Bad Penny. The evolution of women in sitcom culture.


Penny and Leonard from the Big Bang Theory

I was raised on sitcom culture. One thing I have noticed in the past decade or so is a shift in how women are portrayed. Unfortunately, it’s not for the better.

Women used to be shown as the subservient wife and mother who surreptitiously leads her husband from behind in order to get her way, like June Cleaver, Donna Stone, Samantha Stevens and Lucy Ricardo. There was always an unspoken (or even sometimes actually spoken “One of these days, right in the kisser.”) threat that she was risking violence if she were caught going behind the back of her husband in order to get what she wanted.


The Ricardos

Then, in the 1970’s women were portrayed as feminists for the first time. Maude, Mary Richards, Margaret Houlihan and Emily Hartley to name but a few. These were women who are unconventional and ground breaking. Maude fought for women’s rights and raised an independent daughter. Mary was the ultimate working woman who, not only didn’t need a man, but refused to settle. Major Houlihan worked alongside her male counterparts in the most dangerous of settings. Emily Hartley was seen as a woman who chose to work and a true partner in her marriage with her husband. These women were much healthier role models then the women who came before and after them. These sitcoms are proof that female characters can be well written, fully actualized, real women who are also funny.


An iconic symbol of feminism.

Now we’re seeing women who are perennially annoyed with their husbands, or single women who continually make bad choices in men. Take, for example the show Everybody Loves Raymond, featuring Debra Barone, a woman who gave up her career in order to raise her children (which is a luxury in today’s world and an admirable choice). She is shown as constantly finding fault with her husband, who is somewhat childish, but all in all, not a bad guy. One of Debra’s most frequent insults is to call him an idiot. Another example of the continually annoyed wife character is on the show Rules of Engagement. The character of Audrey Bingham who is a childless, married, working woman. Audrey is married to Jeff, a former frat boy, jock type who is an excellent provider, a bit childish and a tad oblivious at times, but again, all in all a good guy. Audrey’s default setting is mildly annoyed with her husband and it just gets worse from there. She seems generally disappointed with life for the most part. This type of character reminds me of a great quote from Bill Maher, “Women cannot complain about men anymore, until they start getting better taste in them” These women go around unfairly blaming their husbands for behavior that they were fully aware of when they said I do. I have zero sympathy for this type of woman. They have no one to blame but themselves.


The bickering Binghams from Rules of Engagement.

Then there is the other prevalent female sitcom archetype, the single woman who makes bad choices. One of the most frustrating examples of this is Penny from the Big Bang Theory. Her father gives some examples of her previous boyfriends in the following clip.

She has dated white rappers, cow tippers, a guy who blogged about their sex life and a guy who cheated on her and had violent tendencies (Kurt). When faced with a relationship with Leonard, a genius physicist who is, admittedly, a little clingy, she pulls away thinking that she can do better. I will never understand why young women would rather be abused by the bad boys than have something real with an intelligent guy who will treat her well. Okay, maybe I do understand it… young women are inherently insecure and feel undeserving the majority of the time. What bothers me most about Penny is that she thinks that she is the catch in her relationship, when clearly the real catch is Leonard. Looks fade, but intelligence is forever.


The cast of the HBO series, Girls

My final example of the single girl who makes bad choices is from the HBO hit, Girls. All four of the lead characters in this show are hot messes. Yes, they are young, insecure and still ‘finding their way’ but they all have absolutely no respect for themselves. These young women were raised by mothers who would have come of age during or after the feminist movement and yet every character is clueless and self sabotaging. I would have hoped that their mothers would have instilled in them, some sort of sense of self by the time they were out on their own. For me, the most disappointing thing about this show is the fact that it was created and written by a woman.

It seems that women can’t write good parts for women in Hollywood, so how can we have the audacity to expect men to write them for us?

12 thoughts on “Bad Penny. The evolution of women in sitcom culture.

  1. Well, the men don’t come across much better…. sniveling, pathetic, lost. It’s not flattering. Out of interest, what female part/role would you like to see?

    1. Undeniably, men have also gotten a bad rap… more so in recent years than ever before. As to what role I would like to see… someone more akin to Mary Richards or Major Houlihan… perhaps a mash up of the two… independent, sexual, unapologetic, strong, confident. A woman who, when she is in a relationship, she does not manipulate or cuckold her partner. A woman who choses a partner who is her equal but not exactly like her. I sitcom that derives it’s comedy from how real people deal with situations, rather than how damaged people interact with other damaged people. Maybe that’s too much to ask.

  2. Sad thing is, I really enjoy The Big Bang theory on so many other levels. You’ve got something regarding Penny though. What do you think of the other female characters: Amy, Bernadette and the newly introduced Alex?

    I usually like the women portrayed on Doctor Who: River Song, Amy, Rose, Donna and Martha, though Martha a bit less so as she was so googgly-eyed over the Doctor. I am intrigued by the new companion, Clara. I love Joss Whedon and Marti Noxen’s female characters.

    1. I am also a big fan of Dr. Who and the women portrayed on that show, though it’s not a sitcom.
      Amy is my favourite female character on BBT. She is not ashamed to just be herself and she is highly accomplished in her own right… the same can be said for Bernadette. Alex is too new and has too small a part so far for me to form an opinion of her. I have seen every episode of BBT multiple times… it’s my favourite current sitcom, but Penny has been irking more and more as the show goes on.

      1. Okay- I wanted to email you this but I don’t have your email- take a second to Google Images for Women Geek Culture versus Pop Culture. You should find an awesome photo. I LOVED it and think you will, too.

  3. Well put. I often wonder why shows feel the need to keep degrading humor alive. It is not humorous and it continues to paint women as ‘less than’ and as petty. I wish my daughter could see more shows where people are strong and have healthy relationships.

    1. Thank you. I think more people just need to speak up and more women need to start striving beyond actress, writer or even director and be in a position of real power… network or studio heads, then maybe, just maybe the next generation of young women will like what they see reflected back at them through the TV screen.

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