Nerds and geeks
The temperatures are going up (in Austin, they’re finally reaching close to 100) and the news cycle is slowing down, so I suppose that means more book reviews, movie reviews, and pop culture digressions. I just read two books back to back that delve into what is certainly one of the compelling themes of modern culture—nerdiness and geekery. One is an anthology about women in the world of geeks called She’s Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff, and the other is an analysis of how the nerd stereotype, as understood by children (particularly middle school age), perpetuates the sort of anti-intellectual attitudes that are hurting this country, called Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them. Reading the two back to back, you get a feeling for how nerds and geeks are different, for sure, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in what is a remarkably underanalyzed part of our culture, considering how much people worry about geekery and nerditude.
Nerds was written by child psychologist David Anderegg, and I’ll state up front that it was not without its flaws. Anderegg is way to quick to compare anti-nerd stereotypes to bigotry, particularly racism, which bothered me since the stereotype of the nerd so very often gets attached to people who are relatively privileged people, even if they weren’t popular in middle school. I also thought his disdainful for adults who retain their youthfulness was misplaced—being “hip” isn’t always a choice made from fear, but often from a genuine desire to enjoy certain pleasures like new technology and music, instead of fading into the fuddy-duddy mentality. But those minor quibbles aside, it was an interesting examination of how the “nerd” stereotype, which is generally understood amongst adults in a relatively harmless way that incorporates nuance, is a black and white issue when you crawl down the maturity ladder. Kids don’t have the capacity to really get geek chic or nerd pride, and instead simply believe that a nerd is one of the worst possible things you can be, and so run from it and punish kids who don’t with all their might. And running from the nerd stereotype means avoiding subjects like math or science, or seeming too smart or refusing to pretend to be more sexually precocious than you are.
In the process, he has to spend a lot of time even trying to figure out what the content of the term “nerd” even is. (Anderegg is reasonably skeptical of the idea that there’s much difference between nerds and geeks, especially on a child level, though I think by the time you get to adulthood, there’s a sense that geeks are more socially skilled, and their geekiness is an attribute of liking certain things that may not preclude being hip in other ways.) He concludes that the nerd needs the jock to exist, and vice versa, and that it functions as a way for middle school kids, and to a lesser extent high school kids, to understand their social hierarchies, which are based on a crude form of physical power. He also grounds the stereotypes in the very old American struggle between the New World Man of Action vs. the Old World Man of Reflection, a false dichotomy that Americans seem to fall prey to over and over. (He mentions Ulysses as an example of a classic hero who doesn’t have to be fall on one side of the other of the mind/body split. I’d point out that a new version that might be helpful to kids is the movie “Ironman”—Tony Stark has all the telltale signs of being a nerd, including semi-magical technological genius, but he’s a Man of Action and totally not a nerd.) He therefore links the nerdy preoccupations with technology and magical fantasies with this mind/body split, suggesting that both are seen by kids as a way to get access to power that isn’t a result of just physicality, and therefore they see it as transgressive. But a lot of things can get a middle school kids labeled as a nerd, since middle school is a time of heightened interest in conformity.
Nerdiness is also about sex, or the lack of it, which is one reason that middle school kids, who are preoccupied with the idea of sex, are also preoccupied with fears of nerdiness. I appreciated that Anderegg didn’t sugarcoat this reality for nervous parents. He also, while being very pro-nerd, takes a reasonable, moderate position about the importance of “superficial” things like one’s appearance. Some parents really are so intent on bringing up non-materialistic kids, it seems, that they forget that it’s not the end of the world to calm a middle schooler’s nightmarish existence by getting them a decent haircut or letting them wear blue jeans to school.
One thing that Anderegg touches on but doesn’t delve deeply into in his discussion of the nerd stereotype is the fact that the Platonic nerd is invariably male. The stereotype is flexible to incorporate women and girls on an individual basis, but few people conjure up the image of a woman when they think about nerds. He doesn’t really get into why, because the on-the-ground reality is that girls do fear the nerd stereotype and run from math and science classes along with the boys, and he fears that the nerd stereotype on top of other pressures on girls to prove their femininity through anti-intellectualism is creating a massive problem. But it’s nonetheless an interesting issue that She’s Such A Geek tries to address. While some of the women who contribute to this anthology delve into how their geekhood separates them from the world at large, most are more interested in exploring how their womanhood separates them from really feeling at home with the geeks.
Part of the reason goes back to sex. The nerd stereotype is one of a dude who wants but can’t get sex. But women tend to be understood in terms of being desireable and available objects to such a degree that those who are put outside of those categories end up being closer to invisible. If geekiness isn’t sexy, then women geeks simply aren’t seen in our culture, or at least they aren’t generally imagined. Thus female geeks do routinely run into a sense that they aren’t even believed to be real, which puts an incredible burden on them just to assert themselves in the spaces that they thought would be most welcoming to them.
Sex is rarely far from any kind of analyzing of nerdiness or geekery. Anderegg writes extensively about the bizarre but widespread American belief that you can be sexual or intelligent, but not both and especially not at once. (Expressed often in the axiom about thinking with this head or that one.) In one of the better essays in She’s Such A Geek, “Suzy the Computer Versus Dr. Sexy”, Suzanne E. Franks tackles this stereotype head on, talking about how her geeky male colleagues all seemed to think that excelling mentally meant shutting down sexually, but she discovered, through trial and error, that the more she was getting the laid, the more creative she became and the more able to take on mentally challenging tasks. Which seems like common sense to me—if you’re hungry or tired, you’re probably not as sharp, so why would it be different if you’re body is preoccupied with sending signals that you need some booty? But the fact that incredibly intelligent people can’t see this really demonstrates how powerful the stereotype is.
The one thing that made me sad about She’s Such A Geek was how, over and over, female scientists and engineers writing their stories end up with, “And then I had to decide between my sanity/family or a research position/high-paying powerful corporate job, and I chose the former.” I realize men go through this process a lot, but it does make you wonder if more women opt out than men, and why that might be. Every individual case feels so pragmatic and so individual that you want to avoid claiming it’s a pattern, but after awhile it builds up and you wonder, aren’t there any proud female geeks who can write about sticking it out?
Please share you thoughts on geek/nerd work lives, sex lives, childhood nightmares, and online lives in comments. As usual, the discussion about the differences (if there are differences) between nerds and geeks, like all unresolvable questions, is entertaining as all fuck, so I encourage that, as well.