I’ve watched The Big Bang Theory for a few years now, and while I loved the first three seasons (although not without reservations at some of the sexism and laughing-at-you-not-with-you mentality), I found that recent seasons have not been appealing to me as much.
Season four – where my enjoyment of the show started to fade – coincides with the introduction of Amy Farrah-Fowler, the eventual love interest (if you can say that) for Sheldon Cooper. While Sheldon largely gets coded as asexual, Amy has come to be portrayed in more and more of a sexual way. I’m in two minds about Amy as a character, really. I liked Amy in the beginning for her I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude towards things that are stereotypically seen as girly. Amy is a scientist and a brilliant one, but more and more her character seemed to be overshadowed by writing that tried to reinforce that underneath her science-y exterior, she was just as driven by hormones and lust like all women are perceived to be in the TBBT universe. But that is another story.
Sheldon and Amy’s relationship seems to confuse people, because it doesn’t go where we generally expect relationships to go. Relationships on television, especially sitcoms, tend to follow formulaic patterns – boy meets girl, they date, they argue, they kiss, and everything culminates in sex. Sheldon and Amy don’t follow that path, and more often than not, this fact is turned into the joke of the series – as Amy rightly and explicitly points out in the most recent episode, ‘The Love Spell Potential.’ We’re meant to sympathise with Amy, who wants progress in their relationship along socially-expected lines – in other words, she wants their relationship to involve physical intimacy of the sexual kind. We’re meant to feel her frustration that Sheldon isn’t giving her what she wants, and as such, this gives us another situation that cements Sheldon as socially inept and ‘other’ in our minds.
I would argue that Sheldon has always been coded as not interested in sex: it’s not something he needs, wants or expresses any sort of desire for. Another recent episode ‘The Cooper/Kripke Inversion’ showed a side of Sheldon that hadn’t been explored before: when Penny asks him directly whether he will ever have sex with Amy, Sheldon replies that perhaps one day, he could be ok with the idea, given enough time. It was seen by commentators as a major progression in Amy and Sheldon’s relationship, but I would question the use of that phrase. The tendency is to think of Sheldon and Amy’s relationship slowly become more normal, more socially accepted, and I think that really de-values the relationship they have.
Similarly, reactions on Tumblr and by TV commentators to ‘The Love Spell Potential’ have similar issues. Of course, shippers will be shippers – but the most recent episode actually proves that there is more that Sheldon and Amy’s relationship can show us than the fact that they’re ‘finally getting somewhere!’ Indeed, the ‘finally!’ mentality does just what Amy points out – it makes their relationship as it has stood for three years seem trivial, and now that they are approaching more sexual territory, their relationship suddenly becomes more legitimate.
However, I don’t think that was where the show was going with this. Though I definitely see how the writers of TBBT have been using Sheldon and Amy’s relationship as comic fodder in the past, the last episode shows a shift in direction, with some actual communication and negotiation between the two characters. When Amy asks Sheldon if their relationship will ever become intimate, Sheldon replies that for him, it already is extremely intimate (and more intimate than any other relationship he has on the show). To Sheldon, intimacy isn’t defined by sex, and with that explicit statement, the show starts to take their relationship seriously.
Sheldon and Amy may have very different stances on relationships and romance, and intimacy and sex, but their relationship is just as close as any other relationship depicted on the show. The real character progression in this episode isn’t about Sheldon and Amy ‘finally’ engaging in something sexual together (although how sexual it is depends on your own personal perspective) – it’s about recognising that their relationship is legitimate and that no-one can tell them how to negotiate it except themselves.
Relationships are the work of two people, and Sheldon and Amy engage with the sorts of issues that many sexual/asexual couples in real life deal with. Negotiation and communication are essential in any relationship, but especially in one where each partner’s outlook on sex and relationships is so different. Sheldon and Amy’s relationship exemplifies this: we see boundaries being set and behaviours negotiated so that both parties are comfortable with where they are going. Amy’s frustration that Sheldon isn’t more sexual is often made quite obvious, yet they are still together, perhaps because Amy realises that sex is only one part of the equation. And that equation isn’t the same for everyone. The negotiation works on both sides as well, because Sheldon has already shown that although he probably doesn’t desire something himself, he is willing to extend his own boundaries for Amy’s sake.
If one day Sheldon and Amy decide that they want to get more physically intimate in their relationship, then that will be something negotiated by them on their own terms, and not something that should be viewed as them ‘finally becoming more normal’. What makes a relationship valuable and legitimate isn’t the fact that it involves sex – but that it’s a partnership between two people, who can choose to define or negotiate their relationship in whatever way they see fit. Sheldon and Amy remind us of that. It’s ever so heartening to see their relationship being taken seriously.
(Edit afterwards: I just realised that this is my 100th blog post! Whee! I feel very accomplished. I shall make a special 101st post post. :D)