By Courtney Suciu
Believe it or not, there was a time when being called a nerd or geek was an insult. But these days, nerdiness and geekdom are mainstream. Having a passion for comics and anime, being tech savvy, possessing an intellectual curiosity – these are no longer characteristics of an awkward social misfit. Instead, in many cases, they are traits which are considered cool in mainstream pop culture.
So, what happened?
How did it become hip to be square?
What the heck does being a nerd even mean?
These are some of the questions we had in mind when we started to research the rise of nerd culture.
Those of us of a certain age remember the early 1980s when the arbiter of cool was MTV, a new cable channel devoted to cutting-edge music videos and news.
Dreamy, cute-boy pop acts like Duran Duran and The Police were in heavy rotation.
But so was Thomas Dolby, the gawky, bespectacled and buttoned-up musician who proved to be an unlikely pop sensation with his inventive electronic hit “She Blinded Me with Science.”
According to a 2014 interview with The New York Times1, Dolby explained how he used his nerdiness to distinguish himself “from the ‘good-looking lads’ on the 1980s pop scene” like Sting and Simon Le Bon.
The Times reported that Dolby, born Thomas Robertson, chose his stage name in honor of Dolby Laboratories “because of his fascination with audio technology.” The one-hit wonder went on to become an arts professor at Johns Hopkins University and, despite his influence on the crossover of nerd and pop cultures, Dolby admitted, “I am no more comfortable in my geek skin now than in 1982.”
To understand why it was so bad to be considered a nerd in the 1980s, look at the popular coming-of-age films from the era. In his book Generation Multiplex2, Timothy Shary explained “The roles of intellectually ambitious school characters in youth films since 1980 – who are portrayed as socially inept and uncouth – indicate that nerds lack the respect of their teen counterparts.”
Nerd characters were not only depicted as the smartest kids in the classroom, but as the most meek and straight-laced. According to Shary, “such a blatant conformity to institutional expectations [gave them] a reputation for being unoriginal and excessively vulnerable.”
In addition, the stereotypical nerd was often portrayed as white (which arguably racialized traits like doing well in school or liking sci-fi), male, often wimpy and emasculated by athletic or rebellious alpha characters.
However, the internet has played a major role in changing perceptions of what it means to be a nerd, and who identifies as a geek.
In the same Times article, Dave Goetsch, co-executive producer of “The Big Bang Theory,” a popular sitcom about nerds, explained, “Growing up, pre-Internet, possession of knowledge was such an identifier. That is no longer true; the Internet flattens things out.”
It used to require a lot of effort and commitment to cultivate a depth of expertise in a particular subject, but technology has made a vast body of specialized information easy and readily available to most of us at any time. Basically, technology has democratized access to information, and, by extension, nerdiness.
But that’s only part of the changing mainstream culture in which The Times pointed out “once-fringe, nerd-friendly obsessions like gadgets, comic books and fire-breathing dragons are increasingly everyone's obsessions.”
In his dissertation Geek Cultures: Media and Identity in the Digital Age3, Jason Tocci focused on cultural developments which led to the transition of “labels like 'geek' and 'nerd' from schoolyard insults to sincere terms of identity.”
He explained, “Though such terms maintain negative connotations to some extent, recent years have seen a growing understanding that ‘geek is chic’ as computers become essential to daily life and business, retailers hawk nerd apparel, and Hollywood makes billions on sci-fi, hobbits, and superheroes.”
But noting the ubiquity of such nerd signifiers as computers, sci-fi, hobbits and superheroes doesn’t explain how or why they have become trendy in the mainstream.
In order to understand this transition, Tocci’s “ethnographic study” reveals that the “emergence of geek culture represents not a sudden fad, but a newly visible dimension of identity that demonstrates how dispersed cultures can be constructed through the integration of media use and social enculturation in everyday life.”
In other words, the “nerd” identity isn’t homologous – in fact “nerd” and “geek” (which he explains, despite attempts to define them differently, are synonymous and can be used interchangeably), have multiple, contradictory meanings which yield to and defy stereotypes, not just related to what it means to be a nerd, but also regarding expectations of race and gender.
Tocci found that there are four basic nerd identities: “misfit, genius, fan, and chic.” However, his research focused on the types of nerd that pre-existed – and contributed – to the emergence of “geek chic.”
Technological developments resulting in “financial successes of high-profile geeks [like Bill Gates] have popularized the idea that nerdy skills can be parlayed into riches and romance” so that the advantages and appeal of being a certain kind of nerd were suddenly apparent.
But more importantly, and influentially, technology made it easier for nerds to find each other. Tocci wrote:
The real power of communication technologies has been in augmenting the reach and persistent availability of those things that encourage a sense of belonging: socially insulated "safe spaces" to engage in (potentially embarrassing) activities; opportunities to remotely coordinate creative projects and social gatherings; and faster and more widespread circulation of symbols - from nerdcore hip-hop to geek-sponsored charities – confirming the existence of a whole network of individuals with shared values.
With these developments, Tocci pointed out, people who were ashamed to be labeled “nerds” by others proudly started to self-identity as nerds in order to assert their place in these burgeoning communities where it was acceptable – even celebrated – to have interests such as intellectual pursuits, sci-fi, comic books, computers and technology.
When many of the negative stereotypes of being a nerd as portrayed in 80s film started to be undermined by increased social acceptability of nerdy interests, nerd subcultures not only become more popular, but more diverse. This is evident in greater crossover between nerd subcultures and other subcultures.
For example, starting in the early 2000s, such a crossover movement manifested within hip hop culture. On one hand, there was the emergence of “nerdcore,” (also known as “geeksta rap”) defined in the 2008 documentary Nerdcore for Life4 as “geek rap, nerd rap, as rappers who rap about video games, computers, technology, stuff like that.”
Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, 19th-century literature, science and the frustrations of not fitting in were recurring themes for nerdcore artists who, through live events and online forums, forged communities where they could perform for each other, trade tracks, offer support, and be supported in this unique genre of self-expression. However, notably most (but not all) of the nerdcore artists featured were white males.
At the same time nerd culture was adapting hip hop conventions for self-expression, hip hop artists were opening up about their nerdiness. In his article “Race in the Age of Tribeless Youth Culture5,” Jasheen Gazi noted this development in the music and personas of Pharrell Williams and Kanye West:
Pharrell ran a record company called “Star Trax” and, instead of a gang sign, would throw up the Vulcan salute when performing with his band N.E.R.D., while West was the rap producer who had intended to create video game soundtracks.
Gazi’s article is primarily a scholarly analysis of the 2015 film Dope (a coming of age story about three African American nerds growing up in a high-crime neighborhood), focused on the intersection of racial identity, stereotyping and nerd culture.
He pointed out increased visibility of Black nerds in popular television and in music, looking at the example of Donald Glover, a self-proclaimed nerd who also played one on the hit meta-comedy “Community.” Additionally, Glover launched a successful hip hop career rapping about being a Black nerd under the moniker “Childish Gambino.”
It’s an insightful observation that demonstrates how being a nerd isn’t a simple, singular identity, but a complex plurality of interests and identities. Perhaps the questions we need to ponder next relate to what other intersectional nerd cultures look like.
For example, what is the relationship between gender and nerd culture? What does nerd culture look like within different ethnic groups?
These would be fascinating research opportunities for the various nerds among us.
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Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu