The pairing of schlubby geeks with classically beautiful women who are "out of their league" has become a standard trope in geek-centered shows like The Big Bang Theory and films like Superbad and Knocked Up.
Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen, featured in Knocked Up's romantic pairing of a beautiful, ambitious career woman with a geeky, overweight slacker. Rogen's slackerish qualities serve as authenticating features which make him sympathetic and imbue his character with a non-threatening, yet rakish masculinity in the postmodern mediascape.
Female geek/slacker duos like Enid and Rebecca from Ghost World merit further research.
Tina Fey as Liz Lemon foregrounds her geek credibility on 30 Rock.
Woody Allen is a popular geek protagonist in the tradition of the Jewish nebbish.
R. Crumb's Whiteman is tortured by his identity, while an African American caricature enjoys the carefree bliss of an implied ignorance. “Whiteman” Zap Comix #1, 1968.
In Office Space, Lundberg's unapologetic participation in the corporate environment sets him as a villain, and Gibbon's tortured relationship to his work makes him sympathetic, despite both characters’ participation in the same economic system and set of privileges.
Gibbons' and the film's racialized fantasy of violent, melodramatically justified geek vengeance.
Luke Skywalker, the most popular and influential melodramatic geek protagonist of the late 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps more than any other single figure, Skywalker helped mainstream the geek.
In Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob's anxiety about their own queer arrested development is alleviated by joining a black gang.
Geek culture dominates popular media. Comic-book films like Iron Man, The Dark Knight (both 2008) and The Avengers (2012) are among Hollywood’s highest-grossing blockbusters, while geek/slacker comedies like Superbad and Knocked Up (both 2007) are runaway R-rated comedy hits. The San Diego Comic-Con, once merely the largest annual meeting of a fairly obscure comic-collecting subculture, has become a major pop cultural event where A-list actors and directors make lengthy appearances to communicate with fans in an effort to generate buzz for their films and television programs. Best Buy, a dominant technology retailer, offers to send a Geek Squad to your house to help you with technology installation without having to wonder if anyone finds a squad of geeks unsettling. Books like Geek Chic: The Ultimate Guide to Geek Culture and How to Date a Geek have begun to journalistically analyze and capitalize on the phenomenon.
The economic successes of geek businessmen like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are also primary sources of current geek predominance. These real-life geek success stories are so influential that they resonate on the pop-cultural front as well: for example, recent summer blockbuster Iron Man 2 (2010) has Tony Stark giving rock star keynote addresses at Stark Expos in a thinly veiled reference to Steve Jobs strutting his stuff at Mac Expos. The film also includes Justin Hammer as an emphatically plagiaristic and sub-par competitor of Stark's, alluding to Bill Gates' capitalizing on Macintosh's windowed graphic user interface to create Microsoft Windows, as well as the popular notion that Windows-based PCs are substandard when compared with more expensive Macs. Jobs' and Gates' inclusion in Iron Man 2 drives home that the celebration of geeks in media is connected to actual geek success in the corporate and financial arenas. [open endnotes in new window]
As geeks are recognized as sources of cultural and economic capital, their manliness and date-worthiness must also rise. This provokes a desire to see geeks in a new way. Contemporary media fulfill this desire with portrayals of sympathetic geek protagonists.
As geekdom moves from the cultural fringes into the mainstream, it becomes increasingly difficult for the figure of the geek to maintain the outsider victim status that made him such a sympathetic figure in the first place. Confronted with his cultural centrality and white, masculine privilege—geeks are most frequently represented as white males—the geek seeks a simulated victimhood and even simulated ethnicity in order to justify his existence as a protagonist in a world where an unmarked straight white male protagonist is increasingly passé.
Our investigation proceeds through three core concepts / tropes prevalent in geek-centered visual narratives:
We analyze these tropes via an historical survey of some key moments in the rise of geek media dominance: the early-20th century origins of geekdom and its rise as an identifiable subculture in the 1960s, the mainstreaming of geek masculinity in the 1970s and 80s via blockbuster cinema and superhero comics, and the postmodern permutations of geekdom popularized by Generation X cultural producers, including geek/slacker duos in “indie” cinema and alternative comics.
We would like to note that while there are many important examples of female geeks, including geeky high-schooler Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo) in Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), protagonist Enid Coleslaw in the comic and film versions of Ghost World (1993-1997 and 2001) and, more recently, Tina Fey's Liz Lemon on the NBC comedy 30 Rock (2006-present), the critical thrust of our intervention examines previously unstudied issues of masculinity and misogyny as they relate to male geeks, while acknowledging that female geekdom deserves further extensive research.
Origins of the nerd and the geek
To trace the history of geek culture, we must begin with the cultural (stereo-)type of the nerd, whose history is traced in Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd. “Nerd” designates a type, fully solidified in the American cultural imagination by the 1960s, that stands in stark negative contrast to the upper-class sportsman or “jock” (Nugent 37, 57). The nerd is a social outsider who is intelligent, technologically proficient and, until the 1970s, viewed as an object of pity and / or ridicule by mainstream culture. According to Nugent, the “nerd” type predates the term, which came into parlance around 1950 as successor to the “greasy grind”—both terms refer to the college student, stereotypically of Eastern European or Jewish descent, who works hard academically (at a suggested inhuman intensity) to gain entry into elite, formerly blue-blooded institutions like the Ivy League. Calling such a student a “greasy grind” is a way of devaluing that hard working student’s efforts by labeling the student as one dimensional and not well-rounded, especially socially and athletically, and therefore less deserving of entry into the American elite despite his/her academic or intellectual achievements. Early media nerds include Harold Lloyd in The Freshman (1925), Jerry Lewis' titular character in The Nutty Professor (1963), underground cartoonist R. Crumb, and the screen persona of Woody Allen.
In the comedies of Lloyd and Lewis, humor arises from the nerdy social misfit trying to fit into mainstream—that is, "jock"—culture. Yet the proto-geek himself is presented sympathetically, he is our misfit hero.
In contrast, the dramatic film narratives of Hollywood's Golden Age depict geekdom as horrific, abject, deserving of pity rather than sympathy. In the influential 1947 film noir Nightmare Alley, which centers upon the rise and fall of a carnival sideshow mentalist named Stan Carlyle (Tyrone Power), the carnival's geek is barely human, a pathetic, insane alcoholic whose very presence threatens the reputation of the carnival. Indeed, one character notes early in the film that "some [performers] won't work in carnivals that have [geeks]," and by the end of the film, Stan's depravity is marked by his acceptance of the job of carnival geek.
Of course, the geek of Nightmare Alley is a bona fide sideshow horror, not the much milder technology and comics enthusiast the term connotes today. Yet something of the sense of social marginality remains in the present-day term, and it is this abjection upon which the contemporary geek hangs his melodramatic victim narrative.
The way we understand the term geek since the 1960s is closely related to the history of the nerd, but it inflects itself differently. The geek is more focused, more fanatical than a nerd. The geek is a specialist and is always passionate about his chosen field(s) of knowledge. Whereas a nerd’s successes are almost always scholastic, and frequently center on scientific and/or mathematical expertise (e.g., Brian [Anthony Michael Hall] in The Breakfast Club), a geek can fail at school because he is too immersed in his sub-cultural interests (e.g., Rob Fleming in High Fidelity). A third type, the dork, tends toward more impractical interests than the geek and is even more lacking in social cachet (e.g., Napoleon Dynamite's experiment with an action figure on his school bus and his love of tetherball).
Of these three related terms—geek, nerd, and dork—geek is the oldest, originating as a northern English variant of an older word, geck, which began in the Middle Dutch, as gec, a fool, simpleton, or dupe, dating back in English to Alexander Barclay’s Certayne Eglogues of 1515:
It was also used by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night:
The term reemerged in the early 20th century to describe the sub-human sideshow eater of live animals and the subaltern-like identity of that performer provides a context for the geek as marginalized. But, beyond that etymological history, it is more relevant to identify that “geek” was appropriated as an epithet for non-carnival social outsiders.
Nerd first saw print on October 8, 1951 in Newsweek: “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.” The origin of nerd is unclear, but likely comes from Edgar Bergen’s buck-toothed dummy Mortimer Snerd or from its use without definitional context in Dr. Seuss’s book If I Ran the Zoo (1950): “I’ll sail to Ka-Troo And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo, a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too” (Lighter [v. 2] 367)!
Dork originally meant penis. It was first used in Jere Peacock’s 1961 novel Valhalla:
Dork began to mean a socially inept person in 1967, first being used this way in Don Moser and Jerry Cohen’s The Pied Piper of Tucson:
Of these three types, geeks are our main focus since their passion for certain hobbies and forms of expression often lead them into creative pursuits such as writing, comic book drawing, television production, and/or filmmaking. Furthermore, our geek-centric analysis allows us to shed light on the geek’s interactions with a fourth character type, the slacker. We discuss the slacker type and its importance to geek culture in our analysis of the 1990s, the moment of the slacker's historical emergence.
Geek melodrama: gender, class, and race
Film scholar Linda Williams’ explanation of the melodramatic mode is crucial to analyzing the cultural logic of geek entitlement and the emotional impact of geek narratives as they developed from the 1960s onward. As Williams argues in "Melodrama Revised," melodrama is best understood as a mode or loose collection of tropes rather than a specific literary or filmic genre, though it has strong historical ties to sentimental fiction like Uncle Tom's Cabin and women's films (or "weepies") like Stella Dallas (1925, 1937) and Terms of Endearment (1983). As Williams explains, “the mode of melodrama ... [moves] us to pathos for protagonists beset by forces more powerful than they and who are perceived as victims” (42). This set of structures—heightened pathos, clear oppositions between good and evil by which we are made to identify and empathize with a suffering victim, and thus to yearn for narrative closure via the defeat of the victim's oppressor(s)—is common to all genres of U.S. film and, as Williams argues, to U.S. popular narratives writ large. As she states,
Williams' model helps us see how racial marking becomes desirable to white geeks: if suffering equals virtue and moral superiority, then the virtue of a marked identity type (black, female, gay, disabled) can be reduced to how much one suffers for it. Here is also the key to why our analysis reads geeks primarily as straight white men. The anxieties of the straight white male geek's identity are transformed into the authenticating devices that paradoxically make him a moral hero in a postmodern world in which an unmarked and untroubled straight white male hero would normally be out of place.
Melodramatic tropes are deployed to create sympathy for white male geeks beset by their own sexual, racial, and gender problems. For example, R. Crumb characters Whiteman and Fritz the Cat are driven to angst by the carefree lives of African Americans they encounter as well as the ease with women this blitheness imbues them with. Similarly, Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), protagonist of Mike Judge's Office Space (1999), hates his unapologetically mainstream boss Lundberg (Gary Cole), both for work-related humiliations and because Gibbons wrongly imagines that his new girlfriend has had sex with Lundberg. Gibbons expresses his rage at Lundberg's perceived victimization of him by destroying an office copy machine in a slow-motion sequence set to gangsta rap music: it is Gibbons' and the film's racialized fantasy of violent, melodramatically justified geek vengeance.
In line with their presumed whiteness, geeks are typically economically privileged. Both Gibbons and Lundberg are economically empowered white-collar workers. It is Lundberg's unapologetic participation in the corporate environment that sets him as a villain, and Gibbon's tortured relationship to his work which make him sympathetic, despite both characters participation in the same economic system and set of privileges.
In terms of the geek's class identity, it is important to our project to discuss Zygmunt Bauman’s essay “Tourist and Vagabonds,” and to use Williams’ insights about identity-based suffering to shed light on Bauman's claims, as well as to introduce the term "simulated ethnicity." Bauman deftly analyzes globalization and why "vagabonds," the global have-nots, are in a state of perpetual admiration of the economic mobility of the tourists, the privileged members of "developed" nations. As a Marxist, Bauman is clearly focused on the economic disparity between the tourist and vagabond. However, if we use the logic of melodrama to modify Bauman's analysis, the vagabond has a surplus of one commodity that the tourist desires: the tourist admires the vagabond’s suffering, which imbues the vagabond with virtue. This plays out, for example, as real-life tourists paradoxically disdain the touristy and prefer to travel with the conceit that they are more "on the inside" than an average tourist. This ironic admiration of "vagabond-ness" is the same as the admiration non-marked identities have for marked identities in a postmodern milieu, where markedness serves as an authenticating feature. We use the term "simulated ethnicity" to describe the way geeks melodramatically cast themselves as members of a marginalized identity to foreground their validity and authenticity as postmodern protagonists.
Geeks mainly generate their markedness from non-ethnic features, and whiteness is the stereotypically assumed race of geekdom. According to cultural theorist Richard Dyer, whiteness connotes spirituality, intellect, enterprise (White 14-15, 21, 23). Geeks are by definition enterprising—this is precisely what marks them as uncool from the jock or slacker point of view—and indeed, even the name Enterprise has been associated with space travel and sci-fi geekdom since the 1960s. Strong spiritual elements saturate geek texts, in the form of
The geek imagines himself a “peaceful warrior” with immense power and a finesse, sensitivity, and interior world that his brutish “jock” competitors lack. This sensitivity, spirituality, and intelligence comes in exchange for sexual prowess, which is the one thing more athletic and conventionally attractive men have that the geek typically doesn’t. No matter his intellectual gifts or proclivities toward accomplishment, the geek is always by definition sexually inferior to the jock, and feels that inferiority deeply.
Sexuality is itself racialized, and so we can place the white male geek on a racial and gendered continuum that situates him between, on the one hand, male jocks and black males, who are stereotypically considered more embodied, sexual, and animalistic, and, on the other, Asian male geeks, who are stereotypically considered even more rational and less sexual than white male geeks. Note that these raced positionings along the masculinity / femininity continuum largely result from the projection of white male fantasies, not necessarily anything in “real life”—they are white middle-class cultural stereotypes. Also note that we must specify males here because the raced and sexualized stereotyping process operates differently for non-white females than it does for their male counterparts. For example, stereotypically Asian females are hyper-sexualized while Asian males are hypo-sexualized.
(see also Nugent 73)
The young white male’s desire to inhabit racialized identities, especially blackness, is displayed in a wide array of geek media: to take just one example, in Swingers (1996), an ur-text of 1990s geekdom depicting geeky white guys trying to play hip in order to attract women, the hippest guy whom everyone else looks up to is Charles, the black guy.
The function of this imagined black masculinity for the feminized geek is rendered in direct, highly sexually charged terms in Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999). Having just been “outed” as a homosexual fantasizer by a black man (Chris Rock), geeky stoner Jay (Jason Mewes) flees to a heterosexual strip club, where he enters into a bidding war with a black gang leader, Kane (Dwight Ewell) for the attentions of a stripper. At the conclusion of this episode, Kane asks Jay and his "heterosexual life mate," Silent Bob (Smith), to join his gang. Jay and Silent Bob's anxiety over their own sexual impotency and possible queerness is here channeled into projected black gang solidarity: they join the gang to reinforce their masculinity and heterosexuality in the face of their own geeky arrested development.