Brian: ‘Cause I’m stupid…’cause I’m failing shop. See we had this assignment, to make this ceramic elephant, and um–and we had eight weeks to do it and we’re s’posed ta, and it was like a lamp, and when you pull the trunk the light was s’posed to go on. My light didn’t go on, I got a F on it. Never got a F in my life. When I signed up, you know, for the course I mean. I thought I was playing it real smart, you know. ‘Cause I thought, I’ll take shop, it’ll be such an easy way to maintain my grade point average. (The Breakfast Club, 1985)
The Geek: Just answer me one question.
Samantha: Yes, you’re a total fag.
The Geek: Ha ha ha. That’s not the question. (Sixteen Candles, 1984)
My fascination with nerds is longstanding and organic. It is grounded in my own story and in my earliest circle of friends – a gang of boys who grew up to be doctors, lawyers, pastors, and scholars, but were far from cool as early adolescents. I have always known nerdiness had something to do with the ways I did and did not get “doing” boy well. In my professional life, I have found myself bouncing back and forth between multiple discourses around gender, education, theology, and culture. This nerd work began as a diversion, at a moment in my life when I needed a break from the intensity of other engagements. It really began as a joke between friends while walking across campus, but then it stuck. It kept coming up in conversations. I kept running into new books, shows, and movies that fed my nerd frenzy. I have managed to piece together a collection of nerd material that includes romance novels, children’s books, mainstream films, cult television shows, and you tube playlists. In many ways, my nerd work has been the training ground for my other projects, the place where I have worked out my thinking about the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, schooling, religion, and America.
And it has been fun.
A Reflexive Analysis of the Nerdiness of My Position
In considering my own experiences of how and when I have intentionally embodied “nerd”, as opposed to ways “nerd” has been thrown upon my body, I recognize that I find the distinctions between nerd as subject and nerd as object to be rather blurry. With a nod to Butler (1990), even when I don my nerdiest drag – embodying my best repetition of every performance of nerd I can muster – I cannot escape the discourses that give that drag meaning, nor can I control the ways in which that drag is read. To claim too much of my own subjectivity in claiming a nerd identity runs the risk of suggesting I can somehow step outside of the discourses that shape me and reduce my identity to planned performances of my own making.
However, I concede that throughout my life I have paid significant attention to the ways in which my gestures and acts function, at times turning up the volume on those that I hope are read as nerdy, and at times muting them. I have manipulated both my exaggerated and subdued performances of nerdiness at times with the intent of conforming to normative values and at times with the intent of resisting them. I have embodied nerdiness as a hipster strategy, in the same way Nugent (2008) speaks of young creatives seeking refuge in a nerdy aesthetic as a means of escape from the tyranny of keeping up with short-lived trends, by nerdily suggesting I am somehow excluded (or above) those worries while dressed in my new Penguin shirt bought at the hippest of men’s boutiques. I have also met blank stares in response to my ongoing ramblings about a subject apparently no one else at the dinner party found very interesting – that time wearing too-tight jeans and a snug, patterned shirt. At that particular moment my nerdiness seems to have overwhelmed the sissy persona I was trying to work.
I struggle with the question, “Am I a nerd?” because it suggests more stability in the category than I am willing to grant. I get nervous that too much attention to that kind of question question reflects an investment in the essentialism of a standpoint epistemology – “I am a nerd, and therefore I am qualified to speak of nerds.” Slippery slope to say we can only speak of our direct experience. Yet, I can claim both in my present life and my childhood/adolescence some places of deep resonance with the moniker. I was a skinny, asthmatic youth, not very athletically skilled, who valued the approval of adults, collected comic books, was persecuted by nonnerds, demonstrated intellectual curiosity, and I loved going to church. Yet, I grew up in the multiethnic context of The Children’s Home campus; I was a pretty good breakdancer; and I could code switch my speech to conform to the patterns of both the rural and inner-city youth that were my neighbors. I have never been very interested in or skilled with computer technologies (which is why I claim “nerd” but not “geek”, though the distinction is flimsy at best), but in eighth grade I could discuss the Chicago riots of 1968 in great detail, including a recitation of the portion of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl that he entered as testimony in the conspiracy trial.
The Adult Nerd
As I consider my position as an adult reflecting on the constructions and functions of “nerd,” an identity I can generally claim as subject rather than one I am subjected to, I have to recognize that the meaning of “nerd” is always contextualized, and often in contexts to which I have limited access. To be clear, I am primarily interested in textual analysis, and so while I write about the nerd largely (though not exclusively) in relation to young masculinities, I do so through an analysis of pop culture representations rather than through ethnographic study. So, I have to acknowledge that I am an adult man studying images and portrayals of young masculinities, largely produced by other adult men attempting to represent young men, and then sold (quite literally) back to young audiences.
I am also conscious of Anderegg’s (2007) concern that claiming and celebrating nerdiness as a late adolescent or adult, and with a sense of irony, diminishes the realities of those plagued by the harassment of playground and locker room bullies. As the lone voice particularly concerned with the negative impact of nerd stereotyping in the literature I will cite, he offers an important insight that is easy to overlook as an adult well past that lived experience and somewhat removed from regular contact with children and early adolescents.
Not unrelated, when I consider the bullied experiences of those young people, or even my own experiences of bullying, I encounter a temptation towards a nerd pride/liberation narrative or strategy. Ultimately, such a strategy equally slights material realities, holds “nerd” as a too-stable category of identity, and continues to ignore contextual differences in agency. Aside from the issue of being grounded in epistemologies that I find seriously problematic, any well-intentioned case for a young “nerd pride” must be mitigated by the realities of both the formal and informal regulatory politics of the institutions to which young people are subjected. Nerd chic has little to offer a kid just trying to survive the school bus ride home.
My wrestling with these challenges throughout the series requires attentiveness to the ways in which they continue to show up in my thinking. Alongside other gendered, sexualized, classed and racialized lenses through which I view, I will try and remain attentive to the ways in which my writing reconstitutes my own identifications while those same identifications simultaneously are shaping the ways in which I engage this subject.
And I’m gonna get my geek on.