Penny: You're such a crybaby.The more I thought about that exchange -- and specifically why it was a joke -- the more intriguing it became to me, and the more I remembered why I find BBT so frustrating as something of a nerd myself.
Leonard: I'm not a crybaby.
Penny: Toy Story 3?
Leonard: The toys were holding hands inside a furnace!
The joke here is that Penny (and the audience, judging by the laugh track) think that it's ridiculous of Leonard to form an emotional attachment to a fictional character. Ridiculous and laughable and possibly a little childish. Even if the laughs come out of "Oh, haha, I did that too," they're still laughing because it's ridiculous.
I have a couple mostly-unrelated thoughts on this.
1. Isn't that what art is supposed to do? Isn't one of the purposes of art, whether it's "high art" like theater and paintings or "low art" like TV and graphic novels, to make a connection with its viewers? Certainly not all art requires that, but it's hard to look at something like opera and claim that it's not supposed to be emotional.
Great movies, like so much great art, can be at their most powerful when they make us feel things. They can make us sad, happy, angry, afraid. They can make us connect with something we hadn't connected with before -- a character, an idea, a way of life -- and change how we think and feel about them.
This is not necessarily because of the weakness of the viewer, but often because of the strength of the art. Toy Story 3 is actually a terrible example for Penny to choose for mocking Leonard, because that movie put a lot of art into its process, slowly building its characters over three movies and then filming one of the most beautiful, non-Disney-like possible death sequences of all time. The music, the visuals, the culmination of these characters' lives all meld together into a really artful scene that made a whole lot of people tear up in theaters.
Toy Story 3 is a success. Leonard is a successful "art receiver." Leonard got what Toy Story 3 was trying to do. Are there cases where maybe you could make fun of someone for "getting" a piece of art because the art wasn't very good? Well, I hope so, because I do that with BBT itself all the time. :-) But Penny wasn't arguing that Leonard is weak because TS3 is not good. She is arguing that he is weak for mourning a fictional character at all.
2. Nerd culture seems especially attuned to creating and connecting with new worlds. So many hobbies deemed "nerdy" can be seen as a way to be a part of a created world other than the one you live in. This includes comic books, science fiction, and fantasy novels, all the way over to far more immersive options like video games, live-action RPGs, and LARPing.
I bonded very strongly with characters in musicals and movies as a teen, partly because I felt profoundly misunderstood by the people around me. As much as I tried to forge connections in real life, it was Eponine Thenardier who I truly connected with, as she longed for the boy she could never have. It was Woody Allen's neurotic protagonists, who said out loud so many of the things I was thinking. It was Elphaba, whose efforts to blend in with the crowd were awkward and uncomfortable. To others, it is Batman or Luke Skywalker or Turanga Leela. You have very little control over the people you will meet and interact with in real life, so if no true friends or mentors or role models happen to come your way, there's always the world of fiction.
To BBT's Penny, this is pathetic, that I would connect so deeply with a fictional character that I would mourn their death (over and over) or that I would rather spend time with them than with a social group. But if I didn't have those fictional characters to reassure me that other people feel like this too, I would have had a much harder adolescence.
Fictional characters still do this for me. They can serve as an example of an ideal when I have trouble finding that ideal in real life, like Leslie Knope's optimism. They can make me feel like I'm not the only one in the universe who feels and thinks the way I do, like Daria Morgendorfer's deadpan snark. They remind me that I can change to be better than I am, like Willow Rosenberg's journey from quiet fear to quiet confidence.
Why do nerds gravitate so much toward stories in their entertainment? I don't know. Maybe we like the creativity or we like the escape. More mainstream hobbies like sports, crafting, cooking, or working on cars certainly tend to focus more strongly on practical outcomes than creating and inhabiting new worlds.
When Penny reacts with scorn to the guys' love of Star Wars (in the same episode I saw), she seems to view their love for the movies as less worthy than any of the hobbies she pursues. Perhaps they're not tangible enough, or the whole idea of "it's not real!" makes her think it cannot be substantial. Well... she's wrong. Fiction in any form can evoke very real responses from people, who in the process do not become weak or pathetic or "less" than anyone else.
And that is why The Big Bang Theory bothers me so much. These men are chided over and over again for loving their fictional worlds, as if only children should be so fond of stories.
I don't really have a conclusion to any of these thoughts. They were just rattling around in my head and I wanted to share them with you.
What do you think? Is nerd culture as story-centric as I think it is? And if so, why?