The Big Bang Theory: Mad Geniuses and the Freak Show of Higher Education

Main Article Content

Wendy Harbour

Keywords

disability, higher education, television

Abstract

This essay discusses the television comedy series The Big Bang Theory.  Through lead characters including physicist Sheldon Cooper, the series portrays higher education as a metaphorical freak show, and academics as geeky mad genius freaks.  Implications for constructions of disability in higher education are discussed, with recommendations for future research.

Abstract 857 | PDF Downloads 137 Word Downloads 9 Text Downloads 201

References

Adams, R. (2001). Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American cultural imagination. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Altman, B. M. (2001). Disability definitions, models, classification schemes, and applications. In G. L. Albrecht, K. D. Seelman, & M. Bury (Eds.), Handbook of disability studies (pp. 97-122). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Anderson, R. C. (2006). Teaching (with) disability: Pedagogies of lived experience. The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 28, 367-379.

Backstrom, L. (2012). From the freak show to the living room: Cultural representations of dwarfism and obesity. Sociological Forum, 27(3), 682-707.

Bartlett, M. (2009). Wizards, fanboys and geeks. Screen Education, Issue 55, 32-36.

Becker, G. (1978). The mad genius controversy: A study in the sociology of deviance. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE Publications.

Bednarek, M. (2012). Constructing “nerdiness”: Characterisation in The Big Bang Theory. Multilingua, 31, 199-229.

Bell, C. (2007). We do not talk about such things here: My life (so far) as an HIV+ academic. In M. L. Vance (Ed.) Disabled faculty and staff in a disabling society: Multiple identities in higher education (pp. 217-224). Huntersville, NC: The Association on Higher Education And Disability.

Bibel, S. (2010, November 10). Dr. Mayim Bialik’s diagnosis: “Big Bang’s” Sheldon has OCD. [Xfinity TV blog comment]. Retrieved from http://xfinity.comcast.net/blogs/tv/2010/11/10/dr-mayim-bialiks-diagnosis-big-bangs-sheldon-has-ocd/

Bibel, S. (2013, October 20). Live+7 DVR ratings: “The Big Bang Theory” tops adults 18-49 ratings increase, “New Girl” earns biggest percentage increase in week 2. Retrieved from http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2013/10/20/live7-dvr-ratings-the-big-bang-theory-tops-adults-18-49-ratings-increase-new-girl-earns-biggest-percentage-increase-in-week-2/210246/

Bogdan, R. (1990). Freak show: Presenting human oddities for amusement and profit. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bogdan, R., Biklen, D., Shapiro, A., & Spelkoman, D. (1982). The disabled: Media’s monster. Social Policy, 13, 32-35.

Byers, M. (2005). Those happy golden years: Beverly Hills, 90210, college style. In S. Edgerton, G. Holm, T. Daspit, and P. Farber (Eds.), Imagining the academy: Higher education and popular culture (pp. 67-88). New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Cefalu, P. (2009). What’s so funny about obsessive-compulsive disorder? PMLA, 124(1), 44-58.

Cross. T. L. (2005). Nerds and geeks: Society’s evolving stereotypes of our students with gifts and talents. Gifted Child Today, 28(4), 26-27, 65.

Dagaz, M., & Harger, B. (2011). Race, gender, and research: Implications for teaching from depictions of professors in popular film, 1985-2005. Teaching Sociology, 39(3), 274—289.

Dolmage, J. (2013, October 26). Disability on campus, on film: Framing the failures of higher education. Conference presentation at “Disability Disclosure in/and Higher Education.” Newark, DE: University of Delaware.

Dreifus, C. (2013, September 10). On “The Big Bang Theory:” Helping physics and fiction collide. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/10/science/on-the-big-bang-theory-helping-physics-and-fiction-collide.html?_r=0

Dumbo, T., Leviton, G. L., & Wright, B. A. (1956). Adjustment to misfortune: A problem of social-psychological rehabilitation. Artificial Limbs, 3(2), 4-62.

Elliott, T. R., Byrd, E. K., & Byrd, P. D. (1983). An examination of disability as depicted on prime-time television programming. Journal of Rehabilitation, 49(3), 39-42.

Fiedler, L. A. (1993). Freaks: Myths and images of the secret self. New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Franke, A. H., Bérubé, M. F., O’Neil, R. M., & Kurland, J. E. (2012, January). A report. Accommodating faculty members who have disabilities. Washington, DC: American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

Fuecker, D., & Harbour, W. S. (2011). UReturn: University of Minnesota services for faculty and staff with disabilities. W. S. Harbour & J. W. Madaus (Eds.) New Directions for Higher Education, Issue 154 (pp. 45-54). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Garland Thomson, R. (2000). The beauty and the freak. In S. Crutchfield & M. Epstein (Eds.), Points of contact: Disability, art, and culture (181-196). Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Goldblatt, H. (2007, October 19). “Big” bust. Entertainment Weekly, Issue 959/950, 116.

Harbour, W. S. (2004). Final report: The 2004 AHEAD survey of higher education disability services providers. Waltham, MA: The Association on Higher Education And Disability.

Heilker, P. (2012). Autism, rhetoric, and whiteness. Disability Studies Quarterly, 32(4). Retrieved from http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/1756/3181

Hirschorn, M. (2007, September 1). Quirked around. The Atlantic, n. p. Available online at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/09/quirked-around/306119/

Hockman, L. (2010). A longer journey of reflexivity: Becoming a domesticated academic. In D. Driedger (Ed.), Living the edges: A disabled women’s reader (16-28). Toronto: Innana Publications and Education, Inc.

Hoerburger, R. (2013, May 26). Somebody, or rather, lots of somebodies, knew something was going on. New York Times Magazine, 44-45.

Johnson, S. L., Murray, G., Fredrickson, B., Youngstrom, E. A., Hinshaw, S., Malbrancq Bass, J., Deckersbach, T., Schooler, J., & Salloum, I. (2012). Creativity and bipolar disorder: Touched by fire or burning with questions? Clinical Psychology Review, 32, 1-12.

Jurgensen, J. (2008, December 12). A nerdy comedy’s winning formula: As sitcoms wane, “The Big Bang Theory” has become an unlikely ratings hit. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB122904206389400209

Katz, J. (2000). Geeks: How two lost boys rode the Internet out of Idaho. New York, NY: Villard Books.

Kelly, C. (2011). Nerd rising: The geeky genius of Jim Parsons. Texas Monthly, 39(9), 78, 84.

Kelty, C. (2005). Geeks, social imaginaries, and recursive publics. Cultural Anthropology, 20(2), 185-214.

Lawson, A., & Fouts, G. (2004). Mental illness in Disney animated films. Candian Journal of Psychiatry, 49(5), 310-314.

Leuschner, E. (2006). Body damage: Dis-figuring the academic in academic fiction. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 28(3-4), 339-354.

Longmore, P. K. (1985, Summer). Screening stereotypes: Images of disabled people. Social Policy, 16, 31-37.

McDermott, M., & Daspit, T. (2005). Vampires on campus: Reflections on (un)death, transformation, and blood knowledges in The Addiction. In S. Edgerton, G. Holm, T. Daspit, and P. Farber (Eds.), Imagining the academy: Higher education and popular culture (pp. 231-246). New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

McFedries, P. (2008, June 1). Homo nerdus. IEEE Spectrum, 45(6). Retrieved from http://spectrum.ieee.org/geek-life/profiles/homo-nerdus

McReur, R. (2006). Crip theory: Cultural signs of queerness and disability. New York: New York University Press.

Michalko, R. (2001). Blindness enters the classroom. Disability and Society, 16(3), 349-359.

Price, M. (2011). Mad at school: Rhetorics of mental disability and academic life. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Postrel, V. (2010, November 6). The geek as everyman. The Wall Street Journal, 256(109), pp. C12.

Quail, C. (2011). Nerds, geeks, and the hip/square dialectic in contemporary television. Television New Media, 12(5), 460-482.

Redfield Jamison, K. (1993). Touched with fire: Manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament. New York, NY: Free Press Paperbacks.

Rice, L. (2009, September 18). The Big Bang Theory. Entertainment Weekly, Issue 1065/1066, 42-44.

Rogers, J. (2012, November 23). Old, boring, white, and mean: How professors appear on the small screen. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 59(13), pp. A22.

Schummer, J. (2006). Historical roots of the “mad scientist”: Chemists in nineteenth century literature Ambix, 53(2), 99-127.

Sheehy, K. (2013, April 5). Confessions of a science geek. U.S. News Digital Weekly, 5(14), 8.

Sheffield, R. (2010, September 16). The super nerd. Rolling Stone, Issue 1113, 56-57.

Solis, S. (2009). I’m “coming out” as disabled but I’m “staying in” to rest: Reflecting on elected and imposed segregation. Equity and Excellence in Education, 39, 2, 146-153.

Time. (2011, February 21). 10 questions for Jim Parsons. Time, 177(7), 6.

Titchkosky, T. (2009). Disability images and the art of theorizing normality. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 22(1), 75-84.

Tucker, K. (2010, April 2). The Big Bang Theory. Entertainment Weekly, Issue 1096, 64-65.
Valle, J., Solis, S., Volpitta, D., & Connor, D. (2004). The disability closet: Teachers with learning disabilities evaluate the risks and benefits of coming out. Equity & Excellence in Education, 37, 4-17.

Vance, M. L. (Ed.). (2007). Disabled faculty and staff in a disabling society: Multiple identities in higher education. Huntersville, NC: The Association on Higher Education And Disability.

Walters, S. (2013). Cool aspie humor: Cognitive difference and Kenneth Burke’s comic corrective in The Big Bang Theory and Community. Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, 7(3), 271-288.

Weinman, J. J. (2008, October 20). He makes Dr. House seem cuddly. Maclean’s, 121(41), 71.

Weisberg, R. W. (1994). Genius and madness? A quasi-experimental test of the hypothesis that manic-depression increases creativity. Psychological Science, 5(6), 361-367.

White, R. (2008). Instructor disclosure of mental illness in the social work classroom. Social Work Forum, 40-41, 127-142.

Williams, G. (2001). Theorizing disability. In G. L. Albrecht, K. D. Seelman, & M. Bury (Eds.), Handbook of disability studies (pp. 123-144). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Wright, B. A. (1983). Physical disability: A psychosocial approach (2nd ed.). New York: Harper and Row.

Wu, C. (2012). Chang and Eng reconnected: The original Siamese twins in American culture. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.