Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Nerds: How Far We've Come

This is the second of (hopefully) three blog posts stemming from a comment my friend made on a post I wrote about Danica McKellar's books attempting to reconcile girls with math. McKellar mentioned that girls are less likely to find math appealing both because it is associated with being nerdy and being a boy, and my friend says:
I take issue with the fact that nerdy is such a horrible insult now. The "I heart nerds" t-shirt is pretty big, not to mention the success of Comic-Con, all the superhero movies and television shows that feature nerdy characters. Maybe in middle school it still is, but nerds populate so much entertainment now that it's uncool not to be a nerd.
I don't know if I agree with that. Nerds are certainly better off now than they were before Steve Jobs and Bill Gates blew the doors off of the tech revolution; the kids who were members of my school's AV club certainly weren't being harassed in the halls. No one got their butt taped together, Breakfast Club-style. But I wouldn't necessarily call nerds the new cool. The old cool still remains pretty prevalent; and whatever in-roads nerds have made in popular culture, those 'nerds' tend to resemble the beautiful people more than any nerd I've ever seen does. Take, for instance, Chuck Bartowski:He is a veritable nerd (and geek; though there is a lot of overlap in populations, the terms tend to refer to two different types of knowledge, interest, etc.). He works for the Nerd Herd (which is the equivalent to Best Buy's "Geek Squad"), and in his eponymous show, he has a computer downloaded into his brain. And yet, Zachary Levi is in not really representative of the Every Nerd. His best friend Morgan comes closer:
but he isn't the star. He is allowed to look less Hollywoodesque and more like a real person due to that fact. However, his girlfriend, Anna -who is also a member of the nerd herd- is still incredibly, almost unreachably, beautiful. And a bit of a fashionista herself to boot. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with a girl-nerd (I kind of loathe the term "nerdette") being both nerdy and fashion-conscious. There is nothing wrong with making girls who are nerds sexual and sensual and exciting and beautiful. We've come a long way from Velma -poor, sexless, Velma- being the premiere nerd among girls.

In 1997, Willow Rosenberg of Buffy the Vampire Slayer declared, "Nerds are in!" And she was kind of right. After all, Willow was a nerd; and although she was played by Alyson Hannigan, who is herself incredibly -almost unreachably- beautiful, Willow was nerded up in her softer side of Sears outfits and otherwise weird clothing choices. And Willow got a boyfriend in season 2, when she was still very much into the science and math and computer thing -and when she still had kind of awkward clothing choices. But Willow is the exception rather than the rule in terms of geeky girls. And even Willow lost some of that nerd sensibility as she got more conventionally attractive -though her odd clothing choices remained a staple, the type of "odd" shifted away from "nerd" and toward "new age". And as her clothing shifted, so too did Willow. She became more overtly sexual and sensual (and gay!) as she moved closer to the magical arts and further away from ze book-learning. And this is something that happens again and again; men are allowed to be nerdy without being Hercules, like Morgan or Rusty from ABC Family's Greek. But girls, even and especially nerds, still occupy a very narrow range of acceptable looks. Rory Gilmore could be considered a nerd. But she was also played by someone who had previously been a model -and was never formally "outed". Most of the characters on Bones are nerds, but they mostly look like they've walked out of a fashion magazine too. Zack Addy is the one character who looked like a (still attractive) normal individual -and his luck with women was not so much of the good. But much of the rest of television and popular culture is still divided into boys being nerds and girls loving them. I must admit that I've never seen an "I Heart Nerds" t-shirt on a guy. Shows like The Big Bang Theory, Greek, and even Chuck still tend to follow the plot of "nerdy guy pursues beautiful, non-nerdy girl".

Are these things problems? I can see a criticism of this assessment being that television shows depict the beautiful, and we have to generally take their nerdom on faith rather than looks. I can also see a criticism being that nerds come in all shapes and sizes, and to proclaim that nerds should actually look nerdy is to just play to old stereotypes. And both of those are correct. Nerds should be portrayed as looking like Chuck and Morgan and Sheldon and Leonard. But I don't think girls get that option very much. The default for "girl" is still almost always "beautiful", even if she's got Velma's brain. And I believe fictional girl nerds are not only in short supply, but they are also quite uniform in appearance. And that's really no good either. Because it pushes the idea that a girl can be interested in math and science only if she also takes care to remain hyper-feminine.

Which becomes an issue I have with Danica McKellar's book. She dresses it up in hyper-feminine fare in order to beat back the boogyman of becoming the "Velma". But she -and our society as a whole- doesn't take the time to foster the idea that being a "Velma" is a pretty cool thing indeed. And that guys will still come a-knockin'. And also, that Velmas can knock as well. But mostly, it denies that sex appeal doesn't stem from make-up and hair dos and clothing; after all, Chuck is attractive in his Nerd Herd attire. Willow is cute and crush-worthy in her Inuit costume. We need to have more girl nerds in the media, and a bigger range of them. But we also need to take a good look at why the fairer sex needs all this get-up, from make-up to fancy underwear, in order to actually be feminine and attractive. And that is the part Danica McKellar is missing, and that is the part these girls (and their parents) who flock to these books need to know the most -more than even algebra.


Habladora said...

I love the post. You are right, we seem bent on teaching girls that they can be anything - even nerds!- as long as they are beautiful too.

petpluto said...

Thank you!

Formerly Fun said...

Hmmm, I'll have to give more thought to the girl nerds.

Nerds: Not a Four Letter Word:
In Praise of Nerds

petpluto said...

Thanks for stopping by, formerly fun!

Another post of interest is Mighty Crankosaurus' newest on Revenge of the Nerds:

Check it out.

John said...

Hahaha! Now that I have the URL for your blog, prepare to reap the comment whirlwind! Just try to stop me!

Seriously though, good points all around. I'm surprised that you didn't mention Ugly Betty at all in this post, since America Ferrera is stunningly gorgeous no matter how hard they try to hide it with nerdy (or perhaps dorky)trappings. Also, apparently Adam Brody's character on The OC was/is a comic book fan and not ashamed of it.

As for the "nerds populate so much entertainment now that it's uncool not to be a nerd" notion, I would say it's a bit far-fetched. Granted, people like to say "I'm such a geek/nerd/etc, tee hee!" when admitting that they do something other than think about cars and sports (or clothes and makeup), but the genuine geek/nerd/dork is still a social outcast. The "I <3 Nerds" shirt still competes with all the other "I <3" shirts, and probably isn't even in the top 10 among them. I've known a few people who wear them to be ironic (because they're hipsters. Yuck.) The success of superhero movies is something I've talked about elsewhere, and I'll shorten it to the fact that it's the medium (comics) rather than the message (tough guys and sexy ladies punching stuff) that people find socially embarrassing. Just because people watched The Dark Knight doesn't mean they wouldn't scoff at somebody reading a Batman comic in public. "That @#$% is strictly for losers."

Lastly, I wanted to mention a throw-away line from a scene in the movie Can't Hardly Wait, where one of the stoners says to the other, "You know who I liked that never got much play? Velma from Scooby-Doo." Looks like she would get the fellas after all.

petpluto said...

I actually didn't include Ugly Betty because I've never watched it (or the OC!). I was under the impression that she was working in the fashion industry, so I was completely unaware of her nerdom! I'll probably write a post about "ugly" beautiful women in the future though, so I'll probably squeeze her in there.

Adam Brody is another example of how attractive male nerds/geeks are in the media. I mean, seriously, the kid is a cutie.

And I definitely agree about comic books being thought of as being in loser territory, though I myself would put that in the "geek" category. It is still patently uncool to be a geek. Comic books, Dungeons and Dragons... Seriously uncool, man! Nerds are helped because 'nerdy' activities seem to be the ticket to making some moolah in recent years, due to the computer boon. But those guys who are obsessed with LotR or know every line from Star Wars or obsessively watch Star Trek haven't been making money off of it. Money has continually been made off of THEM instead!