The Rise of the Nerds in Contemporary Television

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When one hears the word “geek”, images are conjured of pocket protectors, thick rimmed glasses and orthopaedic shoes.  Furthermore, as Bucholtz describes: “socially inept, physically unattractive and mentally over-developed, with a special affinity for science and technology[1]”. The aged idea of geek-dom has since evolved into a fresh tech-savvy, dare we say, nerdy dreamboat[2].  In some regard, the words ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ need to be differentiated and for the purpose of this essay I will be referring to the ‘geek’ as a member of the pre-21st Century cool nerds. Through close analysis of Chuck and The O.C., among others, I will aim to demonstrate how television’s portrayal of the geek has lost its derogatory connotations, particularly with the aid of masculinity, and has transformed into what we now deem as the contemporary nerd archetype.

Initially, the ‘geek’ emerged in the 1950s and became associated with those who were passionate or obsessed with technology or specific sub-cultures such as comic books, science, maths and other academia. For example, we can look at the character of Urkel in Family Matters who, aesthetically, is the epitome of the ‘geek’ stereotype: braces, ‘high-water’ trousers held up by suspenders and a high pitched nasal voice. Throughout Family Matters he is treated as an outsider as he tries to win the affections of Laura through overbearing tactics of annoyance and the other characters perceive him as an outcast because of this. Interestingly, Family Matters predecessors of the geek archetype include romantic-comedies such as Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty in Pink (1986). However, unlike Urkel, the geeks in these films do not follow the strict aesthetic of the geek; instead for example, the character of Duckie presents his outsider-ship through a more eccentric choice of clothing and dancing, which we can relate to Urkel’s “Do the Urkel”, and align these two characters in their bids to obtain female affection through obsessive behaviour. Benjamin Nugent in his books, “American Nerd: The Story of My People” states that “the heroes of American popular culture are surfers, cowboys, pioneers, gangsters, cheerleaders, and baseball players, people at home in the heat of physical exertion[3]” and this is most certainly true in the case of the film aforementioned, in Pretty in Pink it the rich jock that is the object of Andie’s affections and the case is still valid in Family Matters: those characters which are presented as popular are presented as sportsmen. However, I want to explore the reason behind the transformation from looking down upon and laughing at the geek to being aligned with the archetypal nerd rather than those who are presented as popular.

One way in which our alignment has transformed is in parallel to our ever-evolving technological society- we have come to realise that being one of the jocks or cheerleaders does us no favours. Thus, it is the ‘geeks’ who have triumphed and this is exactly what we see emerging in films such as Pretty in Pink and Say Anything (1989). Interestingly, the ‘geek’ conventions which are portrays include a bold, different dress sense, somewhat strange behaviour and an affiliation with technology. For example, Lloyd Dobler and Duckie both marvel in their obsessions with records or a ghetto blaster. This is merely a diversion of the more obvious computer or science geek- it is a cloak of “nerdery”.  Similarly, in a later film 13 Going on 30 (2004) which pays homage to classic 1980s films, shows via a flashback the class system of high school: the popular kids (six chicks) and Matty (our protagonist’s best friend and later husband). Matty is classed a geek in a different sense to Urkel or perhaps, Louis Skolnick in Revenge of the Nerds (1984), because he is not overtly dressed in classic geek attire: he is simply dressed in plain clothes as opposed to the rest of the characters covered in the neon brights of the 80’s. What is interesting about Matty is he too owns an item of technology- his Casio and his camera. Respectively, Lloyd Dobler, Duckie and Matt Flamhoff demonstrate a new era of the ‘geek’: a character less obviously ‘geeky’ in terms of aesthetics, but nevertheless still socially unaccepted, and a sensitive portrayal of un-threatening masculinity.

The aforementioned films arguably offer the ‘geek’ archetype a platform in which to transform into the ‘nerd’ and what I mean by this, is the shaking off of 1950s expectations of taped glasses and braces. The word ‘nerd’ embraces the obsessive qualities of the ‘geek’, however it adapts to a more sensitive nature of masculinity, thus allowing them to gradually become socially accepted in the real world, whilst they remain outcasts within the diegesis. Ron Eglash states that nerds are “hardly a portrait of white male superiority[4]” and this is purely through judgement of their outward appearance and common perception of masculinity in terms of the hegemonic man. Connell defines hegemonic masculinity as “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women”[5]. In particular, what guarantees the dominance of men is “to claims one’s physiology in muscle and testosterone; male-associated technologies tend to involve physical labour, subduing nature through force, and physical violence.[6]” Yet, the ‘geek’ archetype is set aside from hegemonic masculinity because of its lack of aesthetic testosterone despite its focal association being with powerful technology. As Lori Kendall argues, “narratives such as that presented in the popular movie, Revenge of the Nerds, depict the incorporation of the previously marginalised nerd identity into closer alliance with hegemonic masculinity, demonstrating the increasing legitimacy of expertise in computers as a form of masculine prowess.[7]” Thus, if we return to our earlier examples of 1980s introduction to sensitive geeks, we recognise their coupling with technologies which, in some regard, represent a way of asserting the power of masculinity “over machines and technology” rather than a control “over their own bodies[8]”.

The two case studies I wish to analyse both provide an exemplification of the transformation of the ‘geek’ archetype into the chic butterfly of the 21st century nerd. Chuck (2007-2012) denotes the story of Chuck Bartowski, an average-man who is the head of the ‘Nerd Herd’ at his local Buy More. There is nothing out of the ordinary about this man, except for his obvious depiction of the classic ‘geek’ stereotype. The Pilot opens with Chuck and his best friend Morgan awkwardly escaping his birthday party as he claims that “Morgan and I don’t feel like we’re fitting in” when his sister Ellie queries as to why they are hiding away in their nerd cave of a bedroom. The room is plastered with pop culture references, (much like Seth of The O.C’s), with Tron and Dune posters, games consoles and an impressive set of computers. Lori Kendall writes that “the image of the nerd persists in our culture because of the richness of references, and the plethora of narratives to which it connects[9]”. There is certainly  something interesting to say about how this  “richness of references” has come about; it is precisely the medium of film, television and above all the media which has created this and thus with regards to anyone who is passionate about these platforms are in fact nerds themselves. Chuck’s bedroom appears to be the bedroom of a younger adolescent, rather than that of a 20-something man and thus fits into the trope of a geek living in his ‘mum’s basement’.  This could also pay homage to classic ‘geek’ films of the 80s such as Revenge of the Nerds as the references shown originate from the 1980s. Chuck and Morgan speak of how the doctors who are at the party “won’t really get our jokes” and this casts them outside of the circle of popularity, yet we are still aligned with these geek characters. We can lend some credit to the style of filming in Chuck, for it serves as a vehicle for our alignment with Chuck. In the scene where Chuck is talking to some girls at his party, the camera is handheld and their faces are shot in a series of overwhelming close-ups and this puts us in the position of the geek character. From the beginning, the spectator never feels the need to look down upon the ‘geek’ character, despite his visual connotations of the classic geek whom possesses a pocket protector, shaggy hair, a loose fitting tie and plasters on his fingers from playing too much Call of Duty. There are various moments of the ‘flustering geek’, all displayed through uneasy camera movements: our first meeting with Sarah Walker is presented with close-up shots again, which create a soft, loving atmosphere which causes the spectator to appreciate her beauty in the same way that Chuck does, which thus aligns us with him. However, there is an interesting spectrum which allows contrast to be used in many different ways. The ‘Nerd Herders’ are excessively geeky, in the same way that the characters of The Big Bang Theory are (I will provide closer analysis of this later), and this normalises Chuck in comparison.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have many other characters that operate as superior to Chuck. All of the men outside his Nerd Herd circle represent the hegemonic man as described by Connell: they are strong, successful and above all threatening. The portrayal of Devon, or as he is frequently referred to as “Captain Awesome”, is built upon the foundations of the hegemonic man- as Chuck states “everything he does is awesome”. Casey, played by Alex Baldwin, demonstrates a hegemonic representation in its purest form as he is made of muscle and exudes masculinity through is deep, husky action hero voice which works in contrast with Chuck’s quirkier, higher pitch. Perhaps, most important in the Pilot episode is the contrast presented between Chuck and his old college friend, Bryce Larkin. The opening sequence contrasts the two characters in abundance; the spectator observes Chuck’s geeky tendencies: lack of capability with women, obsessive gaming and fear of socialising. Whilst, these images are intercut with the world of an action hero: a well-suited man pouring courageously with blood, firing guns, jumping across rooftops and performing various martial arts. Thus, in the same way that the excessively ‘geeky’  members of the ‘Nerd Herd’ provide a way of normalising Chuck and other members such as Devon, Casey and Bryce serve as a way to set him apart as ‘the other’. Quail analyses this relationship between the character who represents the norm and a nerd in her essay along the lines of the “hip/square dialectic”. She argues that “[t]his dialectic serves to construct both halves—the hipster and the square or nerd; without its counterpart, each loses its meaning[10]“, thus the characters which construct a ‘norm’ are crucial in the signification of the ‘nerd’.

In a similar vein, we can look at the portrayal of Seth in The O.C. and recognise that his ‘nerdy’ traits are realised via contrast to the other characters.  Seth is “portrayed as weak and a geeky social outcast who provides an ongoing critique of Newport Beach’s rich and beautiful people[11]”. Josh Schwartz, the producer and creator highlights that this is because “we live in a post-everything universe and everyone’s hyper-self aware[12]” and this provides and emphasis on the developing nature of the nerd in society, as well as television and film. The media of the 2000s has hailed news of the trend towards “geek chic” which is exemplified by the popularity and growth of the internet and the expanding bank accounts of computer software geniuses such as Bill Gates. As a society, we’ve learned to recognise that by just being beautiful and popular does not aid in eventual prevalent success; it is about intellect. This is not to say that there are not ‘jocks’ in this world, because of course in America at least, there are. As is spoken of in the Monkey See’s podcast “it’s easy to state that ‘geek culture’ is the new norm but there are still jocks that arguably run America[13]” and respectively, Chuck and The O.C. offer a window into that world through the eyes of the ‘geek’. Chuck’s representation of the ‘jocks’ appear in the form of spies, and they exude masculinity, even in the form of Sarah Walker whilst The O.C. takes a more obvious approach and presents the classic high school eco-system packed with the bullies, the sports jocks, sweeties and of course the ‘geek’. However, unlike Chuck, our centre of focus in The O.C’s pilot episode is not the ‘geek’; it is in fact Ryan who is the embodiment of the outsider. This demonstrates a developing ideal in contemporary media: it’s not so much about the ‘geek’ archetype that is the outsider, it could be anyone.

We first meet Seth with his legs crossed sitting on the floor playing video games, and he is ultimately is presented as a child in his skinny form, in contrast to Ryan who is muscular and wearing only a vest. Immediately, Seth makes reference to Grand Theft Auto a game in which the target audience for this show (16-24) would most likely have heard about or played themselves. Therefore, from our first moment with Seth we are aligned with him through our shared popular culture knowledge and thus we feel closer to him than we do the other characters. Like Chuck, there are moments where we witness Seth’s desire to become more of a dominant male figure and that’s through his ambition to sail to Tahiti and catch fish and obtain Summer Roberts; this is quite a masculine dream to have. However, later on in the episode his ‘geeky’ traits are re-emphasised at the annual fashion show when both him and Ryan have to sit at the children’s table. We may say that Ryan is the more hegemonic of the two, but the bigger pictures denotes the pair both as outsiders and this is what makes their combination successful in the long run of the show.

I want to make a comparison between the pilot episodes of Chuck and The O.C. and a later season episode to demonstrate how as the ‘geek’ is developing into the ‘sexy nerd’ (a higher form of masculinity), he still has moments of relapse before he can achieve his eventual masculine, complicit, dominance. For this, I shall look at Chuck Versus the Beard (S3 Ep9) and The Lonely Hearts Club (S2 E12) to observe the relapse of the ‘geek’ and then I will make reference to later episodes which demonstrate the final stage of their transformation into the new-era ‘nerdy dreamboat’. Both Chuck and Seth find themselves at a low point, through emotional complaints: for Chuck it is his loss of job and his failure to “flash” anymore- which was his claim to be needed by his fellow characters; for Seth it is the moment his dreams are beginning to come true in the form of his comic book, but he lets his emotional problems with Summer get in the way of that. We see Seth’s ‘geek’ tropes gradually increase in a stressful way as he drinks more and more coffee and his already explicit geek features are emphasised and fuel and eruption into  arguable, masculinity. Emotion is a trait of the complicit masculine and is described by Connell as “men who draw the patriarchal dividend also respect their wives and mothers, are never violent towards women, do their accustomed share of the housework, bring home the family wage, and can easily convince themselves that feminists must be bra-burning extremists.[14]”  The complicit male therefore encompasses a wide range of abilities, unlike the hegemonic man who thrives off aggression and physical dominance. The ‘geek’ archetype becomes more aligned with the complicit through its progression towards the ‘nerdy dreamboat’. Women of the 21st Century no longer need a burly, brawling man to fight their battles- they desire someone who can be an intellectual an familial equal- and therefore, we see the rise of the ‘nerdy dreamboat’.

There is something to be said regarding the authorship of both of the case studies: Josh Schwartz and his Jewish roots. Both ‘geek’ representations portrayed refer to Schwartz’s own Jewish upbringing, and go further back into the history of the ‘geek’ itself. Benjamin Nugent writes that the “greasy grind was the insult applied to kids who got into top universities through super-rigorous studying rather than well-roundedness, or simply attending an elite private school[15]”, however “the Jew and the greasy grind weren’t exactly the same thing, but they were intimately linked.[16]” Caricatures dating back to eighteenth-century England and Germany depict a similar comic representation of the Jew to our contemporary nerd. Aesthetically, the Jew is portrayed as   “clumsy, limp-wristed, and helpless in physical combat, with a big nose, glasses, and a toothy smile.[17]” However, rather than closely copying this representation, Josh Schwartz seemingly updated this archetype through both Chuck and Seth. They both appear distinctly Jewish with their dark curly hair, but they are in no way unattractive, despite their “clumsy” and “helpless in physical combat” original qualities. Instead, through character development Schwartz shows the spectator that these “greasy grind geeks” can develop into something innovative, a nerd who exhibits the virtues of the complicit who attracts the 21st century spectator.

As later episodes of both Chuck and The O.C., perhaps we could look at their marriages to the initially unattainable sex symbols of the shows- to demonstrate their progression towards a likeable, attractive nerd archetype. This is a reflection of society of our time; the “uber-geek” is something we all aspire to be, with figures such as Mark Zuckerberg.  The initial appearance of the ‘geek’ versions of Chuck and Seth have now transformed, with neat haircuts and an extra addition of muscle. They appear to demonstrate an awareness of hegemony in that they both become more masculine in appearance and the shows, respectively, go on. Yet, this is not to say that hegemony is responsible for the progression from the ‘geek’ toward the ‘nerdy dreamboat’, as it is also a reflection of our ever-evolving technological society.

However, not all contemporary television that features ‘geeks’ follow the same transformation process as Chuck and The O.C. The Big Bang Theory arguably prevents the development of the ‘geek’ into the ‘nerd’ who is thusly socially accepted. Noel Murray deems is as a ‘nerd-minstrel[18]’ representation and to some extent we can agree. The show bases itself on the representation of ‘geek’ stereotypes and presents the characters as social outcasts. Sheldon is portrayed as a creepy fan boy with traits of Asperger’s Syndrome (which the show’s writers do not want to label, for fear of having to adhere to all traits of the syndrome), Raj cannot speak to women without the aid of alcohol (and this storyline is only developing now, in its sixth season), Howard has an overly attached mother and Leonard is supposed to be the character the spectator aligns with as comparatively, he is less of a ‘geek’ than the others. The Big Bang Theory is problematic in allowing spectators to access the show as genuine: the references are very specific and thus deter audiences, yet the jokes are very broad and fit in with the laugh track and overall sit-com format.

It may seem that what it takes to be a ‘geek’ or a ‘nerd’ is to be male; all of examples I have discussed focus on the male ‘geek’, the question is: where does this leave the real-life girl ‘geeks’. Respectively, Chuck, The O.C. and The Big Bang Theory demonstrate a portrayal of female geeks: Anna in Chuck who is a fellow Nerd Herder, Anna in The O.C. who shares Seth’s love of comic book and of course, Amy and Bernadette in The Big Bang Theory.  The two Anna’s are only dressed up as ‘nerds’ to fit in and provide an emotional latch for the main male ‘geek’ characters to use for their own development. Anna in Chuck provides a ‘cloak of nerdery’ which is that she exhibits the visual of a sub-culture in order to emphasise the geekiness of the Nerd Herd. In particular, TBBT offers the most inherently ‘geeky’ ladies through the positions of career that both Bernadette and Amy possess- they are scientists. Yet, neither of them desire to participate in the ‘geeky’ sub-cultures which the men marvel in, for example in The Santa Simulation (s6 e11) the boys host a Dungeons and Dragons evening, Penny and Bernadette express their distaste while Amy is shunned by Sheldon for showing an interest in playing. Thus implying that this sub-culture is exclusive to male geeks although this is not to say that the girls do not participate in ‘geekery’ at all: Penny cosplays as Wonder Woman, yet she is doing it begrudgingly, and only to impress the boys. We can argue that “TBBT is merely perpetuating the tired-out ideas that led to the “fake geek girls” phenomenon and other misogynistic tendencies in geek culture.[19]” Once it breaks free of its stereotypical mould and harnesses the development in which this essay refers to: the realisation that ‘nerds’ are among us, rather than socially outcast.

Despite the lack of ‘geek girls’ in these programmes, there is a strong presence of powerful women. These appear in the forms of both the motherly figure and the sex siren. For Chuck, he has his sister Ellie who guides him on his pursuit for a better career and a girlfriend, and then he has Sarah, the ultimately unattainable woman who he tries harder in order to be with. Similarly, if not a copy of Chuck, Seth also has his own mother, who is the breadwinner of the family and he also has Summer, a woman who he must continually work harder to win over. However, these powerful women do not feature as predominantly in The Big Bang Theory as they are only a depiction of the old notion of the women that a geek cannot get and that is embodied in the character of Penny. Thus, we can conclude that it can be said that powerful women in these programmes aid the ‘geek’s’ transformation into a ‘nerdy dreamboat’ whilst women who only emphasise stereotypes of ‘geekdom’ prevent these ‘geek’ characters from progression.

Thus, we can recognise through analysis of contemporary television that the rise of the ‘nerd’ is an ever-evolving concept. We can trace the ‘geek’s’ succession to ‘nerd’ through characters such as Chuck and Seth. Quite possibly the most interesting aspect of this representation is its relationship with contemporary society; the rise of the technological and social media age has allowed nerds to embrace their personalities with freedom, as now ‘the nerds shall inherit the earth’ through the power of their intellect. However, we can tease problems from within its successes: and that revolves around the position of geek women, bearing the question of whether ‘geekdom’ is ruled by sexism. Nevertheless, from what used to be a derogatory term and a reason to be bullied, “with wedgies up to here[20]” it is a rather dramatic development into something which is now being regarded as fashionable, and with thanks to New Girl, ‘adorkable’.

Bibliography

  • Becker, A. (2005, March 7). What a teen wants. Broadcasting & Cable, 16-17.
  • Bindig, L. B., & Bergstrom, A. M. (2012). The OC: A Critical Understanding. Lexington Books.
  • Bucholtz, M. (1996). Geek the girl: Language, femininity, and female nerds. Gender and belief systems, 119-131.
  • Connell, R.W. (1995). Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press, p 77.
    • Connell, R.W. (2001). “3”. The Social Organization of Masculinity. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: Polity.
  • Eglash, R. (2002). Race, sex, and nerds: From black geeks to Asian American hipsters. Social Text, 20(2), 49-64.
  • Holmes, Linda. (2013) Pop Culture Happy Hour: Nerd Culture and The Return of Regrettable TV.
    • Murray, Noel. (2013).  The changing face of “nerds” (and autism) in popular culture. The A.V. Club.
  • Nugent, B. (2007). American nerd: The story of my people. Scribner.
    • Nugent, Benjamin. (2008) .The Rise of the Jewish Nerd. Jewish Quarterly. 212.
  • Quail, C. (2011). Nerds, geeks, and the hip/square dialectic in contemporary television. Television & New Media, 12(5), 460-482.

Filmography

  • Chuck (2007-2012). ep 1.1. ‘Pilot’, ep 3.9 ‘Chuck Versus the Beard’.
  • Crowe, C. (1989). Say Anything…USA. Gracie Films. 20th Century Fox.
  • Deutch, H. (1986). Pretty in Pink. USA. Paramount Pictures.
  • Family Matters (1989-1998)
  • Hughes, J. (1984). Sixteen Candles. USA. Universal Pictures.
  • Kanew, J. (1984). Revenge of the Nerds. USA. Interscope Communications. 20th Century Fox.
  • New Girl (2011- present)
  • The Big Bang Theory (2007-present). ep 6.11 ‘The Santa Simulation’.
  • The O.C. (2003-2007) .ep 1.1 ‘Pilot’, ep 2.12 ‘The Lonely Hearts Club’.
  • Winick, G. (2004). 13 Going On 30. USA. Revolution Studios. Columbia Pictures.

[1] Bucholtz, M. (1996). Geek the girl: Language, femininity, and female nerds. Gender and belief systems, 119-131.

[2] For the purpose of this essay, the ‘nerdy dreamboat’ refers to nerds portray by attractive men.

[3] Nugent, B. (2007). American nerd: The story of my people. Scribner.

[4] Eglash, R. (2002). Race, sex, and nerds: From black geeks to Asian American hipsters. Social Text, 20(2), 49-64.

[5] Connell, R.W. (1995). Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press, p 77.

[6] Eglash, R. (2002). Race, sex, and nerds: From black geeks to Asian American hipsters. Social Text, 20(2), 49-64.

[7] Kendall, Lori. “Nerd Nation: Images of nerds in US popular culture,” International Journal of Cultural Studies, v. 2, n.2 (1999), 260-283

[8] Segal, L. (1990). Slow motion: Changing men, changing masculinities. London: Virago. p.123.

[9] Kendall, L. (2011). “White and Nerdy”: Computers, Race, and the Nerd Stereotype. The Journal of Popular Culture, 44(3), 505-524.

[10] Quail, C. (2011). Nerds, geeks, and the hip/square dialectic in contemporary television. Television & New Media, 12(5), 460-482.p 461

[11] Bindig, L. B., & Bergstrom, A. M. (2012). The OC: A Critical Understanding. Lexington Books.

[12] Becker, A. (2005, March 7). What a teen wants. Broadcasting & Cable, 16-17.

[13] Holmes, Linda. (2013) Pop Culture Happy Hour: Nerd Culture and The Return of Regrettable TV.

[14] Connell, R.W. (2001). “3”. The Social Organization of Masculinity. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: Polity.

[15] Nugent, Benjamin. (2008) .The Rise of the Jewish Nerd. Jewish Quarterly. 212.

[16] ibid

[17] ibid

[18] Murray, Noel. (2013).  The changing face of “nerds” (and autism) in popular culture. The A.V. Club.

[20] Nugent, B. (2007). American nerd: The story of my people. Scribner. p.

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