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Committed: The Wrong Kind of Nerd (?)

012214_thewarriorsIf you took your lessons from TV, (where people are depicted in broad generalizations), then all nerds (or geeks, whatever you want to call the people who like the type of things we like) are part of one giant group. Apparently we all go to Comic-Con, we all dress up in costumes, we all read comic books, we all love science fiction, we all play endless games, we all play D&D, we all love Lord of the Rings movies, etc… But it isn’t true. Some of us like some of those things and some of us definitely do not like some of them.

In contrast to this strange media depiction of one giant, inclusive community of nerds, in many circles there is a pretty exclusionary attitude towards the other circles of fandom. While it isn’t very extreme (there aren’t Warriors or West Side Story style confrontation going on at conventions between Doctor Who fans and Game of Thrones fans… even though that would be very entertaining) there is a fair amount of animosity. One group will often have little or no understanding of what the other groups are into, and we can find it quite insulting to be lumped into one amorphous “nerd” banner. This kind of division can seem random from the outside, but it is nothing new, and certainly isn’t isolated to our culture of fandom. It has always existed within politics, religion, sexuality, etc. People like to be acknowledged for their unique features, not randomly labeled in ways they do not identify.

The other day I admitted to a friend that the reason my sheets are all gray is because I’d always wanted my bed to look like Deckard’s in Blade Runner. This was apparently pretty ridiculous, even to a fellow science fiction lover – “You’re such a geek!” was the response. I didn’t expect that, but it is true; compared to many people I take some of my interests to a more personal level. It isn’t that I want to live in a Blade Runner-esque, miserable, futuristic dystopia (although some would say that we already do), but I have always loved the styling of the film and I cannot help but be influenced by it in my own taste. the interaction highlighted something for me; we are not all the same type of nerds, even the ones which share similar interests may not express them in the same ways.

012214_bladerunnerOne example that occurs to me is the way that my peers have vehemently protested the way DC has changed the use their fantastic library of characters over the last couple of years. My response to it has simply been to allow my superhero reading to trickle down to a meager two or three books a month in the last year, rather than protesting the changes or demanding alternatives. That is because my passion for comic books isn’t focused on superheroes, but on the medium itself and so I’m very satisfied to just read more of the independent books which tell stories about other things. Some comic book fans have said that I’m taking it too lightly or that I’m not speaking out for the medium I love, but I feel okay about coasting along and accepting the changes. That’s the kind of comic book fan I am – we aren’t all the same.

A complaint I heard from many of my friends over the holidays was that when they visited their families, they were asked “Are you like those ‘Big Bang Theory’ guys?”. Understandably a lot of them found this irritating, and I believe that this is because the writers of that show paint with a broad brush, they generalize (as is the norm in many sitcoms). One of the defining characteristic of the characters in the show is that they’re hard core scientists with serious social disabilities. The fact that they are also obsessive comic book readers, they readily dress up in costume for parties and conventions, they are heavily involved in role-playing games, etc, is almost incidental. This broad range of interests, on top of a full-time profession as scientists is actually rather unusual, but because they enjoy almost every possible aspect of nerd culture, there is almost always some small aspect for a disinterested relative to associate us with. We’re branded as like them even though very few of us identify with these socially dubious characters, it’s understandable that people find it annoying.

For people who do not share our interests the distinctions we make between our interests might seem random, but I know that I’m not a gamer because I’ve tried to get into it and I just can’t. I’ve had many opportunities to play games and have tried to do so on multiple occasions with all kinds of games (both on and offline), but I can’t seem to get into them. In my work as a graphic designer I’ve had jobs where I had to design promotional materials for games and loved the work and the culture because they look great and the aesthetic really appeals to me… But actually playing them just doesn’t work for me and so I can say without a doubt that I’m not a gamer.

012214_broniesGaming is just one example where I don’t fit in to some sort of generalized “nerd culture”, but we all have them. Last week I watched a film called Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony and it was wonderful fun. I appreciated the positivity and sense of community which the fans found in their shared love of the cartoons. However, despite this sympathetic experience, I remain completely uninterested in the My Little Pony cartoons themselves, they’re just not for me. It didn’t stop me from appreciating the documentary, but it clearly another aspect of fandom which doesn’t include me.

The differences between our interests aren’t the only thing which separates us. While we enjoy the same things, they might not enthrall and consume some of us in the the way that others do. One of my friends just posted annotations for the latest Sherlock episode, which I read purely out of curiosity (since a friend wrote it), but it didn’t interest me at all. This is despite thoroughly enjoying the show itself. We’re friends who both like the same show, and yet the way we’re interested in it is completely different. Frankly I wouldn’t put us in the same category of interest at all, yet we are both part of one big, amorphous fan-grouping.

It annoys me to be labeled so generally and so casually, I think it is pretty weird for most people (except maybe those popular kids  in ’80′s movies, wearing the pastel polo shirts with the collars turned up). Which nerdy things will appeal to me is quite random so it can feel awkward to be grouped together with fans of things I don’t understand. Despite this, I can still appreciate their excitement and in that way at least I do feel like part of a larger group.

31 Comments

Slightly off topic, but your piece reminded me of the time an older friend of the family told me she saw “The 40 Year old Virgin” and that it validated my collecting comics and action figures.

I would pay money to see different groups of nerds fight. Hell, that’s a reality TV show I’d actually watch. Klingons vs. Bronies. Whovians vs. Jedi. Tabletop gamers vs. CCG gamers. WoW vs. EVE. The season finale 5-way brawl between fans of the different editions of Dungeons and Dragons. Goddammit, somebody get me a producer’s phone number right now.

Nerd Death Matches DO sound quite delightful, don’t they?

But yes, it is so true. I wonder how Baseball or Football fans would like being lumped together? They’d probably swallow their tongues.

what always irritates me is the way people who are obsessional about SF/F are called nerds and geeks because they cal speak Klingon, or Elvish or can tell you the names of all of the Jedi Council members in Phantom Menace or something, yet when you get some guy telling you the stats of his team for the last ten years or some sports related guff, this is some how NOT nerdy.

really, the batting averages of the England Cricket team or the rushing stats for the Seahawks or the point spreads of the last ten NBA finals is just as nerdy as being able to watch the end of DS9′s fifth season and identify sixteen Federation starship classes in the fleet or seeing a group picture of the Justice League and being abel to name them all.

This article sums up one of the main reasons I don’t self-identify as a geek, despite reading (and doing my own) comics, watching anime, buying action figures, playing video games, and having the kind of knowledge of Metal Gear Solid games that can only be gained by carefully replaying and studying them. The term “geek” implies a very narrow set of interests and narrower range of people with whom one can meaningfully interact. I may do a lot of geeky things, but I’m not sixteen anymore and don’t see any reason to limit myself and my time to those interests exclusively.

I never considered myself a geek/nerd, nor I was, and I never liked these words.
These words always sounded to me very pejoratively.

But I never understood why liking comic books or video games or collecting some memorabilia is instantly geeky or nerdy?

If some people love for example Sopranos and can discuss it, analyze it, and have some merchandise, are they geeks?
In schools everyone was talking about aliens, predator, terminator and other stuff. Was it geeky?
If someone as a kid collected posters with basketball players, or baseball cards, was he a geek too?

And I know a lot of people who love comic books and they’re not even remotely looking like stereotypical comic book fan. Quite the opposite.

Actual conversation I had with my girlfriend’s cousin while I was wearing a T-shirt with the Green Lantern symbol:
“I like your Green Hornet shirt.”
“Actually, it’s Green Lantern.”
“Oh, right. I was close, though. I knew it was from Big Bang Theory.”

It’s frustrating how some nerds automatically think you are a fan of everything geek just because you collect comic books. I’m not a Star Trek fan and I don’t play role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. When I tell other “nerds” that I don’t like these things, I lose street credit in their eyes and they look down upon me. I can’t stand elitist geeks and they contradict the genre in every way.

Interesting article. I agree that geeks and nerds or whatever slur an ignorant, stereotype believing jerk wants to use shouldn’t be grouped together. It really isn’t fair they way the media portrays geeks in movies and TV Shows such as the Big Bang Theory and SNL. Thank you for posting this. It really restored my faith in this website after that article defending Alan Moore’s “last” interview by Greg Hatcher.

For what it’s worth, I believe the reason society sees a difference between one guy learning to speak Klington vs. another guy memorizing endless stats for a sports team is that that sports team actually exists, is made up of real people, who actually did the things being memorized. Whereas the Klingons are a fictional race from a TV show.

Whether there is any real FUNCTIONAL difference (am I every going to get any closer to a real pro baseball player than I am a Klingon?) is in doubt in my mind, but there is that difference in some minds.

Some would argue that it’s not the amount of time spent on something that makes one a nerd or geek, it’s that that time is spent on things that aren’t real.

Fury – that’s because those other people are memorizing facts about things that actually happened and exist

Well, it’s about time someone stood up for those poor Trekkie nerds that were getting lumped in with the Star Wars nerds! The world is a much brighter place with that injustice quashed.

Maybe stop feeding the need to label damn near everyone. Elitist geeks?! This is how the powers that be keep everyone in their place, by creating reasons for “other-ness” by which I mean a pervasive derision of anything deemed “not like me and my group”. Subcultures, different religions or political affiliations, racial bias, economic bias, etc. All used to keep any feeling of unity in life. Stop using titles like nerd or geek in either a positive or negative way. They are stupid terms. I like a lot of different things to different degrees, I have been described as a music geek, movie nerd, toy geek, comic nerd, and word nazi. All these terms were delivered by folks who had maybe a slight idea of who I am, but superficial to be sure. I have no idea what a “stereotypical comic book fan” looks like by the way. That is as generalized as a lot of racial slurs. This whole god damned conversation is pretty pointless in the long and short of it. But a lot of the thinking here, especially this seemingly unspoken race to be top freaking nerd of the world, makes me embarrassed to be into comics and such at times. Not that I read or collect, but the fan base itself.

I’m waiting for the day when people stop choosing to identify under any stereotype. Even the so called ‘mainstream’ is an invention being maintained by anonymous people who have more money and better resources. Think about all the media considered to be mainstream and then try to name more than four people who keep those things (whether it be social media, television, radio, movie studios) operating.

It’s all a pose. Pick a costume: punk, goth, new wave, jock, bro, geek, nerd, metalhead, etc. and so on. So many uniforms, so little time?

When you’re born, the choices are made for you, and when you get old enough- you might choose otherwise or accept those beliefs. Your religion, your class system, and possibly even your gender beliefs have been chosen for you. Blue for boys and pink for girls (unless your culture is different from Americanized ‘norms’).

When will we wrestling geeks be accepted into the larger geek pantheon?

More than once I’ve seen looks of shock on people’s faces when I say I tried part of the first episode of The Big Bang Theory and decided it just wasn’t something I wanted to follow. But to me that’s like expecting every black person to like In Living Color or every gay person to like Queer as Folk. We like what we like, and that’s not always going to be a specific interpretation of a particular group, be it biological or cultural.

In many ways I fit the stereotypical geek (I love comic books, shows, and movies, and with comics my tastes lean heavily towards the superheroes) but in other ways I deviate a fair bit: I never had any aspiration to become a scientist, I respect that movies based on comics are going to rework things quite a bit, I don’t like dressing up, I prefer Star Trek to Star Wars and yet am a casual fan, not a Trekkie, etc.

I do think labels have their place, but only as a starting point for discussion. All too often they are used by people who don’t understand the individual to force a person into a particular box.

I think different types of geeks fighting each other would be great fun for a show like Big Bang Theory.

This reminds me of a bit of research I did into Famous Monsters of Filmland for a paper I wrote. Forrest J. Ackerman was intent on bridging all the different fandoms together, and did so by using multiple pieces of jargon from each fanbase with each issue of Filmland.

“Apparently we all go to Comic-Con, we all dress up in costumes, we all read comic books, we all love science fiction, we all play endless games, we all play D&D, we all love Lord of the Rings movies, etc… But it isn’t true.”

Raises hand… I guess it’s my fault cause I do all those things.

I have to admit I do believe these generalizations. And I hardly classify myself as a nerd, because I don’t collect comic books, like cosplays, like comic-con, etc. I do play video games, but I don’t think playing video games says anything about yourself. A lot of gamers play video games, and many of them don’t even read comic books.

I do find it interesting, because these generalizations are everywhere. You guys ain’t good in sports, you’re shy around girls, you don’t exercise, etc. Is pretty funny, I gotta admit.

I wouldn’t worry too much. All groups have generalizations in their own way; races especially. Is just another way to make sense of the world, and since social groups are theoretically proven, not just in humans but in the animal world as well(such as wolves attack in groups), it makes sense these generalizations stick. After all, social groups don’t just get built overnight.

PS: please prove me wrong. Lol

I’m from a city with a big nerd population, my friends created a new lane — nerd thugs. We did a lot of bad things in our younger days and then went back and played video games and MTG, and watched Trigun. Our hangout was one of the local comic book shops, which to this day has a rep as the grittier store in the city.

Don’t judge people. The line has been blurred.

“Apparently we all go to Comic-Con, we all dress up in costumes, we all read comic books, we all love science fiction, we all play endless games, we all play D&D, we all love Lord of the Rings movies, etc… But it isn’t true.”
Yeah, like Teek I’m in this boat. Well, I don’t dress up in costumes unless I’m actually on stage.

BUT

I don’t like Doctor Who.

That shocks certain people like nobody’s business believe you me.

Pardon my TLDR post and its horrible grammar and spelling. It’s past 2am and I’m winging it here.

Anyway…

My problem isn’t necessarily that there’s too much generalization, but that there’s not enough internal complexity. It’s too safe to simply say that there’s a spectrum that somehow encompasses the nerds, the geeks, the jocks, and the “norms”. Labels make people happy because we just love classification. However, I don’t think that any of these labels are adequate enough to fully express how we, as people, can be so full of contradictions.

I’ll use myself as an example here.

Age 3: I had already learned how to read, better than many adults.
Age 5: I kinda (sorta) vivisected myself out of scientific curiosity. I wanted to see what the human hand looked like on the inside. I still have the scar. ^_^
Age 7: I started dismantling household appliances and electronics and rebuilding them into totally new objects.
Age 8: I taught myself to program in C64 BASIC and ASM because I was so into games and wanted to make my own.
Age 8: I taught myself how to build electronics from scratch, mostly because my parent were fed up with me dismantling stuff.
Age 9-10: While other kids went out to play, my summer was spent with my mother home schooling me be because I was getting bored with what school was teaching.
Age 12: My parents got me my first soldering iron and my own set of tools, after which I built some funky robots.
By age 18, I had already taken 7 years of Latin, 2 years of college physics, and 2 years of calculus. The teaching staff had enough faith in me that they even let me be a student teacher and teach my own 6th grade physical science class.

I college: More math. More science. More compsci. I led study groups, tutored students, and taught some classes because I already knew the material. In freshman year, I wrote a philosophy paper so good that my professor was CONVINCED that I must have copied a graduate student’s thesis. Apparently, according to her, no freshman could know that much. (Sadly, the teacher was total tool and wouldn’t listen to reason. Quite the b—-.) Already bored of Latin, I also snuck in a few classes in Italian and ancient Greek while in college.

I wear glasses. I got into colleges like MIT, Colgate, WPI, RPI and such. As a child, I had athsma. As an adult, I’ve even written a number of published technical articles. My idea of relaxation includes calculus equations and physics thought experiments. I can also program in C/C++ and HTML. All signs point to NERD, right? Well…. Not quite. Not exactly.

In high school, I wrestled and fenced sabre at a varsity level. Though I was a scrawny little kid, I was actually pretty buff by the time I was 17. With free weights, I was squatting ~335 and benching ~225. Definitely did way more weight than my `roid case of a gym coach. I had tons of friends, many of whom were on the football team. I wasn’t exactly Don Juan, but I wasn’t exactly stammering every time I talked to a girl. In college, as you’d expect, I attended a lot of parties and drank way more than any human should. I also got better with women and even had a few relentlessly pursue me, though not in a stalker way. These days, I still lift weights and jog, but only for about 2 hours each day.

A lot of that stuff fits into the “POPULAR” or “JOCK” categories, but that’s not quite me either.

There’s another part of me that loves to paint & sculpt. It might have been due to my childhood obsession with LEGOs or my basic desire to create. Whatever the reason, I first learned to model and animate CG stuff back when I was 15. This was back in the late 80s, well before such software was affordable, readily available, or intuitive/powerful. CG is such a passion of mine that it’s actually what I do for a living these days. I also love creative writing (screenplays) and even sang in an acapella choir for a number of years.

Would that make me an “ART GEEK” now? Hmmmm….. That’s not it either.

Like many of y’all here, I’m into comics and sci-fi. Currently, my comic collection is about 15k issues large; I’ve been collecting for about 30 years. My workstation’s shelf is littered with action figures and maquettes. Apocalypse. X-23. Red Hulk. Willow from Buffy. New Mutants Minimates. ETC. It looks like a toy store on my desk. Over the years, I’ve also owned TONS of video games and systems including: An old Pong console, Intellivision, Colecovision, NES, SNES, N64, GameCube, Wii, Gameboy, Gameboy Pocket, Gameboy Color, Gameboy Advance, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, Playstation, PS2, PS3, PS4, GameGear, Atari Lynx, & Atari Jaguar.

Am I a “COMIC GEEK” or a “GAME GEEK” at this point? Uhmmm…

I’m also great with tools. Given enough time and money, I can easily engineer and hand build whatever I can dream up, mechanical or otherwise. What would that make me then? Frankly, I’m losing track here.

See what I’m driving at? Put any person’s life under a microscope and you’re likely to find that they’re just too complicated to be trapped by labels. TV shows such as “The Big Bang Theory” may be funny, but they’re complete failures as character studies. While I’m affectionately (and often) referred to as “Sheldon” by family members, they also know that I’m deeper than that caricature. No real person could be that one dimensional.

TV shows and movies paint in broad strokes. When you’ve got 22 minutes to flesh out a character, you’re going to do it in the most cursory of ways. Characters are built around narrow core defining traits. Sheldon is the anal retentive semi-autistic type with severe OCD. Howard is the sex crazed techie. Raj is forever afraid of women. Leonard is the “cool” nerd who gets the girl. They all love comics and discuss every single topic in scientific terms when, in fact, most nerds probably wouldn’t. These are old and well worn designs that go far past the point of cliche or stereotype.

To me, it’s shocking. Nerds & geeks aren’t just commonplace and accepted. No. In fact, we kinda run the world these days. Box office receipts are dominated by genres once considered too nerdy or geeky to be socially acceptable. The most powerful companies tend to be tech related. That millionaire? He isn’t the Donald Trump type. No. He’s more likely to be of the Zuckerberg variety, young and “hip”. Comic Con? Not as many fat, sweaty, girl fearing basement dwellers as in days gone by. I went to a few cons back in the 80s or 90s. I’ve also been to every single NYCC as an adult. I can tell you that, for the most part, that old stereotype is pretty dead too. The average comic con goer looks like the woman in your office, that old guy next door to you at home, or the family of four down the block.

People actually wear glasses as a fashion statement. Let that sink in for a moment. =)

I won’t deny that some classic nerds/geeks still exist. I went to school with a couple of guys who were embarrassing. “King of the Nerds” level embarrassing. However, I don’t think that they ever represented the norm or the way true nerds/geeks were.

We’re decades removed from “Revenge of the Nerds”, but the media holds on to that image as if it held some sort of religious significance. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a realistic portrayal of a “nerd” or “geek” on TV or film before. We don’t fit into a box. Our lives can’t be described in 22 minute bites. We can’t. They can’t. People are people. We may skew a little more toward one extreme or another, but we’re really far more alike than not. That basic truth is simply too boring for TV though.

Nerd. Popular. Jock. Art Geek. Comic Geek. Game Geek. Shop dude. At the end of the day, I exactly don’t fit into one of these groups, yet I somehow fit into all of them. That’s the reality of it. People are onions. We’ve got layers.

Who I am is somebody who grows and evolves each and every day. When it comes down to it, the only label that truly fits me is my name. That’s it.

I blame TBBT for this. That show loves to make fun of nerds.

@Ben: CM Punk loves Marvel. AJ loves comics, but I see her as a “fake nerd” girl.

Speaking of groups of nerds fighting, this was depicted best in the movie Fanboys, where the Star Wars uber-fans encountered the natural enemy of all Star Wars fans: a Trekkie! Great scene.

Every group is labeled broadly and generally unless you have a specific interest in said group to understand it. This is common place in society. Are you so high and mighty that you expect everyone to completely understand all the subtle minutia of geek culture? Do you think all gear heads or car fanatics are the same? Or are their some that are simply into classic Porsche? Possibly a very specific model and have no idea what when the very first Jeep came out and why anyone would want to own or drive one. What about people that build and collect model trains? I’m sure there’s no subsets at all there.

You’re right that media mostly paints in broad strokes because people that don’t share a particular interest only have a broad understanding of it. That’s a pretty common sense approach to depicting something or someone. I think the larger concern here is why do you feel the need to label everything and can’t just enjoy many interests? And why would it insult or annoy you to be included with other people of similar interests?

How do you classify someone that likes Star Wars, Comic Books but not D&D? Maybe just a broad generalization like we do for everything else in the world? By occasionally being classified a nerd doesn’t mean you need to have interests in all things considered nerdy. It’s just a label. They exist. Humans like to label and classify things. Everything needs and name and needs to fit on a shelf. Jocks, gear heads, musicians, artists…. all of them labeled in a broad stroke. You’re also human by the way. Another broad generalization in a way.

A label is a quick way for someone to understand generally who and what you are. We all have an idea in our head what an artist is, what a nerd is, what a web designer is and that all comes to mind when you tell someone these things.

If you want to be classified a certain way make it known to the people around you. They’re the one’s that matter. If you expect the media to paint an exact portrait of you for something that is targeted towards mass appeal … well you’re dreaming.

In my experience, being a geek usually entails liking something and people not understanding why you like it.

Within fandoms, the experience of being a geek becomes bizarre. Kind of like “How could you possibly like MORE THAN ONE THING???” I like comics, but I don’t like all comics. I like anime, but I don’t like all anime. I like both Star Wars and Star Trek and find nothing contradictory about that.

There’s an inclusive side of fandom, but there’s also a fierce territorial side of fandom. People seem to want to draw a line in the sand as if to say, “I’m not THAT kind of geek. Bronies? Ugh.” And my only response is, “How is that any stranger than you reading comic books?”

I’m not a fan of the show, but I think “The Big Bang Theory” is a necessary step. Yes, I know people expect fiction that will perfectly reflect their experiences, and they expect it NOW, but progress is always slow in the depiction of minorities and subcultures.

First you have invisibility, then you have extremely negative portrayals, then you have comical portrayals, then you have still more comical portrayals but with more sympathy this time, then you have exaggerated positive portrayals, etc. all the way through acceptance.

TBBT is still an improvement when you think of 1980s TV shows where nerds were punching bags and laughing stocks with bit roles and barely human anatomies. As exaggerated as the guys in TBBT are, they’re at least viewpoint characters and protagonists, so they’re sympathetic, they get the girls, and they are all pretty good-looking, actually. Things could be worse.

And it’s also a sitcom, it’s comedy. Of course the characters are exaggerated.

As for sports, yes, they are “real”, but they might as well not be. Sports are just some guys playing with a ball while lots of people watch. It’s only real and important because lots of people think it is real and important. In that way, sports are not so different from fiction.

The real reason sports fan are more respected is because it’s supposed to be manly. Sports celebrities are mock warriors, and males are supposed to be into this sort of thing, war and territorial fighting.

Particularly, I don’t like watching sports, but unlike the nerd stereotype, I like to practice some of them. Weight-lifting, mostly.

I’m reminded of the Bob’s Burgers episode “Carpe Museum” where 13-year-old Tina and another nerdy kid (guest-voiced by Jim Gaffigan) go around polling their classmates on which of them is a bigger “dork” (it’s split 50-50, largely on gender lines). Ultimately they draw the affirming conclusion that everyone in the class is a dork for something and that it’s all cool and blah blah blah, basic life lesson in self-esteem and showing empathy for those around you.

@Rene–Actually, you bring up a compelling point. I may not like how geeks are portrayed on the Big Bang Theory, but at least there are different kinds of geeks on the show, and none of them are Urkel.

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