Nerd Against the Machine
I recently watched a late night talk show where a popular movie star was interviewed. He was promoting his latest flick where he starred as the action hero-teen heartthrob- mega smooth-cool talking guy, to use the technical Hollywood term. In the middle of the interview he “confessed” that he loved Game of Thrones so much so that he had actually seen every episode. He smirked sheepishly while saying this, and after taking a sip from his coffee-less mug to allow the crowd’s wild applause to subside, remarked, “Really, I’m such a huge nerd.” Groan.
I’m getting pretty tired of everyone claiming to be a nerd. Watch an entire season of Game of Thrones and get through half a book, and suddenly you’re the biggest House of Lannister nerd ever to be able to reference “winter is coming.” Going to yoga class every other weekend apparently makes you an aspiring yogi now—
Hey, did you know Adam Levine does yoga like every day? You’re basically just like him! Just a couple of yoga nerds, the two of you child’s posing Poindexters are! Double-groan.
While I’m excited that nerdiness has finally become a badge of honor of sorts, I’m more concerned that the term “nerd” has been watered-down to something so easily achievable that anyone with a few spare hours to devout to his latest interest can proudly proclaim himself one. Somehow people are confusing “liking something” with “being a nerd about it.” Let me explain.
As a current graduate student, I’ve worn a nerd badge throughout most of my life, and predominantly outside of graduate school (i.e. the Nerditorium). Growing up in the late eighties and nineties, such pop icons as Screech and Steve Urkel represented my lot in life. Unlike today’s “nerds,” these guys weren’t lauded for their nerdiness; they were ridiculed and begrudgingly tolerated for it. And it wasn’t just these guys’ high I.Q’s that made them nerds; it was their intense passion for something so encompassing that it bordered on obsession—not a quality that is inherently social-friendly. Their incredible and uncontrollable envelopment in such subjects as science, literature, and advanced bio-engineering (also known as Stefan Urquelle-ing) made them nerds, and gave them little time to devout to anything else, including matters of the social variety.
Actually, Stefan Urquelle, the alter ego of Steve Urkel, encapsulates the antithesis of nerdiness. Stefan was the coolest kid on the TGIF block because he just didn’t give a shit about anything. Not a shit. I ask you, what were Stefan Urquelle’s interests? Being a suave ladies-man? Wearing blazers with the sleeves pushed up? Though decidedly awesome, those are characteristics, not interests. And yet, Stefan was the epitome of cool despite having zero interests, because he had zero interests. Thus, Stefan Urquelle represents the polar opposite of Steve Urkel and all nerd-kind, then as much as today.
Nerds care too much about things, frequently, and perhaps inherently, to a fault. We eagerly hurl ourselves into our beloved subjects at the expense of waving good-bye to such “frivolous” things as normative social behavior. Adios, David Rulo’s 9th grade pool party! See David, I’m not going to be able to think straight until I finish this last book in Phillip Pullman’s Dark Material series, and when I do I’m going to want to talk about it incessantly for the next four to five to seventeen hours, comparing it to every other Dystopian book and movie I’ve ever seen. If your party, David, was more Phillip Pullman-oriented, flush with Golden Compass and Amber Spyglass aficionados more eager to dive into the metaphysical allegories strewn throughout these books than into the four feet of chlorinated grass clippings dumped in your Dad’s backyard, I could be the fucking belle of this ball. But of course, David, this is not the case. My intense excitement for this book is passionate, but it’s also incredibly esoteric and alienating to most people, and so I’ll be staying at home to finish it. Really David, thanks so much for the invite, it was a super nice gesture, but such is being a nerd.
The farther you go down this rabbit hole, the more committed to that particular subject you become, and the harder it becomes to connect with those other worlds at the surface that don’t care about yours as much, or at all. Though many nerds are certainly capable of interacting with these worlds outside of their own like actual normal people—I mean if we have to—it ain’t easy. Being a nerd isn’t always glamorous or cool—I’ll pause for the gasps of shock here—but it isn’t something that can be turned on and off either.
This is the aspect of nerdiness that appears most lost today—there’s no such thing as a casual nerd. Despite what the Johnny McCool-Movie’s of the world might have you believe, nerdiness is not some sexy sweater that can be pulled on and taken off whenever the mood strikes. Nerdiness is not an accessory. If you’re a Dark Materials nerd in your basement, you’re a Dark Materials nerd at David Rulo’s pool party too. That’s how it works, folks.
Referring to yourself as nerd about something while being anything less than entirely consumed and overwhelmingly in love with that thing simply trivializes the term.
I very much long—dare I say, even pine—for the day that nerdiness is considered cool—but actual nerdiness, not this watered-down fair-weather fan schlock that’s too often passed off as the genuine article these days. After all, if this diluted version continues to be accepted as the real thing, we’ll never have a chance of reaching that day.
Jeremy Brok is an English M.A. student at the University of Missouri concentrating in creative nonfiction. His writing has appeared in MOJO and Mikrokosmos Journal among others.