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TBBT: A Romantic Argument Against Leonard & Penny


Television Without Pity posted a "10 Worst Romantic Relationships on TV" list, using Leonard and Penny from The Big Bang Theory as their front-page shot.

The accompanying discussion itself turned fairly pitiless, both sides tossing about terms like "are you kidding?" "seek help," "sucks!" and, about Leonard's coolness factor, "in what universe?" (oh, wait--that one was mine. In my marginal defense, it's a TBBT quote). The more I think/read on it, the more I've got to say, but that shouldn't be TWOP's problem, so: I'm takin' it to my blog.

Speaking as just a fan? I HATE THEM TOGETHER.

But there's no reason anyone should find that kind of statement persuasive.

Speaking as a college instructor, romance novelist/scholar, and television enthusiast/essayist?

The Leonard/Penny relationship lacks essential components to satisfy many (by no means all) of its female viewers, and thus can be seen as flawed.

Before we go on, Big Qualifier: For the purpose of this piece, I'm avoiding all "Penny should be with Sheldon" claims. For one thing, I'd rather not degenerate into a rowdy, competitive soccer fan atmosphere, mentally or verbally (today). For another, co-creator/executive producer Chuck Lorre has stated Sheldon's unlikely to ever discover romance, making such an argument hypothetical at best.

Finally and most importantly: The presence or removal of a Sheldon obstacle doesn't affect the heart of Penny and Leonard's relationship. In the end, it's all subjective. But while many viewers clearly enjoy the current pairing (Lenny? Peonard?) a great many do not. So let's look at why....

The Argument That Isn't Mine - Foils Need Something to Reflect

The best argument against Leonard/Penny that I've come across comes from Lord Seth on in the Television Without Pity forums:

"The problem with Leonard/Penny is that they're both by far the most normal of the main characters. Sheldon is Sheldon, Howard is socially awkward, and Raj can't talk to women. So Leonard or Penny usually play the comic foils to those three. The problem is that while a comic foil can have hilarious interactions with a quirky character, two comic foils together just don't work that well for comedy." (original post)

So smart. I do enjoy smart. And it's an argument that the writers of TBBT might find especially compelling since, at its heart, the show is a sitcom. Funny is its raison d'etre. The purpose of a straight man is to respond to/highlight the wackiness around them. Neither Penny nor Leonard are crazy. In order to show contrast, the show must emphasize unpalatable traits: Make Penny seem more stupid and Leonard more judgmental ("The Psychic Vortex"). Or, worse, dwell on how little they fit in each other's worlds. Penny complaining that she was embarrassed to be seen leaving the roller rink with Leonard, in "The Einstein Approximation?" Not romantic, and "funny" only to people who think pointing at someone else and mocking their (perceived) shortcomings is funny.

You've heard the generalized but largely true argument that women are less likely to enjoy The Three Stooges than men are? A majority of us react similarly to mocking humor. This is a lesson TBBT learned with their first, failed pilot for the show. The original neighbor, called Katie, was a "street-hardened, tough-as-nails" woman but, as co-creator/executive producer Bill Prady noted in Variety, "What we didn’t anticipate, though, is how protective the audience would feel about our guys. Early screenings of that version of the pilot led audiences to beg that the 'mean lady' would stay away from the 'sweet guys.'"

Which brings us to....

The Emotional Argument - Leonard's Turning Mean

"I'm a perfectly nice guy," insists Leonard in "The Fuzzy Boots Corollary." He asks "What about me?" after Penny says, "Just once, I would like to go out with someone who is nice, and honest, and who actually cares about me" ("The Tangerine Factor"). But now that he's got his relationship with Penny, Leonard's niceness quotient has taken a nosedive.

He's jealous (see "The Guitarist Amplification" and, for what its worth, all the time before they even dated, starting with "The Fuzzy Boots Corollary"). He aggressively dismisses Penny's beliefs ("The Psychic Vortex"). In "The Large Hadron Collision," when Leonard joins a conversation in progress, he ask the guys to clarify, "Who's miserable and alone?" Raj answers, "Me." Leonard's reply? He grins. "I used to be like that. Then I got a girlfriend."

Consider his dismissal of Sheldon's heartbreak over the guys' faking his initial findings in the 3rd Season opener, "The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation." Leonard's deception reduced his roommate to a fetal position, sobs, then to quitting his job in shame. Leonard's consistent reaction--when Penny insists on postponing homecoming sex to make sure their friend was all right--is to moan, "I can't catch a break!"

Ask any woman: If her apartment is broken into, would she go to spend that night with her boyfriend and give no thought to leaving her roommate behind, alone at the scene of the crime? But that's what Leonard does in "The Bozeman Reaction." Even when socially awkward Sheldon comes to them and admits, "It's scary over there," Leonard's reaction is a quip: "It's getting scary here, too."

And when Sheldon then decides to leave the state, Leonard shows no more distress than to call it "A bit of an overreaction," then to joke that Sheldon's coworkers are "really excited" about Sheldon merely telecommuting, and that he'll forward Sheldon's mail to the "Bozeman Loony Bin." Howard tries to talk Sheldon out of leaving. Penny notes that she'll miss him. But nothing from his roommate and onetime best friend, Leonard.

Leonard's hurtful tendencies come and go, thank goodness. He shows real concern for Sheldon in "The Einstein Approximation" and for Raj in "The Pirate Solution." But for every example of Nice!Leonard, we've gotten a Heartless!Leonard. And many in the audience still feel protective about "our guys."

Penny, thank goodness, has stayed the same Penny she was--whoever that was. Which moves us to...

The Feminist Argument - Objectifying Penny 

For what it's worth, Penny may also be objectifying Leonard as simply the opposite of her usual dates: "Am I just an idiot who picks giant losers [or do I] pick good guys, but turn them into losers?" ("The Tangerine Factor").

But is his an active or a passive niceness? He hasn't cheated, blogged about their sex lives, or bullied people smaller than him. But what is he  doing that defines him as a nice guy in his own right?

I'm not saying he can't be one--but it would certainly help for us to see more of it.

Instead, more often than this viewer finds comfortable, we've seen Leonard objectifying Penny in return. He seems more drawn to her position as a trophy than he is drawn to her as uniquely Penny.

Leonard never bothered with their previous neighbor (Louie/Louise, the cross-dressing cop with a skin condition). But as soon as he lays eyes on Penny, Leonard is smitten. At that point, he knows nothing about her except that she's blond, tanned, has a pretty smile--and, he thinks, better than him. "She's out of my league," he mourns in the pilot, despite Penny having proved herself to be perfectly friendly/ approachable to all four geeks and of no better than average intelligence. In "The Fuzzy Boots Corollary" he momentarily decides to "go after someone my own speed," as in, not her. In "The Dumpling Paradox," when Penny turns down Leonard's offer to enter Halo tournaments with him by saying "Or we could just have a life," Leonard answers, "I guess for you, that's an option." In "The Cornhusker Vortex," he automatically assumes Penny doesn't invite him to watch football because he embarrasses her. "What else could it be?" He consistently sees Penny as better than him and his friends, usually with an edge of resentment, but why?

Because she's cute.

It's worth noting that he has the same initial reaction to another sexy new neighbor--deliberately paralleled from the pilot for its exactness—as he did to Penny, in "The Dead Hooker Juxtaposition." Does he not love Penny's kind heart, her sense of humor, or her folksy charm as well? If so, he's not talking much about it--but he talks about her looks. In the pilot he sums up his opinion of their separate strengths by noting that "Our children will be smart AND beautiful." nce in a relationship, he argues with an imaginary Penny by mewling, as her, "I'm pretty and can do whatever I want."

This season his objectification has progressed. "Then I got a girlfriend," he says--not, "Then I found Penny." In "The Psychic Vortex" he crows: "Look at us! Getting ready for a double date with actual women who publicly acknowledge they're our girlfriends!" In "The Large Hadron Collision," Leonard notes that he's been wanting to spend Valentine's Day with a girl since he was six, which implies that any girl, not necessarily Penny, might have fit the bill.

And then there's....

The Romantic Argument - Sex isn't Love 

Yes. Of course a guy in his late twenties wants a love life. But a focus on sex above all else moves us into early-series-Howard creepy.

Leonard focuses largely on sex, with and without Penny.

In the pilot he protests Sheldon's suspicions of such ("not to say that if a carnal relationship were to develop that I wouldn't participate.") But by twenty minutes in, he confesses the truth: "You were right about my motives. I was hoping to establish a relationship with Penny that might have someday led to sex." As if sex, not the relationship, is the end game.

In "The Cornhusker Vortex," Sheldon asks flat out if Leonard is trying to learn football "to ensure your continuing mating privileges with her?" At first Leonard waffles that "I wouldn't put it that way," then admits, "Yeah, okay, like you said" (thank you, t0ra chan, for your reminder in the comments!) M
ore recently, in this season's "Psychic Vortex," Leonard complains to Howard that "In order to keep having a sexual relationship with Penny I have to give up everything I believe in?" A sexual relationship. No worries about her feelings, her respect, or her good will. He could lose the sex.

Wow. How... romantic?

Leonard was happy for sex with Leslie Winkle, too, and with Dr. Stephanie Barnett (despite his protest of going too fast—by her moving in, mind you, not by her sleeping with him within hours of them meeting). How, other than in the endurance of the relationship, is sex with Penny any different to him?

I wonder how many guys think Penny/Leonard are a great combination, and how many women cringe over it (comments welcome!) The show is, after all, created, produced, and written mainly by men, with a general 4-to-1 ratio of male-to-female protagonists. If guys are their main audience, then maybe they are, indeed, just skillfully satisfying a guy fantasy.

That doesn't make it any more romantic to the average female. Real romance is being half of a whole: "You complete me." Real romance is acceptance: "I like you very much. Just as you are." Real romance is that spark: "It was like... magic." Real romance is paradoxical: "But mostly I hate the way I don't hate you." And real romance, at its ideal, is forever: "I came across time for you Sarah. I love you; I always have."

Sure, sex has its place in the enjoyment and expression of romantic love. Sometimes a really wild, deliciously obsessive place. And it works well as a metaphor for feelings, in TV shows. But for sex to be the end game? That's not romance. That's erotica.

In Conclusion

This may sounds like I hate The Big Bang Theory now that Leonard and Penny have hooked up. Au contraire! If I hated it, I simply would not watch it. Were it not for the imaginations, hard work, and experience of the show's brilliant creators, writers, and actors (including Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco), I would never have gotten so caught up in the lives of these fictitious characters that I would spend this amount of time and effort (and, I'll admit, ego) arguing about them.

Despite my concerns about the Leonard/Penny pairing, The Big Bang Theory is obviously doing far more right than it is doing wrong. But if those of us who fear it's less than its best don't share our opinions and insights?

That, I think, would be a real pity.

(So if you've stumbled across this, please chime in)