Television Programming and Anti-Intellectualism

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Since the economic transition to the Information Age, the advent of the Internet and the explosion of specialized technology and information, many outlets of mass media have come to idealize and stereotype those kinds of people that are highly skilled or enamored with science, technology, gaming, and other “non-social” avocations. Mass-media is rife with examples of stereotyping of the intellectual, but are these elements positive, or negative aspects? American pop culture has often had only a shallow love affair with the Geek culture, often with an undercurrent of bias against the intellectuals. While not all examples of Geek Culture are wholly negative, the stance of mass-media, particularly sitcoms, has an ongoing effect with respect to how Geeks perceive themselves and are treated within our culture.

As someone that has excelled at assessments throughout his educational career, I come from a small but significant sub-culture that relies upon and reveres their intellect in much the same way as successful athletes entwine their self-image with their physical prowess. I have been a Mathlete, a tutor, a spelling champ, a ringer in trivia competitions, and a voracious maven of video- and table-gaming. By most definitions, I’m a geek. Almost all of my friends are geeks, as well. I glory in having to hand the answer to your question (or, even better, having the entire Internet at my disposal to help me find those answers), ANY question. I love to learn. I love to teach, to share knowledge, to discuss details of systems and objects and theoretical intricacies. As many of you no doubt know, this is idyllic only in certain environments. I’ve also spent much of my life involved in some kind of backlash or “othering” directed at my friends or myself from people who see those like me as some sort of threat, or more often as some sort of insult simply by existing and being known to them. It’s difficult to recognize that this isn’t always something that people do out of abject malice, or willful misunderstanding. At some point I realized that this is an interaction that is supported and accepted by other subcultures, or perhaps our culture at large. What role does mass media play in this situation? Could there be a stigma related to the portrayal of intellectuals in pop culture?

American pop culture is a rich, complex group of products and processes that encompass innumerable niches and specializations in addition to broad themes that explore the human (typically American) experience. It’s easy enough for most people to be able to identify themselves as consumers or enthusiasts in several of these broader demographic segments, such as those defined by age, gender, sexual orientation, geographic region, ethnicity, and so on. Many of these cultural segments intersect with one another in a vast network of both complementary and contradictory subjects. The challenge of creating successful pop-culture is made even more difficult by the fact that actions in this “culture space” also change the nature and fabric of that same space, creating moving targets that describe an ebb and flow of market share and advertising marketability, the maximization of which is true aim of most media. By necessity, the most successful of these programs must be appealing not only to the geek stereotype they appear to represent, but also to a large segment of the population which, for one reason or another, are described in more generalized age-driven demographics that are defined less by intellectual pursuits and general nerdiness.

As the marketability of geekdom and that subculture has grown, so too have the complexity and predictability of the characterizations of Geeks in the mainstream media. Loosely defined, this “Geek Chic” subculture is created and consumed by people with strong ties to technology and mass media (Lambert, 2012). As with most subcultures, stereotypes abound, which in the case of Geek Chic often includes negative aspects of social ineptitude, intellectual bullying, and self-deprecation. These same characters often have spectacular redeeming qualities as well, frequently being the tool of a protagonist’s success or rising to a challenge as the unwilling hero.

One particularly noteworthy example is the popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” (TBBT). The show’s ensemble cast is centered on four male friends whose lives are defined largely by their intelligence, and the interplay of the various archetypal layers that comprise each character. All of the elements considered to be recognizable focal points of Geekdom can be found somewhere amongst these people; social awkwardness is a highly-central theme, as well as ruminations on all most forms of gaming, comic books, science fiction, and intelligentsia in general. Since its 2007 launch, it has risen to become the most lucrative show for its network (CBS), though still not so popular as to displace other demographic juggernauts such as the Super Bowl (Crupi, 2013). While TBBT has garnered enormous eye-share and respect from many self-proclaimed geeks, there are still criticisms of how the show does not promote geeks and Geekdom, but rather uses the cultural referents as opening to punch lines due to its scripted sitcom format (Wired, 2012). Whether one finds this show to be entertaining or not (I do not), it is poised to remain a high-water mark with respect to the ability of mass media to identify, craft, and nurture the geek/nerd demographic into something accessible to a broader audience. It remains one of the few excursions of network television that places the geek archetype in the protagonist’s seat since the meteoric rise of reality-based programming over the previous decade (Dumenco, 2012).

In the examination of other television programming that has made effective use of the Geek archetype, one will likely find that police procedural dramas are ripe with characters that showcase intellectual prowess as a central trait, working most often as forensic scientists or researchers. Shows such as the multiple flavors of “CSI” and the more comedic “Bones” provide solid, positive examples of complex, highly-intelligent characters, but almost universally as foils to the main character, typically a figure of high authority such as a detective or special agent. Some of the strongest examples of good female characterizations occur in this segment as well, with “NCIS” and “Criminal Minds” out front, developing story arcs that develop around these women as having their own unique lives in addition to being valued members of a team. Some point out that the intellectual prowess of many of these highly-regarded characters are imbued with flaws or lack depth simply because of constraints required by the development of television characters that are popular, accessible, and provide the necessary thematic elements (TV Tropes, Hollywood Nerd).

As with most any aspect of popular culture, opinions vary on how effective or entertaining certain aspects of any one product of the medium will be. In this case, bloggers and researchers both cite examples of anti-intellectualism or casual bigotry peppered throughout the realm of popular television programming. The use of a laugh-track in TBBT is frequently noted as a prime example of how the average television viewer is trained to respond to the misfortune of one of its characters as a humorous situation (Jensen, 2012). Additionally, the frequency with which these geeky characters display their knowledge can be suggestive to viewers, submitting them to stereotypical comparisons against which they might be judging themselves as something inferior to these polished, artificial images of the intellectual (Coville, 2011).

One simply needs to review the Internet’s own self-assessments of television and pop culture to see just how many different flavors of intellectual bigotry exist in the body of work created ostensibly for the masses. It certainly opened my eyes toward the realization that there’s something unbalanced happening in this medium, that the fear of intellectuals is somehow standardized, and packaged: The Mad Scientist, Brains vs Brawn, and “Everybody hates Mathematics” are just the thin edge of this wedge driven between the subcultures (TV Tropes, Anti Intellectualism).

These factors can also be coupled with the increasing difficulties we continually hear about regarding educational realities slipping further behind their goals and resulting in a population that is continually pointed out as being poorly educated, disconnected from the world (Cohen, 2008). We don’t hear a lot about how these people as students probably worked just as hard or harder than their brighter compatriots, yet we continue to analyze and label everyone on the same scale, whether that happens to be IQ testing or standardized testing (de Garis, 2012).

While ultimately it may a non-trivial problem to identify unequivocally those elements and aspects of pop culture media that align to produce a casual bigotry or cultural bias against the Geek subculture, enough examples do exist in today’s television programming to establish adequate cause among media literacy concerns to examine the need for balance, or counterargument against these biases. Whether the public at large genuinely accepts these biases, or acts upon them, is difficult to distinguish from other factors and is a question worthy of further research.

References:

Cohen, P. (2008, February 14). Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to

Knowledge? Retrieved March 8, 2014 from SchoolWires: http://mattawancs.schoolwires.com/1466207189121377/lib/1466207189121377/Dumbing_Down_Americans.pdf

Coville, C. (2011). 5 Things TV Writers Apparently Believe About Smart People. Retrieved on March 5, 2014 from Cracked.com: http://www.cracked.com/article_18960_5-things-tv-writers-apparently-believe-about-smart-people_p2.html

Crupi, A. (2013, October 14). ‘Big Bang Theory’ the Most Expensive Show for Advertisers. Retrieved on March 1, 2014 from http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/big-bang-theory-expensive-show-648248

de Garis, H. (2012). Sageism: Discrimination Against Intellectuals. Retrieved on February 27, 2014 from Professor de Garis’ WordPress: http://profhugodegaris.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/sageism-discrimination-against-intellectuals1.pdf

Dumenco, S. (2012). The Show That Beats ‘American Idol’: Inside the Exploding Popularity of ‘The Big Bang Theory. Retrieved on February 27, 2014 from Ad Age: http://adage.com/article/media/inside-exploding-popularity-big-bang-theory/232946/

McNally, T. (2008, August 14). How Anti-Intellectualism Is Destroying America. Retrieved March 1, 2014 from Alternet’s website:http://www.alternet.org/story/95109/how_anti-intellectualism_is_destroying_america

Lambert, K. How Geek Chic Works. Retrieved on February 27, 2014 from Howstuffworks.com http://people.howstuffworks.com/geek-chic.htm

Jensen, K. T. (2012). 11 Reasons Geeks Hate The Big Bang Theory. Retrieved on March 5, 2015 from UGO.com: http://www.ugo.com/tv/11-reasons-geeks-hate-the-big-bang-theory

TV-Tropes.org. Anti Intellectualism. Retrieved from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AntiIntellectualism

TV-Tropes.org. Hollywood Nerd. Retrieved from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HollywoodNerd

Wired.com (2012). No Self-Respecting Nerd Would Ever Watch Big Bang Theory. Retrieved on February 27, 2014 from Wired’s website: http://www.wired.com/underwire/2014/01/bazinga-the-problem-with-big-bang-theory/