It’s not really news to point out that award winning TV show The Big Bang Theory is a load of sexist shit. I have to admit however that I do sometimes watch it.
Since it started in 2007, a running joke has been that one of the main characters Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) has a really needy/ controlling mother, that we never see her just hear her (Carol Ann Susi) shouting from elsewhere in their shared house.
There’s a good tradition of unseen sit com characters but I think the joke here works because (we are told) that Mrs Wolowitz is immensely overweight and hirsute – a ‘horror’ hard to cast and only enhanced by leaving it in our imagination.
Mrs Wolowitz also sometimes needs to be cared for by her son and I suspect this is another image that mainstream TV wants to hide from us. I think we don’t like generally to see people that are overweight or sick.
This, slightly shocking scene from the penultimate episode of the latest series seemed to support this suspicion. In the scene Mr Walowitiz has been injured and is confined to bed. There are subtitles if you can’t hear the audio.
I think what took me aback was how blatantly racist the scene was. Maybe it’s true that immigrants pick up the lions share of dirty jobs in Western countries but I was surprised to hear it stated so happily. At least on American TV where I imagined such attitudes would be taboo.
He may be a putz, but I wonder if Wolowitz represents the modern (white?) Western attitude to care – it should be taken out of sight, away from the family/ private zone and ‘delegated’ to commercial or state providers. It’s not clear to me whether this attitude creates this delegation or this delegation causes this attitude (and perhaps something else like shrinking families is the real reason people don’t care for their families).
However, I started looking into the issue of care (in the UK) and it’s not quite that simple.
For example the number of residential care places in the United Kingdom has been declining since 1990 when they peaked at around 321,000 places. Since the 80s most of these have been private sector as public sector provision declined). But most care and support is provided unpaid by family, friends and neighbours. 5 million adults (12 per cent of people aged 16 or over) in England in 2009/10 were looking after or giving special help to a sick, disabled or elderly person (most likely a close family member). In 2011, there were 178 thousand 5 to 17-years-olds working as unpaid carers in England and Wales.
But perhaps this is not out of choice.
Professor Joan Tronto coined the phrase “privileged irresponsibility” to describe what happens when advantaged people like Wolowitz (a NASA scientist and astronaut) are able to delegate care work. And in a globalised world the way to get this dirty work done is often to pay an immigrant, because it’s a lot of work so you want it cheap. Or alternatively migrate patients to countries like Thailand where the costs are less.
Those less privileged do not have these options.
It seems that care provision is being put under pressure from all sides – there are more people in need of care but shrinking families are less able to offer the care while local authority spending is being cut .
Furthermore care remains popularly seen as a female practice: 88% of UK nurses are women and there tend to be more female carers than male. Which is why men get more respect in caring professions according to research by Ruth Simpson at Brunel business school: “While the caring performed by a woman is often devalued as a ‘natural’ part of femininity, the emotional labour performed by men is often seen as an asset.”
So for Wolowitz’s wife Bernadette Rostenkowski (Melissa Rauch) it’s obvious that she would care for her mother.
This isn’t to romanticise home care or suggest it is always the right answer – I can only imagine that to care for parents while living in the modern world where people are having less children is incredibly difficult. Just look at Japan where traditional values of looking after ones parents banged up against changing social structures and saw elderly being put in hospitals (when they needed social not medical care) by families unable to cope.
Japan’s response has been to look at creating robots to care for people.
Even professionals can find it incredibly hard “I would rather not be doing it and it is done with a sense of resentment and sacrifice, most definitely not care” said one – anonymously to the Guardian,
But if care – for the elderly, for the sick – is hard for everyone can we ever escape the fact? It feels like
we our white supremacist heterosexist society keep pushing it away – to women, to immigrants, to robots. Would it be more bearable for us a species, if care was shared out, if it was no longer seen as a gendered quality or responsibility?
Mrs Wolowitz does end up being cared for a man. Stuart Boom (Kevin Sussman) is a supporting character in the show who is generally the kicking boy of the main cast. But when the comic shop that he owns burns down, Wolowitz realise he can exploit Boom’s desperation by offering him the unwanted job of carer. It’s a way to wrap up different threads but the care is still being delegated to someone with low status.
The punchline is that Boom and Mrs Wolowitz get on really well. He enjoys caring for her and in doing so brings out the best in her. Maybe the angelic carer trope is as problematic as the invisible care recipient but within the shitty world of the Big Bang Theory it points to a possibility beyond the show (in both sense of the word).
On 21 June 2014 I’m running a one day workshop at the Shoreditch Town Hall exploring care ethics. It’s the first of six art/ life events for artists, philosophers and other citizens, using choreographic strategies to engage with politics and citizenship through the body. For more information see: hamishmacpherson.co.uk