The Portrayal of Introverts in Popular Culture

Introversion is a widely misunderstood personality trait. On television, introversion is typically portrayed in a negative way. Television characters that display traits consistent with introversion are usually better known for their abrasive personality and lack of social skills. Those negative qualities could be true of an introvert or an extrovert, so it is unfair of television writers to make them so exaggerated in introverted characters. It can be difficult for an introvert to find an inspirational role model on television, instead we get the message that something is wrong with us and we need to fix it. An important point to note is that introversion and extroversion is on a spectrum, not an either/or scenario.

Introversion is misrepresented in popular culture because it is often confused with shyness or social anxiety, it is often combined with disorders and mental illnesses, and it shames introverts into pretending to be someone they’re not.

BONES

The main character on the FOX show Bones is Temperance “Bones” Brennan, and she is an introvert. One of the most universal introverted traits is the desire to work alone or in small groups. Especially in earlier seasons, she is seen working alone in her office studying remains or evidence and this is where she thinks best. Another common trait amongst introverts is the preference for solitary hobbies. In the show, her main hobby is writing best-selling fiction novels based on her work. A defining trait for introverts is the preference for minimally stimulating environments, so her choice to work in a lab is a good fit for her personality. There she does not have to worry about lots of noise or frequent group work. While she does consult and collaborate with each of her coworkers, everyone has their own specialty and largely works alone.

Temperance Brennan is a good example that introversion and shyness are not the same thing. Susan Cain describes the difference in her TED Talk The Power of Introverts as “shyness is about fear of social judgment. Introversion is more about, how do you respond to stimulation, including social stimulation”. One of Temperance Brennan’s defining characteristics is that she is brutally honest and does not care what anyone thinks of her. Throughout the show she frequently says or does impolite or awkward things if it means getting the job done, something a shy person would avoid.

Some of her introverted traits are fairly accurate for a fictional television character, but some of them are exaggerated for drama or comedic effect by the writers. A stereotype that the writers perpetuate is the idea that introverts cannot be good leaders. Because she lacked the interpersonal skills necessary for the politics and bureaucracy for the job, she was passed up for a promotion to be in charge of the lab in season two. In this case she is not a good representation of introversion because her lack of social skills is the result of her parents and her older brother abandoning her as a teenager, not because she is introverted.

THE BIG BANG THEORY

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Sheldon Cooper is introverted and one of the main characters from the CBS show The Big Bang Theory. He has a strong preference to work alone; for example, he can get upset if someone tries to help him solve an equation. He enjoys his small group of friends, and it was not easy for him to adjust to more people being added over the years. He enjoys both solitary activities such as playing with his trains and small group activities such as playing Dungeons and Dragons. He is seen feeling uncomfortable in large group settings such as parties or crowded bars, and when he is in those situations he clings to his close friends. He is usually not seen spending time alone, but that is because The Big Bang Theory is a half-hour sitcom and that would be a waste of airtime. I believe that Sheldon is not shy because he boldly manipulates his relationships via contracts. He does fear social judgement from his friends when he uses the contracts to get his way. I also think he is not shy because he is known to be very blunt, and he has no problem correcting strangers’ behaviors.

On this show, introversion is misrepresented because it is a comedy. So any introverted character is going to also have a quirky personality or another defining characteristic that outshines the natural benefits of being an introvert. I think this is a necessary part of television because it can be difficult to translate introverted traits on screen. Related to several of the characters on this show, one such benefit is described by Susan Cain in her TED Talk. She said that “when psychologists look at the lives of the most creative people, what they find are people who are very good at exchanging ideas and advancing ideas, but who also have a serious streak of introversion in them”. While many viewers see similarities between Sheldon’s personality and Asperger’s Syndrome, the writers have denied the diagnosis. Shaila Lias is a blogger who wrote an article titled “Introverts on TV: A Look at CBS’s The Big Bang Theory”, and in it she comments on the writers’ denial of Asperger’s. She writes “by denying that Sheldon is actually someone with Asperger’s they further the misunderstanding that any person who doesn’t always want social interaction, doesn’t understand it. It adds to the discourse that introverts are socially awkward and rude. And that they can’t understand social conventions”.

Raj Koothrappali is not an introvert, he is an extrovert. He loves to throw parties, arrange scavenger hunts, and be around friends all the time. His character provides a good contrast to Sheldon’s introversion, and also reinforces the fact that shyness or social anxiety are not the same as introversion. In the first few seasons, Raj seems to experience Social Anxiety Disorder. Elements Behavioral Health, which provides mental health services, explained Social Anxiety Disorder as “an overwhelming fear of being humiliated in front of others. For some, this extreme self-consciousness means even simple actions such as eating in public or talking to a store clerk can be overwhelming… and can sometimes lead to substance abuse by those attempting to medicate away the negative feelings”. Raj exhibits this though his selective mutism around women he finds attractive, and his use of alcohol to self-medicate the issue. In later seasons he resolves his selective mutism and seems to have shyness rather than social anxiety disorder.

SHERLOCK

Sherlock Holmes it the title character from the BBC show Sherlock. Similar to Temperance Brennan and Sheldon Cooper, Sherlock Holmes is an introvert and he is not shy. When it is necessary he presents his unbiased thoughts. He is well-known for his bold behavior and lack of good social skills. He does not fear what other people may think about him, and so he is able to be brutally honest. He is often seen alone or with his best friend, particularly when he is working on solving a crime. He concentrates best when he can be alone with his thoughts and think scenarios through. He, like most introverts, prefers small groups or close friends instead of big social crowds. This can be seen in his close friendship with his best friend John Watson. A common trait of introverts is the tendency to dislike small-talk, which Sherlock exhibits. Most of his conversations are intellectual or purposeful in nature, not about meaningless small-talk topics. Therefore, I believe he dislikes small-talk because of its lack of purpose, not because he is afraid to talk to people. Common for introverts, many of his hobbies were of a solitary nature. For example, he played the violin, which can be played in a group but that is not a necessary component. The common introverted traits that Sherlock exhibits are just that, common. They are not true of all introverts and some have no scientific basis, but they common traits that many introverts can identify with.

Sherlock Holmes displays many traits consistent with introversion, but they are exaggerated to the point the character is often labeled as being psychopathic/sociopathic or as having a form of Asperger’s. This seems typical of introverts on television. The are commonly labeled as having a mental health issue or other disorders because their traits are exaggerated to the extreme. Any negative portrayal of introverted traits does not necessarily imply anything about extroverts. They are not exactly opposites, so a quality about one does not make the opposite quality true for the other.  

The Science Behind Introversion & Extroversion

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There is scientific explanations for why a person is more introverted or extroverted. As science progresses, new reasons become discovered. According to a Medical Daily article by Lecia Bushak titled “The Brain Of An Introvert Compared To That Of An Extrovert: Are They Really Different?”, in 1960 psychologist Hans Eysenck had a theory that levels of arousal was what differentiated introverts and extroverts. It was his belief that introverts were easily over-stimulated by the world while extroverts required a lot of stimulation to feel energized. Bushak also wrote that “in 2005, researchers concluded in a study that it all might be linked to dopamine — the reward system in the brains of extroverts responded differently than those of introverts”. Then in 2012 a Harvard University study completed by Randy Buckner led to the discovery that the gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, “a region of the brain that is linked to abstract thought and decision-making”, was larger and thicker in introverts and there was less gray matter in extroverts.

Learning Moments

One learning moment came this week when I was searching for an article about plagiarism for the Week 7 Course Blog prompt. In my research I found out that at most universities, it is considered plagiarism if a student uses the same essay for two different classes. I found an article titled “Self-Plagiarism: Is it Really Plagiarism?” by Robert Creutz, and it explains this dilemma. I never considered that resusing my own essay would be plagiarism and grounds for disciplinary action by the school. Fortunately, I never had the opportunity to reuse an essay. I still feel as though labeling that as plagiarism is harsh, because how can you steal from yourself? I do understand the reasons why it is considered plagiarism, but I do not completely agree with it. Either way, that is one learning moment from this course I will never forget.

Another learning moment came from researching my topic. Introversion is largely considered a psychological topic. During my research, I found several articles that discussed the science behind introversion and extroversion. I have always felt as though my introversion was an unchangeable and natural trait. Now I know that it is possible to move along the introversion-extroversion spectrum, but it is hard to change how someone’s brain works. The science seems to conclude that it has to do with some combination of arousal, stimulation, dopamine, gray matter. Having a scientific background does not excuse the way this personality traits is exhibited, but I do believe that it legitimizes the causes.

References

Bushak, L. (2014, August 21). The Brain Of An Introvert Compared To That Of An Extrovert: Are They Really Different? Retrieved May 2, 2016, from  http://www.medicaldaily.com/brain-introvert-compared-extrovert-are-they-really-different-299064

Gatiss, M. (Producer). (2010, July 25). Sherlock [Television series]. BBC ONE.

Hanson, H. (Producer). (2005, September 13). Bones [Television series]. FOX.

Introvert, Shy, Socially Anxious: What’s the Difference? (2015, May 05). Retrieved May 1, 2016, from https://www.elementsbehavioralhealth.com/mental-health/introvert-shy-socially-anxious-whats-the-difference/

Lias, S. (2013, November). INTROVERTS ON TV: A LOOK AT CBS’S THE BIG BANG THEORY [Web log post]. Retrieved May 1, 2016, from http://understandingpopculture.blogspot.com/2013/11/introverts-on-tv-look-at-cbss-big-bang.html

Lorre, C., & Prady, B. (Producers). (2007, September 24). The Big Bang Theory [Television series]. CBS.

TED. (2012, March 2). Susan Cain: The power of introverts [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0KYU2j0TM4

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This entry was posted in Spring 2016 by Heather M.. Bookmark the permalink.

About Heather M.

I am a sophmore majoring in Speech & Hearing Science at PSU. Although I am from Beaverton, Oregon, which is only 20 minutes away from campus, I had rarely ever been to Portland before attending PSU. Now I love living in a city because everything is so close and accessible.

3 thoughts on “The Portrayal of Introverts in Popular Culture

  1. Hi Heather! Great essay! It’s been a pleasure seeing your thesis develop into this final draft. I like how you delve into the psychology of these TV show characters, instead of just summarizing their behavior. Your mix of academic research and popular culture artifacts is really good too! I also enjoyed your section at the end on how an introvert’s brain differs from that of an extrovert. It would have been cool if this section was a bit longer, as I would have liked to see why this is, what exactly it means in how it affects behavior, and how this applies to the TV characters you analyzed. I really enjoyed reading your blog post!

    It’s been great sharing a class with you this term! Best of luck with your classes next year! 🙂
    -Julie

  2. Hi Heather!
    I loved your blog post. It was fun seeing your idea grow from mentored session when we met in person in a group, to now seeing your final. I really liked how you used gifs to not only explain what characters you were representing as examples, but to also get a feel for how they’re like. I felt that your artifacts all worked together very nicely, and portrayed a lot of information towards your topic. It’s also cool reading your post about introverts considering I am an extrovert. Learning more about the subject and how it’s understood was really interesting to me.
    Good luck on your final grade, but I’m sure you don’t need it. Your post was awesome and very well organized!
    Have a good summer,
    Zoe

  3. Heather,

    This was a great post! All of your artifacts worked very well together. It seemed like each one brought a different misinterpretation of introverts. “Bones” made it seem that introverts cannot be good leaders. That’s definitely not true. My sister is an introvert but she is an elementary school teacher, which involves leadership. “Big Bang” suggested that they are quirky and awkward. Sherlock made them out to speaking blunt and lacking social tact. Your secondary sources did a great job of refuting this and supporting your argument. i especially liked the analysis of the brain. I never thought that gray matter could contribute to the difference between extroverts and introverts. Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading your post.

    I found your first leaning moment very persuasive. I agree that one should be able to use their own work again. Its seems unnecessarily harsh and unreasonable to deprive people of their own past works.

    -Zach

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