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Geek Evolution: Let go of your anger, be a Better Nerd

by Nicholas Thurkettle

I have known Ashley for a few years now, and I think she would agree geekdom has been a foundational pillar of our friendship from the very start. And so when she started on this topic I felt like this was a conversation in which I could participate, and she has been good enough to lend me some space on her rabble-rousing e-billboard here.

I have to confess I was, for a long time, on the wrong side of the argument she describes. I used to talk about latter-day self-labeling geeks as wearing the equivalent of fake prison ink. I am part of the last generation that experienced adolescence without the Internet being a significant presence in our lives – the year I graduated from high school, 1995, was the year in which commercialization of the Internet took off with the decommissioning of the National Science Foundation’s NSFNET. At the time, I was in an economics class that played the game of investing imaginary dollars in the stock market. One of my teammates kept suggesting we throw every piece of play money at this thing called America On-Line. We didn’t listen. He’s wealthier than I am now.

But the difference I will have to describe to the younger generation from now on was that, pre-Internet, it really was possible to feel utterly alone in your geekdom. But for the two or three friends who could be talked into staying up all night to watch The Trilogy (there was only one back then), it was difficult to conceive that there was a vast world of us out there. And, even if we could rationally-accept that there was, it didn’t do our daily sense of isolation much good.

Nowadays, of course, there is this astonishing and galvanizing sense of instant community that can be created around any obsession, and Geekdom has become a powerful nation influencing affairs all over the cultural planet. And as Ashley and many others have rightly pointed out, we ought to celebrate that, and be grateful the next spawning of lovely nerds won’t share our suffering.

But until recently, I clung to the tribulational aspect of my nerd youth. It’s easy to love Doctor Who now. Hop in the TARDIS and try loving Doctor Who in 1989. That’s not for sissies.

As I reflect honestly on it, though, I really wasn’t actively bullied much in the classic sense. It was more a sense of being frozen out, and not understood. There was this pretty, glittering party of a world that the popular people were running, and my kind just didn’t fit there, and I perceived that in a million baffled looks and dead-ended conversations. But part of my maturation has been to realize that basically everyone feels left out of something; and the most successful, popular person around is, inside, probably as messed-up and uncertain about life as I am. I now realize most of the crowd ever meant any harm. And I think time grew my grievances as it can so often do.

Wasn’t it our comfort in those times that the things we prioritized – imagination and the deep commitment and knowledge that comes from loving something to a truly-geeky extent – was worth more than the fleeting goose honks that passed for What Matters among the superficial crowd? I know I believed it. The key question here is – did you really believe that when you said it or not?

Because if you do, then suffering is not intrinsic to being a nerd. We don’t have to be scorned for the way we love in order for that love to be valid. To hold on to that anger is, to an extent, to grant the vaporous and unslayable Thems of our past the premise we always claimed to reject – that to be this way is weird, wrong, and so rare and useless as to be vestigial to right society.

So I am relieved to come clean and say I was wrong. A positive definition of nerddom can emancipate us from old anger.

I do believe, though, that is still possible, and even defensible, to watch that these labels of geek and nerd, which we have reclaimed from derision, not be embraced too cheaply by too wide a crowd. Because then we risk them not having a definition at all.

I’ll use an analogy so dated as to be almost useless, except that I know the nerdiest among you will go to Wikipedia to read about it and will probably think it’s cool that you learned something today: if a hardcore Bob Dylan fan told you that you can’t call yourself a REAL Bob Dylan fan unless you own the non-commercial release versions of the Newport Bootlegs, then you might well say that person was being clannish, superior, and intentionally-obscure. What I hope we are trying is to keep geekdom at large from that status.

But if you heard someone say that they were a HUGE Bob Dylan fan, and when you asked them what they loved about him, they replied that they had just heard that “let’s get stoned” song of his on the radio and thought it was cool, I am saying you would be damn right to be irritated. Because that is not even the song’s name, and a nerd wouldn’t get something like that wrong if the word “nerd” still means anything.

I am not saying there should be barriers to entry in our big nerdy tent – anyone could be a nerd about something. But it does take at least a little bit of work, some genuine and proactive embrace of thing beyond what can be passively-digested, to earn the label.

This is not nerding, this is being a couch potato.

We do agree that what makes a nerd a nerd is that he or she is not superficial about that over which they nerd. I don’t want us to shy from that. I want to retain and recognize the right – if someone wants to refer to themselves as a nerd or a geek about something – to see them demonstrate that they have bothered to delve into it; even to watch/read/listen to/play it more than once (can we get a ruling on that, at least?) Any rock band will tell you that just buying a T-shirt so people can see you wear it doesn’t make you a real fan, and we ought to listen to wisdom like that; because in the greatest days of rock, the best rockers were massive nerds.

If your friend bought a ticket to The Avengers, saw The Avengers, and liked The Avengers, that makes your friend a movie fan, not a nerd. And that’s okay. If they call themselves a nerd based just on that, I think we nerds have earned cuffing them (good-naturedly, I now stress) over it.

Now, maybe they saw it, and felt compelled to talk to you about how they think Nick Fury is a badass. And you enthusiastically agree, but lament that movie Nick Fury didn’t have the “Steranko Gun”. Your friend wonders what that means. They do a little reading (you lend them a book or two, don’t you?) And then they come with you to the comic store for hardback collections, because they have decided that They. Love. Nick. Fury. And they Must. Know. More. Now you are serving your friend well. Graciously welcome them to Geekdom. Find out what they nerd out about, because they probably have nerded out over something in their lives before and didn’t realize that’s what they were doing. Soap opera fans? Huge nerds. Also pro wrestling fans – but I repeat myself.

We have a responsibility, in being Better Nerds, not just to let go of grievances, but to articulate what makes us nerds to begin with, and what makes that a good thing to be in this blessed time for all things nerdy. If the isolation of the positive aspects of nerddom – that commitment and attention to detail and admiration for the artists who entertain us – is what will rescue it from past traumas, it can also be what protects the label from spreading out and being commoditized to meaninglessness. It is not earned by pain. But I say it is still earned.

We have an opportunity here, what with this staggering volume of delicious geek product being served to us, to show people not just how to love something cool, but how rewarding it is to love it in the way a nerd does. Just about every woman I have dated has been a nerd of some kind, and I feel lucky for it. Truly – once you go nerd, you don’t go back to the herd. That commitment and joy in discovery makes for a great partner.

If there is some lingering irritation at the latecomers to our party, let’s decide that it is only to protect what we think makes our ways valuable, and let it be welcomingly-simple to dispatch – you don’t owe us anything. You can be a nerd too; just do as nerds do.

Nicholas Thurkettle is a member of the Writers Guild of America, and in his life has authored screenplays, stage plays, prose fiction, newspaper and magazine features, film criticism, millions of words’ worth of blog posts, corporate training videos, ghost-written office dinner party jokes, and was once nearly hired to write an erotic virtual comic book, but was passed over despite that he had a fantastic story pitch for it.  His blog can be found at NicholasThurkettle.com

Guest Post Policy: Send me an e-mail, maybe you can post an entry here too.

Comments

  1. mythbri says

    There’s another advantage to the fact that it’s becoming more socially acceptable to openly like things that are awesome (i.e., being a geek), and that is that it has the potential to reduce the amount of loneliness and bullying that the next generation of young nerds might face.

    Those geeks who insist on being recognized for having “paid your dues” – would you really insist that today’s nerdlings be subjected to the same bad experiences in order to somehow prove their mettle?

    Let’s back off and allow people to make their own geeky experiences.

  2. Ashley F. Miller says

    I DON’T KNOW WHO THEY ARE AND I AM MAD THAT YOU ARE TRYING TO BREAK THAT

  3. kaboobie says

    But until recently, I clung to the tribulational aspect of my nerd youth. It’s easy to love Doctor Who now. Hop in the TARDIS and try loving Doctor Who in 1989. That’s not for sissies.

    Oh, how this hit home for me. I’ve been a fan since 1984, and I’m a woman. On the one hand, I’m delighted to see that a show I love has become popular enough in the US that it’s on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. On the other hand, I’ve caught myself looking down on “new series” fans, especially the female fans who only came to it out of lust for David Tennant*. But I have to accept that they geek out over different aspects of the show than I do, and that’s okay.

    * For the record, I just don’t get it. Not my type at all.

  4. says

    If your friend bought a ticket to The Avengers, saw The Avengers, and liked The Avengers, that makes your friend a movie fan, not a nerd. And that’s okay. If they call themselves a nerd based just on that, I think we nerds have earned cuffing them (good-naturedly, I now stress) over it.

    I went to the Avengers with my 18 and 22 year old daughters who are self professed nerds and walk the walk (comics, D&D, sci fi, British sci fi, etc). One has dressed as a Dalek for Halloween, one has dressed as a Dinosaur, twice (while in her 20s and at work). We really enjoyed it but I won at being a nerd when I immediately identified the character after the end credits as Thanos. I was able to substantiate my claim by pulling out The infinity Gauntlet books out of a storage box and displaying them to my kids (yes, wrapped in plastic).

    The kicker is that my youngest has already asked for her 22nd birthday present, which is to go to the Star Trek con in Vegas. It has to be her 22nd as her birthday is at the end of August and she’s already been there once and not been 21.

    I love my kids.

  5. smhll says

    As I reflect honestly on it, though, I really wasn’t actively bullied much in the classic sense. It was more a sense of being frozen out, and not understood. There was this pretty, glittering party of a world that the popular people were running, and my kind just didn’t fit there…

    I liked your post and it made me think some more. A couple of possibly relevant thoughts.

    Some “popular” people in high school are faking it. Some aren’t interested in football and are attending the games and pretending to have “spirit” in order to get along. I’m not sure what characteristic it takes to game the system like this, but I didn’t have it. The desire to fit in is not strong in me. These hypothetical picture gave up authenticity to gain a modicum of popularity. (An option that is far more open to good looking people, I admit.)

    In the past, but in my lifetime, teenage girls were strongly encouraged to hide how smart they were. I didn’t do this, but I believe some girls did. So there are nerdy girls who were “out” during their school years, but there were some that hid their smarts and didn’t gush about their interests.

    Third thought is that passionate enthusiasm, while never truly “cool” in the school environment, is, I think, far more permitted among female people than male people. Squeeing is something girls are allowed to do more than boys. YMMV

  6. says

    I attracted a little intra-Who scorn because I came into the series with Peter Davison, circled back to Pertwee, and had essentially no exposure to Tom Baker. But it feels like new-Who gave old-Who fans common cause to forget those old squabbles.

    I think Tennant was a very charming fit for the faster-paced, romance-heavy new version, and handled himself incredibly well as an ambassador for the product to a massive new fanbase. I always use Blink as the gateway episode for bringing people into the saga. But I think Matt Smith is ultimately more Who because he seems more alien, and because he and Moffat did such a great job introducing and building this version of the character from The Eleventh Hour on.

  7. says

    Part of my own growth was realizing how unformed we all are as teenagers, and how we develop in different areas at different rates. Nerds presumably race ahead in terms of analytical capacity, long-term perspective, and the self-knowledge that comes from really choosing to like something, but often are way behind the curve when it comes to social skills. When I realized that people in my math classes were probably as frustrated and confused as I was at lunch time, it made empathy much more available. And you’re right – most of those people there were just going along to get along as best as they knew how, and I can’t hate them for that.

  8. says

    Unfortunately my oldest fell in with a group of girls that she got this idea from when she was young. It took moving to separate her from that group and to show her that being smart was not bad. While her high school years were still a bit of a battle she overcame and started to get good marks her last year. Her university work has been outstanding. I would like to take credit for my youngest daughter’s self confidence and stellar GPA but quite frankly I’m not sure what I did; she went through 4 years of high school with a ridiculously high average and taking all the AP classes she could fit in her schedule without ever having to be reminded to do her homework. I have been assaulted by other parents for saying that, and I’m not exaggerating; literally 4 years without word one on doing her work or cutting classes or anything. I would go with genetics but considering how my wife and I spent our teenage years that probably won’t fly either.

  9. F says

    That just may be Dennis Markuze, AKA David Mabus, violating his sentencing. He’s hitting the blogs here now with the same post.

  10. Rabidtreeweasel says

    This drives me crazy for different reasons. I’m a fan of the new series, but I’m also a nerd. I want to watch the original show but they are more or less gone now. Oh sure there are episodes here and there but not how I want them. I want to see all of it. The breakdowns, books, and radio plays do not satisfy my deep seated nerd need to know every aspect of this show I love. All The Torchwood is the closest I can come now to getting a rounded Who herein and it bugs the crap out of me.

    All that said, the episodes which *are* available are awesome, even out of order.

  11. F says

    I think this goes even deeper. I don’t even know what nerd or geek mean any more. I can’t even really recall what they meant 20 or 30 years ago, due to the inundation self-identification by anyone as a geek or nerd for apparently any reason whatsoever. And they meant something a bit different 30 years before that. But the proliferation of usages makes these even muddier now. Further, since many Geeks and Nerds frequently abuse the identification Hacker, it makes me doubt any authenticity at all. I think the words mean whatever someone wants them to mean, given current usage. Your definition seems to be “expert fan of <something>, with geek and nerd being interchangeable.

    I don’t know about the anger. I was sometimes angry with certain aspects of being the Other (I was Weird – I don’t think I was ever labeled Nerd or Geek), but mostly it was OK with me because I can’t bear too much dullnormal boring status quo-ness, even from good people. I still won’t deal with them socially, and you won’t find me going to any high school reunion. Not out of anger, but because of a complete lack of interest. (Well, most of the people I would care to see from school were not in my class, and I know where to find them anyway.)

    I can certainly understand how some people might have been, or still are, angry about being bullied, especially when there was enough of this to constitute a formative experience. I can get angry about how much people suck, and it doesn’t have to involve me directly at all. But frankly, when you are othered by the crowd and tagged as geek or nerd for bullying purposes (particularly in the days before the massive wave of self-identification), being a geek or nerd was very much exactly about being shit on. (Of course there are always people who appropriate the terms to be used affectionately or with admiration, but these were not, historically, the main usages.) You can get past it, but it doesn’t change the fact that these were bullying words used for bullying.

    As to having being bullied as requirement or dues payment to be called a geek as it is currently used, this is stupid and pointless, and the people claiming these things ought to talk with geeks from times prior to theirs. Some things may, of course, be taken as supporting their position, after a fashion, such as people who would never self-identify as a geek, but who were othered with the word.

    If you are going to own the words, I can’t see the sense in demanding that one must have been bullied for the words to apply. It’s a bit self-defeating for those who want a geek culture.

  12. ... says

    If the question is about letting go of anger, I find myself stunned that a mild post pointing out that certain things are part of the geek scene for historic reasons, has prompted three self-pitying and self-righteous rants in response.

    Get over it.

  13. Laurence says

    If you really want to experience all the episodes of classic Doctor Who in order, then there are ways. I’m pretty sure that all of the episodes of the First and Second Doctor that are missing are available in audio format. Most of episodes are available on DVD and the ones that aren’t will be in the future. It would take a lot of work, but it’s definitely possible.

  14. Laurence says

    I grew up watching episodes of classic Doctor Who that my dad taped off of PBS. I’m a classic series fan through and through. I like the new series for the most part, but I just hate the romantic elements. I also don’t think that Russell T. Davies can write an ending to a season to save his life.

  15. kaboobie says

    I have to give Tennant his due, even though he never really sold me. I do think the partnership between him and Catherine Tate as Donna was the best the new series has seen. I agree that Matt Smith’s performance comes closest to what I see as “Doctorish”.

    Peter Davison was my first Doctor too. I actually happened upon “The Five Doctors” on my PBS station, which then resumed showing the Tom Baker episodes from the beginning. So I was introduced straight away to the concept of regeneration, and found myself wondering, “When is this guy going to die and turn into the cute blonde guy?”

  16. kaboobie says

    I always thought of it this way: nerd describes intellect while geek describes obsessive interest. I was called a nerd for being smart and particularly good at science and math, while I was a geek for liking science fiction. But “nerd” as it is used now (and embraced by Nerdist, for example) seems to emphasize the obsessive attention to detail that one can direct toward anything, be it Doctor Who, astronomy, My Little Pony, literature…we all “nerd out” over the things we love.

  17. Borax says

    I’m 37. I grew up reading comics,sci-fi, fantasy, playing D&D and caught enough episodes of Doctor Who on PBS to be scared shitless of cybermen and daleks. I love that people can now like the same things I do without taking a fuckton of shit.

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