Episode 147 – State of the Nerd Nation (Has Nerd Culture Changed?)

June 1, 2012

Click to listen to the State of the Nerd Nation address

Has Nerd Culture Changed?

In the roughly three-ish years we’ve been doing the podcast, I’ve noticed a drastic change in so-called Nerd Culture. A pop culture explosion, if you will. Some have even called it a mainstreamization.

But has Nerd Culture truly become Mainstream Culture?

Yes, it’s unequivocal that shows like Big Bang Theory have brought Nerd Culture into the limelight. But have they made it any more socially acceptable to be a nerd?

Some say yes as more people than ever identify as “nerd” and let their nerd flag fly. Science Fiction books are no longer hidden behind copies of classic novels on the bookshelf, Captain America is now acceptable water-cooler talk and  “geek chic” is the latest trend in fashion.

But does this mean there more nerds in the world? Has any normie truly been “turned” by all the nerd propaganda coming out of Hollywood and the Internet? What makes someone a “nerd” and is it any easier for someone who was “born this way” to live in our society?

There’s a difference between appreciating Nerd Culture and being a Nerd.

People that call themselves nerds

Nerd Culture includes a bevy of of popular things: Comic books, sci-fi and fantasy movies or books, vampires and zombie television shows, video games…

Due to the association of the nerdy fan who’s rabidly obsessed with above, mainstream society has traditionally looked upon these things as nerdy. But a nerd might not even like any them.

A nerd is more than a sum of their interests. A nerd is a person who  cannot fit into mainstream society; a person who is devalued or simply overlooked by mainstream society; someone who will never be accepted by mainstream society. And it has nothing to do with liking Star Trek.

People who are nerds, true nerds, nerds deep in their DNA, are cripplingly socially awkward. Even if they figured that their “time is now” in the wake of Big Bang Theory, they wouldn’t even be able to pull off geek chic—they’d get it wrong somehow. A real nerd cannot “blend” into social gathering. They will make social faux pas and either succumb to withering mortification at the fact or blunder on heedlessly. Some nerds will become bitter and grow walls around themselves claiming they “don’t want to be accepted by mainstream culture” and others will die agonizing that they never were.

But the commonality between all true nerds is that no matter how many prime time sitcoms there are, no matter how many people follow Wil Wheaton on Twitter, they cannot and will not be assimilated.

Pop goes the Nerd

So it’s no wonder that in the golden age of the Internet—the natural habitat of the nerd—an explosion of Nerd Culture occurred. A grassroots movement of memes, videos, tweets, web shows, podcasts, blogs sprouted into existence in the safe haven of the social outcast. A hidden subculture became so prevalent (on a medium more ubiquitous than television or radio ever were in their golden ages) that it was unable to be ignored by the rest of society.

And with the right tweaking, with enough attractive faces attached, Nerd Culture was ready to be packaged, shipped and sold back to its originators.

And Nerds ate it up.

Artistic merit and legitimate talent be damned, all it takes to launch your YouTube career is to pay homage to a movie, videogame or Nerd Culture in general (and it helps to be a cute—not actually very nerdy—girl). Nerds will geekgasm all over you no matter if what you’re doing has any merit or not.

The Nerd Singularity?

Finally, acceptance and legitimization. No more hiding in the margins, no more biting your tongue when someone in the lunch room says Tony Stark has superpowers. The Nerd Singularity has been realized: Mainstream Culture and Nerd Culture are one and the same!

But are they? What’s really going on here? I see it as two fold.

1) Exploitative acceptance or “House Nerds”

Shows like Big Bang Theory are doing for nerds what shows like Will & Grace did for the LGBT community. Though Will & Grace did  help make openly gay characters on TV and in movie less of an issue, the character of Jack was the stereotypical “gay clown”.

Jack’s fabulousness was the butt of the joke in almost every scene he was in. For that matter, Will’s neatness, design style and body consciousness was as well. The show made it okay to laugh at gay stereotypes because it created the illusion of laughing with them. Still, it opened a lot of doors. It was a deal with a fairly benign devil, but a devil none the less.

It opened doors for LGBTs who could pass or were non-threatening. But not the doors to the marriage chapels in many States in America. And if you’re truly, absolutely fabulous—to the point where you neither can nor want to blend in, Will & Grace didn’t change the fact you’re a target to be mocked.

Big Bang Theory does the same thing with Nerds. The average person who likes Star Trek or comic books might feel more comfortable identifying as a Nerd, and their friends more likely yo accept it, but the True Nerd, the person with Apergers or autism, the mouth-breather, the person who’s intensely ADHT, the acne-ridden adult, the person suffering from any number of social anxiety disorders, the chronically overweight and the simply painfully socially inept are still social outcasts.

And some Nerds are happy to dance to please their Normie masters, believing they’re free.

2) Geek Chic is the new Punk Rock/Goth/Emo

nerd fail girlAt its very core, what is “geek chic”? Is it people dressing like nerds?

No, not at all. It’s people adopting aspects of a cartoonish stereotype of the nerd. Vintage Buddy Holly or Sally Jessy Raphael glasses, bow-ties and retro Star Wars decal t-shirts.

True Nerds do not wear these things.

The uniform of the True Nerd is an oversize Wolverine or Darth Maul t-shirt tucked into a pair of jogging pants and if they wear glasses their eye-wear is affordable, practical, unfashionable wire frames.

Geek chic less about being nerdy and more about giving society the finger. It’s like dying your hair green or wearing  an eyebrow piercing was in in the 1990’s. It says “I’m not part of your mainstream society, but I am am desperate to conform to a cultural subset that is fashionable.”

How many people (from teens to celebrities) are trying to become geeks as opposed to merely emulating what they saw in a magazine. After all, those giant nerd glasses all the girls wear started with hipster models saying “I can wear something this hideous and still be hotter than you.”

But a True Nerd doesn’t look hot in those glasses, they look like a total nerdbag.

So, then, what is the State of the Nerd Nation?

Vastly different yet exactly the same as it ever was.

I estimate there’s only about 10% of the population who are True Nerds. And about 10% are true Coolie-Woolies. The remaining 80% of us, whether we identify as nerd or normie, are just people.

Nerds, Cool People and Everyone Else

Most people are a bit socially awkward but they can “pass” in society. A lot of people (literally billions of dollars worth) enjoy Science Fiction and Fantasy but aren’t obsessed. Almost everyone spends too much time on the Internet. A lot of people are beautiful but somehow aren’t “cool” and pretty much everyone around you is just plain average—not really nerdy, not really not-nerdy either.

What’s changed in the last three years is the vast middle ground is now okay with being called a Nerd. Even though they’re not really True Nerds.

And it’s still open season on the real Sheldon Coopers of this world.

Videos discussed in the episode:

Bill Nye dancing: “Nerd or Douchebag?”

Cast your vote!

Epic Proposal

Montreal kids: “I gotta feeling”

Mandi’s weird YTV fandom: PJ Katie’s Farm

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