The Corner

Film & TV

Big Bourgeois Theory

One often hears, probably correctly, that the best route to a lucrative career is through various STEM fields like engineering and computer programming. So why is no one complaining about the The Big Bang Theory, particularly Howard Wolowitz and Raj Koothrappali?

Wolowitz is an MIT-trained engineer who speaks umpteen languages. As a researcher at Cal Tech, he has contracts with NASA to design, among other things, space toilets. Now, the average salary for a terrestrial master plumber in the U.S. is $80,000 per year. I have to assume NASA would pay better than that. Also Wolowitz spent most of the series living with his mother, so presumably he saved quite a bit on rent, food, and laundry. When his mom died he inherited the house, which was presumably paid off. His wife, meanwhile, is a major scientist at a biotech company. And yet, when he found out they were going to have a kid he was so freaked out about his finances he had to come up with a quantum gyroscope that the Air Force eventually commandeered (with nary a word about compensation for this clear taking of intellectual property).

Meanwhile Raj, a Cal Tech astrophysicist, spent most of the series as an insanely rich metrosexual, but only because he benefitted from his father’s exorbitant wealth. His father, you see, is a gynecologist in India, and we all know that’s where the real money is. When he finally stopped taking his father’s Big Gyno rupees, he was essentially a pauper who couldn’t afford his rent or even tickets to ComicCon.

I distinctly remember how, in the 1990s, people mocked the economics of Friends, in which a bunch of 20-somethings seemed to live pretty well in fairly nice apartments, working at mostly low paying jobs (Rachel worked at a coffee shop and then in retail; Ross was an assistant professor of paleontology at NYU; Joey was a mostly out-of-work actor; Phoebe was a masseuse and coffee-house singer; Monica was a struggling chef; and Chandler, the wealthiest of the bunch, was an IT procurements manager with the specialization “statistical analysis and data reconfiguration”).

And yet, the writers of Friends at least had their characters struggle to make ends meet in a plausible fashion. The cast of BBT did everything right. Except for Penny, in high school they would have been considered losers by pretty much everyone on Friends (except maybe Ross and Rachel). The BBTers worked hard, got the best grades at the best schools and have, in fact, landed perhaps not the most lucrative jobs for their fields certainly among the most prestigious. They should be doing all right.

Why aren’t they? Perhaps one answer is that we’re supposed to feel sorry for nerds and geeks and viewers might lose some sympathy for these frozen adolescents if they were portrayed as prosperous young professionals. And, again, they should be prosperous precisely because they adhered to the bourgeois norms of hard work, delayed gratification and — albeit socially enforced — sexual restraint. Penny, who is really a refugee from the moral universe of Friends, was a promiscuous party girl who only got her life together when the nerd norms rubbed off on her. But we’re still supposed to think she’s the normal and cool character, even though she often brags about how she cares about little other than superficial things and even jokes that her successful physicist husband doesn’t deserve someone as great as her.

Whatever the reason, I think it’s interesting how much the writers struggle to conceal the fact that these supposed losers are in fact among the biggest winners of today’s economy.

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