Nerds in Popular Culture

Over the past few years, what is considered “Nerd culture” has grown rapidly. With the increase in technology this can be seen as no surprise. Due to nerd culture becoming more part of what is considered mainstream, many more people identify themselves as a nerd. A nerd is different from a dweeb, geek, or a dork. Nerds are the type of people who take characteristics from all three of those identities. Nerds have the intelligence of a dweeb and a geek, the social ineptitude of a dork and dweeb, and the obsessiveness of a dork and geek. With the increase in nerd culture, nerds can be seen in different kinds of media like television and movies. Within each case of a nerd, there are still some common elements that can be observed that shows what makes up the nerd identity. The artifacts that were analyzed were Revenge of the Nerds, Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves, and The Big Bang Theory which are a mix of television shows and movies.  After observing these three different artifacts, which are spread out over twenty-years, one common thing that can be seen is how each nerd is portrayed as socially inept.

History of Nerds

The nerd identity may seem like a newer identity that has grown in the past few years, but it can actually be seen around the 1920’s. Ron Eglash quotes a science fiction writer, Samuel Delaney who believes that “’the period from the twenties through the sixties there was always a bright sixteen or seventeen year old who would fix your clock.’” Samuel Delaney believes that this was how nerds were identified. Eglash also describes how the nerd identity may have also taken full effect during the Cold War. During the Cold War there was an increase in emphasis on science education which fueled the passions of the people who were seen as “electronic hobbyists” (Eglash). Mathematics and computing skills that these hobbyists or nerds were interested in were seen as less masculine. Masculine technology was seen as “concrete, massive, and having direct effects” which were the opposite of what nerds were interested in (Eglash). This may have contributed to the stereotype of nerds not being masculine. These historical events set the nerd identity of being primarily white males who were interested in electronics and were not considered masculine.

The Nerd Identity in 3 Different Artifacts

The Big Bang Theory is the most recent out of the three artifacts that was looked at. In this show, there are four different nerds that each have their own personality and quirks. However, each seem to share an extreme case of being socially inept. For this analysis, the episode, “The Peanut Reaction” was looked at in order to get a good idea how a nerd was portrayed in this show. There were multiple instances in this episode where the characters can be seen as socially inept. The character, Sheldon, is a theoretical physicist who seems to have a hard time dealing with people. Even though Sheldon, is mainly a theoretical physicist he appears to know about all topics that relate to science. Because Sheldon is so smart about different things, he becomes arrogant about his knowledge and this leads to being a part of his social incapabilities. In the episode “The Peanut Reaction,” Sheldon flaunts his knowledge about computers as he is buying a gift for his friend. While, Sheldon is looking for a gift, a man recognizes Sheldon’s knowledge about technology, and asks Sheldon about a graphics card he is looking to buy. When Sheldon asks about the BUS for the graphics card, the man has no idea what he is talking about. Sheldon’s arrogance about the topic causes him to get upset with the man he just met. When his friend, Penny, tries to pick out a new router for Sheldon’s friend, Sheldon gets upset because he does not agree with the model she picked out. He even makes fun of the fact that she thought it would be a good present. These two situations show that Sheldon does not get along with others due to his arrogance which proves how socially inept he is.


The cast of The Big Bang Theory                           (From left to right: Howard, Raj, Penny, Sheldon, and Leonard)


The character, Raj can also be seen as socially inept. One of the main quirks of the character is that he cannot talk to a girl. This trait is exaggerated to this point where he literally says no words when he is with a girl. The only way for Raj to talk to a girl is that he drinks alcohol. Because of this weird quirk with the character, Raj can be seen as lacking in social skills.  Howard, one of the other nerds out of the main four, also demonstrates his lack of social skills in the episode. Similar to Raj, he also has trouble with girls. In the article, “White and Nerdy,” Lori Kendal points out that one of the main stereotypes of the nerd identity is that they are “socially inept and undesirable” (Kendall). Howard demonstrates both of these traits through his desperation towards women. In order to keep his friend away from a surprise birthday party due to Penny still setting up, Penny convinces Howard to poison himself with food he is allergic to by promising to set him up with a girl. Howard’s extreme socially ineptness causes him to be desperate when he wants to meet and talk to a girl. These two characters also show how their social ineptness is demonstrate through the fact that nerds have problems with girls. It may be normal for a person to be awkward around girls, but the nerd identity seems to take it to extremes.

The last nerd of the group, Leonard, seems to be an anomaly of the nerd stereotype. He is portrayed not as socially inept as the other three. He does not have issues talking to other people and he knows how to interact with women. At the end of the episode he is even seen kissing Penny. Leonard seems to be a more progressive portrayal of a nerd in which is seems to be closer to being an actual person and not a stereotype.

When observing the movie, Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves, the character that fits the identity of the nerd would be Wayne. Wayne is the father in the movie, who is also an inventor and a lover of science. He wears the giant thick glasses that all nerds seem to wear when portrayed in the media. Wayne, like Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, is also a scientist who appears to know all topic of science. He is not just smart at technology and inventing, he also knows lots of physics, biology, and chemistry. At many points in the movie, Wayne uses his knowledge in order to get himself out of various situations while he is shrunk to the size of an ant. Unlike Sheldon, Wayne’s brilliance does not seem to cause him to be arrogant. However, Wayne seems to be too nice to people to the point in which he is a pushover. This drives Wayne’s social ineptness. Throughout the movie, Wayne is bossed around by his wife and his brother. At work, Wayne has trouble talking to his bosses because he is too nervous and he thinks he is too weak to speak his mind. This shows how nerds are portrayed as being unable to speak for themselves in social situations. Nerds seem to trade their masculinity for their intelligence, which leads to their lack of social skills.


Wayne in Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves

The last movie that was observed was Revenge of the Nerds. Revenge of the Nerds is about a group of nerds that are picked on in college by the jocks. They get so fed up by the jocks that they rise up against the jocks and take revenge against them. Within this movie there are a lot of characters that can be identified as nerds. The main two nerds of the movie are best friends named Lewis and Gilbert. One major thing that can be noticed is the clothes that the two nerds are wearing. Once again the stereotypical nerd glasses are present on both characters. They are also wearing pocket protectors and ties. This shows how nerds are portrayed as people who wear semi-formal clothing for their normal wear.


Gilbert and Lewis in Revenge of the Nerds

One thing that can be noticed is how frequent the two nerds talk about their past. They constantly talk about how they were picked on for being a nerd in high school. This causes the characters to be nervous when meeting new people which leads to their socially ineptness. Towards the beginning of the movie they are rejected from every fraternity that they apply to. This shows how they are not socially accepted by others due to their nerd identity. Another example that shows that they are portrayed as socially inept is when the nerds throw a party for the Lambda Lambda Lambda fraternity, which is an all-black fraternity despite most of the nerds being primarily white. When Lewis notices the fraternity leader isn’t enjoying the party, Lewis changes the music to African tribal music because he thought it was more to the black fraternity’s liking. From this it can be concluded that Lewis is unaware of what is socially acceptable and he comes off as insensitive. At another point in the movie, Lewis and Gilbert are seen moving their furniture through campus when they first arrive. As they walk around campus, they run into people causing them trip or crash on their bikes and the two characters don’t even notice. From these examples, the nerds are portrayed as so socially inept that they are unaware of the people around them.


 After observing these three different artifacts, a lot of similarities can be seen when nerds are portrayed in movies and television. There are some positives that come with the nerd identity such as their vast knowledge in a lot of different topics. However, these positives seem to be overshadowed by their negative qualities, primarily their social ineptness. Their social ineptness seems to be used as the main source of conflict for each of the artifacts. With Big Bang Theory, Leonard poisons himself in order to meet girls, in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Wayne hid the fact he wanted to shrink one of his possessions from his wife, and in Revenge of the Nerds, the nerd are picked on by the jocks. This is an important observation because it creates a negative outlook on people who might identify themselves on nerds. Only until recently have nerds become to be more socially accepted by society. Sandra Friedrichs believes that nerds are increasing in popularity because of two reasons (Friedrichs). The two reasons are that the term “nerd” has changed and that nerd culture has become a part of everyday life.

Sandra Friedrichs describes that the term nerd no longer means that someone is socially awkward or “machine-like” (Friedrichs). She believes this because of their love for technology. Technology has become a lot more popular over the years and loving technology seems more of a normal thing now. Before, being knowledgeable in so much technology meant you were an outsider and were a target for bullying. With smart phones, and computers becoming technology everyone uses, this is no longer the case. Technology has become an everyday thing to use so there are no longer negative feelings towards nerds.

Learning Moments

One example of a learning moment during the term was when we had to analyze the ad about Adidas shoes. Towards the end of the ad, the adults are seen leaving the shoes at the bottom of the pool. I wrote how I thought this was contradictory because it showed how people were leaving the shoes and it could mean that it didn’t matter to them. However, one of my classmates pointed out that it could mean that without the shoes the party stops. This led me to learn that I had to view things in different angles and not be so single-minded.

Another example of a learning moment was I learned to give insightful suggestions to my classmates throughout the term. By having us give suggestions to other classmates’ mirror essay caused me to think of well-thought-out suggestions because I knew that my classmates were in the same situation as me. I would want as much help as possible for my essay, so I tried to be as helpful as I can to them. When I had to give examples of other artifacts to my group, I looked up possible artifacts in order to be as helpful as possible.



Eglash, R. “Race, Sex, and Nerds: FROM BLACK GEEKS TO ASIAN AMERICAN HIPSTERS.” Social Text (2002): 49-64. Print.

Friedrichs, Sandra, 2012, The Rise of Nerds’ Popularity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,

Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves. Dir. Dean Cundey. Prod. Barry Bernardi. By Karey Kirkpatrick, Nell Scovell, and Joel Hodgson. Walt Disney Pictures, 1997.

KENDALL, L. (2011), “White and Nerdy”: Computers, Race, and the Nerd Stereotype. The Journal of Popular Culture, 44: 505–524

Prady, Bill, and Lee Aronsohn. “The Peanut Reaction.” The Big Bang Theory. Dir. Mark Cendrowski. CBS. 12 May 2008. Television.

Revenge of the Nerds. Dir. Jefferey Kanew. 1984.




One thought on “Nerds in Popular Culture

  1. Hey Jonathan,

    I finally got to read your essay after not getting a chance during our mentor session. There are some similarities between your identity and my identity of Asian males. Both are made to look undesirable in media. In your analysis section you mentioned how nerds are becoming more socially accepted within our society, and totally agree with you. The comic book, video games, wizard, anime conventions are all increasing in popularity, and its all so cool to see all your childhood memories come life in the movies and TV shows. If you aren’t a fan of The Big Bang Theory and you want a better alternative to it, I highly suggest checking out the TV show Silicon Valley.

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