the wages of being a nerd in a hollywood world

September 26, 2010

big bang theory

There are generally two Hollywood-approved ways to show people who are actually good at math and science in movies and TV shows. The first is to make them into reclusive, brilliant, comic book super-villains hell bent on dominating the world that misunderstands them. The second is to show them as socially inept, lanky, and completely sexually inexperienced dweebs whose only solace is their experiments with robots, beakers, and mathematical derivations. A normal, well-adjusted, productive member of society that just so happens to have a knack for the sciences is such a rarity in the entertainment realm, I find myself wondering whether the any of the writers employed by Hollywood studios ever had any exposure to a world beyond that of the middle school gym locker room, or the typical high school where the social hierarchy of nerds and jocks was preserved at all costs, lest the football team’s fragile egos and NFL ambitions be overshadowed by the school’s academics.

I still remember that when I graduated from high school, almost half the principal’s speech was focused on a good year for the school’s football team, despite the fact that her institution was also known for its competitive academic environment. The math, sciences, and the arts all received just a brief mention from administrators because, well, who cares about anything other than football and a review of the school’s policies? And far too many screenwriters follow the same script as my high school principal, seemingly unable to imagine that the contributions of academically strong individuals need to be acknowledged, or even represented as anything other than comic relief. It’s not just sitcoms I have in mind here, although The Big Bang Theory is probably one of the biggest offenders in this category. It’s true that in a sitcom, everybody is reduced to a stereotype and the executives in charge of the project seem to think that the audience is so mentally deficient, it needs to be told when to laugh with an auditory cue. Here’s a hint. If you need to tell an audience when you deliver a punchline, your joke probably isn’t funny in the first place. If it was, they’d be able to figure it out.

But even serious shows don’t dare to violate the nerds-as-comic-relief protocol. Bones, for example, turns its brilliant female scientist into a running gag, the goofy, socially awkward sidekick of the suave FBI investigator who fulfills the stereotypical requirement that street smarts are always supposed to trump book smarts since in the Hollywood universe, you’re not allowed to have both. In fact, almost half the CSI experts on the show are explicitly stated to have some form of autism. Holy crap! Since when are you supposed to be autistic to have a good grasp on computers, chemistry, physics, or math? And the episode of Bones involving the murder of an accomplished scientist? Don’t even get me started. Hands down, one of the worst portrayals of scientists in a research institution ever. I’ve never met a single scientist or researcher who acts anything like you see on TV, and I’m in the computer science program, supposedly the last refuge of all greasy, awkward nerds who could never deal with other human beings and watch way too much anime and porn (much of which is supposed to be anime porn). And yet, if you were to observe a typical comp sci class, you’d see primarily well adjusted and normal people who just happen to understand math and computers.

Amazingly, as far as Hollywood writers may be concerned, nerds are normal people who use their interests in the academic realm to make money, like to hang out with their friends, and yes, even manage to have sex with other, real, live human beings. And meanwhile, as high schools salute the jocks and Hollywood insists that a proper scientist must suffer from Asperger’s or have the social graces of a mediocre alien anthropologist who came to this planet on his first assignment, we keep wondering why we have shortages of STEM grads. Who would’ve thought that portraying math, engineering and science as fields only the socially inept, or perpetually dateless, acne-ridden dorks would ever pursue could possibly discourage people from applying themselves in these disciplines? I mean, come on. Is more than that one rare, fleeting portrayal of a scientist as a socially adept and normally functioning human being on TV or in the movies too much to ask?

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  • Paul

    I see your point, but to be fair to some of the shows… Bones is apparently based on the crime novels of an actual forensic anthropologist. The character’s weirdness comes from the scientist’s own descriptions, not “Hollywood writers”.

    Likewise, most of the nerd humour in The Big Bang Theory is exactly the same self-parodying/ridiculing you see on Slashdot. (And look at it another way, the show is entirely about the nerds. They aren’t secondary characters. A mainstream audience has to be empathising with them or the show wouldn’t rate. Nerds as an exaggerated comedy version of everyone’s feelings of social awkwardness.)

    (Also, the characters in these shows are meant to be geniuses, not rank and file working scientists. And geniuses are notoriously weird. From kooky Einstein, bizarro Paul Erdos, to one-step-away-from-becoming-a-supervillain Edward Teller, etc.)

    As for dramas, I think the reason you see so many socially awkward sci/math nerd characters is that “The socially awkward smart guy” is an established character archetype. Easy for writers to throw into a team, easy for audiences to digest. (Likewise the tough driven hero leader, always with a dysfunctional home-life. etc etc.) Lazy, not mean.

    As for Sci/IT/Eng/Math enrolments, I think that has more to do with the awful way sci/maths is taught in high-schools than anything in pop-culture. “Science” doesn’t teach science, it teaches rote science-history (*). And “Maths” in high-school has absolutely nothing to do with real maths. (Personally, I’m rubbish at maths. I just do not have knack for it. But I always excelled at that “doing sums” class that my high-school called “Maths”. (In the same way, I read voraciously, but straight-C’d English-lit.))

    (* And a little Intro-to-lab-assistant. Follow the instructions given, write down the results, clean up when you are done.)

    You need a way of steering people into sci/etc courses who don’t do the “equivalent” class in high-school. Whenever I read profiles of working scientists in pop-sci articles, it’s fascinating how many got into their specialisation indirectly, in spite of whatever they were steered towards in high-school or early college. Frankly, sometimes I think “Shop” class would make a better intro-to-science than “Science” class.

  • Greg Fish

    “[Bones'] weirdness comes from the scientist’s own descriptions, not ‘Hollywood writers’.”

    Though let’s be fair, Hollywood screenwriters are the ones adopting the novel and I find it very hard to not to note that Brennan’s awkwardness isn’t being played up. And again, I refer you to the episode I brought up in the post.

    “Likewise, most of the nerd humour in The Big Bang Theory is exactly the same self-parodying/ridiculing you see on Slashdot.”

    I wouldn’t say exactly. It’s pretty damn exaggerated.

    “‘The socially awkward smart guy’ is an established character archetype. Easy for writers to throw into a team, easy for audiences to digest.”

    And this is exactly my complaint. This archetype is thrown around so much, people are really starting to believe it. Even worse, it shows that the writers who use it are going for what’s easy rather than what’s creative or challenging.

  • http://blog.jameskyle.org James

    I found the following particularly amusing:

    “[…] I find myself wondering whether the any of the writers employed by Hollywood studios ever had any exposure to a world beyond that of the middle school gym locker room, or the typical high school where the social hierarchy of nerds and jocks was preserved at all costs, lest the football team’s fragile egos and NFL ambitions be overshadowed by the school’s academics.”

    This is essentially the exact same stereotyping being bewailed in the post though directed toward the other side of the fence. I think the reason I find this amusing is that I was an avid athlete in high school as well as doing well academically.

    I was privy to the reactions of “nerds” when I did not fall into their stereotypes of “jocks”.

    People have been finding all sorts of ways to categorize out groups for generations. Whether that perceived out group are “the nerds”, “the jocks”, or “the christians”, or “the muslims” people will always find ways to make that group appear stereotypically negative.

    From what I saw attending several High Schools of varying size and academic or athletic prowess is that there are subsets of the student population who do adhere to the stereotypes. But most people are just, well, people. They’re neither pimple popping anti-social geeks or dumb mean jocks fixated with popularity. They play sports because they like them, they have varying degrees of academic prowess, that for the most part seems to be unrelated to their social status or athleticism. They are concerned with social status like any other teenager, but not overly fixated with it nor do they actively attack those of a lower or higher perceived status.

    As far as Hollywood, I have seen as many “dumb jock” characterizations in Hollywood as “anti-social nerd” and an equal number of “pretentious, artsy guy” references. Well, at least we have Tony Stark. ;)

  • Bruce Coulson

    Mass entertainment is all about stereotypes and cliches. It has to be. In a movie, you don’t have the luxury of developing a well-rounded, three-dimensional character over the course of 10 chapters. It’s even worse in TV shows, where everything has to be finished in 48 minutes or less. Writers (many of whom would qualify as nerds) take shortcuts to quickly explain who and what a character is. This means using stereotypes and cliches so that the audience grasps in a few minutes what this character is all about.

    Are there exceptional writers who could craft three-dimensional, socially functional scientists in the space of time allotted? Sure! But they’re few and far between, and some of those who could do this aren’t wasting the effort on scripts for characters and shows they don’t really care about. Write the script, get the check, move on. Very little popular entertainment is going to last 10 years, let alone a generation, so why put your heart and soul into writing fully rounded characters who won’t be even looked at 5 years from now? Save the effort for your novel and short stories that are published in print.

    Contrary to even their own mythos, Hollywood is a funhouse mirror of popular beliefs. They don’t shape opinions, they reflect them.