Somewhat ironically, my first introduction to queer theories came in the form of biblical criticism (how nerdy is that?). Derived from literary theories, these queer approaches to scriptural analysis consist of reading strategies that either disrupt heteronormative assumptions, privilege queer identifications, or both. In Queering Christ (2002), Goss suggests three primary strategies for reading scripture queerly: deflecting textual violence, outing the text, and befriending the text. In the context of biblical studies, the strategy of deflecting textual violence primarily consists of challenging readings of sacred texts in ways that condemn homosexualities by closer studies of the original texts and the contexts in which they were written. The strategy generally depends on a historical-critical method to debunk the notion that ancient condemnations have contemporary relevance. The strategy Goss refers to as “outing the text” consists of identifying characters within scripture who demonstrate behavior that might be understood through a contemporary lens as queer. The classic examples of this strategy would be Jonathan and David, and Ruth and Naomi, both sets of characters having storylines that indicate close affection and one pledging undying loyalty to the other. Finally, Goss suggests a strategy of befriending the text, in which the reader brings the “text in dialogue with the contexts of queer lives,” and through critical engagement transforms the scripture into “narratives of resistance, whereby queer Christians can hear the resonances of their voices and lives within the texts” (p.215).
Though I am not suggesting going to the Bible for a study of nerd masculinities, I do believe that these same strategies might be employed in developing nerd readings of significant cultural texts. The need for strategies defending against anti-nerd violence through a closer scrutiny of the cultural and historical contexts of nerd and proto-nerd portrayal seems a worthy project. In regard to “outing the text,” I have some concerns about the essentializing of identities across cultural contexts implicit in the anachronistic use of a contemporary identity category applied retrospectively. Yet, I am willing to concede the strategic usefulness of identifications (if not identities) across social/historical lines in nerd studies as will be demonstrated later in this series in a discussion of Ichabod Crane. Finally, a practice of befriending the text which more emphasizes the lived experience of contemporary nerds in relating to stories of social outsiders across social contexts, seems to have significant potential not only as a survival strategy for young nerds, but also as the underpinnings of coalitional politics challenging heteropatriarchy.
These are but a few of a vast array of queer reading strategies that may have implications for problematizing nerd masculinities. Another strategy that intrigues me and deserves further attention than I’m giving it here is the “fan fic” genre. Largely functioning in an on-line culture of fantasy and science fiction readers, fan fic lifts characters and storylines from traditionally published fiction and offers alternate storylines through new prose, original drawings, or re-edited video images (interestingly, the development of side stories using biblical characters and settings has existed for centuries – both under and beyond the formal regulation of religious institutions). Often focused on the secret and deviant sexual exploits of characters, it could be argued that as a genre, “fan fic” reflects the melded aesthetics of the nerd and the queer.
If, as Butler (1990) suggests, gender is the repetition of acts and gestures, performances that may be somewhat malleable but cannot be escaped (as one can not step outside of the discursive process), then “camp” might be understood as the queering of those performances through the intentional exaggeration and remix of those acts and gestures. Camp, as a queer aesthetic, troubles gender by making gender’s constructed nature explicit. By spotlighting the performative nature of gender, sexuality, race, class, and so on – by turning the up the volume on the subtext – camp challenges the regulated norms of the performance, and thus reminds us that it is a performance, indeed.
Medhurst identifies camp as a survival strategy emerging from a gay male “sensibility.” He identifies came as “one of our most fearsome weapons…and one of our most enriching experiences” (1997, p.275). The outrageous performances of radical queers, invoking a camp aesthetic, have the potential to function as a transgressive engagement with the hegemonic gender order. Sullivan notes that it is Sontag’s analysis of camp as a sensibility that “among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous” (p.193) that brought the notion of camp beyond its gay male roots and into a larger pop culture discourse. It is important to note that Sontag’s article also drew criticism from those fearing the co-opting and mainstreaming of camp would cause it to lose its subversive edge. The extent to which that has occurred, and the degree to which such critiques rely on the strategies identity politics remains debatable, “nevertheless,” Sullivan reminds us, “critics continue to use this term in order to explore the ways in which particular texts, or elements thereof, queer – in the broadest sense of the term – heteronormative values, beliefs, and institutions” (p.193).
The implications of camp for a study of nerd masculinities are significant, particularly in an era in which nerdiness has become chic. The intentional donning of fashion that has been historically associated with nerdiness (and by that I mean has appeared in mass media repetitions of acts and gestures deemed nerdy), like the mainstreaming of camp, has the potential to challenge hegemonic masculinities or simply become the latest victim of their insatiable appetite for new strategies to preserve patriarchal power. Nugent is fairly critical of the trend in which urban hipsters dress in plastic framed glasses, short pants and clunky shoes. This exaggerated and self-defined performance of nerdiness, in his analysis serves as a strategy for professional creatives to deal with the impossible task of keeping up with rapidly shifting cultural trends. He argues that to the young professionals working in media/entertainment fields for whom remaining cool and relevant is a career necessity, the nerd represents a freedom from that pressure. The ironic result is the transformation of the ultimate uncool into the new hip (Nugent, 2008).
But that same aesthetic, at least in terms of fashion, seems to also be a staple of contemporary punk movements. What nerds lack in achieving coolness, is being reclaimed by those set on resisting the heteronormative power of cool to begin with. I wonder about the role of nerdiness in the camp antics Matt “Mattilda” Bernstein Sycamore chronicles in his journal of San Francisco’s “Gay Shame” movement. In the images documenting their direct actions found on their website (www.gayshamesf.org), along with wild makeup, wigs and boas, gay shame members can be found wearing plaid pants, horn-rimmed glass and running shoes with Velcro straps. What strikes me as interesting is that in these images the nerd, the drag queen, and the punk seem to have been poured into a blender and offered back up as a recipe for tasty anarchy.
The analysis of camp has much to offer an analysis of nerd masculinities, particularly those representations produced by those who claim a nerd positionality. A few years ago, as I first began thinking about these questions, Joss Whedon, aired a three-part, on-line mini-series titled Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (www.drhorrible.com, 2008), a sci-fi musical featuring a nerdy anti-hero in conflict with a bully, jockish superhero over world domination the affection of a woman. It is pure camp, as musicals tend to be. As the superhero exaggerates his performance of hegemonic masculinity and the anti-hero seeks a new strategy for domination, we witness both the potential for a campy nerdiness (or nerdy campiness) to draw attention to the ridiculous nature of both his and the superhero’s performance of masculinity. One could argue that Dr. Horrible fails to disrupt hegemonic masculinities, as the nerd’s intent is to introduce a new strategy for maintaining hegemony rather than a substantial disruption of the politics of patriarchy; yet, Neil Patrick Harris’ performance of the character has room to be queered in as much as it seems to be played with a wink and nod towards his own (the actor’s) sexual identifications. Regardless, this most explicit blending of nerd and camp aesthetics by a nerd icon like Whedon, draws attention to the potential for furthering the relationship between the two.