May 25th is Geek Pride Day. Geeks and nerds have come a long way over the past sixty years since the term first entered into popular use in the 1950’s. The term nerd was coined by none other than Dr. Seuss in his book If I Ran a Zoo. If you don’t have time to read it, check out the Matt Damon film adaptation. In 1951 Newsweek reported that the term was used in Detroit Michigan to describe someone as “a drip,” or “a square.” Being a nerd in 1951 Detroit meant wedgies, and probably not being able to go to the sock-hop on Friday nights or something like. Fortunately, it is 2016 and the nerd population -along with its vibrancy and appeal- is soaring, while Detroit, ironically… not so much. Our point: Nerds Rule, but that wasn’t always the case.
Taking Back Nerd Day
A lot of people want to make distinctions between terms like “Geek,” “Nerd,” “Poindexter,” “Dweeb,” “Anime Fan,” but we here at The NYRD -get it- never really liked making those kinds of comparisons. Yes, each word can have separate meanings, but when taken together, what you get is a collection of the downtrodden, the kids who played instruments in the marching band, or who doodled math equations in gym class, or screwed up their first ever date because they couldn’t shut up about the intricacies of Star Fleet rank structure. We all have something in common, we didn’t quite fit in, like a rhombus shaped peg trying to squeeze into a Euclidean special ellipsis hole. Words like “Geek,” after all, used to literally mean freak, and maybe that’s why we have always preferred using “Nerd.” According to Wikipedia:
Nerd is a derogatory slang term for a person typically described as socially-impaired, obsessive, or overly intellectual. They may spend inordinate amounts of time on unpopular or obscure activities, pursuits, or interests, which are generally either highly technical, or relating to topics of fiction or fantasy, to the exclusion of more mainstream activities. Other nerdy qualities include physical awkwardness, introversion, quirkiness, and unattractiveness.
If you continue reading the article, it goes on to say that the term “nerd” has been re-appropriated by some as a term of pride and group identity, and we would argue that has gone a long way to changing the perception of our subculture. In the 1950’s people were ashamed to be called nerds, and now nerdy interests rule at the box office, on HBO, and on video game consoles across the world. Some might say that nerds have evolved, moving from the stereotypical glasses-wearing social outcast to Nathan Fillion, but that is not the full story. We have always been intelligent, passionate, and very cool individuals. The perception of nerds, however, has evolved.
It’s all Geek to Me
Potsie Weber was a nerd, and though Happy Days, was really a sitcom from 1974, it was meant as a reflection of the 1950’s. Warren “Potsie” Weber was the show’s nerd character, and often called so by others. He was socially awkward, gullible, and credited as not being too bright. He did his best to fit in with Richie and the Fonz, but it never quite worked out. He was often the butt of jokes, but in the end Potsie proved to be a talented musician and smart enough to eventually become a psychiatrist. He may not have wore glasses, but he was a nerd all the same. He was someone who found his his talents and interests undervalued, yet he constantly attempted to fit in.
By 1984, and the release of Revenge of the Nerds, the stereotype had been cemented. Glasses, suspenders, pocket-protectors and the works. Nerds were no longer just socially awkward people trying to fit in, they had become full-blow space cases. They were seen as weird and hopeless outsiders living in their own pimply world. It was a formula followed by such notables as Steve Urkel on Family Matters, Milhouse Van Houten on The Simpsons, and other nerdy, awkward, and annoying characters. -Thankfully, these later incarnations left out the “rapey-ness” of Revenge of the Nerds- Other notables of the 1980’s and 1990’s were Samuel “Screech” Powers from Saved By the Bell, and Carlton Banks from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Though they were not adorned with glasses and suspenders, each was a nerd, especially when compared with the popular main characters, and that was always the point. Nerds in the 80’s and 90’s no longer tried to fit in like Potsie did. Instead they lived in a world all their own that was strange and a subject of ridicule. They were the butt of every joke. Nerds were side-characters. They were comedic foils for much cooler leads, but then the 21st century arrived.
We do not want to mislead you. There are still plenty of socially clumsy, angry, and annoying nerd characters that arose in the 2000’s and 2010’s, such as The Office‘s Dwight Schrute, and any cast member of The Big Bang Theory, –very annoying– but at least we are no longer regulated to being side-jokes. Perhaps because of the success of characters like Urkel, or because actual nerds rose to power within the industry, Hollywood started recognizing the need for more mainstream nerd characters, and more complex ones. Characters like Charles Bartowski from Chuck, or Liz Lemon from 30 Rock, give us the more modern outlook on what a “nerd” has become. In essence, the modern take on the “geek” is a combination of the two older views. The world of nerds is still separate and strange, but no longer a subject of ridicule, and not our sole realm of existence. Nerds are still awkward and have odd obsessions but they are also characters with drive and ambition, as well as real problems and personalities. Hollywood -as well as the rest of the country- have finally realized that being a nerd is more than glasses and pocket protectors.
If you need more proof of the mainstreaming of nerd culture you really need look no further than the article and the website you are currently reading, -We’re a pretty big deal- but if that isn’t enough to convince you, than just think of the movies everyone is watching this summer: Captain America, X-Men, Ghostbusters, Batman and Superman. Comic book movies, Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter. All these franchises have at least one movie coming out in the next year and all are expected to make quite a multi-million dollar splash. They are also all things that all have their roots in nerd culture. Granted, you will probably not see your high school quarterback rolling a D20 anytime soon, or the captain of the cheerleading squad shouting in Dothraki, but thanks -in part- to the internet nerds have never had it better.
The acceptance of nerd culture may have something to do with the general malaise and cynicism of modern times, a reaction to trends that started with grunge and emo music in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Yes, it can be “cool” to sometimes pretend to be disinterested and aloof, but it is also boring. Nerds on the other hand are the last people on the planet that are legitimately allowed to get spazzed-out excited over things. First of all, because we -by definition- are not cool, so we do not have to worry about appearing as such. Secondly, we just have so much cooler stuff to get excited over. When was the last time anyone dressed in costume to go see a George Clooney Indie Film debut, unless you count hipsters, but they are always in costume. Turn, instead, to the openings of Star Wars, or any Marvel movie, where you get a bevy of irrationally excited movie-goers dressed as everything from Jedi to wizards. Even attendees at Comic Con are no longer people who would usually claim themselves as “nerds.” Who would have ever thought that things like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, or even Star Trek would draw non-nerd fans -we call you normies– but it makes sense. After all, when you are faced with a choice between a world filled with Kardashians or a world filled with wizards we would like to think that wizards would win every time.
People just want to get excited over things. Fantasy and imagination are not traits limited to a sub-culture of the population. Everyone has dreams, and hopes, and the desire to see laser guns blow up spaceships, awesome sword fights, or even dragons. Being a nerd is really nothing more than remembering that at one point you were a child. Everyone threw a towel over their shoulders and called it a cape or swung a stick around and called it a lightsaber, but the only difference between a nerd and everyone else is that for us that time was last week. More to the point being a nerd means being smart, passionate, and/or talented in ways that are not always recognized by the mainstream, and those are all good things. Being quirky makes life interesting, and have a like-minded group of friends -even if others think they are wierdos- is what makes life important. It’s about having fun, being yourself, and most importantly not taking life too seriously.