The latest edition of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, jumping off from an A.V. Club post called “The changing face of nerds and autism in popular culture,” briefly discusses the issue, or the figure, of the “fake nerd.” One response from Linda Holmes (I’m paraphrasing) was that the scorn heaped on the fake nerd, especially if that target is a woman, stems from a narcissistic and persecution complex-fueled idea that someone would want to fake credibility in order to gain access to this group. In other words, the fake nerd serves to reinforce nerd culture’s self-image as an elite group and also an outsiders constantly attacked by the mainstream. She contends that this is an irrational belief, and that the fake nerd is a bogeyman that enforces ingroup/outgroup barriers.
I don’t agree.
I don’t completely disagree, either. One strain of nerd culture–the strain that gives rise to the public relations problems that Reddit is currently engaged with–gives voice to a kind of ambiguously ironic white male pride (“white and nerdy”); it’s hard for me to not read that as a reaction to the greater visibility and power of women and racial and sexual minorities that is only a few steps away from the Tea Party in the political arena. Even though it may not be meant to be exclusionary, casting nerd interests as some inevitable consequence of one’s whiteness or maleness cannot but draw suspicion to those who identify as nerds that are not white or male. Returning to Holmes’ point, it may be true that it is irrational to believe that people pose as nerds to gain social cachet. They don’t pose to gain social capital, they pose to gain dollars.
Nerd culture is not just a product of people liking certain things, it a product of people buying things. The Wikipedia entry for Nerd is a mess–as one might expect of an article that is a) about a cultural phenomenon b) about a cultural phenomenon in flux and c) about a cultural phenomenon in flux in a space that is itself a product of that cultural phenomenon in flux–but it does contain this gem: “Nerds can either be described by their hobbies and interests, or by abstract qualities such as personality, status, social skills, and physical appearance.” If you listened to the PCHH episode and read the Noel Murray article, you might notice that they seem to be talking past each other. Murray writes about the way that pop culture has shifted away from point-and-laugh stereotypes to more nuanced portrayals of characters on the autism spectrum, including Abed from Community, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, and Max from Parenthood. PCHH discusses nerd culture as just another community–united by common interests–in which a whole ecosystem of personality types and social facility exists. Where these two conversations meet is in discussing nerd culture as a contested space in which the difference between whether you’re a nerd because of what you like versus what you are like is increasingly in tension.
About nerd as personality type, Murray writes:
[W]hat bothers me is the hoariness of jokes about bespectacled weirdoes who know the details of every Doctor Who episode but will never know the touch of a woman. First of all, they’re about as cutting-edge as jokes about airline food. Second of all: Did you know that many autists find it uncomfortable to look other people in the eye, or to be hugged? So what’s the joke here exactly? That two recognized traits of people with autistic spectrum disorders—obsessive interests and difficulties with social interactions—are a thing that exists?
I’ve been wondering lately what’s behind the ongoing mockery of certain gawky types, and the unwillingness to extend them any empathy. Maybe it’s an overreaction to the way that “nerd culture” has been thriving over the past decade, as geek-friendly movies, TV shows, and videogames have become dominant, and as people with a facility for computer programming and statistics have become major players in arenas like sports and politics. Perhaps one explanation for the persistent contempt for the “nerdy” is that they’re becoming less of a marginalized subculture and more mainstream.
On nerd as an obsessive about non-mainstream culture, in a 2010 Wired article that received a lot of attention, Patton Oswalt writes,
Fast-forward to now: Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells. The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan’s. Our below-the-topsoil passions have been rudely dug up and displayed in the noonday sun. The Lord of the Rings used to be ours and only ours simply because of the sheer goddamn thickness of the books. Twenty years later, the entire cast and crew would be trooping onstage at the Oscars to collect their statuettes, and replicas of the One Ring would be sold as bling.
This is why nerd culture will continue to get attention, continue to get mainstream acceptance. There’s no way to monetize obsession. But its incredibly easy to monetize the loose collection of interests that comprise nerd culture, as easy as a Family Guy gag or a comic from The Oatmeal. And the people monetizing don’t really care whether their market has nerd cred or not, just that it will continue to buy what they’re selling.