Real Genius: Nerds in Pop Culture
The nerd, a term that has taken on many different definitions over the years, the very origins of the word can be traced back to the Dr. Seuss book “If I Ran to The Zoo”, but it wasn’t until a Newsweek article in 1951 made the real-life connection to someone who was considered “uncool”, or “square” also bringing up the fact that the term was first used as slang coming from the city of Detroit (Quail, Brooks). This initial definition provided to the masses would be the stigma that followed the term “nerd” for over half a century. Up until about the turn of the millennium the term “nerd” would start taking on new meanings, such examples can include the hipster population that we find an all too familiar site in Portland, as well as people who are really into a certain subject matter (i.e. Star Wars, Star Trek).
While the identity of the nerd may seem like something more geared towards a youthful crowd, it’s an idea that really can apply to all ages, races, and genders. The nerd identity was always seen as a means to cast people out due to their non-conformity or unwillingness to adhere to the rules of a certain social idea, these same means are now taking on a whole new meaning because people are tired of being told how to act and how to be in a social setting. This revelation has now taken the once negative stigma of a nerd and begun to take a more positive outlook, and the once uncool or square individual has now become the new cool kid on the block as it were.
This idea that the nerd is finally ditching the once negative aspect can be found in television and the internet alike. T.V. shows like the Big Bang Theory, and Malcolm in the Middle both show characters who are considered nerds, while they are portrayed as the seemingly uncool kids that the term nerd came to be known as. This uncoolness is the very thing that makes them normal, people who either grew up like Malcolm, or are living like the characters in the Big Bang Theory, are a part of what popular culture is starting to perceive as normal, in comparison to what was considered normal 50 years ago.
I identify with being a nerd because for a long time growing up I was often the quiet one, the kid who was strange and didn’t necessarily have a lot of friends, and for this I was often ridiculed. The idea of being a nerd initially was being the social outcast, keeping mainly to yourself, and escaping the trials of life through means of fantasy and imagination. As well as having a sense of belonging when I met other people who were just like me and into the same interests as myself. Now with the advent of nerd culture in T.V. and movies like Star Trek, as well as the advancement of technology, all the things that used to make me seem odd are now suddenly cool, and not looked down upon by other people (not as much as it used to be anyway).
Nerds are often mistaken for another type of identity, hipsters. What hipsters are is a sort of condescending version of the nerd, for example, ask someone if they had ever heard of a certain band, or show. What a nerd will tell you is that “no I’ve never heard of that show”, or “yes I’ve watched for years I know everything about it’s really cool that you’re into it too”. Whereas a hipster will more than likely eschew this response “Yeah I’ve been watching that show since it started, you know before it was cool, you’ve come in too late and probably won’t understand the story”. This is frustrating because it seems like just as nerds were finally getting the recognition, hipsters came along and started tarnishing the nerd identity with ideas that nerds let go of a long time ago.
In 1982 the band Rush debuted one of their most pivotal albums Signals, the biggest hit off of this album was the song Subdivisions. Subdivisions was written by the bands lyricist and drummer Neil Peart, who wrote most of the music for the group. The song he wrote was about growing up in the suburbs and how it fostered this need for conformity, and the alienation that came with it. While this may seem like a bit of a stretch relating to the nerd identity, in reality its basis is the very thing that defined the nerd identity for so long. In the lyrics this idea of alienation due to non-conformity is made very clear through these following lines.
“Subdivisions – in the high school halls, in the shopping malls, conform or be cast out.
Subdivisions – in the basement bars, in the backs of cars, be cool or be cast out.”(Lee, Lifeson, Peart)
It was this song that really brought to light the idea that growing up in this world where conformity was a means of keeping people in line or keeping them down as it were. The nerd identity was very much still seen in this way at the time of this songs release, which is why a lot of people that I‘ve found fit in the nerd identity relate so much to this song. The bands lyricist even mentioned that this idea he was writing about was meant to touch a broad audience, here’s an excerpt from that interview.
“In our song “Subdivisions,” the background that all three of us grew up in is the common denominator…and I see our audiences being congruent with us through many of these phases. There’s certainly that commonality—it’s a question of background, and of needing certain things to alleviate that background.” (Peart, McDonald, Stern).
In many ways I believe this was a paradigm shift in the way people thought about conformity, this would eventually lead to more people coming out of their shells of safety and finally saying enough. For the nerd identity it was a pivotal moment in which people who considered themselves as such could finally relate to something that was a mainstream idea, and something that other people could get behind.
I relate to the ideas in this song because it essentially described the way that I went through most of my early years in school. While the band is referring to growing up in the suburbs, I believe the idea behind the alienation that came with growing up in the suburbs is something that most people who consider themselves nerds can easily relate to.
Malcolm in the Middle first aired in 2000, the show centers around Malcolm, a gifted young man who had to deal with the intelligence level he was at as well as dealing the social hardships of a growing teenage boy. He lives with his seemingly dysfunctional family, who at first appears to be the atypical American family, but in reality holds the value of family itself very dear. This show illustrated for the first time that someone who was as into comic books and chess as much as the next nerd, was also keen on getting into trouble with help of his two brothers. In doing so the show finally gave a sense of normalcy to an identity that for a long time had been seen as uncool. While the show does seem to emanate the fact that Malcolm is a little bit isolated from the world around him, his character shows the soul of an all-American boy (Frutkin) who has the desires of being normal. Now it may seem like the show is showing the typical negative connotations of the nerd identity, when in reality it was showing a new normal. The message here was that it was ok to be who you are; the people around you were also dealing with their own little quirks. While it didn’t feel like it you were really just like everyone else, the difference being is that you might be on some different level of understanding than the people around you.
I identify with this show because it’s essentially the storybook of my entire childhood. Growing up I wanted that feeling of being normal, but like Malcolm had a hard time relating with those who weren’t at my level intellectually, and the people that I was friends with just seemed to be stuck in this perpetual rut that I wanted to escape from. However, it was only later that I came to realize (much like Malcolm did) that the people that I thought I wanted be like so much, were in reality like the people I was already hanging out with.
The Big Bang Theory is probably the most widely known example of nerds in mainstream culture to date. First aired in 2007 the show revolves around four intellectuals and their incredibly attractive neighbor. When the show began there was this air of negativity surrounding it, most self-described nerds would tell you that they hate this show because it relies on jokes that more or less make fun of the nerd identity as a whole. For the most part they’re right, the show does rely on humor that does make fun of the nerd identity, but it’s that humor that has brought the nerd identity to the masses. So how can something that is seemingly making fun of nerds be a positive thing? The answer would be that it’s the characters are actually making fun of themselves. It’s essentially showing that those who consider themselves nerds are fully aware of what they do, and every now and again aren’t afraid poke a little fun at themselves.
Another thing that makes this show so popular could be the most recent advances of technology. With the previous two examples technology hadn’t yet reached the point of where it’s at today, the reliance we currently have on technology has come to redefine the type of person we now relate to (Ross). Our reliance on technology has seemingly made a nerd out of everyone, people can now relate to the type of person that has been defined as uncool for years. The Big Bang Theory now reflects the shift in the center of American industry (Ross) where knowledge is power.
With the recent resurgence in people wanting to return to college we now find some Gen X’ers and some of the baby boomer generations relating more to the situation that nerds have found themselves in for a very long time. This too is reflected in the Big Bang Theory, in the way that most of the characters themselves aren’t as young as they would have been in previous years. The characters in this show are grown adults ranging from early to mid-thirties, as opposed to the previous examples I mentioned. In both of those examples they talk about dealing with the nerd identity growing up, whereas in the Big Bang Theory the characters are already adults and I think that makes it easier for those who are older to relate to people seen in the show. I identify with show because it finally looks at the nerds who grew up, most other portrayals of the nerd identity almost always deal with the character as a young person or child. This shows me that while the characters are fully grown adults, they didn’t lose that sense of the nerd identity when they had to enter the real world and take on more responsibility. For me I find that hopeful that even as an older person I might retain some of the things that defined me as a youth.
The nerd identity has finally come into its own, the days where nerds were considered uncool out outcasts are slowly starting to fade away. The future of the world and culture as we know it lies in the hands of the technology that we build, and the ones at the forefront of all this were the ones that were considered uncool, outcasts, or odd. Given time I believe that there will be an outpouring of all things nerd. Nerds have always held the keys and have always guarded the doors, but now it’s time for the doors to be unlocked and the culture of the nerd to be released to the world.
The Big Bang Theory. Creat. By Chuck Lorre, and Bill Prady. Perf. Jim Parsons,Johnny Galecki, and Kaley Cuoco. CBS. KOIN. Portland, 24 Sep. 2007 – 13 Mar. 2014. Television.
Malcolm in the Middle. Creat. And Writt. By Linwood Boomer. Perf. Frankie Muniz,
Bryan Cranston, and Jane Kaczmarek. FOX. KPTV. Portland, 9 Jan. 2000 – 14 May.2006. Television.
Rush. “Subdivisions.” Signals. Mercury, 1982. Vinyl Record.
Frutkin, Alan James. “Childs Play.” MediaWeek (2000): 66-72. EBSCO Host.
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McDonald, Christopher. “Open Secrets: Individualism and Middle-Class Identity in the Songs of Rush.”
Popular Music and Society 31.3 (2008): 313-328. Taylor and Francis Online.
Web. 10 Mar. 2014.
Quail, Christine. “Nerds, Geeks, and the Hip/Square Dialectic in Contemporary Television.”
Sage (2011): 461-482. EBSCO Host. Web. 9 Mar. 2014.
Ross, India. ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and the Rise of the Pathologically Nerdy in Sitcom TV’
Popmatters, 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.