The Evolution of the Nerd: From Geek to Cool Kid
The guy on the left is way cooler than the guy on the right.
The other night, I was watching the sometimes painfully bad 1998 horror film The Faculty. I remember really liking that movie in high school, and I'm not sure why. It's basically a modern version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both plot-wise and if a boring, poorly written alien movie replaced the body of a better, classic alien movie. But what really made me cringe wasn't the crappy CGI of Famke Janssen's head scurrying about on tentacles or the flat characters and their amateur dialogue; it was the treatment of the film's nerd protagonist.
Elijah Wood (Frodo!) plays Casey Connor, the school photographer and assistant to the perpetually bitchy Delilah Profitt (Jordana Brewster). He is bullied, knocked to the ground, and given a bloody nose within the first few seconds of his introduction. Throughout, he's also the emotional and physical punching bag for the “cool” kids. But, to be honest, it's hard to tell who's actually “cool” in this movie; everybody has an attitude and they all generally treat one another like garbage, from the drug-dealing fifth-year senior (Josh Hartnett) to the weird girl who's probably-a-lesbian-so-let's-pick-on-her (Claire Duvall).
I just kept thinking about how much this movie was getting wrong in its characterization of people, and I was angry I ever liked The Faculty in the first place — although it was a nice surprise to see Jon Stewart and Salma Hayek play goofy bit parts.
Admit it: You, too, play videogames while dressed like this.
Mainly, my gripe was this: That kind of stuff doesn't really happen. It didn't even happen in 1998 when I was a junior in high school. The stereotypes are all wrong. The nerds? The cool kids? They're not mutually exclusive things. In fact, more often than not, the nerds are the cool kids. I'm not sure when it happened in everyday life, but I blame the '80s.
Think of nearly every great '80s movie starring kids or teenagers, and there's one of two things happening: The nerds are either the victims or the glorious heroes. The best of the latter include Breakfast Club, Goonies, and, of course, Revenge of the Nerds. These films attempted to break the notion that dorks, geeks, and nerds were perennial whipping boys. Not only were they human beings, but they were also human beings who could kick your ass and take your girl too. Perhaps it was inevitable that one day nerds themselves would get behind the camera and right a few wrongs, or perhaps it was a reflection of the times.
During the '80s, nerds began to rule several aspects of popular culture. Apple and Microsoft were still in their infancy, but both companies made massive strides in technology and changed people's lives. The faces of those companies, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, became rock stars. Thanks to gritty, more adult-oriented series' such as The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, comic books were going mainstream. Between Atari and later the original Nintendo Entertainment System, videogames burst onto the scene and made gamers out of every member of our social classes — geeks and jocks alike.
Nerds are ordinary people too.
Later on, Harry Potter made reading and wizards cool again. Buffy showed how clever and funny vampire-hunting high-schoolers could be. Revived TV series like Battlestar Galactica in 2004 and Doctor Who in 2005 paved the way for a new generation of Whovians and BSG geeks and showed all the networks what genre TV and its grand storytelling could accomplish.
The crumbling of nerd stereotypes onscreen and off has now come full circle. With the exception of a few outliers and subcultures such as furry conventions (which is more a fetish than anything else), nerdom is not only accepted but also exalted by the majority. It has gotten to the point that 30 years later, world-class athletes and supermodels wear eyeglasses simply to look cool. Yes, clunky bifocals that used to get people like me called "four-eyes" is now a thing the rich and famous put on willingly to get attention.
Nerdy equals sexy.
It's 2016, and my role-playing friends and I can wear Secret Wars or Star Wars T-shirts to a bar, cozy up to cute girls, and — you know what? — they won't make fun of us.
Magic City Comic Con
January 15 through 17 at the Miami Airport Convention Center, 711 NW 72nd Ave., Miami. Visit magiccitycomiccon.com.
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