I get the feeling that mainstream culture has become more friendly towards nerds lately. What is a nerd? Since when does nerdism make for a ‘good story’? What are the character constellations? And why do you still love them?

What is a nerd?

Wikipedia sez:

Nerd (adjective: nerdy) is a descriptive term, often used pejoratively, indicating that a person is overly intellectual, obsessive, or socially impaired. They may spend inordinate amounts of time on unpopular, obscure, or non-mainstream activities, which are generally either highly technical or relating to topics of fiction or fantasy, to the exclusion of more mainstream activities.“

Urban dictionary sez:

„An ‘individual’, i.e. a person who does not conform to society’s beliefs that all people should follow trends and do what their peers do. Often highly intelligent but socially rejected because of their obesssion with a given subject, usually computers. Unfortunately, nerds seem to have problems breeding, to the detriment of mankind as a whole.“

I guess the term has been thrown around a lot, but whatever the specifics, the common nerdy traits are a) intelligence and/or extraordinary skill/knowledge in one or a few areas and b) social ineptitude.

Previously on … Nerds

In antiquity, in the late Middle ages and early renaissance there are various comedies which explore the world of academia. Of course, at this time, the word nerd didn’t exist, but you see, the topic is not new. I guess the german term I know (Gelehrtenkomödie) translates to „scholar comedy“. One example I read by accident, called „Melancholicus“ by Christian Bachmann.

The main character displays, among others, bad traits such as avarice, jealousy, vanity, (generally not great features to have), paranoia, hypochondria and social phobia. He has poor understanding of the world in general but great knowledge in specific areas (in this case, astronomy). He is contrasted by other, ‘normal’ figures, e.g. his wife. The comedies of this time want to display a bunch of bad character traits and ridicule them. There is a didactic effect: „Listen here, folks, this is how you don’t do it!“

The Shel-lock Syndrome

Zapping to modern times. Some factors have stayed the same. Famous nerds on TV right now are e.g. Sheldon Cooper from the sitcom „The Big Bang Theory“ or Sherlock Holmes („Sherlock“).

by Chelsi Wagner (devianart)

In their respective series, it’s a constant struggle between social norms and science. Again, both characters have poor understanding of the world or society in general but great knowledge in specific areas (physics, detective skills). They too are contrasted by other figures that the audience can identify with. They have no exceptional skills (Penny, John Watson) but are accepted members of society and know how to navigate social norms. This makes for countless situations of comic relief. Nerds have different goals in life: they want to solve problems, they want to be scientifically successful. ‘Normal’ peoples’ goals usually prioritize „having a good time“, which includes being a recognized part of society, being loved by others or one significant other. Thinks the nerd: This is not my priority so I won’t skill it (maybe displaying a bit of nerdism here myself). Although they want acceptance, too, but on a different, not-everyday level; they want their work to be recognized and be admired by the people who can actually understand and value what they are doing. Vanity: check.

The lovable sociopath

What is the difference between a sociopath that you can still deem adorable and laugh about and a sociopath that you hate? The nerd who is only interested in his or her thing doesn’t care about peoples’ feeling because they are irrelevant. But they don’t disregard or hurt people because they want to, but because they simply don’t know how ‘normal’ people deal with other ‘normal’ people. So each time a boundary is overstepped, someone is insulted or someone gets hurt by their inobservance of social conventions, the audience sort of understands. You might say „god, what an utter arsehole“, but what you mean „this person behaves like an arsehole“. You wouldn’t hold it against them because you still think they might learn how to deal with the situation in question appropriately. You respect them for their skills, which might mean nothing to you personally, but dedication and intelligence are generally positive attributes, and you adore them for trying to navigate uncharted territory when they try to ‘fit in’. In short, you forgive them their mistakes because you believe they can do better. It’s a variation on the „Only I can fix him“ trope.

Worth a tale

The pattern is: friends and family try to integrate the nerd into society as they think would be right, but expectations differ, often hilariously. This display does not serve a didactic purpose, but it still sets the dynamics for a story between characters of different worlds, so to speak, and makes for good entertainment. It seems to be extremely popular at the moment. Maybe I’ll write about tv displays of OCD next, because that’s going through the roof, too.