The concept of the ‘dumb blonde’ has long been a trope in film and television but some of media’s most notable blondes have been the ones that subvert and expand upon this tired archetype. And while ‘The Big Bang Theory’ may have initially established Penny as the hot, ‘odd one out’ of the brainiac group of main characters, a deeper look at this beloved blonde quickly proves that she is way more than just her good looks. Let’s take a look at what made Penny so much more than a stereotypical ‘dumb blonde’, and uncover how her intricate character evolution provided the emotional glue necessary to keep one of TV’s most iconic sitcoms together.
MORE THAN A DUMB BLONDE
On first glance, Penny appears as a surface-level, ‘hot girl next door’ character. The entirety of the season’s pilot revolves around Sheldon, Leonard, and the rest of the crew ogling over Penny’s looks and trying to gain her trust in order to sleep with her. While she may initially seem like a shallow side character that’s only going to serve as a prop for the male characters to interact with, Kaley Cuoco’s performance starts to bring a new, more interesting depth to the character and begins shaking up this archetype that has long been simplified for laughs. From the moment we meet Penny, she makes us care about her – which is a true testament to the strength of Cuoco’s performance. It’s clear that while the show may want to play up her looks as a gag, there is a true kindness to Penny that shines through these sexist tropes.
Despite being the only female character in the show’s main cast for its first three seasons, Cuoco held her own against her male counterparts, elevating Penny from a forgettable ditzy blonde to a hilarious and endearing screen stealer. Chuck Lorre, creator of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ expressed regret at this initial lack of character depth. In Jessica Radloff’s 2022 book taking a behind-the-scenes look at the series, Lore stated, “It was really obvious immediately that we hadn’t developed the character beyond the pretty girl next door, and Kaley was certainly capable of doing a great deal more than what was asked of her. We had to make the character more fully realized.” And while her good looks and ditzy demeanor continued to be a focal point of her character, over time the show began to sexualize Penny less, instead giving her character a sharp wit that wasn’t afraid to call out the men she surrounded herself with. With this came her eventual decision to give up her acting career in season eight, which, while shocking to some viewers, showed just how much agency the show had given her. She had been stuck in an endless cycle of financial upset and stagnation for years – making this decision not only a stable one, but a mature one key to her character growth. After being belittled by the group for her lack of intellect for years, for once Penny has the upper hand. And while she may not be viewed as a total equal, this career change showed the gang that there are valuable skills to be found outside of pure booksmarts.
While Penny’s lack of booksmarts may set her apart from the rest of the main crew, she still makes an effort to understand and support her friends’ nerdy interests. Time after time she shows how much she cares for her friends, wanting the best for them even though they can be more than a little difficult at times. And although her on-again-off-again relationship with Leonard may be her most memorable relationship on the show, it is Penny’s friendship with Sheldon that is arguably the most touching friendship on the entire show. Leonard and Amy care deeply for Sheldon, but often patronize him and treat him like a child. Penny is quick to call out Sheldon when he’s being well Sheldon, but she still speaks to him like a real, adult person. Over time, they develop a true brother/sister relationship – often bickering and getting on each other’s nerves but with a deep sense of care and respect for one another. This is possible because Penny is genuinely kind. She loves Sheldon, and through this genuine connection is able to bring out the most vulnerable parts of him. Yes, Penny may be a hot blonde, but she’s so much more than just a pretty face. In fact, she’s the glue that keeps the group together.
A SURPRISING AUDIENCE SURROGATE
It’s safe to say that the majority of ‘The Big Bang Theory’s audience are not quantum physicists Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, Amy, and Raj may be hilarious in their own right, but they’re not necessarily relatable. Penny, on the other hand, is a much more average, everyday character that much of the audience can more easily see themselves in. Her struggles in dating, career, and simply keeping herself afloat are much more identifiable to most of us than the more lofty troubles the others have to contend with, like Howard’s lack of a Ph.D. In fact, the series was only greenlit after Cuoco was cast as Penny, due to a pilot that failed to connect with wider audiences. Even Cuoco noticed how her role quickly won audiences over, telling Emmy Magazine, “Viewers were on her side from day one because she was always kind. She laughed with them, not at them. She was always part of the group.” This type of character certainly isn’t unique to ‘The Big Bang Theory’, most popular sitcoms are designed around a ‘straight man’ or audience mirror to balance out the absurdity of the characters surrounding them. But rarely is the straight man played by the ‘hot’ one, especially a woman. Leonard may be the typical sitcom straight man, and all of the characters are relatable in their own ways, but it’s surprisingly Penny who the show uses to connect us to this world. Now, that’s not to say that everyone wholly relates to Penny, but she works as our surrogate in this world of above-it-all brainiacs to bring them, and thus the show as a whole, back down to Earth. Every character has something special about them that draws audience members to them, but Penny provides an anchor that keeps things rooted in reality. Yes, unfortunately, Penny is often sexualized and has her ‘average Joe’ intellect played for laughs, but without her perspective, the show wouldn’t work. While she carries great empathy for the guys, she is also unafraid to call them out when their smarts get in the way of their social skills – or even basic kindness – often saying what many regular viewers themselves likely would in the same situation.
But even though Penny isn’t afraid to serve up her fair share of roasts, her deep empathy towards her friends extends itself to the audiences’ perception of these characters as well. Even though Raj is unable to speak to Penny for a majority of the show’s early seasons, she still makes an effort to talk to and interact with him out of sheer kindness and understanding of his social awkwardness. In fact, her continual engagement with him is the reason why he ends up overcoming this trait. And while Penny and Amy did not start off on the best foot, by the end of the series the two develop a true friendship, with Penny becoming Amy’s first best friend and encouraging her growth. Her unwavering support of her friends does not go unnoticed - serving as one of the main catalysts for their own character developments.
FROM EMOTIONALLY UNAVAILABLE TO LUCKY IN LOVE
It’s impossible to talk about Penny without discussing her on-and-off relationship with Leonard. While Sheldon and Amy eventually took the spotlight, Leonard and Penny’s endless will-they-won’t-they romance served as one of the series’ main dramatic questions for its first few seasons. Although the ‘hot girl falling for the nerdy nice guy’ trope can feel a bit cliche, it is touching to watch Penny fall for, and eventually marry Leonard. Their relationship is nowhere near perfect, but it operates as a major catalyst for Penny’s character development. She begins the show as a young twenty-something struggling with severe commitment issues, wasting her kindness on men that don’t care about her in return. But it’s Leonard who shows her what it means to be truly loved. Yes, their romance has severe ups and downs (with some fans even calling it toxic.) But dealing with and overcoming these obstacles is key to their character development. By working together and always being there for one another, they reach a new level of maturity and emotional growth.
Despite generally being a fan-favorite relationship, ‘Big Bang Theory’ fans had some major complaints about the end of Penny’s storyline – particularly her unexpected pregnancy. Throughout the series, Penny was adamant about her desire to not have children, so the reveal of her pregnancy was shocking, to say the least. The representation of on-screen female characters who don’t want children is already minimal, making this decision feel like a significant stripping of agency from a woman who was confident in her stance. Also, viewers don’t even see Penny discover that she’s pregnant, instead learning about it briefly and then finding out more when she’s forced to tell Sheldon. It’s disappointing that such a pivotal moment for this character is played for pure comedic relief, glossing over the emotional weight of this decision completely. Even Cuoco has expressed regret at this plot choice – in the behind-the-scenes Big Bang Theory book, she said, “I actually wished that they did not [make Penny pregnant], because I loved that message of [Penny not wanting kids] so much.” While her choice to become a mother could have been impactful if executed correctly, the series’ failure to add nuance and agency to her sudden decision fails an otherwise strong and self-assured character. But despite how unsatisfactory this part of her ending may feel, Penny remains one of the biggest highlights of ‘The Big Bang Theory’. What started as a surface-level iteration of the ‘dumb blonde’ trope quickly transformed into a witty, honest, and kind woman elevated by Cuoco’s masterclass comedic performance. If there’s one thing Penny’s taught us, it’s that you really cannot judge a book by its cover.
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