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.