to err is human, to suffer is nerd?

April 6, 2013

man woman geek

Whether the latest movie will show nerds as socially awkward know-it-alls, table top gamers in a basement on a perfectly fee Saturday night, or hackers with supervillanous abilities getting into some hugely important piece of top secret data someone mysteriously decided to leave internet accessible, there’s going to be a common thread running through the nerds’ backstory. They’ll have to be relentlessly picked on when they were kids, they have to be emotionally stunted, and they have to have descended into their nerdy obsession to the point at which their lives revolve around it. This is why the scientists in The Big Bang Theory can’t relate to Penny, why the teams of early 20-somethings on King of the Nerds say they’re good at math, science, and gaming, as well as totally oblivious to flirting, and why the game master of Zero Charisma is such a sad sack who loathes the nerd hipster with a girlfriend playing in his multi-year D&D circle.

Basically, all this inability to coexist with normal humans is what’s supposed to make you a nerd because you’re supposed to latch on to games, comic books, sci-fi, anime, what have you, as a convenient escape until you find your niche in college, or as an adult. But the thing is that pretty much everybody gets picked on in one way or another, everyone has a hobby, and any of these hobbies can be taken to an extreme. Sure, your eyes will probably glaze over if a Star Wars fan who has seen all the movies so much that he memorized every frame, debates with equally rabid fans about the inner workings of the Millenium Falcon’s jumps to light speed and the physics of luminal travel (science tidbit of the day: the stars will not streak by outside). But won’t they also start to do the same when two people who live and breathe baseball use your ear canals as an amplifier for their dissection of statistics labeled by an acronym soup? So why is it more socially acceptable to make fun of the former scenario and the latter is supposed to be manly?

Why were the nerds who are supposed to be our future scientists, writers, and engineers given pretty much no social acceptance until now, when parts of geek culture are being adopted into major blockbusters? Even I have to admit to a little unease when on a first date some seven or eight years ago (was it that long ago?), a 20 year old blonde with a warm smile, wearing what I assumed to be trendy clothes who found me on MySpace (holy crap, it’s official, I’m old), told me that her whole family plays D&D on the weekends. Just let that sink in for a second. A guy who’s been working on computers since he was 13 was taken aback by trying to imagine an otherwise perfectly "normal" girl playing Dungeons and Dragons with her parents. Hypocritical? Probably. But this is how bad stigma is. Even nerds will balk at other nerds should a few dreaded hobbies come up in conversation because the message with which we’re constantly bombarded is that a D&D circle is the geekiest activity of them all. That, or devil worship, as per Jack Chick.

Who the hell decided that it should be the norm to ostracize comic books, computers, games, or sci-fi but fantasy sports leagues are a-ok? Whose edict was it that he who is nerd must hide his or her nerddom or be picked last for any sport or social activity? I’d ask why so many movies, TV shows, and sitcoms perpetuate the stereotypes, but it’s pretty obvious why. They wouldn’t want to rock the boat by casting a nerdy character as anything other than a punchline or a borderline insane genius with social anxiety, absurdly, though harmlessly aloof. Why showing a nerd with a normal day job who goes home, watches sci-fi to unwind from a long day and recharge since he finds long periods of time spend around people to be exhausting, then helps his significant other do the dishes would make him look, gasp, normal! Can’t have that. Likewise, we couldn’t show a nerdy girl doing something other than awkwardly trying to get laid by working all her nonexistent womanly charms on a disinterested jock on film. What are we going to do? Send her on a date with someone at a coffee shop to talk mostly about non-nerd things? That’s blasphemy…

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  • Johnny

    Isn’t this a somewhat recent cultural shift? From what I know Einstein was very much a “cool guy” when he lived. Today very few scientists could qualify (like Hawking) because culture has shifted to idolize pop stars and sport stars.

  • gfish3000

    It’s not like the there was no pop star or sports star worship in the early 1900s, and gossip columns and tabloids were unheard of. There’s a book that posits that the shift happened after World War 2 because the portrayals of scientists as evil geniuses keeping the country safe which led to more people tuning out of once popular TED-style public lectures. But really, I doubt anybody knows for sure, myself included.