Every few years, another “___ ‘n ___” pair on TV captures attention, even for people who aren’t show viewers. References pop up all over the place, from Halloween costumes to dedicated Internet analysis. The participants of said coupledom hook people with all the on again/off again plot tensions, the love/hate antics, the circumstances keeping them apart. Sometimes it’s well done (Cheers’s Sam and Diane at first comes to mind, as does Luke and Lorelai on Gilmore Girls before the new writers took us to Bullshit Land). But sometimes, even as the linked names signal ultimate togetherness in common cultural consciousness, one still has to wonder….
Why are we rooting for them?
Link: 8 Things in Common
Beverly Hills, 90210 was my starter kit for questioning fictional relationships. Up until this point, if a show, movie, or book portrayed a main couple, I pretty much bought into it and believed that they were in love and meant to be together and all that. So at first, I was totally on board with Brenda and Dylan… even while, through the mechanics of the show and its initial love triangle between Brenda and Dylan and Brenda’s best friend Kelly, the twu wuv-ness of their twu wuv was called into question.
But then, as show began to bash us over the head with the twu wuv-ness of Dylan and Kelly, something else was also becoming clear: Brenda was being done dirty by the very people who claimed to love her, making unreasonable demands. No, Bren, you don’t have to still be friends with the supposed bestie who was hooking up with your boyfriend behind your back. It doesn’t matter if said boyfriend is also besties with your brother and that makes shit awkward for him. Oh, and the sadness your mutual friends feel that you aren’t getting along with the gang anymore? FUCK ALL OF THEM, BRENDA. YOU ARE TOO GOOD FOR THIS SHIT.
It’s even worse going back and watching the early episodes. You want a horror show of red flags? Watch Dylan and Brenda’s first date, in which he screams and yells and throws things and rages out to the point that Brenda sobs “You’re scaring me!” But it’s okay, because Dylan is angsty about his family situation, and needs Brenda’s love to calm him. Yeah, Christian Grey didn’t start this shit. He’s more like the culmination. It’s been around for ages. And it still sucks.
The show’s contrivance of “who is Dylan’s REAL soulmate?” only highlighted the fact that women were meant to define themselves and be defined by what the dudes wanted. In fact, the best moment of the whole shit-heap was when Kelly (who really was so selfish that she and Dylan belonged together, tormenting each other unto eternity) looked at Dylan and Brandon, each who had been trying to out-manly each other, pressuring her to make decisions, and told them “I choose me.” OH HELL YES!
It flies in the face of all fanservice and genre expectation, but it would’ve been much better if the couples on 90210 moved the fuck on instead of this perma-loop of crap.
Ross and Rachel
I was not part of the whole Friends zeitgeist from the beginning, so I didn’t get a lot of the background before I’d already been bombarded via media about “Ross ‘n Rachel!” “Rachel ‘n Ross!” Therefore, when I first watched the show, I was expecting to see all sorts of tender, funny, touching elements of a couple that were trying to make it despite social odds.
Instead, I discovered a petulant brat, the epitome of the mediocre “nice guy” who thinks he deserves everything and spends all his time whining about it to make sure you know, too. And because he’s convinced — and has convinced his enabling parents and friend group — that he’s some “nice” harmless nerd-geek type, all of his toxic masculinity bullshit gets ignored. Gosh. Ross isn’t like that!
Bullshit. Ross is EXACTLY like that. He’s a horrible boyfriend. He’s a horrible friend. Considering the way he freaks out over his kid’s slightest deviations from blue-is-for-boys stuff, whether it’s a Barbie or a “too sensitive” manny, I’d suggest he’s a pretty crap father, too… especially when he should know better.
Sure, Rachel can be vapid, especially in the early episodes, but it’s nothing on the level of Ross’s bullshit. In fact, as Rachel becomes increasingly mature, responsible, and successful, Ross only looks like a bigger asshole by comparison. We’re supposed to find it cute that he’s had this yen for the beautiful and popular Rachel Green since high school… but that crush seems to have little to do with who Rachel actually is. In fact, he doesn’t even seem to like the actual Rachel Green that much.Ross often puts Rachel down and calls her stupid. He mocks the way she responds to things, her interests, her personality. He disparages her career, even when she’s demonstrably very good at it. If Ross is talking about Rachel Green from High School, Popular Superstar and source of his unrequited crush, he gets all gooney. But when he talks about or to the ACTUAL adult woman Rachel Green? He sneers and mocks and patronizes and controls and manipulates her… hardly a hallmark of love, to say nothing about respect.
Ross is just the worst… and that’s before we get to how his supposedly “quirky” or cute antics demonstrate some real personality flaws, from the fake British accent and “music” and owning of a monkey, to the entirety of his relationship with Emily, to how he treats his sister and is treated by his parents.
We’re supposed to think Ross is some sad “nice guy” dude who life is kicking around, and feel sorry for him. But actually, he’s an entitled asshole who has tons of advantages, and bitches when everything doesn’t line up perfectly with everyone worshipping him like his mommy and daddy do.
Ross also has an out of control temper. The number of times he explodes in anger and starts screaming and yelling at Rachel (which makes the “WE WERE ON A BREAK” joke sound less cute and more fucking psychotic, and even “PIVOT!” look like micromanaging control and anger issues), when he’s not ignoring her, putting his insecurities at the forefront, or just out-and-out lying to her, means Ross adds up to not only an unappealing vision of a romantic partner, but a downright threatening one.
Ross Geller is the textbook “nice guy” who complains about how girls always go for abusive bad boys, but is completely unable and unwilling to notice that all of his behaviors are right in line with the dickheads he claims to disparage in the name of chivalry. Rachel could do better. Even Joey would’ve been better.
(Note: It’s my understanding that the actor David Schwimmer is an awesome dude IRL. Maybe I’ll focus on those stories again.)
Carrie & Big
I guess it’s good that they ended up married, because it keeps them from fucking up everyone else’s lives, huh?
If there was ever a mature and direct way to handle a situation, you could count on these two to do the exact opposite. If there was ever a gracious, generous, healthy way to act in a love relationship, Carrie and Big were guaranteed to take a hard right into fucked-up-ness. I mean, why have a productive, normal conversation when you can play neurotic games and overanalyze minutiae!
Mr. Big treated Carrie like shit, in every way that a rich and powerful white dude treats women like shit. Carrie was a complete selfish asshole about everything… when she wasn’t doormatting hard. (Sell the shoes, invest in therapy, girl.) But Big and Carrie’s antics hurt so many other people, including the partners they cheated on. And the ways they kept hurting each other didn’t exactly polish the turd that was their relationship, either. The idea that all of that was somehow excusable because “they really want to be together and don’t know how to be!” or “they’re meant for each other!” is every harmful, shitty message in society, ever. The fact that Carrie compromises almost everything she values, everything she is, to get it only makes it more infuriating… and more sad.
But hey, closet space in NYC, so I’m sure she thinks she’s achieved something important, huh?
Everyone on Big Bang Theory
It’s hard to remember a time when Big Bang Theory wasn’t an example of sitcom mediocrity. But once, many years ago, around Season Three or Four, I started watching it. I liked that it was detailed with (then marginalized) nerd culture, but, especially, I liked that the supporting women were often nontraditional, brilliant, and successful, from Amy and Bernadette, to Raj’s sister Priya, Leonard’s short-term girlfriends Stephanie and Leslie, and even the less-than-ideal Romona Nowitzki. With the exception of Penny, really, many of the featured women were driven, smart, talented, quirky, unique, high-achieving… and even Penny was sometimes ambitious regarding her acting career. (But is she a good actress? Terrible? Who knew. Obviously not the show’s writers, based on the plotlines.)
Penny was a big part of the problem, though. Once “the girls” coalesced into their own friend group with golden girl Penny as head girl, things changed.
And you can draw a direct line from Ross and Rachel to Leonard and Penny. But I’ll get to them. First, let’s start with Amy and Sheldon.
When she first met Sheldon, Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler had no interest in a traditional romantic relationship, and instead demanded companionship on her terms. Her sexual orientation seemed more bisexual or lesbian than het, and she and Sheldon unapologetically carved out a nontraditional space for their relationship that looked odd to others, but worked for them. They respected each other’s talents (after some neurobiology versus physics Dance Offs) and their weird personalities complimented each other. They were happy to spend hours silently working, or on a video chat in order to maintain personal space. Amy could enjoy Sheldon’s company because he provided companionship without the physicality she found repulsive; her first displays of affection with Sheldon–a surprise kiss, hand-holding, dancing–left her openly unimpressed. She got more of a charge out of kissing Penny. Or maybe that electric toothbrush was a better option? Amy even brusquely declared after their first big fight “Please Sheldon, you’re smothering me” when he wanted to spend more time together. Theirs was an odd match, but one of equals.
Amy was her own person. You could describe her. She loved Chaucer and Jane Austen, she played the harp, she skilfully dissected rats and brains, she sang along to Neil Diamond, she had a contentious relationship with her mother and a horrible, lonely childhood, she loved Little House on the Prairie….
So what happened?
Did Amy spend so much time around Penny and Bernadette, mostly idolizing Penny, that all the cliche elements of girlfriends, wine and gossip stopped being things to send up, and turned into something in which to unquestioningly participate? Because after a couple years, all of a sudden, Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler was turning into someone willing to settle for the tiniest crumbs of romantic affection from the Sheldon Cooper table… a stereotype of womanhood we’ve seen all too often.
For years now, they go through this constant cycle that looks like this:
- Sheldon fucks something up–usually something important to her or related to her career–and hurts her.
- Amy responds by requesting space/respect/understanding, or with legitimate anger or sadness.
- Sheldon fucks up that boundary yet again, because he’s quirky and doesn’t get things.
- One of them realizes that Sheldon is Sheldon-ing, which results in a moment of Sheldon Vulnerability, concluding with Amy earnestly sighing “Sheldon…” or some version of “I’m glad you told me.” So whatever the thing is that Amy was hurt over has now been re-centered entirely on Sheldon and HIS experience of a thing, his feelings about and understandings of it.
Fuck that shit.
Note: this dynamic is entirely one-sided. There is little that is mutual, and now Amy has replaced Leonard as the person who has to manage all of Sheldon’s expectations, moods, and quirks… and her own have disappeared as a result. Amy no longer participates in her own hobbies much anymore, but instead is dragged by Sheldon to aquariums and on trains. I mean, they can’t even go to the Science Center together anymore?! Or get a cat? Or set up a home research lab? They actually DID have a number of things in common, after all!
The worst was when Amy broke up with Sheldon, requesting some space to think about things, about what she wanted in a relationship, and if she and Sheldon were a good fit. Perfectly healthy at that stage in their tedious relationship, and what Amy desperately needed.
Sure, he’s not an Alpha billionaire, but what did Sheldon do? Exactly what every creepy, stalky, jerkwad selfish asshole does in this situation: ignored her stated boundaries, centered everything on his needs and feelings, and harassed her until she got back together with him, on his terms, with all of her legitimate concerns sidelined.
Sheldon was also the one who unilaterally decided (and was then backed up by Penny and Bernadette) when he and Amy would consummate their relationship… with no discussion at all with Amy herself. But it’s okay because she’s “always hoping” they’ll have sex, so….
Amy and Sheldon now look pretty much like every other sitcom character, except they dress worse. And the show is passing all this off as the characters’ “growth.” Fuck you, show.
Then there’s Bernie and Howard.
Howard never seemed like a great romantic partner for anyone. He was a rapey, creepy, whiney, insecure, insufferable jerk who wasn’t bringing much to the table to begin with. He slept with his cousin, multiple prostitutes, and hookups who he treated contemptuously because they were fat/not “hot.” He stalked more than one, even using illegal technology. When involved with a woman, he showed little interest in her, personally, but instead it was all about his status… and getting laid (and he was willing to act the fool and foot the bill, even do illegal things, to make that happen). He had that whole “I’m a 3 who deserves and demands a 10” entitled nerd shit going on. So I wasn’t particularly thrilled when he and Bernie became a thing. He was still creepy and possessive and insecure. Bernadette still had to join him in his activities, not the other way around. He even dumped her because he thought he should be with a supermodel-level-attractive woman instead of settling for Bernadette, and it took multiple choruses of “She actually wants you, so don’t let her go” bullshit before he was on board with “My girlfriend, Bernadette.”
But it wasn’t all total crap. He may have whined about it a bit, but he was actually proud of her PhD, her career, her intelligence. And for whatever inexplicable reasons, Bernadette was way into him.
She wasn’t a wuss, but she also was totally into her “sexy Buzz Lightyear,” she liked all the Howardness of Howard, from his dumb jokes to his too-tight pants.
So what happened?
The show turned her into Howard’s mother. And what should’ve been a one-off joke turned into a massive creepy subtext, especially when Howard’s mother (due to the death of the actress portraying her) died.
Thus, Bernadette went from being Dr. Rostenkowski, biologist, to Howard’s new Jewish mommy who screams and bosses and complains and takes care of all of the domestic space (and who moonlights as a mad scientist for massive profits. But that’s another story). And Howard? Howard remains the perpetual man-child, playing video games and blowing money on nerd-crap, not much different than before. All they do is fight and snark. I guess it’s refreshing that Howard’s interactions with his wife don’t include all of the (retrospectively fucked up) death-wishes that colored his interactions with his mother, but still, it’s little but conflict and put-downs.
An aside: does every LTR/marriage on TV have to turn into The Bickersons?!
It gets worse. After initially expressing real fears about parenthood, Howard and Bernie have just… done what happens too often, IRL and onscreen, and had kids because that’s what married people do. Thanks to the repeated gag that their baby is the same off-the-screen loud, demanding voice as Howard’s mother, the effect is that we never see either of them interacting positively with the kid. So we never see either of them particularly happy to be parents. We never see either of them particularly happy about anything at all anymore. And if you’re watching the new season episodes, you can see that’s only gotten worse with that parenting thing.
Which brings us to the central point (or what started off to be the central point, before Sheldon Fonzie’d the works) of the show: Leonard and Penny.
Why are they even together? Because the nerdy blonde elephant in the room is:
They. Have. Nothing. In. Common.
I’ve kept careful track, and other than Indian food and pizza, the only thing they’ve done together that they seemed to both enjoy was watch Luke Cage on Netflix last season. That’s pretty much it. Even their sex life, which, after a normal-awkward start had seemed to be something pretty awesome for both of them, is now just fodder for the same old tiresome sitcom couple jokes about husbands who aren’t good in bed, nerds who “wear down” hot girls to land them, and women/wives who put out primarily for manipulative purposes.
Even before they married, their on-again/off-again dysfunction was already tediously Not Cute, with Penny settling for Leonard when there’s nothing better around or when he’s getting ready to leave for months at a time.
But how did they end up married…?
Because Penny bombed out as an actress.
She literally had no other options. She married Leonard because she didn’t know what to do, was running out of money, felt like a failure, was sad and lonely and hurting, and had no other options. He “saved” her. Which, you know, is the best basis for marrying someone.
It’s exacerbated by another one of the show’s ha ha jokes that has turned into something with disturbing subtext: Penny’s lack of a last name. The fact that she’s now “Penny Hofstadter” without any fuss or discussion is sexist as fuck. She has no identity, no links, no past.
Considering the show’s actors were progressive enough to push for the women on the show to be be paid the same as the men, how is this kind of bullshit sexism going unchallenged?
Add to it all the “Penny’s has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, tee hee” grossness, and really, without the much-criticized laugh track, Leonard and Penny’s relationship looks a lot more like a depressing drama about the world’s suckiest marriage that isn’t outright abusive. I have a fantasy of the series finale, where Penny gets an amazing movie role and chucks everything and everyone to move to, like, Hong Kong and be an action film superstar… pretty much shaking up all the nerd-girl-bullshit of the original foursome. And as she does so, she announces that she’s going by her own name, her acting-career-self’s name, Penny ActualLastName! Devastated, Leonard finally finds a non-Mommy therapist and starts dealing with his four million issues. Yay, happy ending!
Penny is also the played out case study of what happens with the “cool chick,” the “guys’ girl,” the fantasy girl who is smokin’ hot, yet can down some beers, watch the game, go fishin’, just be one of the guys. If the ideal girl is little but a mirror of guys’ fantasies about their own passtimes, what is she in actuality? What is she once she’s no longer the sought-after prize, but has been won?
Nothing. To misappropriate Gertrude Stein, there is no “there” there.
Even more, since she’s paired with Leonard, it only underscores how pathetic these misogynistic views of women are. WTG, writers.
JUST WATCH THIS. I MEAN IT.
One of the major failings of the show is that it barely acknowledges the realities of geek culture: namely, that there are MILLIONS OF WOMEN INVOLVED. Geekdom is no longer sad loser-man space. Instead, though, it has morphed into weird, hostile, toxic masculinity of its own. Not that the show needs to become an “issue show” if it doesn’t want to, but JFC, the idea that dudes like Leonard, Howard, and Raj can’t find women who share a few of their interests is insulting. The belief that all of their partners find everything they’re interested in, from Star Wars/Trek to science experiments with lasers, lame and boring is insane. You can’t tell me Bernie and Amy wouldn’t be down with shooting off rockets in the desert, or Harry Potter cosplay at a convention, or even group karaoke night?!
Instead, we get this tired “girls are bitchy princesses” shit some more. Sorry, but I’d buy that Bernie and Amy would be more into camping to watch meteor showers than catfighting about who gets to be what Disney princess.
There’s no reason to believe that they would be uninterested in, much less so contemptuous, of manga and comics, when a ton of empirical, scientific work is being done on cognitive reading and anime.
There are actually manga versions of Pride and Prejudice and The Canterbury Tales, you know.
And even Penny would be interested AS AN ACTRESS (not to mention someone who likes shooting things) in blockbuster action flicks, for fuck’s sake!
Instead of diverse women with a variety of interests and accomplishments, the women on the show have turned into a cliche “girl group” centered on complaining about their men/work, wine-drinking, and every so often, shopping.
And that’s before we even get into the racism and sexism of Raj… but that is a topic of its own.
There are so many things we can think about with how these couples are presented and why we are (meant to be) on their sides, want them to be together. Sure, the narrative’s constructions give us cues, but… what else is there? Really? What do the narratives show us about these couples? What seems to undermine that? How might it be done more effectively? Are there little tweaks that could make it more believable, or are these two just fundamentally unsuited, or bad for each other, or not
WHY ARE THEY TOGETHER? Can we answer it with real things other than the unhelpful “They love each other!”?
None of these couples seem to particularly enjoy being together or like each other as people much.
Shouldn’t that be the point of being with someone? I mean, I get tropes and tensions and cliffhangers and ratings, but… it’s really not that hard to portray two people who love each other, and treat each other like they love each other. I mean, for all its problems, at least in Outlander there’s no doubt that Claire and Jamie like, love, respect, admire, and enjoy each other!
Which reminds me… I might have a new episode to watch. Ta ta, darlings!
That means it’s your turn. Who you got as your “They’re the WORST” TV Couple?