The Big Bang Theory : From a worldwide successful television show to the highlighting of little-known disabilities

by Justine MAGAUD

Picture of the final sequence of the TV show.

Social exclusion and injustice are matters that deeply affect me. I believe that the indifference that exists about these phenomena is linked to ignorance and low media coverage, not because of people’s lack of empathy. I am convinced that making society aware of injustices, whatever they may be, is the only solution to fight them. I promised myself several years ago that I would always fight for what I believe is right. Andy Biersack’s quote « stand up for what you believe in, even if that means standing alone » encourages me to continue in this direction.

The link between this issue and the American sitcom « The Big Bang Theory » surely doesn’t seem clear to you. It certainly even seems quite daring to you. I will tell you how this television show of two hundred and seventy-nine episodes, in which the final episode alone had more than 18 million American viewers, helped to uncover two rather little-known problems in society : autism and the exclusion of gifted people. For twelve seasons, the series featured a group of friends who are passionate about science and living in Pasadena, a city located east of Los Angeles, and their friend Penny. Sheldon Cooper, the main character of the show, suffers from autistic disorders such as relational difficulties and the need to respect a rigid routine and organization. While the word « autism » is never mentioned in the series, Sheldon helps to deconstruct many stereotypes about autism, including how to define it. Indeed, autism is regularly associated in the collective unconscious with madness. The main character repeats very regularly, in key moments when he is judged by other characters on his difficulties to interact in society: « I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested ». The screenwriters have created a caring atmosphere around a character who is as confusing as he is endearing, giving, without admitting it, visibility to a relatively unknown trouble (autistic spectrum disorder), even though it affects some 700,000 people in France.

In France, the government has set up aid for autistic people to give them easier access to housing and employment. Concretely, this means the development of shared housing structures for people with disabilities, the aim of which is to enable them to have a degree of independence while receiving medical care, and to put an end to hospitalizations that are unsuitable for their disorders. People with autism are helped to find a job. This results in the creation of supported jobs, i.e. jobs in which disabled workers receive medical and social support. These forms of employment are advantageous for companies because the State compensates companies that employ disabled people, and the employer can contact the disabled worker’s helperin case of difficulties. The helper can set up support or adapt the job if the disability requires it.

If, apart from Sheldon, the other characters in « The Big Bang Theory » do not have autistic disorder, Leonard, Rajesh, Howard and Amy embody another little-known « difference »: they are gifted adults. This is the case in France of about 1 million people. We tend to associate the word gifted with the simple fact of having a high IQ. This is due to a lack of information on the subject. People with high potential actually suffer from a lack of ability to fitin society because their intellectual functioning is different from that of people without this disorder. These people tend to be hypersensitive, anxious and feel out of step with the rest of society. In the series, the characters often refer to their unpopularity or to the physical and psychological violence that they experienced while being at school. Their fear of rejection still present in adulthood is also shown in the episodes, particularly in terms of their anxiety and fear of abandonment in the context of their relationships.

Thus, even if the sitcom has never been described as such by the film crew and the cast, « The Big Bang Theory » gives visibility to autistic and gifted people, who until this show had few or no characters to identify with on the big or small screen. Unfortunately, we cannot conclude that society’s view of these disorders has been revolutionized, nor can we even assume that viewers have made a statement about these troubles. We can however imagine that this series has been a watershed for people living with these disorders, and that the kindness that surrounds these characters has given them hope for better recognition of their uniqueness. The media coverage of these phenomena is only at its beginning and the fight for a better treatment of these disabilities will certainly last for a long time to come, but the visibility given by the series can only be helpful to the cause.

Justine MAGAUD

Auteur : lecheveusurlalangue

Journal de SciencesPo Grenoble (Isère, 38) et de ses étudiant.e.s

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