Chat Cave: “Nerd Culture”

On the opening night of the NYCC, Janeane Garofalo posited “discerning taste” as the defining characteristic of nerddom, but is that all? Events at cons range in focus from comics to videogames to film and TV, but fine art connoisseurs and jazz aficionados — in spite of having inarguably discerning tastes — aren’t catered to at all. So what is it that makes certain types of art nerdy? Is it the content? The medium? The fans? Welcome to the Chat Cave.

Drew: Ugh. I’ve often bristled at the “nerd” label — not because I think it means anything bad, but because I don’t really think it means much of anything. What could a word that can be applied both to someone who enjoys God of War and to someone who enjoys My Little Pony possibly be describing? It’s situation-specific ad absurdum. Still, it’s hard to deny some kind of innate sense of what is nerdy: Futurama? You bet. Matlock? Not so much.

So what is it? I’ve often thought of “nerdy” as a fan phenomenon — anything can be nerdy so long as there are obsessives willing to memorize the facts about, argue, and otherwise devote themselves to it — but then Patrick always brings up sports fans. You can be a nerd and a sports fan, to be sure, but being devoted to a team doesn’t necessarily make you a “nerd” as we understand it (to return to the NYCC litmus test: there were no sporting guests in attendance [besides Hulk Hogan, that is]).

There must be something about the art in question, then, and it seems to have something to do with sci-fi or fantasy elements. The problem for me is that that definition is hopelessly broad, effectively mashing together to massive, diffuse genres. Trekkies don’t necessarily like anime, and comic fans don’t necessarily like video games, so the term “nerd” only serves to lump these people together for having non-mainstream tastes. I suppose this loops around to the utility of labels in general, but if a label equally describes tastes that are and are not mine, it seems pretty damn useless to me.

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Shelby: Dictionary time! According to Merriam Webster, a nerd is “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” By that definition, I’d guess that none of us would be considered nerds (though I’m certainly not the most socially aware person in the room). The definition of “geek” is virtually the same, just with the addition of “a carnival performer known for biting the heads off live chickens.”

So where did this whole nerd culture thing we’re all so deeply entrenched in come from? Were comic books and Star Trek considered nerdy simply because people who were generally considered to be nerds liked them? To focus on Drew’s theory of sci-fi/fantasy elements, were people considered to be nerds drawn to the fantasy aspect of these sorts of things because they wanted to escape the negativity the nerd label garnered? Personally, I embrace nerd culture and my nerd label. I don’t think the fact it’s as all-encompassing as it is makes it meaningless; I think it shows that we all have something in our life that we want to escape sometimes, and we all find that escape in a different way. It’s comforting to know that we all have something we’re slavishly devoted to, that we’re all nerds about something. You hear that sports fans? If you obsess over your multiple fantasy teams, you are a sports nerd: welcome to the fold.

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Mikyzptlk: Yup. That’s exactly the point I was going to bring up, Shelby. Back in my hometown LCS, we’d often have conversations about what makes us geeks and nerds, when there are people just as passionate as we are about other subjects. Are you into fantasy football? Guess what, you’re a football nerd. Do you obsess over cars and spend a lot of money pimping out your ride? Well then you are a car geek, my friend. As you pointed out, Shelby, the terms “nerd” and “geek” have clearly been reapplied to mean something similar, but not quite the same thing throughout the years.

I, for one, am a firm believer that “nerd” can and should be applied to anyone with any interesting in anything. Well, anything that can be referred to as a pastime or hobby that is. Like, I wouldn’t call a doctor, plumber, or chef a nerd about their chosen profession. Although, if they really were passionately obsessive about what they did for a living, then I suppose the term could apply then. Hmm…come to think of it, maybe what we need is to redefine the terms we are talking about here, because the dictionary terms just aren’t cutting it anymore. This actually reminds me of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, which aside from being an amazing comic about comics, perfectly illustrates what I mean about defining a term.

understanding-comics1Patrick, since you’re the next contributor, I’ll leave it entirely up to you to come up with a brand new definition for “nerd” and/or “geek.” Oh okay, while you’re certainly free to take a whack at it, why don’t we leave it up to our friends in the Retcon Punch community to discuss new definitions in the comments section?

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Patrick: As much as Scott McCloud’s definition of what a comic is is technically correct, but misses the larger cultural ramifications, I think referring to all obsessives as “nerds” also misses the importance of the culture. There’s an important underdog component to the image of the nerd, and perhaps even a little bit of shame that comes with it. Drew’s right to point to the pillars of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Comics as the foundation of nerd culture, and it wasn’t that long ago that there was a stigma attached to those genres. I think one of the reasons we have a harder time defining it now is that it used to be an underground cultural movement, but the geeks have since inherited the Earth. Can you imagine how niche an Avengers movie would have been 20 years ago? Now it’s a tent-pole. It’s just not a counter-culture anymore.

But the fans still rejoice with a devil-may-care attitude, as if to say “I don’t care how unpopular it’s going to make me, I love Star Wars!” There’s a solidarity there, but it’s largely built on the fiction that we are persecuted for our enthusiasms.

The thing is – I often feel like we should be taken to task for the art we support with our time, money and emotions. Nerd culture frequently contains some of the most atrocious offenses to common decency: gratuitous violence, awful depictions of women, crassly commercialized characters, marginalized artists’ rights. As this culture and this body of art grows, I become increasingly uncomfortable with both my endorsement of the culture, and the fact that it’s going unchallenged by more thoughtful subcultures.

15 comments on “Chat Cave: “Nerd Culture”

  1. I had never given the “nerd” name so much thinking, props to you guys! No matter how you define it though, I’m pretty likely to fall right into it, what with being a little socially uncomfortable, into comics, video games and sci-fi novels (amongst other things).

    Patrick brings up a good point I’d never thought of before either, in that “nerd” culture is usually thought to be “smart” and “artsy”, and yet as he points out some of the stuff is practically the anti-thesis of that (read Ann Nocenti lately?). I guess a “good nerd” can discern between “good” nerd culture and “bad” nerd culture, although this is all getting more complicated by the second.

  2. What got me thinking about this question was walking around the floor of NYCC, which I think could easily be split into two or three different trade shows: one about comics, one about video games, and another about movies and television. Those latter two were admittedly much smaller components of the con, but still took up valuable real-estate. Part of this is just me complaining about wanting NYCC to be as big as it is for comics, but losing any non-comic elements (and the extra crowds they attract), but another part is me resenting the notion that just because I like one, I must like the others. I’ll gladly accept that plenty of nerd stereotypes apply to me (I’m also a bit of an introvert and like board games), but if “nerd” somehow also includes everything that’s considered nerdy, many more nerd stereotypes do not apply to me. I just think the definition is way too broad.

  3. Shelby and Patrick both touch on a facet of this that has long fascinated me: which comes first, the interest in nerd culture-y things, or the social ineptitude we often associate with nerds? Is nerd culture a welcoming sanctuary for the socially awkward, or does consuming these often isolating media make people less socially adept? The answer is probably “a little of both,” but that kind of feedback loop might explain why the stereotype is so prevalent — nerd culture makes people more nerdy.

  4. I’m going to have to disagree with Patrick a bit. I don’t think it’s a fiction that people are persecuted for their enthusiasms. Those who stand out from the crowd whether it be due to their religious and political beliefs or because of their love of comics are treated differently, often times poorly. You love Iron Man so much you build your suit? Some will find you a bit odd and call you out on that. I think this case is especially true during our years in junior and high school, when any minuscule differentiation from the crowd is noticed and accentuated. As it so happens, those are also some of our most formative years, so some of the trauma of being persecuted for being a “nerd” carry over into our adult life. While as adults we often become more comfortable with our differences and even find those who support them, the wounds of old are slow to heal (like Frodo’s!). I think because of that, either rightly or wrongly, persecution is strongly embedded in nerd culture. I might even argue it’s one its pillars.

    • Interesting. I came to comics (and board games) after highschool, when I was already pretty self-assured, and people stopped really caring, which meant I hadn’t considered how adolescent fandom might shape an adult fan. This is probably a big piece of the puzzle as far as explaining why these groups with very disperate interests have banded together. It might also explain some of the strong devotion people have to these media — if these were the sources of comfort when folks were in middle-school, they’re going to hold a different place in their hearts when they get older.

      • Ya being a nerd in high school is very different from as an adult. I wasn’t into comics then but I read novels a ton, and when most others don’t even read the books they HAVE TO for class, reading for fun is regarded as strange, to say the least. Whereas as an adult, being a nerd is fun in the sense that you can easily seek out other nerds and share your passions with them, as a teenager it blows, hard.

    • Well, I guess I just have to question whether that’s still true or not. I played Magic and table top RPGs in middle school, and absolutely felt like an outsider. I wasn’t reading comics then, but if I had, that just would have been part of that same thing, same crowd, same culture (i.e., all the card shops I played at also sold comics… in fact, they might have actually be comic shops that sold Magic Cards…).

      I’m not in that culture anymore, so maybe I’m viewing nerd culture from an adult’s perspective, but I have to imagine that if Avengers can make more money than ANYTHING, that it carries cultural capital with all quadrants – including teenagers.

  5. I’m not a huge fan of labels or genres or other such concepts that try to classify things that are too broad to properly classify anyway, but I do self-identify as a “nerd”, if only because it’s such a broad concept that I can embrace it without worrying that I don’t fit all the details. (It’s certainly much more useful of a term than ANYTIME I try to tell people what kind of music I’m into, since any genre I use ends up being too non-specific, or my tastes within that genre always end up being either too niche or nowhere near niche enough depending on whom I’m talking to)

    Ultimately, I think the way we define being a nerd to ourselves is going to be more important than any broad definition we or anyone else can apply it.

    I’m glad Patrick brought up some of the issues with nerd culture. It’s hard being a comic fan or a fan of other nerdy stuff sometimes when there’s such terrible people and disgusting books involved in it. I’m glad a niche where these things are loudly fought against exists, be it here on Retcon Punch or following certain authors like Simone or Snyder or even on the certain corner of Tumblr where I hang, but not all of nerd culture is that well educated or welcoming, unfortunately. Classifying a nerd as automatically having good taste is mind-boggling–if that was true, Secret Six would still be published and writers like Lobdell or Liefeld would’ve been out of a job ages ago.

    Also, I find it funny that Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are still considered nerdy things. They’re both some of the best known, highest grossing movie franchises of all time. Get over yourself, mainstream–these guys broke into you long ago.

  6. I’ve always labeled myself (and have been labeled as) a nerd and I embrace it. I embrace that I obsess over comics, movies, music, games. etc. I enjoy the fact that I can spout off bits of meaningless continuity whenever somebody asks me about something. Like as a broad identifier, it kind of sucks but it’s a personal label for me. I always looked at it as insider vs. outsider culture. Us vs. them. Nerds are simultaneously outsiders and insiders but are often always identified as a “them” group. It’s what fosters a community feeling among people who identify as nerds because they can share their passions without ridicule. Being a nerd is just being extremely passionate and obsessed with what you’re into.

    I think the biggest problem with nerd culture though is that it shuns newcomers, especially in comics. Games are a little more open ended, but movie nerds, music nerds, and especially comic nerds will shun newcomers and chastise them for not being as nerdy as they are instead of helping usher them in. Also, the rampant misogyny that permeates the culture. It consists primarily of men who are afraid of women and therefore lash out at them whenever they show interest.

    As for what Patrick said, I have to disagree. There’s still a counter-culture. There are those that pretend to be into this stuff solely for the sake of image and whatever’s chic right now, and there are those who genuinely embrace the stuff and often get shit for it, but they’re still passionate about it anyways. Maybe you grew up in a tolerant environment, but getting bullied for silly shit like liking anime in middle school is the reason I think of it as a counter culture. It allowed me to get with a group of people who had similar interests and make friends. It brings us back to that Us vs. Them point.

    Overall the culture has its ups and downs, but its still a label I can embrace because I grew up genuinely passionate and enthusiastic about what constitutes nerdy things.

  7. Let’s be frank, here: the things Patrick calls out as “offenses to common decency” are present in ALL forms of media. And nerds are just like any other subculture in that some of them are assholes. I think the real challenge is making sure those offenses are not what define this culture we all love so very, very much.

  8. I hate to get all moderator-y here, but does anybody want to try positing a definition? Part of the problem may be that “nerdy” means different thing depending on what it’s describing: a nerdy person might be socially awkward and particularly enthusiastic about specific things, but a nerdy tv show needs to contain those sci-fi/fantasy elements. Is there some way to reconcile those two? Do people even agree with that assessment? I realize I’m asking for a definition I can’t really come up with myself, but maybe this can get some kind of team effort started.

    • I can try but it’ll be how I perceive it and thus is unlikely to apply to all nerds.

      A nerd is someone slightly introverted (or more), who is passionate about fictional worlds, whether it be in movies, books, games or comics. These are usually worlds unlike our own, falling the the realms of sci-fi, fantasy, etc.

      That’s super broad, my experience also says that often, nerds are people who do good in school, either through hard work or raw talent, though whether being good in school pushes one towards these ficitonal worlds or whether those worlds appeal more to people who are good in school is entirely debatable.

      • This is pretty solid. I know I was the one who introduced the notion that nerdiness has something to do with sci-fi or fantasy, but seeing it articulated as “fictional worlds” makes me wonder. I think that’s a good indicator of, say, a nerdy board game — world-building/role-playing-games are way nerdier than Sorry! or something — but I feel like a person can be nerdy without any interest in fiction at all. I know a good number of folks who share that kind of enthusiasm for history or music. Does our definition need to change to include those folks, or are they not nerds?

        • Perhaps we have to tweak it some more, but at the same time, is everyone who is overly enthusiastic about a subject a nerd? Some subjects seem more inherently “nerdy“ to me than others, although I don‘t think I could supply a logical explanation as to why.

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