Depictions of Women in STEM: Amy Farrah Fowler

May 25, 2017

By: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

This post contains spoilers for The Big Bang Theory.

In this installment, we examine the depiction of a recurring character on The Big Bang Theory, an American sitcom that premiered in 2007 and is still going strong. The show centres primarily around five main characters, four of whom are men holding various positions in the realm of STEM, and their trials, tribulations, and friendship together. The subject of this post, Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler (portrayed by Mayim Bialik), was not introduced into the series until well into season three. In fact, Amy was introduced in the season three finale, long after the characters Penny (Kaley Cuoco) and Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) joined the main cast. Bialik's character, a neurobiologist, was introduced as a potential date for another top-billed character, Sheldon (Jim Parsons), and began a relationship in which Amy's presence mostly revolved around him.

Source: CBS News

To start things off, Amy's profession is not taken seriously. She has a PhD in neurobiology, with a research focus on addiction in primates and invertebrates. According to a study published in Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews, the study of addiction in invertebrates is a legitimate science, but other characters (Sheldon in particular) fail to see it as such.

Her profession takes a major backseat to her developing relationship with Sheldon. It is there almost as a plot device that allows her to be part of the series. On the University of Minnesota's Feminist Film Studies Spring 2015 blog, a writer using the handle zheng556 explores Amy's profession in depth as it relates to the rest of The Big Bang Theory, rightfully observing that Amy's work is overshadowed and ignored. When she is given a big career break (an invitation to consult on a project at Caltech), the episode focuses mainly on Sheldon's reaction and its impact on their relationship. The article excuses the series' creators somewhat, saying that as a comedy, the show is not expected to address the issues of underrepresentation and obstacles in the workplace for women, but as we have seen in our series on media depiction of women in STEM, these subtle hindrances to character development add up to a greater whole that does not depict women in STEM at their fullest potential. Representation in television series and movies are tremendously important to changing the way we view women in STEM.

Amy is eventually transferred to Caltech, but Sheldon embarrasses her while she lunches with influential and established scientists. Later, he describes her work as "goofing off." Amy's work is depicted as lacking the rigour of actual scientific experimentation.


With her scientific research belittled and treated as unimportant, Amy's looks and sexuality come to the forefront. A.K. Whitney writes on Bitch Media that Amy's characterization is very close to the sexist stereotype of a woman in science - "she's badly dressed, blunt, cold, and deliberately masculine." Whitney points out, however, that Amy is certainly not a one-dimensional character, and she has grown in the seasons since her debut. However, these two prominent themes (sexuality and looks) are ever present, leaving room for critique by many feminist writers and bloggers.

As Amy's sexuality matures, she becomes physically and emotionally attracted to Sheldon, and he, in his quirky ways, rejects her at first. Their relationship does not take a path that is typical in television - it develops slowly and over time, mostly because of Sheldon's hesitations. Amy wants the relationship to progress quickly, as opposed to Sheldon, who is portrayed in a manner that has had TV fans wondering if he's asexual. In the episode entitled "The Cooper/Kripke Inversion," Sheldon says that he would consider the idea of being physically involved with Amy, given enough time. Amy, on the other hand, is shown as sexually frustrated, and sometimes, aggressively so. Amy often manipulates Sheldon into situations where she can derive some sexual satisfaction, while he does not know what is going on (such as a scene when Amy has a cold and Sheldon - much to Amy's delight - rubs VapoRub on her chest for her). This presents a Catch-22: women in media are often portrayed as sexual objects whose sexuality cannot be expressed or even exist except in relation to a man. However, when Amy tries to take control of her own sexuality, she often does it in a way that may negatively affect those around her, especially the character who is supposed to be her significant other. Despite her advances, Sheldon and Amy constantly communicate about the status of their relationship throughout the series, and they continue to take it slow. Spoiler alert: It takes Sheldon 3 seasons before he kisses Amy, and it one more season before he says he loves her.

Source: YouTube

In terms of Amy's looks, we've pointed out before that it seems impossible for a highly intelligent woman in STEM to also be attractive without being criticized. A running joke in The Big Bang Theory is Amy's constant desire to be sexy, or sexually desirable. Dr. Rosanne Welch points out, "Amy immediately deteriorated into being a non-blonde, non-bimbo stereotypical ugly girl begging to have sex with the unappealing rail thin Sheldon because he’s the best she’ll ever get." The writers include jokes about her attire, emphasizing the theme of the male gaze that is so central to The Big Bang Theory when Sheldon surprises Amy with a tiara as a present. In what is (to be fair) one of the funniest moments of actress Mayim Bialik's time on The Big Bang Theory, Amy is over the moon when she receives the gift, and for once is given the space to feel pretty (but again, thanks to a man). Simultaneously, she often has to be her own advocate, verbally declaring her sexiness, such as in "The Pulled Groin Extrapolation." As she's preparing to attend a wedding, she asks her friend (and other main character) Penny to make up her eyes like Cleopatra. When Penny protests, she says, "Perhaps you're right. My cheekbones and beckoning pelvis already have a certain 'hello sailor' quality to them."


Mayim Bialik herself holds a PhD in neuroscience, and is quite apologetic for the depiction of her character. The US's Public Broadcasting Service produced a short video of Bialik talking about balancing her life of science and acting. About Amy, she says, "I can’t say that she’s the portrait of every woman in science, but she’s the portrait of a lot of women in science I know. [...] We’re showing different kinds of females who are scientists. Women can be anything." She also notes that she has a hand in Amy's depiction on screen: "It's a conscious decision that I make to not have Amy be sexy and not wear Spanx and push-up bras and false eyelashes. I know a lot of female scientists from my time in college and grad school who were respected for their brain and who didn't have to compete on a physical level and I like that a lot in this character."

Off the screen, Bialik is a self-proclaimed feminist dedicated to her practice of Orthodox Judaism, a vegan, a mother who writes on a regular basis for the Jewish parenting blog Kveller, and the creator of Grok Nation, an online community "for people of all ages and backgrounds to dive deeper into conversations on contemporary issues."

While there was so much potential for Amy in The Big Bang Theory, the creators instead blew stereotypes of women in STEM out of proportion just for the sake of laughs. Bialik may be proud of the character she has helped create, but Amy has been the subject of countless blog posts and think pieces, especially from the perspective of women in STEM fields. Bialik's acting is exceptional - her comedic timing is on point and her personification of Amy truly is hilarious. But it's difficult to apologize for the negative portrayal of Amy as a woman in STEM, no matter how hard one tries to spin it.

Does The Big Bang Theory meet the goals set out by the White House for better representation of women in STEM fields?

The former Obama Administration's White House fact sheet lists 3 goals for fictional representation of women in STEM. We are noticing a trend in the movies and television shows we have reviewed - they meet some of the following goals better than others. The Big Bang Theory is no exception.

1.  Include diverse STEM role models (past and present): The series' main and recurring cast is overwhelmingly white and male. There is one non-white main character and two main characters who are women in STEM. Guest stars are also usually white men, and have included famous figures in STEM such as Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, and Mike Massimino. The series doesn't do a great job at including visible minorities, LGBTQ characters/actors, or women in STEM. Amy questions her sexuailty briefly in the series, but the storyline is quickly abandoned, contributing to an already widespread problem of the erasure of bisexuality in the media.

2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: As mentioned above, some legitimate careers in STEM are made fun of and not taken seriously. The characters who are men in the main cast argue often about whose field is more legitimate as well. The main characters' careers do cover a broad range of fields: experimental physics (Leonard), theoretical physics (Sheldon), aerospace (Howard), astroparticle physics (Raj), microbiology (Bernadette), and neurobiology (Amy). However, the depictions of these fields do not usually include their social impacts. 

3.  Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: The series has been criticized on Reddit by user informat3 for treating nerds and nerd subculture as being a laughable set of stereotypes. According to this user, the series makes nerd culture the butt of jokes, uses exploitative humour, and does not depict the life of everyday nerds accurately. Check out informat3's arguments here. The series also stereotypically equates nerdiness with STEM fields, two categories which are not actually mutually exclusive.

Watch Mayim Bialik "school" reporters when they ask her about her STEM background here, or watch her video on reconciling science with religious faith. You can also Tweet or e-mail us at with your thoughts - do you think the portrayal of Amy Farrah Fowler as a woman in STEM is fair? Do you have suggestions for future women in STEM to profile? We look forward to hearing from you!