A letter to nerd elitists in denial

To celebrate “Star Trek’s” 46th anniversary this year, Google created an interactive doodle. The resulting excitement on Twitter and in professional publications emphasizes that “nerdy” interests are now “geek chic.” “Nerdy” is, in fact, the new cool, embedded in social media and Internet culture. This recent coolness feels like a breakthrough for geeks everywhere.

But let’s step back.

A Tolkien fan since age 10 and born into a Trekkie family, I’m no stranger to nerd culture. Yet even veteran nerds like me have encountered tough initiations into new fandoms. I’ve even been deemed a traitor for inducting newbies into a selective fan community. For supposedly inclusive groups, nerdhood is riddled with elitism-in-denial.

Self-deprecating awareness is a trademark of geekdom. A show like “The Big Bang Theory” simultaneously pokes fun and applauds nerd eccentricities. The episodes are punctuated with geek culture references, joking about fan purism. The characters are outsiders and insiders, the butt of jokes from external observers and yet forging their own exclusive community. Funny? Definitely. But the reality of geek elitism is less of a punch line and more of a problem.

Comic Mix writer Emily S. Whitten’s first experience at a comic book store featured a clerk who makes her feel like a “poser imbecile,” “not an actual Geek. Just a Girlfriend who’d accidentally wandered into the store without her Geek Man.” The Five Geek Social Fallacies highlight similarly troubling logic that crops up in nerd culture.

There’s division in the ranks and we shouldn’t ignore the implications. Instead of promoting healthy unity with shared interests, we deliberately distance ourselves from each other and newcomers— “I’m less nerdy than them,” or “You’re not a real fan unless…”

Originally insults, “nerd” or “geek” titles have become badges of honor. Sure, fandom’s insulated atmosphere provides outlets for people who don’t fit a conventional image of coolness. Unfortunately, nerds have quietly become what they react against. Banding together to defend superheroes’ universality or sci-fi’s social commentary is admirable. But it can easily transition from defensive to subtly aggressive, from oppressed to oppressing.

Some of us nerds have felt like outsiders and found solace in the self-proclaimed quirkiness of nerd culture. Yet we shouldn’t let that morph into a pride wielded to exclude others. That trademark self-deprecation means little if not combined with self-evaluation. It can, in fact, illustrate pride in those “flaws.” Superficially we make fun of ourselves, while subliminally we’re glad to be on the other side for once, in on the private jokes.

In essence, dear nerds, some of us have gotten passive aggressive, a reaction resulting from the chip on our shoulders, in denial over becoming identical to those we viewed as persecutors. All cliques are guilty of elitism, but geek culture is perhaps more guilty because of their loud protests to the contrary.

If girls are still walking into comic book stores and being treated like intruders, something’s wrong. If obscure knowledge is the requirement to be deemed a “true fan,” something’s wrong.

Fellow nerds, we have the same faults of any impassioned community. Once we admit it, we can start to fix it. And if we are the new “cool,” we need to try to deserve it.


Reach the columnist at Esther.Drown@asu.edu or on Twitter @EMDrown

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