Marianne Cassidy thinks being a female nerd is trendy. Except when that’s all guys see in her.
I am a female nerd.
I cannot tell you when it became trendy to be a nerd, but it definitely happened at some point in the last ten years. I think it was probably around the same time that all the hip kids started wearing big thick-rimmed glasses (actual vision problems optional) and the pop culture value of retro videogames, superheroes and old school sci-fi suddenly sky-rocketed.
This was a strange experience for me. American TV shows taught me that nerds are bespectacled, calculator-toting individuals who stammer and have severe co-ordination issues. During my teenage years, I was stoically silent on the topic my nerdy pursuits – my Elfwood account, my Pokémon cards, my attempts to learn Elvish – knowing that to advertise would only draw ridicule. However, during my college career, I began slowly to realise that these interests carried currency among my peers. “Wow, you are such a nerd!” was no longer the social equivalent of being guillotined; it was a compliment. This was a fortunate turn of events for me personally, because it allowed me talk intensely about my niche interests for hours and hours without risking exile from all future parties.
At this point, it is probably useful to note that the niche interests that qualify as “nerdy” among my generation are fairly narrow. They are also, thanks to the high value of their social stock, no longer so niche as they once were. By and large, to be deemed a nerd in the trendiest sense of the word, you need an in-depth or encyclopaedic knowledge science-fiction or fantasy as it manifests itself in literature, games, films, television, comics, cartoons and online media, as well as having a wide base of general knowledge pertaining to science and technology. Knowing about Trollface also helps. Wood-whittling or world music could also be considered niche interests, but because they do not fall within the aforementioned realm of popular culture, they do not qualify as nerd-chic.
Gradually, I began to notice that the happy accident of my being a “complete nerd” was no longer merely socially acceptable; it was impressive, particularly among my male peers. Sometimes, it was more than impressive. Sometimes, it was a point of attraction. Often, it was the main point of attraction. I have been asked out on the strength of my comic book knowledge more than once. My ability to hold my own in a conversation about hard science-fiction has earned me more male attention than a push-up bra ever could. “I’ve never met a girl like you before,” a guy once told me, in response to an incoherent rant about the artistic merit of videogames. This is a real thing that someone said to me, even though it sounds like a nerdgasm, a trope that I thought only existed on TV. While I have never deliberately played the nerd card to impress a guy, I cannot deny that my particular set of interests have served me well in this respect. Especially since attempts at flirting are probably on par with those of a drunken Batman (lots of lurking and glaring, but not nearly as mysterious or intriguing as I think it is.)
There is a similar dynamic at play when men are impressed with women who know the basics of plumbing or engine maintenance. Videogames, comics and their ilk are traditionally male pastimes. Historically, girls who pursued them were considered weird and decidedly unfeminine. Now that these pastimes have transcended into the realm of cool, and since cool has little regard for gendered boundaries, it seems perfectly fine, and even desirable, for a girl to proudly display her nerd credentials. This is evident in the fact that the nerd girl has been cropping a lot recently in films and television, usually as a supporting character, as in Fanboys, but occasionally as the main protagonist as in Juno or New Girl. She comes in the form of a sexy tomboy, a sexy scientist, or a more traditional nerd in need of a sexy makeover. This quriky girl is accepted as one of the guys; she’s whip-smart, loves Star Wars/Lord of the Rings/Dungeons & Dragon, she swears and she makes “guy” jokes. Crucially, she is low maintenance; she never wants to go shopping or worries about her nails, and she makes no stressful demands of her male counterpart when it comes to silly things like anniversaries and personal hygiene. She is the polar opposite of the boring girlfriend that Sony was using to advertise the PS2 a while back.
In this, I have identified the root of my discomfort. Obviously, this idealised nerd girl does not actually exist, in the same way the gorgeous preppy bimbo and the bad-ass femme fatale do not exist. Being called a nerd makes me uncomfortable, and I have feeling that this is at least partially Hollywood’s fault. Sometimes I worry that when a guy hears me talking about something nerdy, he starts to tune out my actual opinions on the subject and instead concentrates on – as a friend of mine so succinctly put it – “Great! We can play Xbox and then we can bang! She’s perfect!” I worry that the nerdy girl has become a new stereotype of femininity, a new category of wish-fulfilment that has no bearing on reality. If this is the case, the advantages of being a female nerd are just as shallow and decorative as those created by a short skirt and smoky eye make-up.
These suspicions are confirmed when I see that many men (and some women) think girls are allowed like nerdy things in the same way they are “allowed” to fix cars or play in metal bands. All well and good, as long as they are sexy while they do it and do not threaten to challenge or emasculate the men who dominate these fields. It’s awesome when a woman reads comics, as long as she doesn’t start complaining about the generally awful portrayal of female superheroes throughout the industry. It’s definitely hot when a girl wants to play Halo or Gears of War or any other formulaic testosterone-fuelled first-person shooter, but it’s kind of a turn-off when she wishes that videogame developers take a more unisex approach to design and marketing. Time and time again, I have seen women run into brick walls of male privilege when they raise important issues about gender and equality within their chosen nerdy field. The old who-cares-girls-don’t-even-play-videogames/read-comics/understand-spaceships argument is quick to raise its ugly and irrelevant head the minute a woman offers an opinion that highlights gender disparities. We are welcome in the boys club provide we acknowledge that is unquestionably male space and kicking up a fuss about it is actually not sexy, so you should just stop.
On a personal level, I know that being a nerd does not make me unique or exceptional. It is not a measure of my intelligence, nor does it tell a guy anything about me except that my dad is a science-fiction fanatic and I happened to grow up on a street where everyone had a game console. Being able to speak three languages or complete a triathlon is unique and exceptional. I can’t do either of those things but, for my part, I would prefer if a guy was impressed because I made him laugh or because I have intelligent opinions on important things, not because I can quote Penny Arcade at length or beat the Water Temple blindfolded.
I have been called a nerd many times, so maybe I am one. Nerd is often where I start if you get talking to me at a party, but it is most definitely not where I end. I am a theatre practitioner, a photographer, a reader, a runner, a drinker, a cat-lover, a nail-biter, a shower-singer, a writer and a lot of other stuff in between. It is currently cool to be a nerd, but being cool is even more fleeting than being physically beautiful; I do not want it to be all someone sees in me and I certainly do not want to found a relationship on it. I have no problem if a guy notices me because of my chest but if he can’t take his eyes off it after a few minutes of conversation, I am going to walk away. I think the same applies to female nerd syndrome.
Take your eyes off the All Your Bases shirt. I’m up here.
photo: cristiano_betta at Flickr