My Black Milk collection and the Big Bang Theory debacle

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So you may have heard about the Black Milk Clothing debacle, which started on Star Wars Day (May the 4th) and has finally kind of petered off, after popping up on the usual internet cesspools of Buzzfeed and Salon and Yahoo! News.

Here’s the meme that sparked the controversy:

On the right is Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist from the show The Big Bang Theory, played by actress Mayim Bialik who also has a PhD in neuroscience (and strangely enough, an anti-vaccination activist). Essentially, the message seems to be – you expect to look like a skinny model, and instead you turn out like a slightly awkward looking nerd (while inexplicably changing fandoms). Cue angry statements about how attractively intelligent  Mayim is, how much people would rather be Amy than just be prized for their looks and so on.

The aftermath was handled badly – critical comments on the Facebook page were quickly deleted by the page admins, which is ALWAYS a bad move, and they broke some of their own rules of conduct. I’m not going to comment on the handling, but instead I’m going to concentrate on the meme itself and what is says about nerds.

Being a nerd, female with a science PhD, Black Milk fan and occasional TBBT viewer, I have a lot of feels about it. TBBT, if you don’t already know, is an American sitcom with a laugh track. I am embarrassed to admit that I have watched quite a lot of it, even though I hate it for a million ideological reasons, chief of all that it perpetuates stereotypes about how you can’t be smart and socially unawkward.

It follows 4 STEM careerists – two academic physicists, an astrophysicist and an engineer – and a token “hot chick”, Penny, an aspiring actress/actual waitress. Later on in the series, two female scientists join the main cast – Bernadette, a microbiologist, and Amy Farrah Fowler, the girl pictured in the meme, a neuroscientist. Yep, the men get the hard sciences and the women get the softer sciences. This sets the tone of the lazy stereotypes that the show revolves around.

Naturally, the hot chick is street smart and socially competent, while the STEMmers are every stereotype of socially awkward smart people, which means the audience gets to laugh at them. They fall all over her, because popularity is what every nerd secretly aspires to, unless they’re some form of autistic (Sheldon is the only one who is even mildly standoffish towards Penny). Leonard has lactose intolerance, Sheldon is somewhere far along the ASD spectrum, Howard is an offputting sleaze bag and Raj literally cannot say a word to a woman (unless drunk). Bernadette is the closest to normal (she’s short though – cue all the short jokes!) Amy is supposedly intelligent as all get-out, but incredulously, openly idolises Penny like a pathetic slathering lapdog, for no other reason than the fact she’s pretty and popular and gets the guys. Amy and Penny are clumsily written two-dimensional opposites – Amy spent her life being smart and now can’t get laid, while Penny spent her life getting laid and now can’t be smart (did I mention that the show is pretty darn sexist too?). In the universe of TBBT, nerds are the pathetic circus show. Your life sucks? Hey, at least you’re not a nerd. The only non-pathetic nerds on the show are Bernadette (who is becoming increasingly a shrill housewife stereotype, and is still short) and David Underhill, a studly and intelligent physicist who rides a motorbike and appears for a grand total of, um, one episode. It’s telling that Penny can’t believe he can possibly be a physicist because he’s not pathetic, and clearly the writers couldn’t either, because that was the end of that sort of dabbling.

Now, there were probably a few more socially awkward scientists than in most other professions – but the whole of The Big Bang Theory reeks of jocks laughing at nerds. It’s particularly disappointing because it’s by far the most prominent portrayal of STEM nerds on television, with 7 seasons so far, which means that its relentless perpetuation of irritating stereotypes is probably going to resonate for decades.

As for Black Milk? By posting the meme, Black Milk didn’t say anything about nerds that Mayim hadn’t already said by signing up to Big Bang Theory and agreeing to appear in over 60 episodes (and counting). So I can’t get offended on her behalf, I won’t be selling all my Black Milk clothes and I will continue buying from them in the future.

My Black Milk collection isn’t huge – I’ve been trying my best to keep it to clothes I’ll wear often since they’re pretty pricey (thank god for eBay!), and unfortunately Black Milk generally doesn’t fit the business casual dress code at my work.

Bodycon dresses – Kawaii Green, Glass Lorikeet, Great Wave 2.0

I generally like this cut but the necklines have a really annoying habit of riding down to show the tops of my bra cups, and the bottom hem has a habit of riding up until it reaches my butt crease. I have to readjust endlessly when I wear these, but the patterns are spectacular!

Leggings – Matte Black Pocket, Purple Circuit, Wet Look Black, Blue Jellyfish

I have really muscular legs, so I’m careful about the patterns I choose. I go for mostly dark patterns, which keeps my spending in check! The matte pocket leggings are one of my best BM purchases – they’re affordable ($45) and really handy for wearing under things like dresses and long tops. They’re even work friendly! The wet look black leggings are excellent too, since my wardrobe consists of lots of one-colour basics (I’m wearing something from Uniqlo most days). The shiny black makes it look like I’m put in some effort.

I also own the Matte Black Skater Dress, which is probably my best BM purchase, hands down. It’s super comfortable, floaty, fits perfectly without shifting in weird places, and work safe. I’m currently eyeing off the Koi print scoop skater dress that’s being released tomorrow!

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18 thoughts on “My Black Milk collection and the Big Bang Theory debacle”

  1. Wow, I found this post extremely interesting, it’s always intriguing to hear opinions from another perspective. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the show, I find it funny and very enjoyable to watch, but you have pointed out extremely good reasons that the show is not the best representation. I always sort of knew that, but never really took it into consideration. I guess as it’s a comedy, fiction, I take it lightly and don’t really think about how badly it might be portraying the real life. It’s interesting to think about! I’m a big fan of Black Milk too, and I do remember seeing the meme and not giving it a second glance. I can see why people would be in uproar but personally I don’t really mind – they were just trying to make a joke!

    Tasha // shiwashiful.

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    • I think it does mainly irk me because I have personal experience in the sciences, just like how doctors cringe during medical dramas, lawyers cringe during legal dramas (murderers cringe during murder dramas?).

      Reply
    • Interesting blog post! I can understand a lot of the reasons that people get upset about The Big Bang Theory, but honestly, I find it funny and yeah it’s not perfect but I think the main issue is there should be more shows about scientists so people don’t have only one cultural reference for them!

      Reply
  2. My first thought is, it’s a Chuck Lorre show. His shows are all about stereotypes and getting the easy laugh. That’s all you can expect because that’s all you’ll ever get from him. Second, I feel like the show is more about them being awkward because of their geekiness related to comic books/sci-fi/etc. (and how that translates in their social skills), and not only because they’re smart scientists. The two are not mutually exclusive. I have a number of scientists in my family. Some are geeky, some are not.

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    • Chuck Lorre is a bit of a douchecanoe. My main issue is that it only represents geeky/nerdy/socially awkward people vs non-geeky/non-nerdy/non-awkward, and they never run into anyone who is only two of the above, or only one of the above, except for 2 characters, one of whom appears for one episode only. Surely they could show more than one geeky nerd who’s not socially awkward in their 7 seasons?

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      • What about Leonard’s doctor girlfriend who was in several episodes? She was hot and smart! Also Raj’s sister. She’s hot and smart and was in more than a few episodes. Sheldon’s assistant was also hot and smart. None of them were socially awkward either.

        Remember, it’s a sitcom not a documentary.

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        • So like… <5% representation, still.

          I don't think being a sitcom excuses it from being criticised for its shitty character development. There are plenty of sitcoms with decent character development that don't rely so strongly on inaccurate stereotypes (30 Rock, the first few seasons of Community, etc.).

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  3. I loathe TBBT with the hatred of a thousand suns. It’s not funny and it relies too heavily on harmful stereotypes. I just cannot get behind a show that is that sexist, let alone that perpetuates the ‘haha if you’re a nerd / smart you’re clearly socially inept’.

    I wasn’t offended by the meme, but the way Black Milk handled the controversy was shocking – but generally I know that the company is pretty lacking in customer service skills. There are some horror stories out there from customers being told to not shop there when they’ve complained about the quality of a garment they’ve bought. Yet, I still buy from them, so I don’t know what that says about me?

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    • I think their problem is more really inconsistent customer service – as well as those horror stories, I’ve also heard amazing stories where they’ve hunted down Tim Tams to send to overseas girls, drawn incredibly elaborate artworks on request, held fitting evenings and adjusted designs based on feedback… They just really need to get it all standardised.

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  4. I love Big Bang Theory – but not because I hate nerds or love a stereotype, but because it’s easy television and doesn’t take much to understand the jokes so it’s something I would happily watch before bed when i’m tired and just want to relax. But interesting pov for sure!

    P.s I am definitely past my love for Black Milk and have (4 or 5) leggings I want to get rid of – so if you are interested, just email me 😉

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    • That’s why I watch it too – but sometimes the amount of irritation I feel negates the pro of easy viewing!

      I can’t justify more leggings – I’m all about the dresses now! I just hate having to plan an outfit that hides my bum because invisible underwear = urgh.

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  5. I don’t know anything about black milk or the meme stuff but you do make good points about it all. In saying that, I take offence to you calling the other sciences “soft”. You have to be very smart to do neuroscience and microbiology. I’ve had to do a lot of chemistry in my zoology/conservation subjects plus a lot of other stuff that any other science doesn’t deal with. I think if you’re going to write a piece like this that you shouldn’t include judgements about other people and scientists not doing what you are. I see all sciences as just as important as each other.

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    • I don’t think the hard/soft distinction is actually a judgement of value to society (in which case, it’s pretty obvious that biology is more important, since there’s no point in, say, astrophysics if everyone is dying of contagious diseases) or degree of difficulty. From my experience, it’s more of a description of the sorts of data you deal with and the nature of the subject matter – the physical sciences use very exact mathematics, as as you get further from abstraction, you start to deal with more confounding factors and need to use statistical methods with things like degrees of error (i.e. fuzzy softness). The hardness isn’t “hard” as in difficulty, but “hard” in terms of the concreteness of results and “truth” of laws, which is all to do with subject matter – of course your results are going to be more reproducible if you’re dealing with the movement of perfectly round objects, rather than, say, the number of hairs on people’s scalps.

      I’m not sure there’s a better shorthand way of describing the spectrum, apart from purity (used by XKCD, and is more black and white in terms of value judgements) or level of abstraction (which isn’t a commonly used scale since level of abstraction exists within all disciplines). The point is, the stereotype is that women aren’t as suited to mathematical rigour, and TBBT salivates all over it, though tbh biology isn’t actually that “soft” in the scheme of things since it doesn’t invoke things like unfalsifiable hypotheses (*cough evolutionary psychology cough*).

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    • Definitely agree with you here, Michelle. I’m majoring in zoology and I can see exactly the distinction you’re talking about. I think it’s definitely a fair way of describing things, especially when talking to a non-exclusively science audience who can see it in terms of the types of results we get (yes/no theories versus statistical likelihoods). Personally, I like hard/soft science better than the XKCD purity spectrum, because I felt like the latter subconsciously assigns value on how far up or down the ladder a science appears rather than just contrasting two different approaches.

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  6. Big Bang Theory and I have a love hate relationship, it can be pretty entertaining for just some light-hearted comedy, and as a geeky Phys/Chem student I do enjoy some of their nerdier moments, but I don’t like how they treat the women in the show. Most notably one episode where the girls are hating on the boys’ love of comic books, like women can’t enjoy comic books for some reason, it was just super annoying.
    Also, I can’t take Mayim Bialik seriously anymore after I found out she’s a scientist who doesn’t believe in vaccination.

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  7. Your description of Big Bang Theory is funny and totally true! Haha, as a girl who studies science and well, probably a big nerd, I sort of feel like it’s a show written by people who are just totally making fun of us, and the stereotypes are pretty lame and tired. No one I know with a physics degree is an autistic manchild obsessed with comic books, for instance. The sexist stereotypes and nerd girl portrayals also suck.
    One thing I want to point out about your post, though, biology isn’t a soft science. Perhaps people make this mistake because biology is less fundamental than physics and chemistry (to anyone who might misunderstand, I don’t mean fundamental as in simple, I mean it as in, it’s what an understanding of everything in the world living or non-living is based upon). But because of that, a biologist needs a pretty solid understanding of chemistry (I’m in first year biology and I plan to study animal science, and I have to take chemistry and calculus). Soft sciences are sciences other than the natural (physical) sciences.
    That said, I get what you were trying to say about the stereotype that physics/engineering is a male science and biology is for women. It’s funny because biology (especially animal science that I’m interested in) often does not conform to stereotypes of femininity. Sometimes I inadvertantly explain something to my male physics major friend, in a way that he finds gross and disturbing and he tells me to stop talking. Hahaha. I’m a girly girl, but I’m fascinated by the inner workings of animals/humans and blood and guts is cool to me rather than gross.
    By the way, your blog is one of my very favorite things on the internet! I think I’ve read almost the entire thing. I’m so floored by what an amazing job you do of making the chemistry of skincare easy to understand, and I’ve learned so many things. I also have so much respect for the rigorous work you’ve put into researching your topics. Also, your post on “Skincare Products I Hate and do not Recommend” made me laugh so hard, I loved it.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much! It’s so nice to hear from women doing science who appreciate my blog 🙂

      Re: hard vs soft, I think it’s a massively flawed classification – I personally find abstract maths much easier than statistics, and social sciences are all about statistics, plus interpretation of the data is much harder than dealing with perfectly smooth spheres moving around. But if I’ve interpreted it correctly there isn’t an official definition of hard vs soft, and most definitions consider it a continuum, with biology placed in “hard” or “soft” pretty arbitrarily.

      Reply

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