The real revenge of the nerds
November 2nd, 2011
12:33 PM ET

The real revenge of the nerds

Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I saw nerds portrayed on television all the time.

Steve Urkel on “Family Matters.”  Martin Prince on “The Simpsons.”  Minkus on “Boy Meets World.”  Sponge on “Salute Your Shorts.”  Paul Pfeiffer on “The Wonder Years.”  A whole gaggle of supporting nerd characters filled Bayside High on “Saved By the Bell.”

The stereotypes were easy to spot:  suspenders, taped glasses, pale skin, a snorting or gasping laugh punctuating a squeaky voice that insisted on accuracy.

Band geeks, and theater dorks, and science nerds, and oh so many losers in the Chess Club.  Sure, there was some variety—Screech didn’t wear glasses, and Urkel was black.  But when Uncle Jesse on “Full House” imagined one of his twin sons growing up in his mother’s protective shell, and the character in Jesse’s future reverie walked on screen with a buttoned-up flannel shirt and a cowlick, we knew what we were supposed to think.  (The teenager then announced to his father’s chagrin, of course, that he had been named Equipment Manager of the Chess Club.)

And I knew that these characters were supposed to represent me. 

I knew because kids in the school hallway called me a nerd, a geek, a dork, and these designations justified any actions they chose to take.  Nerds can be punched at random.  Nerds can be pushed into trash cans.  You can steal things from nerds’ large backpacks.  After all, if they don’t want this to happen to them, why are they choosing to be nerds?

Those were trying times for socially out-of-touch kids.  Times when you hid your membership in the Math Club, when you kept your hand down in class despite knowing the answer, when you hoped no one would notice you lugging your heavy French horn case to school.

At the movies, “Revenge of the Nerds” gathered every nerd stereotype into one place, as Lewis Skolnick, Gilbert Lowell, Poindexter, Wormser, Booger, and their band of misfits tried to defeat the manly Alpha Betas.  Did it matter that the nerds in the movie ultimately won?  Not much, evidently, because the film spawned three sequels, and each time a new gang of nerds still needed to exact revenge on a new gang of jocks.

But then something happened.

As time passed, the image of the nerd evolved.  Just look at “The Big Bang Theory.”  Or “Chuck.”  Or Twofer on “30 Rock.”  Or Dwight Schrute on “The Office.”  Or the nerdy characters on “Ugly Betty” or “Glee” or “Numb3rs.”  Even the doctors on “Grey’s Anatomy” laud intellect as emphatically as McSteaminess.

Today’s pop culture nerds are deeper, more interesting.  They’re protagonists, not the oblivious Poindexters of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The viewer is supposed to root for their love interests—compare Urkel’s stalker-like obsession with Laura, or Screech’s with Lisa, to Leonard’s desire for his neighbor Penny on “The Big Bang Theory.”  The first two are weird and a little creepy, and it’s a running gag that the nerd will never get the girl.  The third is kind of sweet—and Leonard does get the girl.

I think Gilbert from “Revenge of the Nerds” best embodies this shift.  The actor who played Gilbert, Anthony Edwards, went on to become Dr. Mark Greene on “ER.”  Greene was an intelligent, lanky, balding glasses-wearer who spoke polysyllabic medical terms fluently.  But this didn’t make him the target of ridicule.  It made him a good doctor.  Wouldn’t you want your doctor to be knowledgeable?

As a society, we found ourselves able to identify and name the undercurrent of anti-intellectualism that fueled nerd persecution, and—thank goodness—we didn’t like it.  Now a “nerd” is a person good at his or her job, and a “geek” is an expert on a given topic.

I also credit technology itself for the shift.

Remember when computers were obscure tools for pasty-faced basement dwellers?  In “Revenge of the Nerds 2:  Nerds in Paradise,” Skolnik tries to impress a receptionist by correcting her keystroke technique.  But now that technology is a prerequisite for social connection, everyone has become a nerd.  We all spend hours a day gazing at a computer screen, and most teenagers—not just the geeky ones—communicate in “abbrevs,” or “l33tspeak,” or a mishmash of ASCII characters and hashtags that comprise a tweet.

I saw the shift clearly last month when I visited Concord High School, where I spent the mid-‘90s dodging insults.  I’ve been traveling around to various middle and high schools recently, performing my one-man show, “Please Don’t Beat Me Up:  Stories and Artifacts from Adolescence,” and I found myself talking about bullying to an audience of three hundred freshmen on the very stage where I used to perform high school plays.

During one part of the performance, I mentioned that I have a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology—and to my surprise, after the words left my mouth, I had to stop and wait…because the freshmen were applauding.

They were applauding a Ph.D.  An academic achievement.  With no concern for whether their fellow students would ridicule them for doing so.  That would not have happened twenty years ago.

One of the teachers later told me, proudly, that each freshman was given a “Concord Nerd” tee-shirt which, on the back, read, “Your Future Boss.”  And, unlike the “4.0 GPA” tee-shirt I was given twenty years ago in Junior High, the students actually wore them.

We’re undergoing a cultural sea change.

Nerdiness is now a path to success.  One can dress “geek chic” or listen to “geek rock” (or read this geek blog).  The same thick glasses people used to associate with bookishness are now fashionable for hipsters and emo kids.  Channels like TLC and National Geographic and The Science Channel fill their lineups with slick, awesome-looking stories about smart people designing battle-ready robots or curing diseases or engineering bridges.  NFL quarterbacks are still celebrities, but so are Adam and Jamie from “Mythbusters.”

When we’re all a little bit nerdy, how can we make fun of anyone?

When I perform my show, people often ask me how we can address bullying in school.  No matter what measures we take, bullying won’t magically disappear tomorrow.  But it can continue to erode over time.

I liken the issue to teen smoking.

In 2000, 28% of high school kids and 11% of middle schoolers smoked cigarettes.  By 2009, those numbers had dropped to 17.2% and 5.2%, respectively.  One can credit tobacco control programs and cigarette taxes, but the drop is also fueled by—and evidence of—a shift in perception.  Smoking used to be cool.  Now, more and more, kids see smoking as disgusting, and the trendy thing to do is to avoid it.

It’s the same with bullying.  As popular perception of nerdiness shifts, kids think of bullies more and more as mean and juvenile, not as clever heroes.

To be sure, we’re nowhere near where we should be.  Kids still posture for social rank, and bullying remains a nationwide epidemic.  When bullying, whether live or cyber, drives kids to suicide or makes anyone feel small and depressed at school, the problem is far from solved.

But I hope I’m not wrong when I say that we’re getting closer.

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soundoff (51 Responses)
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  6. This is Fact

    I know it sounds silly, but when Ben Folds Five came out I had many conversations about how the "nerd scene" would take over by right about this time. And here it actually happened. I honestly don't know what it was in particular that made me decide that back then, but it seems to have been pretty on the dot.

    November 3, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
  7. DSC

    Ph.D. Unemployment rate = 1.9%. It pays to be a nerd

    November 3, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  8. RonK

    Nerd is flavor of the month on TV but it is no path to success for most nerds. For every Mark Zuckerberg there are 50,000 laid-off programmers working at HH Gregg. The financial planners, bankers and CEOs who have most of the wealth are the same old preppy jocks, the guys who are pretty smart but also clean cut and who know how to market themselves. Nerddom is a niche. People will buy a computer from a nerd, some rich ones will even invest in his computer company. They don't want him as their banker, lawyer or doctor.

    November 3, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  9. WaitWhat?

    Dammn right. I'm a nerd/dork/geek and went through all of this in high school but now I make 250K a year. Suck it jocks!

    November 3, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
  10. Deathstalker

    It is really a little more simple then that if you ask me.. A kid growing up may seem to have it all looks, athletic abilities and charm etc. But as we get older those atributes matter less and less. For one after 35 even if you are still athletic you are not as fast or as good as you once were. And if you did not make it into professional sports it matters little. Also the same can be said about women. A woman can have good looks and many other things while yung but after 35 whats left? Your mind and the things you do with it will last longer then your body and good looks. So if you start out as a geek or nerd but use your brain when you make it to that age you are the one on top and all those who were able to get by on looks and charm are left with there hand out.

    November 3, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  11. Erin

    Just an interesting observation– the starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills graduated (with honors I believe) from Harvard with a degree in economics. Looks like some people really can have it all.

    November 3, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • Nelba

      Yes, then there's the rest of us ...

      November 3, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Whitney

      You are referring to Ryan Fitzpatrick. He was in my high school calculus I-II class. While he is physically and intellectually gifted, he never fit the typical “jock” mold referenced in this story. He was nice to everyone and the type of person the whole school could cheer for. He set a high standard for jocks and nerds alike in being accepting of others.

      November 3, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  12. Rick S.

    How do you define today's Nerd? What separates him/her out from the masses or even the Alpha Males?

    November 3, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • RonK

      A white-hot resentment.

      November 3, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
  13. Philip

    Studies about the business world show that those who are popular in high school are more likely to climb the corporate ladder in the business world because of the personality traits they exhibit. Being a nerd does not equate to guaranteed success or being someone else's boss one day.

    November 3, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Nelba

      Probably true in the USA, at least, and probably why we are in the economic condition we are in. 🙂

      November 3, 2011 at 11:50 am |
      • Deathstalker

        We are in the economic situation because of high gas prices nothing more nothing less.

        November 3, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Jake

      It seems some of the popular people do well but look at the successful nerds and many are much more than bosses, they are owners and some billionaires. In today’s economic environment the shirt may eventually say “NERD” on the front and “I have a job” on the back, just look at the fields with very low unemployment.

      November 3, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • driranek

      Think used car sales – there's lots of jobs where actually knowing something is a handicap and the ability to sweettalk is paramount. Outside of politics there's only so far that can take you. I was a nerd before the term was invented and now I could sell the 'popular people' from my high school if I had made the mistake of buying them in the first place.

      November 3, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  14. Noel Dietrich

    I grew up with the author of this piece, and it's funny, as someone who was a year younger than him and only knew him through band, other extracurricular activities (nerdy ones, of course, like Math League and Science Olympiad), and work at a dysfunctional indoor amusement park, I never saw him as someone who would be tormented – only a funny, smart guy, worthy of respect. I admired that he always seemed to be himself, even if the general population might not see it as cool, while I held my own inner nerd back in a lot of cases. In retrospect, I regret doing that (now, I happily let my nerd flag fly high)! In any case, I'm glad there might be change for the better on the horizon, particularly at my alma mater. 🙂

    November 3, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • YeahRight

      whatever liar

      November 3, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  15. WWRRD

    A good article with a caveat and a warning. Nerds can indeed revel in the opportunity that they have to become more successful than their more popular peers once they reach adulthood. The idea of the nerd becoming the boss is not far fetched. However, the young Nerd needs to realize that only through acquiring some degree of people skills will they truly become successful. The nerd that that lack emotional intelligence completely will most likely be underpaid for their worth and isolated in dark lab somewhere and exploited by another nerd that learned in the end that to be truly successful you need to connect with people at some fundamental level. You don't need to be the life of the party, but you do need to be confident and capable in your discussion with people on some personal level that doesn't involve discussion of the latest journal article in "Science".

    November 3, 2011 at 7:43 am |
    • xxsevensxx

      It's incorrect to assume that Nerds lack social skills. What they truely lack is confidence. As a bullying victim in high school, I found I had far better social skills than I knew when I went to college. I gradually realized that rather than mocking me for my unusual sense of humor, niche interests, and eagerness to learn, my new classmates actually respected me for those things! It was a very weird feeling to suddenly be more popular than the few students who were unable to leave their "jock" days behind them.

      November 3, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • Nelba

      You have some very good points.

      November 3, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  16. Mike R

    I was a nerd and a defender for them in junior high and high school. I would step up to a bully if they messed with any of my fellow geek. Even though I ran away after school so the bully herd wouldn't get me, I knew I made a difference in maintaning the dignity of low self- esteemed, fellow nerd. Geek On, fellow nerds, geek on!!!

    November 3, 2011 at 4:03 am |
  17. Brandon

    While a good article, I believe there are factors being overlooked that are crucial to the "nerd" social order and dynamics of school. As a teacher and former "nerd" AND "jock" I see many things that affect behavior, academics, and social integration of teens. To be blunt, economic background, parental involvement, urban or rural location, and unfortunately race and culture play very significant factors in labeling of who is a "nerd". Nerds are classically portrayed as white urban males who are intellectually superior yet bear the brunt of social humiliation; while peers reap the social rewards of high school popularity throughout life. The truth is that the playing field, as it were, is not level yet for teens in high school. "Nerds" may not have yet developed the social skills necessary to use their education to their advantage in a socially driven business economy. On the same field though, "jocks" may have developed the social skills, yet not have the capability of adding the intellectual skills necessary to succeed. These skills are learned harshly in life between approximately 18-23 years of age. They meet in the middle with either the "nerd" lifting his social skills to match his intellect, or the "jock" discovering that there is an intellect that they never knew existed to match their social ability.

    November 3, 2011 at 3:03 am |
  18. fitfordragoncon

    Just the presence of a "blog" called "Geek Out" on is evidence enough that geek/nerd culture has finally become acceptable to a mainstream audience. Of course, this means that the culture has been diluted and, in many ways, pillaged for monetary gain (terrible superhero movies are a prime example of this), but if a kid these days can go to school and not hide his sack of 20-sided dice, then I am all for it.
    However, I still think that there will always be true nerds. I always say that they are the ones who possess a distilled version of the "geek gene" whatever that is. They're not the ones with the thick plastic glasses who occasionally log on to WoW or who have seen a couple Star Wars movies. They're the ones who are so obsessed with something that is so obscure that they genuinely cannot function in normal society. True story.

    November 3, 2011 at 1:44 am |
  19. KC

    I was (and still am) a four-eyed girl geek. I NEVER lacked for male companionship. The jocks wouldn't date me, true, but why would I want to date brain-dead men? I dated the President of the Chess Club (who now makes darn good money as a lawyer), the President of the Drama Club (who now makes darn good money as a lawyer), the President of the Backgammon Club (who now makes darn good money as a lawyer)... and finally wound up with that double threat: President of the Debate Club who was also President of Student Council. Who worships the ground I walk on because I understand him; he doesn't have to break things down to small words and small concepts for me. And knows how to fix my computer.

    November 2, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  20. Jonathan

    The reason why nerds made good targets wasn't because they were nerds, it was because they were the outsiders. They were typically easily identified as being different, and so they were easy pickings. Then, they grew up and started to be in charge, and so they started to influence popular culture and society as a whole. They started to become more mainstream and so they are now less of a target. But as long as you have someone that stands outside the "norm", you'll have a target for bullies. It's even possible there would come a time when the pendulum would swing in the opposite direction, and it would be the jocks that are the target of the nerds.

    November 2, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  21. hanna

    Must be in city schools where bullys dwell. When I finished my 2 semester HS computer course in 2 weeks, guys came up to me and said "I want to be just like you". That was in 1980 in a small town where the family farm was dying, and we had to find other occupations. Necessity breeds respect.

    November 2, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  22. Zashy

    I'm kind of annoyed at how nowadays, people portray nerds as ultrasmart geniuses who receive full mega scholarships to top schools and always end up earning big bucks and bossing everyone around. You need confidence and social skills to have that kind of success, not just your brains. And nerds don't have to be geniuses.

    What about that kid in your class who's pretty smart and has nerdy interests, but lacks social flare? He'll probably get depression, his grades will drop, he'll try to go to college and fail, and he'll end up a basement-dweller. But who cares about him? I think these people are the REAL nerds, the kind that slips through everyone's minds but really needs their attention.

    Just because you think you're a "nerd" doesn't mean you'll be better than everyone else.

    November 2, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • Mel

      But your view of nerds is wrong – we nerds never saw ourselves as better than everyone else. We just never could figure out why we were treated as a subhuman species, when we were perfectly equal to the jocks and the preppy kids. Once social contact and encouragement starts with classmates, most nerds do develop those skills you're claiming they never have.

      November 3, 2011 at 12:18 am |
  23. Gregory Jennings

    "We all spend hours a day gazing at a computer screen, and most teenagers—not just the geeky ones—communicate in “abbrevs,” or “l33tspeak,” or a mishmash of ASCII characters and hashtags that comprise a tweet."

    Lol. No. Nerd Cred revoked.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  24. Goddess of Wine

    As my very nerdy husband has said for years, "Nerd – Man of the Future!"

    November 2, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  25. BobDOle

    I was abused so much in high school I dropped out, never finished. Applied to college as a mature student, and now work in IT for one of the major Canadian banks. Doing pretty well I must say!

    November 2, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • ketch

      Good for you!
      While not so much a nerd as just an outsider of slight build, i too was terrorized (no, not too strong a term) for over 18 years and into college. It affect my grades and of course my ability to trust others and my own self worth. 4 decades later just now dealing with it all, this after two kids now off to college and a 23 year marriage.
      Bottom line, not just nerds got abused by bullies, and yes it still is far from over. No its not better. The famous who come out against it by telling their own minor incidences have no idea of the real effects of serious bullying.
      I will say its about time the problem has hit mainstream, too late for me, but perhaps not for those in the future.
      OK, back to listening to 'foster the people'

      November 3, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  26. Julie

    I love nerds, they grow up to be empathetic and potentially make lots of money to provide their families with a comfortable life style.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  27. girl geek

    I was lucky in high school because my sister was popular, but I was a total geek loser. I was in the A.V. club, band (french horn no less!) and had a paper route to boot. I was also sort of a toughie so I was left alone. I was lucky, but others were not so fortunate. Fast forward 25 years and my 2 half brothers proudly call themselves geeks and were in the robotics club. Both earned a 90% full ride to Kettering and both are doing well. They probably make more than I do. How times change and it is a good thing. Now my geekie/nerdy ness is highly valued and sought out so things worked out.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
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    November 2, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  29. om nom nom

    no, nerds will never go up the social ladder. it is physically/socially impossible. adolescence is a world of a pecking order. by definition, nerds are socially inept. as such, they will always be on the bottom rung, and no one will let them up because everyone else wants someone below them to abuse and feel better about themselves.

    November 2, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • om nom nom

      there is a difference between a nerd and a geek, a geek wants to pretend to be a nerd in order to fill a niche away from others but yet not be on the bottom of the pile. a nerd is truly someone who is socially inept, usually because of academics or hobbies that predispose them towards isolation, or are isolated and then find solace and purpose in academics or hobbies

      November 2, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
      • om nom nom

        geeks may appear to overlap nerds in a superficial way, but they are fundamentally different. while outwardly they may sport nerd "fashion," if that is a real thing, and appear interested in traditionally nerd subjects whether authentically or as a facade, geeks are sociable and often have lives of their own. real nerds will be miserable in adolescence and young adulthood, and perhaps all their lives unless they are able to find their own place in the world and establish their own relationships and sense of purpose

        November 2, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Nerd 1

      I bet you're boss is a nerd, right?

      November 2, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • OnceANerd

      I completely disagree – I was a nerd in school – BUT I was also a cheerleader, drama club, concrete chior, debate team, FLBA President, Key Club, Pep Squad, and score keeper for the home track meets. SO stick that up your petty bum!!!

      November 2, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
      • ketch

        great. what did you do to stop a bully or prevent a 'nerd' from being ridiculed or attacked. How did you use your position to defend others?

        November 3, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Sara

      It's also physically impossible for non-nerds to climb the social ladder, seeing as how it's a concept and not an actual thing.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • aduklips

      I was a nerd, but didn't know it. The social stigma in high school, plus the bullies, depressed me and made me hate school. I can't believe how many days I played hooky. Fortunately, I got my act together at the end of my junior year, then went to college and later became a lawyer (no, I don't go to court or intimidate people; I'm a corporate type).

      November 2, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Liz

      You're clearly still in high school. Once you graduate, you'll discover that women don't care if you played on the football team. They care if you have money. Nerds make money, jocks go into construction and talk about how awesome they were in highschool.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:22 pm |