David Monaghan looks at how the archetype of the nerd has changed in and outside of Film and TV.
We are all familiar with the trope of the nerd: a bespectacled, basement-dwelling mess, usually depicted with horn-rimmed glasses and a love for niche science-fiction. This image permeates nearly every aspect of popular culture, from movies to TV, comic books to literature. Almost anyone can identify these characters through appearance alone, but how true is this archetype to reality?
Typically portrayed as outsiders, traditional ‘nerds’ are usually defined by their difference to other more ‘normal’ characters. Steve Urkel, protagonist of the long-running American sitcom, Family Matters, wears braces, a striped cardigan, and speaks in a shrill, high-pitched voice, much to the chagrin of the Winslow family. Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons displays more negative characteristics, using his differences and love of niche subjects as a means to belittle other people.
A brief visit to both Dublin Comic-Con and its sister event MCM Comic-Con, it can be said that the archetype of the nerd, which will be forever embedded in our collective pop culture conscience, holds very little bearing in reality. Or rather, the reality is a little more complicated than one might initially imagine. Movements like ‘Gamergate’, a campaign of harassment against female games journalists, seem to only reaffirm the standards set by characters like Comic Book Guy. Events like aforementioned conventions show that the communities can be both welcoming and warm.
“It’s okay to like [comic books] now. It’s the cool thing to do,” says Trudie Mitchell, a student, dressed from head to toe in Captain America’s familiar red, white and blue. “Due to the movies and the popularity of the video games, it has gotten big for all generations,” says Darragh Gallagher, complimenting Trudie’s outfit with his very own spin on Peter Parker. One glance around the halls at both events proves them right. Parents and children, dressed as a selection of characters from the world of popular culture, like Groot and Rocket fromGuardians of the Galaxy, or Geralt the Witcher from the eponymous video game, run from stall to stall buying a mix of comic books, games, and movies – a far cry from the basement-dwellers of popular myth.
So why has attending cons become the ‘cool’ thing to do? Why has a nerd gone from a subject of derision to being dominant in popular culture? This might have a lot to do with how accessible certain niche media has become. In the 1980s and 1990s, the ‘nerd’ character in fiction typically had an encyclopaedic knowledge of certain subject areas, like science fiction or comic books. This knowledge was often obtained with great patience and difficulty (for example, finding a copy of the difficult-to-source Star Wars Christmas Special, or obsessively watching episodes of a TV show), and was therefore inaccessible or alien to most other characters. This was the perception of nerds in and outside the land of Film and TV.
In the 1990s, however, we begin to see a shift. Filmmakers Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, amongst others, use their love of comic books and movies to litter their own films with pop culture references. Smith’sClerks and Mallrats contain normal, everyday people discussing, without irony, the architecture of the Death Star, as well as their favourite Star Wars films. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction contains numerous references to, and replicates many shots from, his favourite films, including Psycho, It’s A Wonderful Life, and The Great Train Robbery. ‘Nerd’ characters are no longer the socially-awkward, loud, annoying tropes we expect them to be, but instead they have become the people we see everyday; the man in the corner shop or on the street. In Tarantino’s case, becoming obsessive over something will not lead to derision, but instead will lead to a successful movie career. Indeed, with the development of the internet and the ability to share information with a mass of people, these filtered versions of all things ‘nerdy,’ once thought impenetrable, have now opened up to allow more and more people to feel welcomed.
It would not be strange to suggest, then, that this only opened the gate to the development of more comic book and sci-fi films. No longer seen as something alien or strange, people now flock to see films that would not have been made as often or as regularly nearly twenty years ago. Speaking to Simon Fisher-Becker, Doctor Who’s Dorium Maldovar, at MCM Comic-Con, he offered up a differing view: “I totally accept that there are a lot of people who think sci-fi is just phooey and they don’t understand it at all. For human beings, and for society as a whole, sci-fi is important because the fantasies of today become the realities of tomorrow, and the proof of that is Star Trek! I mean, Captain Kirk had the original flip-phone. We all use a video screen of some sort nowadays. And now with the 3D printing, that’s the start of the replicator! And there are writers of the past – Jules Verne, HG Welles, and to some extent George Orwell – I mean, 1984! We have CCTV everywhere. Big Brother is here.”
Many of our anxieties about the future are reflected in the popular media we consume. Bryan Singer’s X-Men films look at persecution through the mutant metaphor. The Dark Knight examines terrorism through the anarchic Joker, and every Fantastic Four film successfully reminds us how terrifyingly bad superhero films can still be.
While the trope of the isolated nerd will never truly go away, more and more people feel welcomed now than ever before by media once deemed inaccessible. Despite protestations from hate groups like Gamergate, people of all races, genders, backgrounds, and sexualities find comfort in attending conventions and speaking about their love of games, movies, and comics. The nerd is no longer an outsider. The nerd is now the everyman.