Bazinga – speak its name: performative autism is mimicry not representation
Bazinga. A simple word, yet one that fills me with potent anger whenever I hear it. The word itself is innocent, yet the character it is attached to is anything but. It happens to be the unofficial catchphrase of Sheldon Cooper, from the show, if you can call it that, The Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang Theory is a situational comedy made by Bill Prady and Chuck Lorre. The Big Bang Theory, while it was still airing, placed consistently high in U.S ratings, beating big front runners such as Judge Judy in numbers of viewers.
So, what about Sheldon Cooper irritates me so much?
The answer is quite simple, yet incredibly multifaceted. You cannot separate the character from what he represents for the autism community. Sheldon Cooper is a horrific eldritch abomination of stereotypes, like bodies sewn together in a disgusting ritual. He cannot understand social cues to save his annoying life, has a very rigid routine that he sticks to the best of his ability, and has several special interests that he frequently info-dumps about passionately. To neurotypicals, he’s the autism posterboy.
I have a distinct memory of secondary school when they had an autism awareness assembly. Trust me, a lot of classmates were already well aware of autism; they’d remind me of it on the daily by calling me an ugly retard. It started off well enough, with pictures of autistic celebrities such as Susan Boyle and a few others I cannot recall. My brain has probably replaced the memory of who else was there with intense rage. The lovely assembly leaders decided to illustrate autism symptoms with clips of Sheldon Cooper being a buttmonkey to the neurotypical characters of the show. Dance, buttmonkey, dance.
The poor girl next to me jumped as I sighed so loudly, I swore I hurt my lungs. The second-hand embarrassment from that assembly stuck with me for years, to the point that in A-Level, when presented with the chance to educate my classmates who were using the word autistic as an insult, I jumped at the opportunity to make my own PowerPoint before any of my teachers could intervene. I couldn’t risk being represented by Bazinga-boy, not again.
Despite being autism’s equivalent of Zeus to Greek mythology, the show has been painfully silent about Sheldon’s diagnosis. The actress of Amy, Mayim Bialik, when asked about Sheldon’s condition, replied, “We don’t pathologize our characters. We don’t talk about medicating them or even really changing them,” dodging the question like The Big Bang Theory dodges nuance. Even if Sheldon is an unpleasant little worm of a man, at least it would be some form of representation. Autistic people struggle with finding scraps of representation. Even a shitty, stale little crumb is still a crumb.
There are a few different sets, but we are going to explore three main ones to illustrate my point. The bachelor pad shared by the three main characters, Sheldon’s room, and Penny’s apartment. All three of the main characters have an interest in science, and so in apartment 4A, there is a grand display of different scientific displays, like a cluster of atoms, or a Tesla Coil. There are hints to each different character’s interest within their shared space, and that includes Sheldon’s special interests. Sheldon Cooper has an interest in vexillology, the study of flags fascinates him to the point where the producers decided to make a fun little YouTube spin off named Sheldon Cooper’s Fun With Flags, where he and his girlfriend Amy discuss fun facts about different flags of the world.
We move to the furniture, but specifically their brown couch. On it, there is a spot. Not just any spot; Sheldon’s spot. He is so used to sitting in that part of the couch, he gets incredibly upset if anyone else even thinks about sitting on it. This is classic autistic behaviour, sticking to firm routines and an intense dislike of change. To use an example for myself, I must always have a bottle of water on me whenever I go out. If I don’t have one with me, I’ll feel anxious until I buy one. Preferably, it must be my favourite water bottle, metal, and covered in different dogs.
We now depart into Sheldon’s bedroom. A bedroom is a window into the soul, I believe. There is a lot you can tell about a person by what objects they surround themselves with in a closed space, and Sheldon’s space is filled with different autism codes throughout. His wardrobe is filled with clothes of two main themes, superheroes, or science. They’re all quite simple shirts, too. Rarely is he ever seen with anything buttoned, or anything that seemed unreasonably uncomfortable.
Texture is something that autistic people tend to struggle with. Using myself as a reference once more, I cannot stand the feeling of labels in the back of my shirts, specifically if they’re touching my neck. Even if they’re convenient for hanging up clothes, I always have to take a knife or a pair of scissors and cut off the label. Sometimes, this results in the remnants of the label being even more irritating than the normal label; I’ve ruined that shirt and I can never wear it again. I would rather die than wear it again.
There is a lot of comic memorabilia, once again making Sheldon’s special interest in superheroes all the more apparent. However, the biggest notifier for me is the reference to trains. In Sheldon’s bedroom, there are three posters that feature trains as their main focal point. Trains are almost an inside joke for the autism community, as they tend to be a lot of people’s first special interest. As described by James Sinclair on Autistic and Unashamed, ‘For some, our connection with trains will be purely based around gaining technical know-how; as our minds, which crave to know as much as possible about a single topic, obsess over the many sounds, sights and constructs of trains and their engines. However, for others, our interest in trains is less physical and may be more about reclaiming things we lack in daily life, like routine and regularity.’
In a show with actual good representation (disregarding the use of the now outdated term Aspergers, but that can be forgiven considering it came out in 2009), Arthur, a side character named George who has his condition directly addressed in the episode, is obsessed with trains and he happily talks about the make and model of a train he drew. Arthur is a children’s cartoon that intends on teaching the audience. Guess who else has a special interest in trains. Sheldon, as quoted. ‘You may not realize it, but I have difficulty navigating certain aspects of daily life. You know, understanding sarcasm, feigning interest in others, not talking about trains as much as I want. It’s exhausting!’ If Arthur can tackle autism in a tactful, respectful way, what the hell is The Big Bang Theory’s excuse?
We leave Apartment 4A entirely and walk to the next-door neighbour’s apartment, but not before knocking. Knock knock knock, Penny? Knock knock knock, Penny? Knock knock knock, Penny? Soon enough, we are allowed inside. This room is a complete contrast to the anti-eclectic tastes of Sheldon Cooper, no signs of any borderline obsessions, aside from a large collection of tacky IKEA furniture. It is very cluttered visually, with bright pops of colours. It’s almost painful for me to stare at for too long. Autistic people struggle with sensory overload, so her bedroom is a sensory nightmare. I’m surprised Sheldon doesn’t have a meltdown.
However, despite how cluttered it is, there is no insights into Penny herself. That is because Penny is supposed to be an audience surrogate, one who reacts to the nerdiness of the male main characters. However, an unfortunate side effect of this is that she unintentionally ends up treating Sheldon almost like a child, such as when Sheldon is confused about Howard’s magic trick, she chirps out, “Awww, he’s got the same look my little nephew gets when he can’t figure out how I got his nose.”
Infantilism is something that autistic people have to deal with quite frequently, being viewed as sweet innocent babies that deserve protection. I’m not a child, I’m a jaded and bitter woman, if the sour tone of this article didn’t hint at that already.
There are many reasons I have issues with Sheldon as a character and how his autism is presented, such as how all of his friends are unrealistically accepting of his quirks they are, and they rarely express too much annoyance, or the fact his social awareness leads him to be incredibly sexist and demeaning to most of the female cast and side characters. However, my biggest gripe is that the show runners will happily take credit for creating an autistic character, without making one.
Sheldon Cooper’s neurotypical actor Jim Parsons ended up receiving an Emmy for his portrayal. According to Slate, when he was asked, once again, he dodged the question. “The writers say no, he doesn’t. …” Parson shrugs in his response, “[But] I can say that he couldn’t display more facets of it.” The Big Bang Theory actively profited off Sheldon’s autism, but they didn’t even have the guts to commit fully to it. All they had to do was have Sheldon mimic traits of autistic people, make fun of them mercilessly, and boom, profit. No, not boom.