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.
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.
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.
Patrick, 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?
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.