(AKA the Muchly and Thankfully Delayed Lenny Post)
So rarely has a draft post (Titled “Ten reasons Leonard should break up with Penny”, no less!) been so thoroughly voided as mine was on Thursday before last.
As attentive viewers recall (or can view above), Penny, who I had planned to excoriate for wanting to have it both ways for the latter half of last season and the first episodes of season 6, let blurt those three magic words in the heat of an argument. (Would we expect anything else from her?) America’s favorite Cheesecake Factory waitress is finally, unequivocally on the record as loving Leonard Hofstadter, Ph.D, and forsaking all others (even ones with hot British accents and featured in the main cast of a reasonably decent show on SyFy). However, as the old song from the ‘90s goes, sometimes love just ain’t enough. While Penny’s emotional vulnerability was a potent and necessary first step to building a relationship that won’t topple under the slightest nudge from Then-Still-Evil-Wil Wheaton, it is not sufficient to solve the larger disease lurking behind Penny’s reluctance. While I’m no longer rooting for Leonard to kick Penny to the curb for stringing him along like a neglected puppy for five years, some growing up needs to happen on both sides for this couple to outgrow its increasingly tiresome and decreasingly plausible on-again-off-again dynamic.
The following dialogue from The Holographic Excitation sums up the problem in a nutshell.
Bernadette: Leonard does things he doesn’t like to make you happy.
Penny: Well yeah, he’s my boyfriend. Isn’t that, like, his job?
Amy: Then what’s your job?
Penny: Letting him make me happy!
Obviously, there’s plenty to dislike about Penny in this astonishingly forthright exchange. However, it must be said that it also indicates some of the particularly nasty baggage Leonard is toting, which makes the situation more complex, and doesn’t particularly motivate Penny to change. After all, why treat your beloved like the equal he is if he’s constantly willing to grovel for any crumb of approval while simultaneously expressing deep doubts about your intellectual capacities? Speaking as an 11-year veteran of geek marriage, some things are going to have to give soon on both sides if this thing’s to continue past the next sweeps period.
Now, I think that Penny is at base a decent human being, and nicer than many of the characters’ “haters” give her credit for. As my buddy Cin mentioned when we were IMing on this topic the other night, When Penny moved in she was a sweet, naive nebraska girl who was short on brains but long on friendliness and dreams of imminent stardom. However, in the ensuing years she’s become a freeloading shoe-obsessed princess overly impressed with her own (good but not great) looks and popularity. She freely admits she was a high school bully (and thought it was all just good fun until Bernadette and Amy schooled her in Empathy 101 during The Speckerman Recurrence). Around the same time, she told Leonard that she described their imaginary reconciliation to her father as “I whistled, you came running.” To sum up, one can argue convincingly that Penny thinks of herself first in most situations, especially when it comes to her relationship with Leonard. This is no way to treat a man, particularly one as devoted to your needs as Leonard. Leonard (I hope!) is eventually going to get tired of being the only one brave enough to take emotional risks in the relationship. For things to survive much longer, Penny is going to HAVE to put Leonard’s needs before her own. Her “I Love you” was not entirely rooted in a selfless courageous moment of devotion—in fact she mostly wanted Leonard off her back.
But before she can actually perform a selfless act of love, Penny’s also going to have to get past the chief reason she uses her looks and Leonard’s devotion as tools of power in the relationship: the fact that thus far in the series, she hasn’t really succeeded at anything aside from having Leonard fall in love with her—and that was an accident! Before you protest, think about this for a moment. While the whole struggling actress thing is still marginally plausible, How is it that Penny’s worked at Cheesecake Factory for five years and never gotten a promotion? Or used her experience to move to a more upscale restaurant where the higher tips would keep her in all the overpriced shoes she wanted, and still leave her with the same freedom to pursue acting? A few seasons ago I might argue that she was content with her lot and didn’t particularly want anything better, but I’m less sure these days. She’s stopped hanging out with her fellow football watching Nebraska expats and is spending her days with two accomplished, intelligent, and goal-oriented women from the Nerd Table. Most importantly, she’s set aside her ego and her fears and gone back to school. It seems like that Penny is deeply attached to the rest of the gang’s accomplishments and growing self-confidence, but secretly (and possibly unconsciously) sees herself as inferior to them in every way but physical attractiveness. She needs to become a worthy life partner for Leonard, and more importantly feel as though she is a worthy life partner for him. That doesn’t require a PhD by any means, but it’s going to require accomplishing something, no matter how minor.*
All that said, Leonard can’t just sit back and play with his laser while Penny grows up. He has his own immaturity he needs to jettison as well. While I see no contradiction between being an upstanding adult and a comic-book collecting, Tolkein-obsessing, XKCD-loving Fan (if there is, I’m in a helluva lot of trouble), He DOES need to let go of his mommy issues and playground traumas and accept that he is an attractive and worthy male who is more than a match for Penny. Leonard is awesome, but he is so desperate for affection and approval that he’s let Penny walk all over him for the last five and a half years because she has blonde hair, nice legs, and acknowledges his existence. The same pattern was evident when Leonard allowed himself to become whipped (sorry, that’s what it was) by the overly needy Dr. Stephanie and the overly controlling Priya. It sounds like the Joyce Kim thing was equally lopsided, what with the whole nearly giving away classified secrets to the North Koreans and all. He has never once, that we know of, put his needs first in a relationship with anyone, particularly a woman. In fairness, Leonard’s finally grown a pair with Sheldon this season. Now it’s time for him do the same with Penny. Expecting her to be honest about her obvious feelings rather than playing it both ways was NOT too much to ask. In fact, it’s exactly what Leonard deserves as a human being in a relationship, especially one who has made it clear (if not in the best of ways) that he sees a very long-term future for the two of them. However, for this relationship to last, he’s going to have to figure out how to be a grownup and an equal with her, just as she has with him.
Now, I’m a Shamy girl. Always have been, always will be, if for no other reason than that my marriage has some distinctly Shamy-esque elements to it. (I dress better, I think, but beyond that…) Lenny’s not done much for me in general, if only because early on it had a contrived Rachel & Ross air to it. I have to admit that since the 100th episode, the relationship has finally won me over. Not sure I’m a shipper per se, but I at least no longer consider Lenny implausible. Each of them has something in themselves that the other needs in order to become whole, or at least a functional adult. However, they also each have traits that bring out the worst in the other. It will be fascinating to see which forces finally triumph as the season rolls on.
So yeah. Because the final edits to my post got bumped by prepping for the awesome concert of awesomeness, I was saved from having to rescind my Lenny rant. Um…thanks? Speaking of the Best Night Ever, Next time I think I’m going to get into some My Little Pony action, specifically why I think I might be having trouble getting as into this season as past years. I may also discuss some nifty fannish podcasts I’ve run into over the last week (read: If Pleasant Valley Sunday comes up on my phone one more time I may vomit, so I’m fleeing to my podcast backlog till further notice). I’m actually getting slightly tempted to start up a fandomlenses podcast, particularly if I could recruit a co-host. Please remind me that I don’t have time to start a podcast, because I occasionally do dumb things (like start longwinded fandom websites) between semesters…
Finally, sometime after the semester ends but before Christmas I’m going to discuss the results of my non-peer reviewed and very unscientific examination of the question: What is a “true fan”? I’ve gotten several responses, but if you’d like to chime in, feel free to reply to the post, email me, or drop me an ask or reblog on tumblr.
*Interestingly, I just bumped into a mildly spoilery interview with Kaley Cuoco that backs up this part of my hypothesis. She spills nothing that hasn’t already been lampshaded already, but I still opted to link it rather than quote it.