Friday, August 8, 2014

Chicks at the Nerd Table

My friend Edward, such a heartfelt nerd culture devotee that he rent his garments when he couldn’t attend San Diego ComicCon this year, recently threw this question widely for the Internet: “Can one or more of you explain to me why so many male geeks react so viscerally and negatively to calls for empowerment of female characters, creators, and fans?” He continued, but I’d like to highlight just this portion, because it’s plagued me since.

Idiot Nerd Girl
The “Idiot Nerd Girl” meme (right) has circulated online, in evolving forms, since early 2010. The nameless model, wearing black-frame glasses obviously housing window glass, flashes her palm, upon which she’s written the word “NERD.” Two meme versions exist: in the first, she says something hilariously wrong, misguided, or oblivious about nerd culture, especially video games or Internet use. The other, the backlash to the first, says something clearly right, but gets nitpicked to death.

Let’s examine the backlash version first. Meme writers push against the original version, claiming that it insists “girls” cannot participate in true nerd culture. It purports that meme creators belittle Idiot Nerd Girl for trying to participate in male nerdism, that the meme represents misogynistic tendencies in a marginalized subculture, and that nerds have created a counter-cool niche from which they systematically exclude women. These arguments fall flat under scrutiny. The truth is much fuzzier.

Nerd culture, once an outlier fringe occupied by misfits and weirdos, has gained mainstream acceptance through immensely popular comic-book movies, gatherings like ComicCon, and TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, Doctor Who, and The Wil Wheaton Project. This isn’t the first time nerd culture has approached dominance; the Revenge of the Nerds franchise danced that direction thirty years ago. It didn’t stick, though; nerds and nerdism have arguably never been more mainstream than now.

Cool Chick Carol
Before this, though, “nerd” wasn’t something pretty young women or tweedy hipsters aspired to. In my youth, nerds were unified substantially by their shared rejection by mainstream pop culture. The activities nerds shared, like role-playing games, reading, and art, were primarily cerebral enterprises that fashion-forward peers found laughable. Adults and authority figures rewarded nerd activities like computer programming, writing, and science; but pretty co-eds didn’t attempt to appropriate nerd cachet. Hell, nerds didn’t have cachet.

Nerd culture can be profoundly unwelcoming. I never made it into their ranks because I wouldn’t accept their lengthy hazing process whenever my family relocated. Even the Dungeons & Dragons kids didn’t want me around; that’s how outcast I was. But in context, nerds’ hostility to outsiders makes sense. Until recently, nerds were unified by the shared experience of being rejected by society’s gatekeepers—and, for many male nerds, that rejection prominently included rejection by women.

Note that Idiot Nerd Girl proclaims her putative nerdiness on her hand. The visual equivalent of “wearing your heart on your sleeve,” she’s demanding nerd inclusiveness by bestowing the title upon herself. But until nerdiness became acceptable, nerds didn’t identify themselves; they had the nerd title foisted upon them. Those who rejected them called them “nerds” derisively. But like offensive racial language, those ostracized by that word adopted it as their mutual badge of honor.

Certainly, nerds can be welcoming. The same Internet denizens who popularized Idiot Nerd Girl also created a potent counter-meme. “Cool Chick Carol” (above) began as a nakedly misogynistic meme about a pretty hipster who gracefully accepts vulgar sexual mistreatment. But gamers have repurposed this meme as an anti-Idiot Nerd Girl, a woman who embraces nerd culture as it exists, rather than trying to crown herself Nerd Queen. She doesn’t call herself “nerd,” she lives nerdiness.

Old school nerds, those old enough to remember having to manufacture their own counterculture, aren’t wrong to resent their counterculture getting hijacked. Idiot Nerd Girl represents the fashionable, popular mainstreamers attempting to misappropriate nerd identity. Nerds were rejected by women, by media moguls, by fashion followers, by the populace in general; now those who rejected nerds, want what nerds have created. I contend, nerds aren’t wrong to resent this co-optation. It’s like honkies co-opting hip-hop.

Some nerds reject women because they’re women. Every subculture produces assholes. But overall, I’ve found nerds—real nerds, the old school variety who’re linked by shared experiences and countercultural values—predominantly welcoming of anybody, regardless of race or sex or religion or politics, who accepts their terms. True nerd subculture is ultimately about joinerism. Idiot Nerd Girl and her ilk aren’t mocked because nerds are inhospitable. They’re mocked because they’re stealing what somebody else built.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post! I just have to add though... imho real nerds <3 to troll. For the lolz. So a good welcoming (online anyway) will usually consist of trolling and being trolled. Admit you're a noob & have a sense of humor and you'll be right.