Children and college Lit students love this next bit.*
Accordion-fold a piece of paper. Pinch it in the middle to make a bow shape. Then move the bow from the your head (using a high-pitched, Penelope Pittstop drawl) to your upper lip (adopting a menacing, Snidely Whiplash hiss) and finally to your throat (booming out a heroic, Dudley Do-right baritone), as indicated:
Bow-to-Lip: You must pay the rent!
Bow-to-Hair: Ah cain't pay the rent!
Bow-to-Lip: You MUST pay the rent!
Bow-to-Hair: Ah CAIN'T pay the rent!
Bow-to-Throat: I'LL pay the rent!
Bow-to-Hair: Mah hero!
Bow-to-Lip: Curses! Foiled again!
Tah-dum! This insta-melodrama illustrates the simplified character types of damsels, villains, and heroes. Ah, heroes!
Heroes like... Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory?!
Over the last year, I've become a serious fan of TBBT in general and Jim Parsons' Sheldon Cooper in specific. And--yes--I'm one of those fans who hopes for an eventual Sheldon/Penny romance. This has led to fascinating discussions, which I love--and to declarations of stunned horror and people questioning my sanity, which... not so much.
The time has come take a stand for my sanity and that of my fellow 'shippers, and counter a few of the more pernicious naysayers. Not about Sheldon/Penny. Not yet. But about the stronger foundation of disbelief I've hit: the idea of Sheldon/anybody.
I may not convince you. But at least I can validate that we have a point. So here goes:
CLAIM: If any of the guys on The Big Bang Theory fits the classic romantic hero mold (if, perhaps accidentally), it's Sheldon.
Let us proceed....
Nay-Sayers: But he's such a geek and he looks like a praying mantis! Who would want him?
Er... first off? The show's called The Big Bang Theory. All four male protagonists are geeks. Fellow physicist, Kripke, lisps in "The Killer Robot Instability": "We're all pathetic and creepy and can't get girls. That's why we fight robots."
But "get girls" they do.
Raj has hooked up at least twice ("The Middle Earth Paradigm" and "The Hofstadter Isotope"). Howard had a brief fling with Penny's cousin's ex-fiancee, Christy ("The Dumpling Paradox") and since early in Season 3 ("The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary") has maintained a surprisingly healthy relationship*** with Penny's co-worker, Bernadette. Leonard himself has been sleeping with Penny all season, and before that he had relationships with Leslie Winkle (Sarah Gilbert) and Dr. Stephanie (Sara Rue).
Geeks can't get girls? Hardly! And, as fanfic writer CHEZZLES.ZE.GREAT recently put it, if TBBT's four nerds were the Beatles, Sheldon would be Paul McCartney (for you young 'uns, Paul had the reputation of being, just as this Beatles-themed CBS ad to launch TBBT calls Sheldon, the "cute one").
Sheldon's attracted more pretty girls than any of them. Penny flirted with him in the pilot, responding to Sheldon's now classic "that's where I sit" with a little pat on the cushion, "Sit next to me!" Grad students Ramona and Kathy already knew his home address when setting up dinner dates in "The Cooper-Nowitzki Theorem." Martha came to his bedroom door in "The Psychic Vortex." He stole Raj's date, Lalita Gupta, without even realizing it in "The Grasshopper Experiment." Leonard's mom drunkenly kissed Sheldon in "The Maternal Congruence." Sheldon even easily and accidentally picked up a handsome gay man at Cal-Tech while trying to find Penny a date, in "The Barbarian Sublimation!" True, Sheldon has never been receptive, but more on that momentarily.
My point? He can certainly attract women, and if Howard Wolowitz can keep someone as sweet as Bernadette, surely Sheldon--if he wished--could make a go of it as well.
Second off--Jim Parsons generally plays Sheldon as stiff and awkward, with a hasn't-caught-up-to-his-growth-spurt discomfort, part Pee-wee Herman and part C-3PO. The wardrobe, haircut, and squeaky voice do him no favors either--as a romantic hero. For a comic hero, they work fine! TBBT is, above all, a comedy. As such it relies on broad physical humor. So the show cast Parsons against four actors who measure just over five and a half feet, ostracizing Sheldon's six-foot-two frame through contrast (which leads to far too many annoying shots of Sheldon's chest and chin, the rest of him cut off to better center someone else in the frame).
But as a romantic hero, Sheldon cleans up--or should I say, scruffs up--quite nicely as well (see: "The Einstein Approximation"). The fangirls who've noticed his forearms and jaw line aren't imagining that. In some scenes where he owns his height, like during his frequent glare-offs with Penny, he's downright sexy. Clark Gable? Maybe not. But he's not that far from Cary Grant (especially in Bringing Up Baby), and at times he particularly resembles a young Jimmy Stewart.
What are those three adjectives that women use to describe a romantic hero? Tall, dark, and handsome?
Especially in the world of The Big Bang Theory: Dr. Sheldon Cooper, for the win.
Nay-Sayers: But Sheldon is assexual. Chuck Lorre said so!
Actually, although co-executive producer Chuck Lorre claims no plans to explore Sheldon's sexuality, he's deliberately avoided labels: "If touching other human beings of any gender is irrelevant to him, why label the thing? Why can't there be a third gender--male, female, and Sheldon?" (Ausiello)
Lorre's also noted that Sheldon "has chosen not to play in the relationship game... heterosexual, homesexual, bisexual, whatever" and is interested only in science. And George Lucas. (eonline)
I put before you that ONE: These comments concern sex, not romance (TBBT tends to confuse those. True, they tend to go together, but for romantics, sequence can be everything). But to focus on the sex: nobody's ruled out all possibility, only the likelihood.
And TWO: Scroll up and check out my claim again, folks.
I'm not saying Sheldon will find love (though, as Parsons has noted, "People want to see him cared for"). I'm not predicting he'll get busy with anyone, even Penny, the only girl not related to him whom he ever seems to touch, if awkwardly.
My claim? That Sheldon fits the classic hero mold.
Let's assume, via Occam's Razor, that Sheldon's quite possibly heterosexual (in chemistry, if not behavior). He's just too busy, too disinterested, to single-minded in science to pursue that. Got it. It flies in the face of the number of Nobel Prize-winning physicist who are married, but still. Let's say Sheldon is Just Not Interested.
Well guess what? Classic heroes often aren't looking for love. Oh sure, Prince Charming goes door to door with that glass slipper until he finds Cinderella. But in contrast, the Beast just wants to be left alone and only ends up with Beauty because of her trespassing father.
Does Beast really interest you less than Prince Charming? Seriously?
The classic hero doesn't regularly date. He's above romance, like Darcy in Pride & Prejudice or estranged from it, like The Scarlet Pimpernel. He's too busy protecting the settlers, or running his bar in Morocco, or trying to score that next big business deal, or planning a life of adventure. That's exactly when, to paraphrase the standard Noir: She walks in. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into his. He doesn't want any plastics, and he doesn't want any ground floors, and he doesn't want to get married -- ever -- to anyone!
Which apparently sends up a flare directing the Fates to send the exact right dame in his direction.**** And somehow, he changes.
Not because he's into girls. Or guys. Or both. Or neither.
Because he's into that one person, and only that one person, and without her he'll gladly go back to being alone, because nobody else could ever measure up.
That, my friends, is a classic, swoon-worthy romantic hero.
Also? Sheldon is the Alpha.
I have no idea if the creators/writers of TBBT ever consciously thought this one through. But they're aware of the concept. See: "The White Asparagus Triangulation."
Sheldon, hoping to preserve Leonard's relationship with Dr. Stephanie, pretends he needs Leonard's help in the kitchen. "When I fail to open this jar and you succeed it will establish you as the alpha male. You see, when a female witnesses an exhibition of physical domination she produces the hormone oxytocin... which lay people naively interpret as falling in love." And then he says, "Go ahead, it's pre-loosened."
Leonard still can't open the jar, breaks it, cuts his hand on the glass, and needs stitches. Later, Sheldon notes, "Just for the record, my efforts to establish you as the alpha male were not aided by you bursting into tears."
So... Sheldon's efforts aside, Leonard is not the Alpha. Sheldon pre-loosened the lid (though apparently not enough). And despite Sheldon noting in "The Big Bran Hypothesis" that "we don't have a dolly, or lifting belts, or any measurable upper body strength," he may underestimate himself. When Leonard finds himself trapped beneath the furniture they mean to carry up the stairs ("I don't have this, I don't have this!"), Sheldon's the one who pulls it off him. Sheldon does, in fact, own a lifting belt ("The Dead Hooker Juxtaposition").
"The Peanut Reaction" shows Sheldon and Raj "Trestling" which, as Howard explains, "combines the physical strength of arm wrestling with the mental agility of Tetris into the ultimate sport." Sheldon notes that they might as well stop: "You're beating me in Tetris, but you've got the upper body strength of a Keebler Elf." Raj, insulted, doubles his arm-wrestling efforts, then tries it two handed--and can't budge Sheldon's hand.
Sheldon may not be actively strong. But as far as the population of the show goes, he's Hercules.
As seen in "The Cornhusker Vortex," Sheldon knows football ("I grew up in Texas. Football is ubiquitous in Texas"). If he speaks the truth (and does Sheldon lie?) he can also "shoot close enough to a raccoon that it craps itself." Sheldon's the smartest. Sheldon's the proudest of himself. Sheldon tells the others what to do. And most of the time?
They let him.
Oh, they whine about it. They avoid like crazy, and even stoop to sabotage (as in "The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation"). But when the other three want to take a plane to a conference, and Sheldon wants to ride the train, the train wins. In "The Bat Jar Conjecture," when Sheldon wants to name their team in the Physics Bowl the Army Ants, the others again buckle under. They only kick him off the team--which they'd begged him to join despite his initial disdain for the "tawdry competition"--after having a secret meeting, as if the only way they can stand up to him is to avoid him completely.
Penny, in fact, is the only regular who has consistently stood up to Sheldon. And as she's not male, that doesn't threaten his position as alpha at all.
Why is this important, beyond the role of oxytocin?
The term "Alpha Heroes" for romance heroes from Heathcliff to Darcy to Rhett Butler has been common parlance since before 1992's definitive Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance.
Certainly since that study, romance writers and readers have been defining the heroes as Alphas (the pack leaders), Betas (the nice guys), and even lesser known variants such as Gammas (morally ambiguous) and Warrior Poets (tough on the outside, sweet on the inside). The most common romance hero remains the Alpha. He's successful, prideful, competent... and he tells the other guys what to do.
Finally? Sheldon is a good guy. A white hat. A hero.
Yes, Sheldon's words often condescend, no matter whom he's addressing. Penny. Leonard. His boss. His sister. His mother, whom he presumably loves. But why assume malice, especially when he's shown no ability to read people and seems an equal-opportunity know-it-all? Nobody else (with the likely exception of young Dennis Kim in "The Jerusalem Duality") is as intelligent as Sheldon.
True, he would do well to accept his mother's teaching: "It's okay to be smarter than everybody but you can't go around pointing it out.... People don't like it!" ("The Luminous Fish Effect"). But his intelligence is his identity, and knowledge is his religion. So when he has information to offer, or hears someone misstate a fact, Sheldon cannot stop himself from sharing or correcting that data. As he notes in "The Euclid Alternative" about the DMV: "How else are they going to learn?"
Can we be certain he isn't (in his mind) helping?
Sheldon has in fact proven himself the most ethical of his friends. He has difficulty lying ("The Loobenfeld Decay") and keeping a secret ("The Bad Fish Paradigm"), going so far as to move out rather than betray Penny's trust. When Leonard taunts Penny's ex-boyfriend, Kurt, in "The Middle Earth Paradigm," Sheldon stands by him. Later, despite his lack of social skills, Sheldon brings Leonard tea: "When people are upset, the cultural convention is to bring them hot beverages. There there."
When Howard tries to pick up Summer Glau, in "The Terminator Decoupling," it's Sheldon who reminds him that he's in "some sort of socially intimate pairing with Leslie Winkle." (Howard's counter argument? "That's Summer Glau.") When Raj admits to having spent half a year at work just playing on the Internet, in "The Pirate Solution," Sheldon notes, "And you've continued to take the university's money under false pretences? Highly unethical for an astrophysicist... although practically mandatory for a pirate."
He also creates a job to keep Raj from being deported.
And then there's Penny.
Sheldon invites Penny in when she locks herself out of her apartment, in "The Barbarian Sublimation." He brings her to the hospital--even drives!--when she dislocates her shoulder in "The Adhesive Duck Deficiency." Sheldon's not just generous with his knowledge and opinions, but with his time ("The Work Song Nanocluster") and his money ("The Financial Permeability") As Leonard points out, "Sheldon really doesn't care when he gets the money back. It's actually one of the few idiosyncrasies that doesn't make you want to, you know, kill him."
Oh, and that money?
It was to help Penny pay her rent.
So, did the creators of TBBT deliberately set out to make Sheldon fit the role of classic romance hero? I would love to think so. I long for them to have planned some long arc with an endgame that, as the series winds toward its inevitable conclusion seasons from now, will pay off for its more sentimental fans.
But Chuck Lorre himself has noted: "We have no idea where we're going.... We really are learning as we go, and we make decisions based on the best choices and information we have at any given moment."
So all I can argue for now is that, the next time someone implies the very idea of Sheldon Cooper as a romance hero flies in the face of sanity?
They may need to revisit their understanding of the word "insanity."
*taught to me by my New England cousins (thanks, Colleen, Tracy, & Jennifer!)
** 'shippers is short for "relationshippers" -- see Wikipedia if I've confused you.
*** Healthy for Howard Wolowitz... and for sitcom world.
**** As far as I'm concerned, a hero's One True Love could as easily be another guy, but I'm defaulting to the Noir and fairy tale standard. Until we get a gender-neutral third-person pronoun, please forgive me.
ALSO: Huge thanks to:
- "Big Bang Theory Transcripts" for speeding up my cross-referencing of episodes!
- jessicajason on LiveJournal for her suggestions, in the comments (especially the "Geniusmania" promo)
- SpaceAnJL for giving me extra incentive to muse on Sheldon's more manly possibilities in her excellent fanfic, "The Paladin Protocol."