Srinath Sherma

Warning! Thoughts will be provoked . . .

Racism or Comedy?

20 May, 2021 | Television

So, I finally finished watching all the 12 seasons of ‘Let’s make fun of smart people while adding canned laughter’ AKA “The Big Bang Theory”.

The closet racism exhibited by the show borders on overt while trying to remain subtle. Let’s start by discussing the white inner circle, which, aside from Raj, the token Indian, is near impossible to see anyone else of colour throughout the sitcom. As we are discussing Raj, lets also discuss his ‘selective’ mutism. Raj Koothrappali is robbed of his voice: a key feature of colonialism, sexism, slavery, and oppression in general. When Penny (the show’s token “hot girl”) addresses Raj, and he doesn’t answer her. Her immediate response is, “I’m sorry, do you speak English?”

Throughout the show, the characters rile on Raj for his cultural ancestry, In The Precious Fragmentation, (S3 E17), it is the leading-nerd Sheldon Cooper, a Texan of Anglo-saxon ancestry, who distinguishes Raj as “the foreigner who tries to understand our culture and fails.” Why is Raj’s character forever seen as an outsider incapable of assimilation?

In The Gorilla Experiment (S3, E10), after Penny throws and catches food in her mouth, Sheldon addresses Raj with an uncalled-for and inaccurate attack, stating “Raj, this is essentially why you have famine in India.” This is an instance of the classic “ruler-knows-best” colonial symptom.

It doesn’t take a self-proclaimed genius like Cooper to know that India, a major exporter of the world’s food, hasn’t had a famine since after the British left.

In The Pirate Solution when Raj faces deportation, he whines incessantly about how he doesn’t want to go back. After all, India is “hot, it’s loud, and there are so many people! You have no idea–they’re everywhere!” He rebukes the McDonald’s in Mumbai for not selling beef, degrading his culture while glorifying this ethically questionable MNC by going on and on about the wonders of animal flesh. Finally he ends up working with Sheldon, sorry, I should say for Sheldon, and when he requests to be treated equally, Sheldon outright refuses to do so, and Raj joins anyway.

Unfortunately, as the show progresses, it only gets worse for poor Raj. In “The Skank Reflex Analysis,” Amy comforts Penny after she has sexual relations with Raj. The fact that Penny regrets sleeping with Raj and that Amy agrees that this was a mistake points to a racist element as well: Raj is the only person of colour with whom Penny is ashamed of having intercourse.

Amy’s consolation of Penny is founded on a historical premise of racism, seen through the language she uses: “She engaged in inter-species hanky-panky and people still call her great.” Amy is referring to a Russian ruler who had “intimate relations with a horse.” Because she compares sex with an Indian man to sex with a horse, it is evident that Amy views Raj as an “other,” even if they are presented as friends. Moreover, Amy calls Raj “a little Indian boy” later in the conversation. This downplays Raj as a person because, according to Amy, he is lesser of an individual because he is Indian and, therefore, Penny should not worry about her “mistake.” While this may seem comedic to the American diaspora, its very insensitive to the people of colour. It doesn’t just stop there, later, Raj admits they “didn’t have sex in the conventional sense,” to which Penny replies, “Oh God, did you pull some weird Indian crap on me?” Amid the cacophony of canned laughter, I struggled to see the comedy in all this, only observing the vile, obvious racial sentiments associated with the show.

Now I was thinking, every other character seems to be improving in some way or form, surely Raj is due for one? Unfortunately, I was hopelessly incorrect. Raj is made to run halfway across the street in his underpants with a bib around his neck to get the number of a woman who left him in a coffee shop. He is seen as a co-dependent male who always helps with the cooking/cleaning, conveniently sitting on the floor, and is referred to by his white male friend Howard as ‘lady’ in the relationship. Though he dates quite a few women throughout the show, he is unable to maintain long term relationships with them. Which is ironic as Sheldon a quasi-autistic with obvious social interaction difficulties, Howard, who borders on perverted, and Leonard the hopelessly unconfident all have fulfilling relationships, yet a fully functional, wealthy, PHD graduate Indian cannot hold on to any relationships.

Which brings me to the next question, how the f*** does an astrophysicist with a PHD working at Caltech is unable to make rent and forced to ask his “Friends” to take him in?? Even more concerning is that Howard, his friend for twelve years, doesn’t provide him with Board and when Penny and Leonard do, they do with extreme hesitation, and soon start providing him with apartment suggestions. How is it that Stuart, a character Howards known for less a decade is seen as a part of the family and moves in? The answer is glaringly simple: Raj was never a member of the group. He just hung around as ‘pet’ or interesting curiosity for group.

Raj’s sister doesn’t get left out of the racial profiling either. She is shown to be a promiscuous woman who is chained by her cultural expectations of purity and in turn rebels by dating Leonard. While this is can be misconstrued as acceptable, the irony here is that she is the only character who cheats on him. No other character is portrayed with infidelity among the group. Why is this ironic?? Because in a country where seven in ten marriages end in divorce and MGTOW movement predominantly consists of white males, the irony that an Indian male or female are unable to maintain a relationship borders on absurdity.

What’s deeply worrying about TBBT is that each season got more and more racially inappropriate. When the gang made fun of the way Raj pronounces moustache, it was blanketed with tremendous canned laughter to ensure that it met with acceptance by the audience. This sets the undertone for the show which involves constant humiliation by the gang, the writers of the show and Raj himself. He fantasises about dating Howards girlfriend through a cliched Bollywood dance. Howard mocks his accent and Raj accepts it. Raj admits to eating out of his dogs’ mouth and allowing his dog to do the same to a woman he dates. The gang play a game where they try to differentiate between his dog and his girlfriend and many such instances. This is subliminal racism; the writers are telling the population to accept people of colour and hold on to this behaviour. A show which garners almost twenty million viewers per episode is laden with terrible comedy supported by a cacophony of canned laughter to force the viewers into social acceptance.

What baffles me is how the American population wonder where the root of racism lies when all they need to do is look at the so called “quality programming” offered by its many sitcoms.