Here’s what happened (don’t you love how I preface every rant with a story, and preface the story with “Hey I’m going to tell you a story now,” like you don’t know it’s coming? Fucking hack writer, jeez): I was watching The Big Bang Theory the other week and the first line of dialogue was (from Bernadette, to Amy Farrah Fowler) “We’re so proud of you, Amy. Your first bikini wax.” Now, that got me a little irked, but I was willing to let it go. And the episode continued, and the conversation wandered, and the A story took over. Sitcoms, you know how it goes. It’s pretty much always the same.
But they kept coming back to it. And it just kept bothering me.
First of all, you guys know I like The Big Bang Theory quite a bit. So I’m not saying it wasn’t an alright episode overall. Not one of my favorites, but solidly ok (it was The Parking Spot Escalation, just so you know which one I’m bitching about). A bit more low brow than usual, but whatever. We all have bad days. No, what I’m pissed about is this whole B story interaction between the female characters about their lady bits. And if you’re an adult female and you want to shave or wax or have a full-on marauding gorilla down there, I honestly don’t give a shit. It’s your body, do your thing. I don’t care.
My point is this: since the introduction of Amy Farrah Fowler as a character, she’s been a drooling Penny disciple. And Bernadette, while still being sort of nerdy, is usually more identified with Penny, right? She’s still depicted as “more normal” than Amy. It’s always two against one, with Amy being the weirdo. Having her go with the other girls for a bikini wax, and then using words like “proud of you” about it? That shit pisses me off. Because it’s reinforcing this ideology about what women “should” do. The idea that body hair is gross or unseemly makes me really agro. And I’m making this argument not because I’m one of those militant non-grooming type women (I’m really not, except in the winter when I stop shaving my legs because it’s fucking cold outside and I’ll take free insulation over having to buy long underwear any day), but because the show depicted Amy as being naïve or immature for having not done this procedure yet. Like getting rid of all this hair, which is itself a mark of physical maturity, is the actual milestone of adulthood. It’s peer pressure on a base level and it makes me really mad.
I’ve been avoiding going off on a rant about sex and the depiction of women in the media for quite some time. It’s just such a complicated issue, you know? The sort of thing that people write thick books and PhD dissertations about, not lowly blog posts. But it’s important. And while my mission here may seem like a somewhat shallow examination of trends in pop culture, I think we all, as consumers of that culture, have an obligation to try to understand the underpinnings of it.
An example. Back in the summer, there was a bit of a feminist kerfluffle over this advertisement. (Sorry you have to click on it, I can’t get it to embed the photo.) It’s for an east coast chain of wax/nail/tan shops. But let’s consider the language used here: Freedom, independence, safe, natural, and pleasant. Putting aside the fact that it was for a Fourth of July promotion that the company was having, “freedom” and “independence” are words that are misleading to teenagers. They imply adulthood. And this promotion was a discount for girls under fifteen years old. Now, I know that the times they are a’changing and whatever, but if you’re under fifteen? You probably don’t need to concern yourself with a bikini wax. Because, to put it bluntly, bikini waxes are strictly for the purposes of A) making vaginas prettier, in order to B) increase their fuckability. And to take a little girl into a place like that and tell her it’s normal, that it’s right, that it’s “just what you do,” that’s gross. I hope all the parents who do that to their little girls feel gross. And don’t you dare come crying to me when she gets knocked up at too young an age, because you’re the one who taught her how to sexualize herself when she should’ve been doing little kid stuff instead. Furthermore, the words “safe,” “natural,” and “pleasant”? Waxing is none of these things. It hurts like a motherfucker, so “pleasant” is out. The hair on our genitalia (male and female) is not vestigial; it is there for a very good reason, so getting rid of it is anything but “natural.” Those shops, even the cleanest and most expensive of them, are riddled with germs, fungus, hair, nail trimmings, dead skin pieces, and blood. Actual human blood! Not “safe.” Disgusting. I’m not being a germaphobe here, for real. That shit’s nasty. And if you’re a grownup, fine, whatever, do what you like. But to show our kids this stuff, to advertise directly to them, to tell them that if they don’t do it they’re missing out on something – that’s just sick.
“What does this have to do with that episode of The Big Bang Theory, Vanessa?” Yeah, I know. I actually have a point. The point is that they really do use things like this to show Amy as childish by comparing her Penny. She’s an accomplished doctor of neurobiology (as is Mayim Bialik, the actress who plays Amy – fun fact). She’s successful and self-reliant. But she’s quirky and awkward and, at least at the beginning, desperately lonely. And being the most socially inept character on the show (I think, although it’s arguable that she’s on par with Sheldon) makes her vulnerable. Because, unlike Sheldon, she does want all those “normal” experiences, and is willing to go to great lengths to fit in. She never had friends before, and is going through a sort of delayed adolescence wherein she’s easily manipulated. Meanwhile, while the show’s writers have continuously made her act more and more like Penny and Bernadette, even changing her speech patterns and reactions to situations, they have kept her in the same wardrobe throughout. Now, if any of you were ever tortured teenage girls, answer me this: Don’t you think that if Penny and Bernadette got a hold of Amy in real life, the first fucking thing to go would be the six layers of wool and polyester? But it’s an easy visual trick to set her apart, make her the odd man out, the ugly duckling. That may seem like a small detail, but it’s lazy writing, and a glaring incongruity in the character’s development.
I read a blog recently (and I honestly don’t remember where or I’d post a link to it) about how The Big Bang Theory has changed since the beginning. The writer was saying that at first, the audience was more inclined to identify with the nerdy guys because Penny was the oddball. But as the show has progressed, more and more we’re being fed jokes at those guys’ expense, rather than just having them make jokes that we nerds would get. We’re laughing at them now, and no longer with them. And while I won’t say that I agree that’s true across the board – I mean, Penny’s outnumbered by geniuses by six-to-one now instead of four-to-one – I think that the writers have definitely made Penny the alpha female, if not the outright alpha dog. Obviously, this would probably be the case amongst a real group of friends. It gives them room to make her opinions and actions seem correct to the viewer and to the other characters, her opinions and actions usually being those of mainstream America so as to give the audience someone to relate to. It gives her license to peer pressure them, basically, and to be credible about doing it.
I guess the bigger point that I’m trying to make here is about the idea of “normal” as it applies to the young women of the world. We try to teach them to be strong and self-sufficient, to be independent and successful and happy people. But they’re also learning, just by being exposed to the media, that in order to do that they need to be beautiful and thin and appear sexy to a certain type of man. They’re being taught that they need to tread a very fine line between, on the one hand, smart and talented and hard-working and nice and chaste and, on the other hand, pretty and stupid and bubbly and fun and slutty. That is an impossible combination of factors, people. You can’t do both. You get to pick, possibly mix and match. But don’t try to convince me that you’re both madonna and whore. Don’t tell me you’re smart and independent and then, as soon as an attractive penis comes around, act like you’ve lost all your faculties and are suddenly an imbecile who needs to be taken care of by a big strong man because you can’t do anything for yourself. It’s embarrassing. It’s beneath you. As if young girls don’t have enough problems, right? Let’s not give them a socially sanctioned case of multiple personality disorder on top of all that hormonal adolescent bullshit, hmm? Perhaps, if we teach them how to accept themselves and rely on their strengths, maybe nurture some self-confidence and some sense of trusting their own decisions, they’ll grow up and be pretty ok.
And I know some of you might be thinking that I’m bringing a lot of my own awkward teenage baggage to this conversation. And that might be true, but I will say, in my defense, that that sort of subjectivity is kind of unavoidable. We all speak from experience. And having been picked on and made fun of as a kid I know that it’s hard as hell to be the one who’s different, the one who’s always wearing the wrong clothes or saying the wrong thing. Children are vicious, nasty creatures. They’re terrible to each other. It’s an intrinsic, hierarchical pack mentality thing they’ve got going on. And if all the other little slutty girls are getting bikini waxes, maybe it would make a girl who doesn’t want one think about getting one anyway, and not consider why she wants it or what they’re for. I get it. Peer pressure is a part of growing up. But hopefully we learn, eventually, to not give a shit what other people think and just be who we are. What I’m saying is that if we teach our kids that at a younger age, maybe we won’t end up with a planet full of useless pieces of shit who can’t think for themselves.