds that the underlying force that motivates our behavior is a striving to compensate for helplessness and inferiority. We are all born weak and powerless, surrounded by giants and subject to their whims. Over time, if we handle these childhood feelings of inferiority in a healthy manner, our personality develops so that we strive for superiority in a way that benefits everyone (for example, if I strive to be an outstanding psychology professor, not only do I gain a sense of “mastery,” thus overcoming inferiority feelings, but my students also benefit from superior teaching, the college benefits from superior service, the field of psychology benefits from superior research, and so on). If these feelings of inferiority are not handled well, however, our personality becomes pathological.

We do not have any indicators of Rumpelstiltskin’s childhood. All we have to go on is our one look at his adult life. However, many of his actions fit Adler’s description of an inferiority complex. The core of the inferiority complex is an unshakeable sense of “smallness,” manifesting itself in behavior patterns such as timidity, indecision, shyness, cowardliness, and submissive obedience. An unresolved inferiority complex can produce a neurotic personality, obsessed with safeguarding self-esteem and personal security. In Adler’s words, “All neurotic symptoms are safeguards of persons who do not feel adequately equipped or prepared for the problems of life” (“The Structure of Neurosis,” 1932).
There are a number of pathological personalities that can be produced, but the one that best fits Rumpel is a destructive “Ruling-Dominant Type” (“The Fundamental Views of Individual Psychology,” 1935), characterized by an active and aggressive attempt to master their lives and the people in them. This type of personality undermines our ability to form what Adler called “social interest,” the sense of connection to and sympathy for one’s fellow humans. Rumpelstiltskin’s life of powerlessness left him with deep-seated anxiety, and he is so afraid of returning to a position of weakness that he would rather lose everything than accept anything less than utter supremacy.

How will this pathology play out in the second season? Now that magic has been introduced to the “real world” of Storybrooke, how will Rumpelstiltskin use it? How does this play into his ongoing contest with Regina? What is his real goal, and why was he willing to accept temporary disempowerment to achieve it? Will Belle stay with him, knowing that she could never be as important to him as his own power?

Next Time: Queen Regina and the Psychology of Evil