finales

Penny Never Wanted Kids on The Big Bang Theory, So Why Did She Wind Up Pregnant?

Photo: Michael Yarish/CBS/Warner Bros.

The Big Bang Theory has always been studiously apolitical. It doesn’t mention Donald Trump (outside of Chuck Lorre’s vanity cards), its characters don’t argue over science-related issues like health-care access or climate change, and it doesn’t dig into topics like gay marriage or gun control or immigration. For the most part, the show’s finale on Thursday night stayed true to that superficial neutrality. But in one plot point, it tripped into unfortunate political relevance.

Throughout this final season, Penny has explicitly reminded her husband Leonard that, no, she does not want to have children. She told him as much in the season premiere, after he wondered hopefully whether she’d gotten pregnant. She mentioned it again several episodes later, after an acquaintance asked Leonard to be a sperm donor. (Initially aghast at the idea, Penny wound up agreeing, though it didn’t work out in the end.) Again and again, the season hammered it home: Penny doesn’t want kids. She doesn’t want to get pregnant.

Then, in the finale, she got pregnant.

There are several reasons why this makes me want to rip my hair out. The first is the simple, superficial one: Penny’s pregnancy is used by the show to bring her relationship with Leonard full circle back to the pilot, when he looked at her longingly and declared that their babies would be both smart and beautiful. This was always Leonard’s vision, but never Penny’s.

At the same time, it’s completely reasonable that, after having long felt that she did not want children, Penny might change her mind. It happens a lot! But the way this story plays out makes light of her previous resolve. The pregnancy is presented as a settled event; there is no scene where Penny discovers she’s pregnant, no moment where she and Leonard discuss it, and no suggestion that this was a complicated decision for her. There’s no suggestion that it even was a decision for her: In the hour-long, two-part finale, Penny learns about her pregnancy in the commercial break between one half-hour and the next. It was an accident, she explains to the other characters. But she’s happy, she tells them!—while vomiting copiously, something no one seems to care about. She’s pregnant, she’s happy, and she never once mentions that this is something she very much did not want. Yay, pregnancy!

I doubt the finale’s writers could’ve predicted that this story would air on TV at the same moment pregnancy and reproductive rights are dominating headlines. The Big Bang Theory has existed in a vacuum separate from the political ecosystem for so long, but the finale arrived in the same week as a wave of state legislation that functionally outlaws abortion, during a moment when much of the country is talking about whether people with uteruses should be forced to give birth against their wills. It’s an especially touchy time for pregnancy stories. It’s an even more sensitive time for stories about women who become pregnant after saying explicitly that they do not want to be.

From what we see after Penny discovers she’s pregnant offscreen, we have to assume that she’s pleased, whether or not she made a choice about staying pregnant. But it’s hard to overstate how much this plot — which was surely intended as a sweet, hopeful end — instead comes off as thoughtless and tin-eared at best, dismissive and condescending at worst. In an otherwise heartwarming finale for these characters, after 12 years spent together on one of TV’s most popular shows, it’s infuriating and unfortunate that The Big Bang Theory would essentially erase a woman’s right to choose from her own narrative.