BEING A NERD ISN’T WHAT IT WAS
By Tembisa Aborn
James Campbell, a 20-year-old Haverford College student, sits in front of his television while wearing Batman pajamas. Right now, he’s playing Call of Duty on his Xbox 360, but he might switch to Halo, or better yet, turn on his Wii and call over some friends to play Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Maybe they’ll talk about the way the last season of Game of Thrones ended, as he is an avid watcher, or about the new Marvel Comics movie.
In short, Campbell is a nerd.
Because of that one word — and knowing nothing else — if you were asked to conjure up an image of Campbell, you might imagine him to be sweet but socially inept. Skinny and pale, wearing thick glasses. Maybe he has braces and wears a lot of plaid. The exact opposite is true. Campbell has 20/20 vision, perfect teeth, plays basketball, is 150 pounds of mostly muscle, and while he likes movies and video games, he also likes parties and shopping.
That doesn’t make him any less nerdy.
Campbell and his kind represent the increasingly large number of people who, despite not fitting into the mold of the traditional geek or nerd, still partake in various aspects of the culture, like comic books, video games, and tech. They are living proof of the fact that nerd culture, once perceived as the domain of anti-social basement dwellers, now belongs to whoever feels like taking it.
Even the words “nerd” and “geek” have evolved tremendously to accommodate this demographics shift. Not all that long ago, these terms were the jeers of the cool kids beating down on people whose interests placed them on the fringes of society. As Mikey Ilagan, the editor-in-chief of popular Philadelphia-based nerd blog Geekadelphia, explained it, “There was a time when being knowledgeable about certain topics or fields was perceived negatively.” Now, the very same words are worn as badges of pride.
Even pop culture seems persistently aware of this transition.
For instance, in a 2013 episode of the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation, after someone attempts to insult him by being called a nerd, one character shoots back, “Nerd culture is mainstream now. So when you use the word ‘nerd’ derogatorily, that means you’re the one that’s out of the Zeitgeist.” At the very worst, one might see friends roll their eyes at one another and say teasingly, “Jeez, you’re such a nerd about this,” as a way to acknowledge someone’s enthusiasm and mastery of a particular subject. Even this could be described as grudgingly respectful. It certainly isn’t mean.
The gradual shift of nerd culture from counterculture to mainstream is probably due in large part to the ever-expanding role of technology in our everyday lives.
“[Nerd culture] has become mainstream because we’ve got everything thanks to the advancement of technology, the interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math education), and who knows what else,” said Ilagan. It’s true. Computers, cellphones, gaming consoles, web sites, these things make up our day-to-day, and they were pioneered by the nerds of our world. To shun the culture whose participants, from Bill Gates to Elon Musk, have provided the foundation of much of modern society would be to bite the hand that feeds.
There’s more to this change than society simply paying its dues. In fact, part of it seems to be that nerd culture is starting to pay its dues to society. For a long time, nerdom put its money on appealing to specific types of people. If only non-athletic teenage boys seemed to take an interest in certain types of books or shows, then that was partly because they only attempted to appeal to non-athletic teenage boys
Chris Cook, 48, and manager of Showcase Comics in Bryn Mawr, has witnessed this with his own eyes.
“I think the audience has gotten broader,” he said. “When I started working here around 20 years ago, we mostly got a lot of teenage boys. Now we get lots of different people—more girls, people who are older, younger. Part of it is that there’s a lot more stuff for different types of people, not just boys, though there’s still a lot for them too. There’s something for everyone, now.”
One example of this is that comic books have recently been making an effort to include more women in their pages. This year, the first female Thor was introduced to the eponymous comic. It’s important to understand that the character of Thor in the Marvel canon is defined less by Nordic mythology and more by possession of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, which is inscribed with the phrase, “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” Earlier this year, DC gave Batgirl’s comic continuity a reboot, meaning they started her entire story over from scratch, so that she would appeal more to young girls. Marvel has also announced that it finally intends to make a movie about a female member of its canon, saying that they intend to release a film focusing on the female heroine Captain Marvel in the next few years.
Nerd culture has become a lot more accessible to the average person for other reasons. Part of being a nerd is exhibiting exceptional knowledge of a subject, even if it’s just trivia. In days gone by, becoming an expert about detailed and expansive TV series like Star Trek or the ever-expanding and overlapping universes of DC and Marvel Comics used to take a lot of time, money, and effort. If you wanted to be a fan, it meant doing the legwork, and that could take years.
The internet has mostly put an end to all that. Now, everything you need to know about any topic is just a Google search away. As Troy Campbell, a self-proclaimed “mainstream nerd” and researcher at Duke University explained to Deseret News in September, “Nerd identity is a lot about knowledge: knowing insider information, knowing what’s in and what’s not. Feeling mastery over something is amazing. The Internet literally institutionalized nerds. The Internet makes knowing incredibly easy.”
While you would think that finally being accepted as a significant part of mainstream culture might be a welcome change for a group once defined by its exclusion, there’s been a surprising amount of backlash from long-time nerds.
For instance, where the Oxford English Dictionary defines the new term “geek chic” as, “The dress, appearance, and culture associated with computing and technology enthusiasts, regarded as stylish or fashionable,” one of Urban Dictionary’s community-written entries defines it as, “a recent [stupid] trend that has popped up everywhere…. Everyone thinks they’re a geek now because they have a Facebook or own a high tech phone….Real geeks got picked on, and were proud to call themselves geeks because they could construct their own PCs or were very good at math or something, not because they spend massive amounts of time on Xbox playing Call of Duty or on some consumer electronic like an iPod or iPhone.”
In a forum of the popular chat site Reddit, another person wrote, “(t-shirts that say ‘Geek’ on them) piss me off, mainly because throughout school me and my friends were called geeks, and now all the chavs that called us geeks have decided it’d be a good idea to start wearing them. Wankers.”
This mindset is understandable, if not also somewhat unreasonable. Even if no one likes your club, you can at least take pride in the fact that it’s your club, and no one else’s. Becoming mainstream means that now everyone can get inside, and they’re not even knocking before they come in the door. But then again, maybe the door should never have been closed to begin with.
Speaking about how some nerds try to test others to make sure they’re “real” nerds, Ilagan said, “I do believe some become “gatekeepers” and I think there’s a certain level of irony to it. The subculture, while more mainstream now, exists partially due to the former exclusion from the mainstream or the norm. To exclude others because they don’t fit into a perceived mold or standard is a bit ridiculous, though it does happen.”
Randall Munroe, writer and author for the webcomic xkcd, known for its exceptionally highbrow tech humor, has also been troubled by nerdom’s unwillingness to let in new faces. As he sees it, “This can easily become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that can make a community steadily more homogenous and exclusionary.”
The “fake geek girl” meme nicely codifies this mindset. The “fake geek girl” is a damning label placed on women who are perceived as involving themselves in nerd culture not due to genuine interest, but because it’s trendy, or because they want to use it to gain the attention of men. As a result, women are treated with undue scrutiny when they venture into traditionally nerdy areas of interest. This then begs the question: what’s the big deal?
There appears to be a pervasive notion that the people who have started exploring nerdom just because it’s cool are changing the culture as a whole. On some level, this is true. The ways that San Diego Comic Con, the premier nerd event in the United States, has changed over the years is clear testament to that. While the convention began in 1970 as a tiny comic expo of only 100 attendees, now over 130,000 people come every year. And while it still bears the name “Comic Con,” it is very Hollywood-centric, and is mostly used to showcase new movies and TV shows, in addition to comic books. As a result, old-school nerds are seeing less representation for their old-school interests.
In their own right
But is that necessarily a bad thing? The people who line up, often for hours, in order to talk to an actor from their favorite TV show or who wait eagerly to hear information about a beloved franchise, have surely earned their metaphorical stripes. Even if they’re not the nerds that culture has trained us to expect, they’re still nerds in their own right.
As Wil Wheaton, writer of some of the flagship shows and movies in nerdom such as Marvel’s The Avengers and the critically acclaimed Firefly, wrote in one article, “Are we really upset that Comic-Con is hurting our culture, or are we upset that something that once belonged exclusively to us clearly doesn’t, anymore?”
The fact that anyone can claim to be nerdy about anything is an understandable cause for frustration for the people who bore the weight of the words “nerd” and “geek” before they were trendy—but in this case, it might be better to let bygones be bygones.
What this means is that, in 2014, anyone can be a nerd, and they can be a nerd about anything. You into comics? Nerd. Board games? Nerd. You listen to a lot of music? Nerd. Do you sew a lot? Nerd. Have a deep interest in fashion? Nerd. Sports? Believe it or not: Nerd. Nowadays, the various types of nerds are just different breeds of the same animal, and that’s a good thing.
“I think [becoming mainstream] is a positive change,” said Ilagan, adding to the sentiment. “At its core, nerds or geeks are simply passionate people with deep interests, regardless of labels.”
Even with its purest definition, Nerd culture has always relied heavily on testing the boundaries of what currently is and what eventually might be. Sci-fi, fantasy, comic books, board games, and tech, all exist by taking things that currently exist and building upon or altering them in new and interesting ways. That’s why the evolution of nerd culture should be embraced, since if it wasn’t evolving it would be stagnating. If the people contributing to nerdom now come from all corners of the Earth, that can only mean even more interesting things are on the horizon. That’s why the fact that nerd is now “in” seems like it is a cause for celebration.
For too long, nerdom’s place in society has been questioned and downplayed and disregarded. No one would stand up to defend the techie who forgoes friendship to tinker away in the dark, the enthusiast who can’t sleep at night because they’re too busy thinking up strategies to use in role playing games. For decades, nerdom has needed friends. Now, it finally has them.