Back in the day, my old entertainment standby and Web 1.0 blogspiration, Suck.com, ran a quiz on “geekiness.” It wasn’t a real quiz or anything, not like Facebook has quizzes or what have you – this was post-irony, pre-earnestness, mostly sarcastic Web 1.0 territory, before 9/11 but after grunge. It was the kind of quiz that you had to read all the way through because it was as much performance art as quiz – each answer was an insightful comment or snarky remark.
Regardless, I can’t find a link – suck.com is kind of broken. You can get there by going to a specific article, but going to the home page gets you a big fat 404 error. That has nothing to do with anything, and I only told you that story so that I could tell you this one:
My friends and I occupied a weird social position in high school*: none of us played “cool” sports like football or basketball, (swimming, track, cross-country – weirdo “classical” sports that the Greeks adn Romans would have done), some of us were in band, most of us didn’t “do” anything. We met at least once a week to play Battletech, the Robotech RPG, or Dungeons and Dragons. We didn’t date much, if at all, we all had jobs, and we all made decent grades. In short, we were not by most metrics “cool.”
And yet, we were invited to parties, and we went. We drank, we threw parties ourselves. We had no shortage of friends, and we mostly had a lot of good times punctuated with the normal teenage angst, insecurity, and other such hormonal and existential BS. Nobody beat us up or gave us any real grief, nobody made fun of the clothes we wore or the cars we drove, and although we never made a big public deal out of it, I don’t think we even caught any flack for our miniature and wargaming.
My point in bringing this up is to step back and look at a generational culture shift that I’ve had the good fortune to witness (as have we all, really, anyone over the age of 25 at least). We watched geek be geek, geek be cool, and now, geek is normal.
In 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, you could see a very clear pecking order: jocks on the top, nerds on the bottom (interestingly enough, minorities nowhere to be seen except in stereotypical bit parts). In 1985, Real Genius comes out and gives us real nerd protagonists – they have (the Hollywood equivalent) of bad teeth, bad skin, bad hair, and poor social skills, but they’re the heroes.
Understand that typically before this, anyone with the slightest proclivity towards science in a movie was probably going to anger god and get some sort of come-uppance, or get sucked into his own computer, or wind up going over to join the race of atomic supermen because, don’t you see? Don’t you see? They’re perfect, They’re PERFECT! AIEEEEEEEE (laser blasts and crushing robot claws).
I mean shit, look at the move Dodgeball – that scene where the kid gets smashed in the face with a ball? That, by consensus of pretty much everyone significantly older than me, is what you had coming if you so much as dared to, you know, wear glasses.
By 1995, geeks aren’t just okay as protagonists, they’re fucking cool! ey’re ZERO COOL! They listen to Orbital and wear sunglasses at night! They smoke dark cigarettes and wear vinyl! They rollerblade to techno raves where they virus some information mails to gigaflop mainframes!
Then, in 1999, they literally made a nerd into Jesus Christ.
Thankfully, we geeks don’t hold up well under pressure, so now in 2010 it all looks rather silly. People who study hard generally wind up taking some sort of college career path and working out okay, or become lifelong students, as irrelevant to the culture at large as they are avoidant of it, and the brilliant misanthropes who control the technology that runs our world have in many cases been acclimatized to the world around them or simply accepted as odd ducks who provide a valuable service.
So if that’s where the nerds wind up in 2010, who were these “cool kids” that were supposed to be shoving us into lockers and getting all the girls?
There are two factors at work that lead one to believe that the demarcations and hierarchies of “cool” never really existed.
First: Fonzie is a fictional character. Okay? Fonzie = not real. All those people you see driving their old cars at the Woodward Dream Cruise? They are basically cosplayers in that they are very much affecting the persona of someone who never even existed.
Second, think about the kind of people that go around targeting nerds for persecution: they’re not fucking cool – they’re psychopaths. Why are there a million and one stories of bookish people going to confront their tormentors, only to find out that life has done a meaner number to the bully than they themselves ever could? Not because it’s an appealing fantasy, but because people who go around giving swirlies and beating up other kids don’t usually go very far. They wind up in juvie, then jail, or they straighten out and get a job at a gas station selling gum and cigarettes for the rest of their lives. They were so focused on reinforcing some sort of order or control over their own circumstance or social position that they forgot to actually do anything to earn the esteem and prestige they craved.
All this aside, a geek or a nerd is just another thing to be, and I think that’s great. Computing is a legitimate career (it’s actually kind of sad to know people who aren’t tech savvy now), and social alienation is par for the course. There are whole nerd fashion movements now (twee, most notably) and we even have our own music.
In short, it’s not cool to be a nerd. It just is. I’m glad the culture seems to be over that.
A Look Back- 7 October 2021
Yet another post where I’m kind of wondering what, specifically, I was referencing, and the only thing I can really think of is seasonal affective disorder. Man, Michigan winters can be a serious bummer, and doubly so when you’re extremely poor, like I was at the time.
The question I ask myself when I post these old SSSs is: do I still stand by it? Well, mostly yes, but if the trump era taught us anything, it’s that the thick-necked mouth breathers actually, in some cases, DO succeed. Even the psychopaths. ESPECIALLY the psychopaths.
I pause here to note that there’s an unfair conjoining of so-called jocks with bullies, and that I suspect is bleed over from my own nerd sympathies. I think that whenever I was bullied in school, the bullies were bullies first and sometimes jocks second. Real jocks had jock shit to do, and lumbering around beating up nerds isn’t it. Furthermore, being on the football team or whatever does not necessarily make one a jock. This is something I’ll double down on as a professor as I attest, not for the first time, that some of my brightest and most hard-working students are student-athletes. Similarly, some of my…under-performers…come from what would have been my own clique: the D&D coffee shop clove cigarette Nietzsche set.
So yes, I think that the nerd / jock distinction is well gone by now, or if it exists it’s not as detrimental as media would have had you believe 40 years ago. Jocks do jock shit, nerds do nerd shit, and sometimes the twain shall meet if, like, there’s a party or they have to do a school project together or, like whatever. My students don’t seem to care about that sort of thing – though of course all my students are in college, so they are I would posit already predisposed to embracing complexity and diversity in human experience.
But those Woodward dream cruise cosplayers, it turns out, are the ones I should have been paying attention to. They’re the ones who turned out for the dumpster in ’16 and ’20, and they’re the ones who don’t want to get vaccinated or wear masks. But who are they?
I opine on them now: the maliciously mediocre middle. White, almost exclusively, and male, and extremely high on tales of manifest destiny, American exceptionalism, and leaded gasoline fumes. They weren’t fit enough to be jocks, weren’t smart enough to be nerds…they just sort of lumped through life chuckling under their breath at things they don’t understand, which is everything.
Looking back, what both jocks and nerds of the past missed is that it wasn’t about us. We were in all depictions caricatures. It was always truly about who it was actually for: the slack-jawed yokels in the audience.