by Nicholas Thurkettle
I have known Ashley for a few years now, and I think she would agree geekdom has been a foundational pillar of our friendship from the very start. And so when she started on this topic I felt like this was a conversation in which I could participate, and she has been good enough to lend me some space on her rabble-rousing e-billboard here.
I have to confess I was, for a long time, on the wrong side of the argument she describes. I used to talk about latter-day self-labeling geeks as wearing the equivalent of fake prison ink. I am part of the last generation that experienced adolescence without the Internet being a significant presence in our lives – the year I graduated from high school, 1995, was the year in which commercialization of the Internet took off with the decommissioning of the National Science Foundation’s NSFNET. At the time, I was in an economics class that played the game of investing imaginary dollars in the stock market. One of my teammates kept suggesting we throw every piece of play money at this thing called America On-Line. We didn’t listen. He’s wealthier than I am now.
But the difference I will have to describe to the younger generation from now on was that, pre-Internet, it really was possible to feel utterly alone in your geekdom. But for the two or three friends who could be talked into staying up all night to watch The Trilogy (there was only one back then), it was difficult to conceive that there was a vast world of us out there. And, even if we could rationally-accept that there was, it didn’t do our daily sense of isolation much good.
Nowadays, of course, there is this astonishing and galvanizing sense of instant community that can be created around any obsession, and Geekdom has become a powerful nation influencing affairs all over the cultural planet. And as Ashley and many others have rightly pointed out, we ought to celebrate that, and be grateful the next spawning of lovely nerds won’t share our suffering.
But until recently, I clung to the tribulational aspect of my nerd youth. It’s easy to love Doctor Who now. Hop in the TARDIS and try loving Doctor Who in 1989. That’s not for sissies.
As I reflect honestly on it, though, I really wasn’t actively bullied much in the classic sense. It was more a sense of being frozen out, and not understood. There was this pretty, glittering party of a world that the popular people were running, and my kind just didn’t fit there, and I perceived that in a million baffled looks and dead-ended conversations. But part of my maturation has been to realize that basically everyone feels left out of something; and the most successful, popular person around is, inside, probably as messed-up and uncertain about life as I am. I now realize most of the crowd ever meant any harm. And I think time grew my grievances as it can so often do.
Wasn’t it our comfort in those times that the things we prioritized – imagination and the deep commitment and knowledge that comes from loving something to a truly-geeky extent – was worth more than the fleeting goose honks that passed for What Matters among the superficial crowd? I know I believed it. The key question here is – did you really believe that when you said it or not?
Because if you do, then suffering is not intrinsic to being a nerd. We don’t have to be scorned for the way we love in order for that love to be valid. To hold on to that anger is, to an extent, to grant the vaporous and unslayable Thems of our past the premise we always claimed to reject – that to be this way is weird, wrong, and so rare and useless as to be vestigial to right society.
So I am relieved to come clean and say I was wrong. A positive definition of nerddom can emancipate us from old anger.
I do believe, though, that is still possible, and even defensible, to watch that these labels of geek and nerd, which we have reclaimed from derision, not be embraced too cheaply by too wide a crowd. Because then we risk them not having a definition at all.
I’ll use an analogy so dated as to be almost useless, except that I know the nerdiest among you will go to Wikipedia to read about it and will probably think it’s cool that you learned something today: if a hardcore Bob Dylan fan told you that you can’t call yourself a REAL Bob Dylan fan unless you own the non-commercial release versions of the Newport Bootlegs, then you might well say that person was being clannish, superior, and intentionally-obscure. What I hope we are trying is to keep geekdom at large from that status.
But if you heard someone say that they were a HUGE Bob Dylan fan, and when you asked them what they loved about him, they replied that they had just heard that “let’s get stoned” song of his on the radio and thought it was cool, I am saying you would be damn right to be irritated. Because that is not even the song’s name, and a nerd wouldn’t get something like that wrong if the word “nerd” still means anything.
I am not saying there should be barriers to entry in our big nerdy tent – anyone could be a nerd about something. But it does take at least a little bit of work, some genuine and proactive embrace of thing beyond what can be passively-digested, to earn the label.
We do agree that what makes a nerd a nerd is that he or she is not superficial about that over which they nerd. I don’t want us to shy from that. I want to retain and recognize the right – if someone wants to refer to themselves as a nerd or a geek about something – to see them demonstrate that they have bothered to delve into it; even to watch/read/listen to/play it more than once (can we get a ruling on that, at least?) Any rock band will tell you that just buying a T-shirt so people can see you wear it doesn’t make you a real fan, and we ought to listen to wisdom like that; because in the greatest days of rock, the best rockers were massive nerds.
If your friend bought a ticket to The Avengers, saw The Avengers, and liked The Avengers, that makes your friend a movie fan, not a nerd. And that’s okay. If they call themselves a nerd based just on that, I think we nerds have earned cuffing them (good-naturedly, I now stress) over it.
Now, maybe they saw it, and felt compelled to talk to you about how they think Nick Fury is a badass. And you enthusiastically agree, but lament that movie Nick Fury didn’t have the “Steranko Gun”. Your friend wonders what that means. They do a little reading (you lend them a book or two, don’t you?) And then they come with you to the comic store for hardback collections, because they have decided that They. Love. Nick. Fury. And they Must. Know. More. Now you are serving your friend well. Graciously welcome them to Geekdom. Find out what they nerd out about, because they probably have nerded out over something in their lives before and didn’t realize that’s what they were doing. Soap opera fans? Huge nerds. Also pro wrestling fans – but I repeat myself.
We have a responsibility, in being Better Nerds, not just to let go of grievances, but to articulate what makes us nerds to begin with, and what makes that a good thing to be in this blessed time for all things nerdy. If the isolation of the positive aspects of nerddom – that commitment and attention to detail and admiration for the artists who entertain us – is what will rescue it from past traumas, it can also be what protects the label from spreading out and being commoditized to meaninglessness. It is not earned by pain. But I say it is still earned.
We have an opportunity here, what with this staggering volume of delicious geek product being served to us, to show people not just how to love something cool, but how rewarding it is to love it in the way a nerd does. Just about every woman I have dated has been a nerd of some kind, and I feel lucky for it. Truly – once you go nerd, you don’t go back to the herd. That commitment and joy in discovery makes for a great partner.
If there is some lingering irritation at the latecomers to our party, let’s decide that it is only to protect what we think makes our ways valuable, and let it be welcomingly-simple to dispatch – you don’t owe us anything. You can be a nerd too; just do as nerds do.
Nicholas Thurkettle is a member of the Writers Guild of America, and in his life has authored screenplays, stage plays, prose fiction, newspaper and magazine features, film criticism, millions of words’ worth of blog posts, corporate training videos, ghost-written office dinner party jokes, and was once nearly hired to write an erotic virtual comic book, but was passed over despite that he had a fantastic story pitch for it. His blog can be found at NicholasThurkettle.com
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