It’s Time to Re-Construct the Definition of Geeks and Nerds

By Jenna Johnson

Will Whaton geek

Take a look at me. What do you see?

Jenna Capture
Photo: Jenna Johnson

Based on first impressions, you see an overweight woman, brown hair, dark eyes with dark rimmed glasses framing them… eh, decent-ish sense of style…

You may say that my being overweight is based on a lack of control over food, and inability to stop eating when a ‘normal’ person could. You may think my eyesight is bad because of genetics, or from staring at a computer at my 8 to 5 job. And you may think that my black, plastic glasses are an attempt to enter the whole Hipster scene that’s becoming popular right now.

But you’d be wrong.

Now, you’re right on the overweight thing, I am that; however, it isn’t due to a lack of control on my part. I have an insulin based disease that causes me to gain weight really easily despite the healthy foods I eat, and exercise I do daily. My dark hair is from a box; I started graying at the very early age of 14, thanks mostly to genetics on my father’s side. My waning eyesight is due to the mass amounts of books I read, and manuscripts I edit in addition to the computer work I do at my 8 to 5 job. And no, the frames aren’t because they’re the “hipster” style that’s becoming popular; it’s because I like the style.

It’s what you don’t see that really matters.

Photo: s3.amazonaws.com
Photo: s3.amazonaws.com

You don’t see me writing this blog post in my Doctor Who/Transformers crossover tee-shirt, with my hair piled on top of my head, and glasses at the tip of my nose. You can’t hear my favorite television show playing in the background for some noise so my bedroom isn’t deathly quiet, and so that the soft tapping of my fingers on the keyboard isn’t the dominate sound in my life. You don’t see my ten year old cat sitting on the book I’m currently reading, and snuggling up to me when we’re ready to go to bed at night. And you certainly don’t see the me that I really am outside of that photo.

I’m a friend, and I am a lover. I’m a sister, and I’m a daughter. I am a teacher, and I am a learner.

There are all sorts of things that I can be because you base your initial idea of me on a single glance at a photograph. And that’s not cool.

Would you believe it if I told you I was a nerd?

Probably not; unless you really know me in real life, or you’ve read my other blog posts on this site, that is. You’d not know that I’m a Netflix binge-watching, fantasy novel reading, British television loving, computer gaming, internet meme wielding, Dungeons and Dragons playing type of girl. I may not seem it from first glance, but I really am that person behind what you see in the photo above and the photo below.

Photo: Jenna Johnson
Photo: Jenna Johnson

Now, I bet you’re wondering where I am going with this…

Recently I was introduced to a friend of a friend, as “the geek girl who goes to sci-fi conventions.” (In all actuality, I’m not offended by this. I happen to find conventions very fun: I’ve made many friends at the cons, on the con Facebook pages, and by just wearing a few of my fandom teeshirts. I’ve met many celebrities I’d never would have had the opportunity to meet otherwise; and it is, most definitely, a chance to escape from my mundane, day-to-day life.) But I never felt so small as when that person – that I was just introduced to – told me “Honey, you shouldn’t advertise yourself as a nerd. You’ll never get anywhere in life.”

Wait… What?

whaaat
Photo: mg1.wikia.nocookie.net

How could this person, after knowing me for a maximum of three minutes, assume that I will never get anywhere in life because I consider myself a “nerd?” To my knowledge there is nothing wrong with nerds or geeks; in fact I know quite a few who claim that of themselves and they are some of the greatest people in the world.

So, I decided to take it upon myself to do a little investigative survey work, and find out what others think when they hear, or see, the words “nerd” or “geek,” so I asked my friends and two Facebook groups – 30 Days of Hustle and The Official Dragon*Con Facebook – to help me out a bit. I chose these two groups because I knew I would get varied answers from different individuals.

After 10 days of the survey being on the website, and collecting 250 surveys, I knew I had a good base to retrieve some data on how some people think.

When it came to my question of “What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear – or see – the word “nerd?”, a vast majority of individuals stated that a nerd was someone with no social skills, no coordination, no fashion awareness, and quite often used the name “Steve Urkle” for the answer.

Question two was the same question, but I substituted the word “geek” for nerd.

I got the same type answers: suspenders, glasses with tape, Poindexter, outcast, computers, acne, forever alone. The negative lists and adjectives go on, and on.

But before we go too much further, I think we need to look at the definitions of both words:

Nerd: noun – 1 a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious. 2 A single-minded expert in a particular technical field..

Geek: noun – 1 an unfashionable or socially inept person. 2 A carnival performer who performs wild or disgusting acts. (Writer Note: I don’t think definition two is the one we’re concerned about in this particular post.)

When I started reading survey answers, I was severely disappointed when a vast majority of the answers were the same repeated phrases: socially awkward, socially inept, anti-social, severely lacking in social skills. Just like that of the definitions I looked up; however misguided they may be.

But what is it that really causes us to perceive the nerd and geek culture in this particular way?

mass_mediaWhen asked that very question, 85 percent of individuals polled believe that media (television, internet, movies, etc.) influenced their way of thinking when they answered questions one and two of the survey. 85 percent! But what really saddens me is that 71 percent answered that, yes, geeks and nerds are portrayed very negatively in media.

But why the stereotype for geeks and nerds? Why do they have to be socially inept? Why do they have to have no fashion sense? Why can’t we be depicted as a cheerleader or a jock as well?

For years the media has been able to stereotype individuals, and warp the minds of millions of people into believing that to behave a certain way is to become a certain type of person. Those who play sports – the jocks – have to be handsome, popular, unwise, and irresponsible. Cheerleaders have to date the sports stars, are too beautiful for their own good, are shallow, and are rude towards others outside of their clique.

Are you sensing a pattern here? Because I know I am.

Earlier shows and movies that depict the barriers between the backgrounds as unapproachable, and anyone who tries to cross the void shall be known as a traitor to his/her own “race.” These lines are clearly shown in the 1984 cult classic Revenge of the Nerds when a college campus is made into a war-zone between the nerds and an on- campus fraternity.

Photo: sbnation.com
Photo: sbnation.com

In the two decades since the release of Revenge of the Nerds it has become more socially acceptable to be a nerd, or a geek in today’s culture. The movie shows that nerds and geeks aren’t the social rejects that we’re are made out to be: we socialize, and we have friends who have the same interests as us; we also have friends who have different interests as us. Just because many tend to be quiet, or shy, or introverted doesn’t mean we don’t share similar interests as the rest of society either.

Photo: renfair.com
Photo: renfair.com

Many respondents went on to explain that television shows like CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, Fox’s Glee, TBS’s King of the Nerds, and even the cancelled cult classic Freaks and Geeks, give nerds and geeks a positive spin. Movies like Sydney White, The Social Network, and even Iron Man, also glorify that rising paradigm. It is with these shows and movies that nerds are being presented in a more socially acceptable light than we have ever been before.

So coming full circle, why is it not okay for me to consider myself a geek, or nerd? Out of 250 individuals who partook in this survey, 72 percent proclaimed themselves as a nerd or geek! Can you believe it? Even though the media has a firm grip on many aspects of our psyche, there are those out there who do not mind labeling themselves as something that some see as a nonstandard. And I love that! They’re not afraid to stand up and state exactly who they are, even if they don’t fit within a particular set of ridiculous standards that Hollywood spouted they should have.

To see so many people proclaim that they are the same as me makes me glad that the standard for “normal” is changing in today’s society.

So stand up, and take pride in yourself no matter what culture you portray for you can encompass all of them, or none.

The immortal last lines of The Breakfast Club state that people “see us as [they] want to see us – in simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.” We can all be “the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, and the criminal,” but it’s how we treat those around us that really set us apart.

6 thoughts on “It’s Time to Re-Construct the Definition of Geeks and Nerds

  1. Great post! I’ve always kind of been a nerd or geek. In high school I graduated with a 3.9. I was a “band geek” because I LOVED being in band, especially marching band. But I tried to suppress other geeky interests because I didn’t want to be made fun of. I’ve been introverted and poked fun of because of that.
    Now, I’ve come to a place where I love being a nerd. I go to see nerdy movies. I’m trying to see if the new DBZ movie is close enough to drive to next week. I have a Doctor Who/Firefly tshirt and my wife and 3 sons have Doctor Who tees as well. I own a sonic screwdriver, I made a LOTR table for my office. I do parkour because it keeps me in shape and because it makes me feel a little bit like Spiderman. There’s more but I’ll stop now.
    Some people get excited about sports, cars, fashion, or any number of other things. And those are wonderful. I get excited about “nerdy” things. And its also wonderful. It’s nice to meet others with similar interests. Persevere!
    Now it’s almost time to head home. Let me grab my key off my Legend of Zelda key hook and I’ll be off!

    1. Thanks for the kind words! And I love that you have many “nerdy/geeky” interests, too!

      Honestly, I didn’t embrace my nerdy side until 2011. I had already gone through high school – that’s when I developed my lifelong love for Harry Potter – but it wasn’t until 2011 when a friend was persistent into getting me to watch Doctor Who. Needless to say, he helped me open a door that can’t close now. I owe him a lot for helping me find – and accept – who I truly am meant to be.

      So grab your keys off the Legend of Zelda hook, and go enjoy your nerdy life!

  2. I like your point about mass media. While I love Big Bang Theory for making nerdiness more cool and mainstream, unfortunately, it also furthers the stereotypes. The episode where Leonard learns about football makes me so angry, because you can love geeky things and still love non-geeky things. Why lump people into categories at all? I love LOTR, Star Wars, and Jane Austen, but I also love football. Although I also get great reactions from people because I’m female and I like watching sports, but that is a whole different topic.

    Side Note: I will continue to watch Big Bang for a couple of reasons, 1) I feel like a super genius when I get any of the scientific references, 2) Sheldon, and 3) Hilarious writing.

    I always appreciate your posts, and FYI you have a great writing style. Very engaging!

    1. I know the episode you’re talking about! It’s The Cornhusker Vortex from season 3, and it made me a bit angry too, for the exact same reason… until I remembered Leonard’s back story, and then it made sense as to why he didn’t know the sport.

      Remember in the rare moments Leonard shared snippets of his adolescence with us, and how his parents had a very hands-off approach in regards to raising their children, but still put a lot of emphasis on their education; they were very analytical, and wanted their children to be mini-geniuses. So, to me, it makes sense in conjunction with his back story that Leonard wouldn’t know much about sports because of the way he was raised.

      Sheldon on the other hand, knew everything about football, remember? But my reasoning is that it’s because his mother, Mary, wanted him to be like the more normal, neighbor kids – playing sports, playing video games, etc. – so It makes sense that Sheldon knows football from his mother’s failed attempts at immersing her son into a world that was not science and academia.

      I think that lumping people into nice, prepackaged stereotypes is the dumbest thing anyone can ever do. I mean, it’s completely evident that one person can have multiple interests. I mean, look at me: I play D&D, I binge watch Netflix on weekends, I game online, but yet I’m a Jane Austen scholar, I’m writing my own mystery series, and I like sports.

      But I think that’s the great thing about nerds; we can have many loves and passions, and it’s acceptable. So that’s one of the reasons I don’t see a negative side of being called a nerd or geek because there is nothing negative in having many interests and delights.

      In response to your side note, I can’t quit watching either. I love the show, and I get a lot of the references that most may not find funny, so it makes it even funnier for me. And even if I tried, I think my mom would disown me. =/

      (And many thanks on your kind words!)

      Jenna

  3. My issue with BBT is that it furthers the stereotypes, but worse, it’s jokes are usually dependent on the audience thinking “It’s funny because they’re NERDS.” And that awful, awful laugh track. Anyway, I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard before.

    Beyond that, my biggest problem with the current view of nerddom is that liking something nerdy means you’re a hermit. About a month ago I had an interesting interaction with a coworker. Someone who was fairly new (and admittedly a little odd) walked by and a coworker asked my opinion, with the caveat that she heard he likes playing video games. My response was, “Well I play a lot of games too.” To which she said, “Well yeah, but you have a wife and a social life,” implying that she believed the newer employee had neither because of his interest in games. I refrained from lashing out at the stereotyping, and simply said that I didn’t think he was THAT strange, though certainly a unique bird. I’d like to think I had at least a small hand in pushing down the consensus with that interaction. Who knows…

    1. This is Aaron chiming in. Thanks for the comment!

      I agree 100% that the “hermit” stereotype is a big issue and, potentially, the worst one of the lot. I think a lot of stems to people not wanting to get out of their comfort zone and speak to someone that doesn’t, they assume, have any of the same interests as them. They may not believe they can gain from a conversation with them, so why should they try. Maybe they don’t, but why not try at least.

      I also think this view cause “geeks” to be quiet and not want to socialize. Why try if there not going to. It just creates this circle of stereotypes of “He is so geeky and strange. I’m not going to talk to him” and the response is “I don’t want to talk to that person because she is snobby and looks at me weird.”

      Again, thanks for the comment!

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