The TV post that rightly got the most attention yesterday was Linda Holmes’s “How a Thorough De-Gazing Saved CBS’s ‘The Big Bang Theory.'” Trying to figure out how the show can be so enjoyable now when she hated the pilot so much (and still does), she traces it to the concept of the “male gaze,” the idea that many female characters in fiction aren’t really people, just devices to produce certain reactions in men.
The pilot is terrible. The pilot is really, really terrible. And while there are many reasons for that — Leonard and Sheldon are too similar, their odd-couple dynamic isn’t firing yet, Sheldon’s quirks aren’t cranked up to heaven yet, and the writing feels very “pilot-y,” for lack of a more precise descriptor — the biggest problem is Penny, the only woman in the core cast, played by Kaley Cuoco. Penny lives across the hall from physicists Leonard and Sheldon, and while she’s now Leonard’s girlfriend and well-integrated with the guys and their friends, when the show started, Penny was not a person; she was a prop.
Nothing was ever seen from Penny’s point of view; she almost never had a joke that wasn’t at her own expense. Here’s all her dialogue from the first scene she ever did:
“Oh, hi.” “Hi.” “Oh, that’s nice.” “Oh, okay, well, guess I’m your new neighbor, Penny.” “Hi.” “Hi.” “Oh, thank you, maybe we can have coffee sometime.” “Great.” “Bye.” And here’s the dialogue from her second scene: “Hi.” “Hi.” “Oh, you’re inviting me over to eat?” “Oh, that’s so nice. I’d love to.” “So what do you guys do for fun around here?”
The term “male gaze” has gotten a bad rap, perhaps deserved, because it sounds like one of those terms that college media professors invent as a substitute for paying attention to the story. But you can say the same thing with less loaded language, and it’s actually true. Most of the female characters on Two and a Half Men have been bimbos and emasculators, and on the flip side, Holmes points to Sex and the City as a show where the men don’t actually have any identity of their own. Even on a show where everyone’s a stereotype, it can be frustrating to see a character who’s nothing more than Generic Woman or Generic Guy.
But I think the progress of Penny — her development into a character who’s notable for more than her development — may have more to do with an important principle of series TV, and particularly sitcoms: if the show can come up with one really good, strong character, it can elevate other characters. This is the Sheldon principle. Once he became a specific character with individual likes, dislikes, problems and comic tics (which he wasn’t in the pilot; he was the generic Other Nerd), other characters could play off that, and gain individuality through the individual ways they reacted to him. Penny has gone further with that than the others, because her relationship with Sheldon is the most specific and unique; the other three guys each have a similar type of attitude to the show’s breakout character, so they haven’t been individualized as much. But shows like these are about relationships, and those relationships are easier to construct when at least one character is not just a blank slate.
I’ve used Family Ties as a classic example of this. Every character started out pretty generic. Michael J. Fox’s rise to stardom not only helped his character, it helped most of the other characters, as their specific, different relationships with Alex began to define them as people. (The worst character was the mother, whose relationship with Alex was the least clearly defined.)