The Folly of Nerd
by Shay McHale | published Apr. 17th, 2017
Nerd culture has played a major role in the development of modern culture; it was once a very personal or intimately social experience reserved for those who couldn't find their place elsewhere. It allowed for the outcasts to find a home and for that it prospered. So much, in fact, that today, nerd culture has gone from a small isolated culture to one of the most common parts of popular culture.
The movies and stories that once were treasured as almost secrets have become so popular that every two-bit jock on the street could tell Iron Man from the Man of Steel. Even the two biggest comic book producers, DC and Marvel, are now releasing movies that are seen by millions of people and make billions of dollars every year. Although this has made nerd culture available to more and more people, it has also changed it. Nerd culture has become what it always feared being: jock culture. Masculinity and elitism are destroying the very roots of what it means to be a nerd.
Protectors of the Realm
One of the biggest parts of why nerd culture developed was a feeling of inadequacy. This allowed people who felt they didn’t meet the bar of masculinity set by society to find solace in the idea that someone could be great no matter who they were. But now nerd culture is threatened not by this masculinity, but by people who don’t fit into the “typical” nerd demographic.
One example of this is the backlash against people of color playing major roles in movies when the “canonical” version of the character is white. This came into play recently as Zendaya, a biracial actress, was announced to be playing love interest Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot. The argument was that the character was a white girl with red hair and should be played by a white girl with red hair. This blatantly racist gatekeeping has been supported by arguments comparing the character being black to Martin Luther King Jr. being white.
But in comics, usually if a main character was a POC it was for a reason. Luke Cage, now the star of his own Netflix series, was a black man to exemplify the inequality and immoral treatment that black people faced at the time; the show played on that as well, drawing parallels to the Trayvon Martin shooting with the iconic hoodies. Mary Jane Watson, on the other hand, has the arguably problematic purpose of being the damsel in distress and the love interest, neither of which depend on her race.
This idea that a character must be set in stone and has to fit expectations in every way is completely contradictory to what made nerd culture develop how it did and what made it so special. The idea that anyone can be a nerd is what created the culture. Now, few can truly be accepted as one of "them." This doesn’t just stop at race; gender and sexuality also come into conflict, with LGBT characters in media being seen as “forced agendas” and women commonly being seen as “fake geek girls” who are just using their looks to get attention and fill their egos.
Seductress or Princess?
“Fake geek girls” ties in with another issue involved in modern day nerd culture — the relationship between nerds and the "girls of their dreams." The most commonly known issue here is the Nice Guy trope, which, although not an inherent part of the culture, is something that unfortunately has become ingrained in it. One of the most common storylines in any culture is the hero in the end because he is a Nice Guy ends up getting the Dream Girl, whether or not she wants him at the start. As people who idolize these heroes, many nerds think being a Nice Guy entitles them to their Dream Girl, who owes them affection for being so good.
Putting the actual feelings of the girl aside for a second, this idea quite literally objectifies women in a way that is harmful to both parties. Seeing women as an end goal of a “quest” undermines the fact that there is no such set path to be taken, and if there were, no stable and healthy relationship could come of it.
This stigma against women is another reason why masculinity has still evolved to become a defining factor of mainstream nerd culture. This masculinity does not rely on physical ability or intelligence necessarily, but it still is defining what it means to be “manly.” Interests deemed too effeminate receive the same kind of gatekeeping that originally spawned this unique niche of society. Even women who have more than earned the right to be called nerds often end up being the subject to casual nerd misogyny, often with the common condescending inquiry of “oh so you like __? Name one of their (comics, interests, blood type, etc.).”
A New Hope
The internet has led to a popularization of nerd culture like never before, with nerdiness becoming accessible to anyone at a moment's notice. The small phenomenon that nerd culture once was has become a widespread hobby for a large portion of the population. The inevitable effect of this was a sort of purist culture where very few could actually be accepted into the inner circles of nerd-dom, replicating the problem that nerd culture was created to combat. While I still consider myself a nerd, it's important to recognize is that while nerd culture was very much stigmatized decades ago, it now isn't. Being a nerd isn’t a struggle, the struggle is dealing with reality and change. Nerds need to accept that the world changes, women aren’t objects and nerd culture is popular. Three simple truths, but even in a culture that embraces nerd culture with open arms, it may yet be a struggle for nerds to embrace it back.