DO YOU REMEMBER when nerds used be, you know, nerds?
There was a time, not all that long ago, before the coming of geek-chic monoliths like Weezer, Death Cab for Cutie, and their pop-literary equivalents, when a contingent of runty and/or fat male rejects vied for social relevance in a cruel, condemning world. I grew up amongst the snorting ranks, you see. The latex-allergied and the comically stuttered. I was a boy whose lack of athleticism, bulbous features, and propensity for fantasy bought him a one-way ticket to Shunsville. I was so unpopular, especially during my middle school years. that the word nerd wasn’t even needed to pillory my image. It was just assumed, much in the same way one may look at a slug and find no need to call it slow. Along with the sweaty group of compatriots I wheezed along with in carpeted basements over the title of Dungeon Master, I devised various ways to attain sex and recognition (but mostly sex), all of which were struck down one after the other by the harsh truth of my social irrelevance.
Recently, however, I realized something. 2013 is not 1992. Things have changed. Somehow the four-eyed pocket-protecting square has now become a modern-day Hercules. These days, whenever I hear the word nerd, not only is there a positive stigma attached, there’s an element of cultural relevance. A shade of cool that extols what twenty years ago would have been withheld from public adulation.
For those who are interested in a brief history lesson, the first documented usage of nerd can be found in Dr. Seuss’s 1950 book: If I Ran the Zoo. In this story, a boy named Gerald McGrew carries on about what he would do should he, to no surprise, be in charge of a zoo. Specifically he decides he would bring a beast from the land of Ka-Troo called the Nerd. The American Heritage Dictionary credits Seuss as the originator of the term, being used to describe someone, or something, that is socially square, obnoxious, and physically displeasing to look out. Others point to the possibility that the word derives from a performer named Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy, Mortimer Snerd, but this seems a little less convincing. Besides Dr. Suess, in 1952, Newsweek ran a story reporting that in Detroit the word nerd was used to describe a ‘drip’ or a ‘square.’ But it wasn’t until the 1970s that this meaning became part of mainstream culture, where it would be used repeatedly on Happy Days.
Just because the cast of that hit television show popularized the word, however, doesn’t mean nerds had themselves had become lionized. When I was in middle school, the title did not earn me accolades, not even within a subculture, as it does now. Instead I ended up on an unsavory fringe of disliked children. It earned me everything from practical jokes to the occasional beating. My house was egged. Girls laughed as I walked by. There was dog shit. Death threats. Even the friends I did have, who were just as entrenched as I was but smart enough to pretend like they weren’t, orchestrated schemes to humiliate me in public. Dildos were hung from the rear view mirror of my Suzuki Sidekick in high school, and rumors repeatedly snuck up on me from sources impossible to track. This torment wasn’t exclusively directed towards me, but all those of my lowly class. For us, being a nerd meant being loathed. Not being a superstar, a Michael Cera, whose hip, seductive social stylings and Scott Pilgrim indie-culture-nerd-reinventionism have re-edified geekiness’s image in the mainstream.
So what does this all say about the state of modern nerd culture? Perhaps I’m bitter or traumatized by the difficulties I underwent as a youth because of my propensity for comic books and Magic cards. The truth is, however, that reveling in what I truly liked, daring to be interested in unpopular, unorthodox oddities rendered me a target by mainstream children who were afraid, or compelled, to challenge the status quo. We all hunger for recognition, sure (a lot of nerd culture is centralized around longing to be seen), but now it seems as if anyone who has an interest in anything is a nerd. You can be a music nerd, a body nerd, or—perhaps most disturbingly to me, being that athletes represent society’s social nadir— a sports nerd. Depending on whom you talk to, this word has been rendered synonymous to enthusiast. In hipster culture, it denotes American Apparel and an ironic moustache, accessories that make you look bookish but sexy, trendy but unique, all by marketing an image that, in fact, is a million times removed from its unconventional roots. I take issue with this for a few reasons, but the main one is this: If something that is uncool suddenly becomes cool, is it possible for that coolness to be authentic? What happens when the type of people who would have picked on geeks start to dress and act like them?
As I write this essay, I might mention that I’m sipping practically jet-burnt coffee out of a pint glass at an Oakland café known for piss-poor food and barista snark. For these factors alone it is the most famed spot in town, where a youthful crowd fights to secure one small row of two-foot wide circular tables that offer plugs for electronic devices, lest they be abandoned to a newspaper or novel. Men in skinny jeans with one leg tapered up and grandma-chic 24-year-old women snub each other with time-honed precision. One youngish gentleman sitting next to me with Buddy Holly glasses, a linseed blue vest and practiced scowl is currently staring at a book that he hasn’t turned the page on in well near twenty minutes. As I choke down my coffee, cursing the fact that my favorite café filled with old men with cataracts and the occasional lesbian cyclist is now closed, and this is the only one now in walking distance from my apartment, I find myself in contempt. Not because of the fact that this young man sitting next to me’s clothing is not inventive, or even because he seems to be transfixed on page 13 of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael for reasons most people should find truly inexplicable. What angers me about him is the fact that, before it became culturally in to walk around looking like an allergenic 12-year-old, people who dressed like him might have been afraid to come around places like this. Nerds were a truly rebuked subgroup in my time, a stratum of humans whose cultural outlook put them at the bottom rung of the social ladder. Not the tall, skinny, hero-chinned Maxim model with suspenders and Daniel Craig eyes being ogled at by every woman (or man) with genitals.
Of course, a part of me relishes the fact that geek culture has been taken more seriously in the mainstream, if only for the fact that it has led to an increase in quality entertainment and lent respectability to forsworn genres. But when I see those faded academic corduroys, straight neck ties and clinically parted hairlines I fear for their intentions. It is for that reason that I have come up with this brief list of requisites that true nerds should embody. Or if not embody, than at least comprehend. For integrity’s sake.
1) You have to have gotten beat up at least once.
If you haven’t gotten beaten up for liking what you do, or at least been pranked to some uncomfortable degree, such as having your clothes stolen while showering in a locker room, or finding human feces in your bedspread (this happened to me twice), then you best seek out a swirly. It is from resilience and opposition that nerds go on to make innovations for their kind, and hedge solidarity in their communities. If you’ve done the hitting as opposed to being hit, you’re likely not much of square.
2) You must have had a hard time getting sex.
That is, with another person. Whether you’re gay, straight, or a little of both, if you are a true nerd you must have, at some point in your life, have had an incredibly hard time finding sex. Again, I don’t care if you’re a furry, or if you’re into humping scrap metal. You have to have experienced that feeling of utter rebuke and shame in rejection. The possibility that you are hideously un-datable must remain a real one. If you have the means and opportunity to cultivate multiple relationships with human beings who are willing to copulate with you, then you just aren’t that geeky. You have too much social capital to dress like your mother picked out your wardrobe, and you should go to Express where you belong.
3) You can’t be too attractive.
Yes, nerds have been known to exercise, and Judd Apatow proved that you can, with enough dedication, make over a geek to the point where he or she looks like someone’s ideal mate. But still, spending loads of money to look like Johnny Depp disguised as Egon Spengler seems phony. Not to say that a true nerd can’t take pride in his/her appearance, but trendy clothing, popular brands, and mainstream music seem antithetical to socially awkward sensibilities. Bands like Weezer, Death Cab For Cutie, and The Flaming Lips aren’t necessarily faking their roots. Ugly ducklings can grow into attractive adults. But the ones responsible for branding hit sensations often end up making it too easy to appropriate another group’s culture, rendering it mute. Ultimately, you end up with walking contradictions that inhabit Temescal or Williamsburg.
4) You have to like stuff that nerds like.
Clothes aren’t enough. You’ve got to walk the walk. Orange plaid bow ties and Giant Robot t-shirts are good and fine, but until you’re marathoning Battlestar Galactica or seriously considering buying a Raveca starter deck, than you just don’t have the cred. Instead, you’ll come off as phony (which you probably are), an everyday handsome shnook on par with the high school star quarterback. Clothes have never made anyone who they are. If you’ve never watched an episode of Star Trek: TNG, you probably shouldn’t dress in an ironic Wil Weaton cast uniform. If you have, then go right ahead. I won’t judge you.
5) You shouldn’t call yourself a nerd.
The Buddha himself said that although Buddhism is the raft you use in order to cross the sea of enlightenment, when you get to the other side, you must leave that raft behind. If you constantly have to go out of the way to define yourself in terms of typographical clichés (nerd-rock, nerd-pride, nerd-core, etc.), then you look like you’re trying too hard. True nerds are such because they’ve got no other choice. They are legitimately strange, awkward, and out of touch with reality. Those who appropriate Rap culture, or any other subculture, for that matter, in order to fit in, always have the convenience of dropping that culture whenever and however they’d like. Not so for someone who became that way by default. True nerds, what are they doing now? They’re innovating. From entertainment to computer technology, nerds have enjoyed the success that they’ve had because they’ve sunk into their deeper selves in order to discover solace. Nerdiness is a lonely condition. It comes from sacrificing societal ease and comfort for unusual dreams they decide to follow regardless of the consequences. It’s not from buying a pair of designer glasses. There’s nothing brave in that.
If you successfully inhabit three of the above five parameters, then congratulations! You’re officially allowed to belong to a club of socially awkward weirdoes. Now go dig your Magic Cards out of your TARDIS lunch box and stay inside alone on what, for some people, I assume, is a perfectly eventful Winter Monday.