I have a PhD in physics, so I’ve been asked plenty of times if I’ve ever watched The Big Bang Theory. Well, it was an incredibly popular TV sitcom… from 2007-2019… about a bunch of physicists… starring an asexual character. I obviously hate it sight unseen. I cannot tolerate more than a few seconds of it. Never ask me about The Big Bang Theory, we do not talk about The Big Bang Theory here.
Buuuuuut, I admit that the cacophony of secondary commentary on the show intrigues me. Here are a few things I’ve heard: I’ve spoken to many scientists who believe the show is not for us, but rather making fun of us. Its idea of humor is showering us with geek cultural references, over a laugh track. Its characters are the embodiment of geek misogyny. The character Sheldon “has no deal”, according to an early quote that established him as asexual–but didn’t establish that the writers understood this. Asexual reception to Sheldon is generally negative, with early critique focusing on Sheldon as an example of the inhuman asexual archetype, and later critique focusing on how Sheldon’s relationships were handled.
Commentary on The Big Bang Theory is a microcosm, serving as a roadmap to the intersection of asexuality and nerddom.
If there are multiple kinds of nerds, I’ve always known exactly what kind I am. I’m a math nerd. I’ve been into recreational math and puzzles since grade school. Throughout higher education, I consistently produced outlier scores in math and physics. Among classmates, I had a reputation for being a lazy genius–lazy because I didn’t need to put any effort in to excel.
This is all to say, that “nerd” and “geek” are labels that have been inescapable to me. Indeed, I find them preferable to alternatives like “smart” or “genius”, concepts that I am skeptical of, and which I deliberately avoid using to describe real people.
But there is a whole other dimension of being a geek: geek culture.
Today, geek culture is simply an aspect of pop culture, but it was once more of a counterculture. It was visibly dominated by white men, and focused a lot on so-called “curative” fandoms around certain hobbies and media. While it may seem nonsensical to associate this with academic excellence, there was a lot of overlap, so that even if I wasn’t interested in geek culture, I had contact with many people who were. I also observe a stylistic similarity between the geek style of fanning and academic competition, both placing a lot of emphasis placed on measurable demonstrations of knowledge.
I’ve rarely liked the things considered part of geek culture. I never had enough interest to even finish Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, and those are the two most popular things so imagine my lack of interest in any of the deeper cuts. This in itself isn’t a problem, but in my experience nerds were extremely pushy about their hallowed cultural artifacts. To be ignorant was one thing, that’s merely losing in the competition of fans. But to assert a lack of interest was unacceptable, as it called into question the values of an already marginalized counterculture.
Keeping in mind that this may or may not apply to geek culture today. I think the internet has enabled nerds to find consensual participants to geek out with, instead of doing it to any poor bystander. But I’m not exaggerating when I say that pushy geeks gave me more grief growing up than being ace ever did.
In fact, for me, dealing with geeks has served as a powerful metaphor for asexuality. I have been well-trained to confidently assert my own lack of interest in the face of widespread popularity. Thanks, geeks!
The inhuman nerd
I have a lifelong familiarity with the social implications of academic excellence. Some people are jealous. Some people find me unapproachable. Some have had prior experience being in my position, and may have varied reactions to being overshadowed. It’s not necessarily pleasant to be at the top, which is why I’ve never been enthusiastic about competing for that slot. But people also don’t like it when you don’t try—to sit at the top without even trying is a sin against meritocracy and justice.
Perhaps the most irritating reaction is when people jump on any perceived mistake I make, because they find it funny that such a super genius can be so dumb. Of course, they were the ones who labeled me a super genius, and they were the ones who formed expectations about what that means. I have enough direct experience with my own dumb mistakes that they don’t surprise me. There is something about perceived “genius” that people find unfathomable, that makes their intuition about fellow humans go haywire.
In fiction, “intelligent” characters are portrayed as inhuman and lacking social skills. At the intersection of inhumanity and social deficiency, we have the trait of nonsexuality. Prior to widespread awareness of asexuality, the figure of the nonsexual nerd used to be the most common source of potentially asexual characters, from Sheldon to Dexter to Sherlock.
What is it like to be located near such a popular archetype? It’s obvious that the nonsexual nerd is not “for” ace nerds, and the writers are not interested in any real world intersection. It’s about taking two things presumed to alienate viewers, and putting them together. In many serials–including The Big Bang Theory–writers eventually grant these characters heterosexuality, demonstrating that these characters didn’t have a stable asexual orientation, they were just weird all along.
Of course, to fully critique the things, I would have to watch the things, which I have proven unwilling to do. I rely on secondhand commentary. Among ace commentators, there is the common complaint that so many ace characters are robots or aliens (a critique Coyote explored in depth), with Sheldon being a nonliteral example. Conventional wisdom says that the inhuman asexual is problematic representation, and should be avoided by conscientious creators.
Far be it for me to speak confidently about a show I haven’t watched, but I feel like the conventional wisdom might be missing something. Some asexuals are academically accomplished, neurodivergent, asocial, or lacking emotion–although often not all at once. The inhuman asexual archetype fails us as well.
Online ace communities do not have very many men. According to our latest numbers, it stands around 14%. There are many possible explanations, but many people think that it has something to do with the conflict between asexuality and hegemonic masculinity, which may prevent men from confidently asserting an asexual identity.
So lots of people say, it must be very hard to be an asexual man, when everybody assumes that you’re DTF all the time or something’s wrong with you. To this I say, nobody has ever particularly expected me to be hypersexual. In my experience, it is not particularly hard to be an asexual man, not compared to an asexual of any other gender. But there’s some obvious selection bias. Perhaps some men have particular difficulty identifying as asexual, but those are not the men who are here! The men who identify as asexual are precisely those for whom it was not too hard to identify as asexual.
Selection bias or not, it certainly highlights how there are multiple masculinities, which may apply different pressures on ace men.
One of my favorite commentaries on geek masculinity–and on The Big Bang Theory–came from Pop Culture Detective. As he explains, hegemonic masculinity refers to an unachievable ideal that men are supposed to strive for. Hypermasculinity refers to the behavior of men as they try desperately to achieve this ideal, but fall flat on their face. The Big Bang Theory portrays an ensemble of nerds who fail at masculinity in particularly ridiculous ways, and who constantly put each other down for inadequate masculinity. The resultant hypermasculinity is extremely misogynistic, and yet the show portrays it as ultimately harmless.
I do have one disagreement with Pop Culture Detective, in that I think he doesn’t appreciate just how much The Big Bang Theory represents an external perspective on nerds. The nerds are portrayed as insufficiently masculine because that is how popular audiences see nerds, not how nerds see themselves. And many of the show’s expressions of masculinity–such as twisting open a jar–honestly feel more like mainstream interpretations of masculinity (valuing strength) than nerd interpretations (valuing skill and knowledge).
In any case, there isn’t one single nerd masculinity. For example, when it comes to sexuality, one form of masculinity uses the ability to find and retain a partner as a measure of success. Nerds who can’t do that–like Leonard, Howard, and Raj from The Big Bang Theory–are portrayed as pathetic beta males. Another masculinity–embodied by Sheldon–permits nerdy guys to “own” their singlehood, rising above the competition by showing a lack of interest in that competition. For these men, singlehood is not indicative failure (nor of a stable asexual orientation), it’s indicative of having higher priorities.
Nonsexual nerdy masculinity provides space for me to avoid the pressure to be hypersexual, a space where this is seen as masculine confidence rather than masculine failure. But it’s not built on any sort of understanding of asexual realities or desires. Nerdy nonsexuality is premised on devotion to work or study. It is presumed that sexual desire will reappear if the character ever undergoes social development. And it’s founded in the assumption that men ought to strive for masculinity in the first place.
I grew up with the “nerd” label because I always performed well academically. I have never, however, particularly liked geek culture. Nerds like me are portrayed as socially inept, neurodivergent, and sometimes nonsexual. These portrayals are not for people like me, they’re more about grouping together multiple traits that are seen as inhuman. There is also a form of nerd masculinity that appears to value sexlessness, as if to rise above the pathetic struggles of other nerds to find partners. This might provide more space for nerds to identify as asexual, but it’s not a great model of masculinity, and not a faithful portrayal of ace nerddom.