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FTN FEATURE: Nerd And Proud: a look at nerdism in popular culture

May 2nd, 2013 by Jonathan 4 Comments

 Last week there was an episode of The Big Bang Theory that irked me somewhat. Now I love The Big Bang Theory, and it often wears its nerd credentials on its sleeve and I commend it for that. But at other times, much like in last week’s episode ‘The Bakersfield Expedition’, it still harks back to an almost 80s pastiche of what a nerd is; glasses, socially awkward and can’t talk to girls. This stereotypical depiction of nerds, while not totally incorrect, is a step backwards and is no longer the norm these days anyway and to portray it as such is to mock the lifestyle of those whose interests have been adapted into some of the biggest movies of all time.

^ we’re not all like this.

For example, there’s a character affectionately called Captain Sweatpants who is always seen in the comic book store in TBBT wearing, er, sweatpants and t-shirts with various nerdy insignia on them. Now, I’ve frequented Forbidden Planet often enough to know that, while this is an exaggeration, it’s not too far outside the realms of believability. But while decades before this might (and note, I say might) have been a more accurate description, these days it couldn’t be further from the truth. Nerds are cool now. The most glaring example of TBBT being behind the times, or more accurately refusing to acknowledge the truth for the sake of a cheap laugh, was when the three girls (Penny, Bernadette and Amy) enter the store to bone up on the comic books their boyfriends love so much and all the sad, lonely nerds in the store stop what they’re doing to gawp at *gasp* women in a comic book store.

Frankly, it’s a little offensive.

To both sexes.

Ok, I know, I know, it’s a sitcom and I’m probably taking it way too seriously. While there no doubt are a few socially awkward comic book reading men who might do this, as well as women who would look down their nose at a comic book shop, there are millions of people who are exactly the reverse. To use myself as an example, I’m a massive Star Wars fan, have a tonne of comics and action figures in my house and a TARDIS on my wall, I play an unhealthy amount of Xbox, and I’m writing on a site called Following the Nerd, but guess what? I’m (reasonably) well adjusted. I don’t wear sweatpants 24/7*. And I can talk to women. In fact, I’m married to one. [One who bought me Superman cufflinks for our wedding, so she’s definitely a keeper.] To use an awful phrase, the geek shall inherit. As evidenced by so very very many things.

my wife is awesome.

We, the sad nerds, are simply the biggest market that filmmakers and TV folk are catering for right now. It’s no coincidence even non nerdy films and TV shows go to Comic Con these days. Yet despite however many millions Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies made or how successful The Avengers was, you’ll find people who loved those movies will still mock the people who read the source material. You don’t go and see Lord of the Rings and mock someone for reading the book, so why should comics be any different?

That said, the view towards nerd culture is slowly but surely changing. We are living in a golden age of nerd-dom right now, with Iron Man 3 currently riding high in the box office in a way that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. Think about it; if you brought a comic book into school when you were 14 you would have been mercilessly made fun of. I know I would have been. Yet I reckon kids today are far more accepting of nerd culture having grown up with it in a much more involved way than I was. There does seems to be a significant paradigm shift; whether it’s parents living vicariously and nerdily through their children (not a criticism by the way; I think that’s great), or simply that through the slew of comic book movies that are constantly in our cinemas they’ve seeped into the public consciousness.

However, as with most things in life, high school doesn’t stop when you leave it. The same people who made fun of you when you were 14 for reading a comic book will likely still do it when you’re still reading them at 30. I was on the train recently re-reading Watchmen (for all intents and purposes, a pretty grown up comic), and the two girls sitting across from me were laughing away at the fact that I was reading it. This sort of thing has happened before. When the Watchmen film was due to be released, people in work saw me reading it and gave me looks of derision. Fair enough says I, they’re uneducated in the ways of comics. But then these same people went to see the movie when it came out, and some (though, crucially, not all. Divisive film, that) liked it. So why should they be so willing to pour scorn people who read the comics? Is liking a movie based on a comic, better, more socially acceptable, than liking the thing on which it was based? In fact, I have a friend who read the novelisation of the film adaptation of V for Vendetta rather than read the comic. But back to the girls on the train; their conversation soon turned to the cinema, and that said that they were ‘really looking forward’ to seeing The Avengers. Facepalm Oh, and also, they were reading 50 Shades of Grey and they’re judging me?!?!? Double facepalm.

But, as wasn’t the case with school where I would have hidden my nerdy ways from others, I’ve simply stopped caring about what people think of me now. Partly because I’m older and care less and less what people think of me anyway and my choice of reading falls into that category, but also partly due to the aforementioned paradigm shift. It has become acceptable to read comics in public and express your nerdy credentials to the world. Which is why the Big Bang episode annoyed me; the four guys, Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj, ended up being embarrassed and ashamed by their own nerdiness by the end and only through the help of ‘normals’ were they able to get home (granted, they were dressed up in full Next Generation regalia, but still…). It’s sending out exactly the wrong type of message and one that typically goes against the nature of the show, which normally affectionately sends up nerd culture rather than pokes fun at it.

I’d like to think that we have moved beyond the Homer Simpson yelling “NERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRD” out of the car window at us. I’m aware that this makes me sound like I’m vying for a Nerd Pride parade or something, but the truth is, we don’t need one.

I’ll leave it to Simon Pegg to express what I feel below.

Hello, my name is Jonathan and I am a nerd.

And it’s great.

* I do, however, have a wide variety of nerdy t-shirts.

Let us know your thoughts below, @NerdFollowing on Twitter or on Facebook

When he's not trying to convert his wife to the ways of The Force, he really likes Star Wars, Jonny can more than likely be found in front of a screen. Probably watching a ridiculous amount of TV. Or playing a ridiculous amount of games. Or basically doing anything in ridiculous amounts. He really likes Star Wars. He's writing a book, or at least trying to. You can follow him on twitter if you like (@Jonny_C85) or find him on facebook. That's another screen you're likely to find him in front of. He really likes Star Wars.

  • Bald Videogamer Dude

    Brilliant article Jonny, love it and you know my feelings about being a geek. You listened to my insane ramblings

    • Jonathan Cardwell

      Cheers mate. Was quite fun/cathartic to write.

  • Owen Quinn

    But that’s the point, BBT is an exaggerated form of nerd for cheap laughs, but there are people like that out there. And I sort of can’t really reconcile if it offends and reinforces the public perception of what a nerd is somuch that it makes someone want to write an article about it, why so many people watch it and love it, especially the nerd section? Isn’t that supporting a misconception?

    • Jonathan Cardwell

      The show as a whole doesn’t offend me. I love that there’s a positive portrayal of this, for want of a better word, lifestyle. I think the characters are usually a fair representation of nerd culture, but the way the characters on the periphery are written and portrayed seem to suggest that the “nerds” outside the core group of characters are all maladjusted, women fearing and socially awkward.

      I just felt that this particular episode was a bit more mean spirited towards this area of fandom than previous episodes. It also made out that the central characters are ashamed of their interests when the show normally celebrates them. It was laughing at them, rather than with them. Again, I’m taking it way too seriously, and as you say it IS presenting an exaggerated form of nerd to get laughs, but it stuck out for me.

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