At worst, The Big Bang Theory's characters bring to the surface a toxicity that has long been at the heart of male nerd archetypes since George McFly won over a girl he'd barely spoken to by punching Biff in Back to the Future. While jockish bullies like Biff are rightfully painted as chauvinistic pests, romantically-ineffective dorks like TBBT's central foursome have somehow always been allowed to cloak their blatant sexism and objectification of women under the guise of adorkable inexperience and desperation to become the tolerable alternative.
We know Howard Wolowitz is a creep, but the turtle necks and bowl cut tell us he's a pitiable pervert, even when he anecdotally describes "relentlessly" pursuing his
victims potential girlfriends and pepper spraying them. We know Sheldon doesn't really "get" women (or anyone else), but when he tells one that her "ovaries are oozing so much goofy-juice into [her] brain that [she doesn't] know which way is up," the audience's laughter tell us we're supposed to find his disregard for human empathy endearing.
It's not that there isn't room for misogynists and sexual predators in the TV sitcom, even in these more enlightened times. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia's Dennis Reynolds has been doing a horrifyingly great job at both of these roles for years. But, what makes TBBT's endurance such a misnomer is that, prior to and during its time on air, our TV landscape has been steadily filling up with more believable and positive representations of nerds that prove toxic masculinity, stale cliches and geekdom aren't synonymous for comedy -- and haven't been for the past decade or so.
Likable television nerds are everywhere. 30 Rock gave us cheery, NBC page, Kenneth Parcell, a pure-of-heart, country-bumpkin whose love of TV trivia outlasted the cynicism (and lives) of his colleagues. Parks and Recreation's Ben Wyatt proved that accountants who invent cone-based, strategy board games and binge-watch Game of Thrones on their days off could have personalities independent of their nerdy past times and a healthy attitude towards women. In Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon's Community, Troy and Abed's brotherly bond was built on a shared passion for building robots, pillow forts and fighting off hordes of zombie-fied classmates. The pair recaptured the innocence of make-believe to strengthen a friendship, rather than exercises in geeky one-up-man-ship or hollow referencing. Fans with learning disabilities also found nuanced and honest representation in Abed.
Currently, The Good Place's ethics professor, Chidi Anagonye ticks many of the stereotypical nerd boxes -- along with a very Urkel-esque pair of glasses. But he also demonstrates that the comedy of social ineptitude doesn't have to be tied to a fear of the opposite gender or intellectual superiority.