In The Social Network, while geeky Jewish computer programmer Mark Zuckerberg loses an irrelevant (to him) sum of money to the jockish Winklevoss twins, he effectively vanquishes them from any further effect on Facebook or his life ...
... but still loses his girlfriend to this unnamed black guy (symbolically if not literally). 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.
Superbad, in which Miroki, an Asian male, serves as a temporary example of a more staid and less rambunctious colleague for Evan, Michael Cera's geek protagonist.
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle plays its Asians as central protagonists; in doing so, the film tries to grapple with some of the stereotypes ascribed to Asian male geeks while at times reifying them.
Seth Rogen as romantically viable Jewish geek, here posing as Cary Grant in a 2008 Vanity Fair photo shoot.
Geeky Jew Neal Schweiber commiserates with an unnamed black kid about ethnic oppression in episode two of Freaks and Geeks.
Like R. Crumb’s Whiteman, Jon Lajoie uses the stand-in character “Everyday Normal Guy” in You Want Some of This, 2007.
Sarah Silverman as an altered version of herself in “Jews with German Cars,” Jesus is Magic, 2005.
"Whiteman" depicts the stress of being white and middle class (Crumb and Whiteman's projection) in juxtaposition to a carefree lower-class African American existence. Zap #1, 1968.
Jimi Hendrix enjoys ease with women because he lacks the tortured thoughtfulness of R. Crumb. R. Crumb Draws the Blues, 1993.
The African American crows also enjoy a social cachet with women that Fritz is jealous of in Fritz the Cat, “Fritz the Cat,” R. Crumb, originally published 1968.
Bo Bo Bolinski has easy access to his thick-legged (and therefore ideal by Crumb’s measure) wife and who doesn’t even appreciate her as he drinks a beer and watches Sunday football while nonchalantly copulating with her from behind. Id #3, originally published 1985.
Skutch has a sexually aggressive, seductive, callous side (his LHP). He's a key player in “My Troubles with Women part II.” My Troubles with Women. “Footsy,” R. Crumb, originally published 1986.
The women whom Crumb sleeps with are thoughtless and un-tortured. My Troubles with Women, “My Troubles with Women Part II,” R. Crumb, originally published 1986.
This alignment is apparent in Crumb’s misogynistic portrayal of these women as concerned only with the facades of cultural sophistication but not with the substance of it. Thus, their fascination with Crumb is still based in misrecognition: they do not appreciate who he is, but they appreciate his status. My Troubles with Women, “My Troubles with Women Part II,” R. Crumb, originally published 1986.
Therefore, for Crumb women deserve the pain and emotional torture they experience when they interact with males such as Skutch, but even more importantly, by this logic, they deserve the disdain and humiliation Crumb levies at them. My Troubles with Women, “If I Were a King,” R. Crumb, originally published 1987.
Crumb is aligned with and wanted by hippies. Album cover for Big Brother and the Holding Company, drawn by Crumb, 1968.
This final image of Crumb is meant as ironic because of Crumb’s complex awareness of his own vanity, greed, and guilt, but it also embodies actual conceits of contemporary mainstream culture as the popularity of the geek continues to increase. My Troubles with Women, “My Troubles with Women Part II,” R. Crumb, originally published 1986.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are arguably the most influential and successful of all geek media producers.
Ben Braddock was cast as a Jewish geek in The Graduate, even though the character implied by the novel is a jockish Southern Californian WASP.
Luke Skywalker as melodramatic geek figure: "Noooo!"
Steven Spielberg geekified the Matt Hooper character in Jaws, casting his onscreen alter ego Richard Dreyfuss in a role described in the novel as Robert Redford-like. Spielberg felt that casting Dreyfuss would make the character more sympathetic.
Indiana Jones is a geek superhero, Clark Kent and Superman all in one.
Like most geek-centered narratives, Raiders of the Lost Ark evinces geek misogyny by compromising its female lead, Marion Ravenwood. She starts the film as Indy's equal but is transformed into a dress-wearing damsel in distress by the second half.
The Social Network (2010) is a highly profitable, culturally significant, Oscar-nominated entry into the annals of recent geek-centered film narratives. Directed by David Fincher, the film melodramatizes the creation of social networking site Facebook by computer geek Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) starting at Harvard in the early 2000s. The story is set up around two court cases brought against Zuckerberg by his former business partners, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence). The Winklevoss twins in particular are shown in the film to be uber-jocks, members of Harvard Crew and perfect specimens of muscular, attractive Aryan blondeness. Despite the real-life Winklevoss' status as respected Olympic athletes, the onscreen Zuckerberg shows utter contempt for them throughout the entire film; they are the "jerks" of the film's story.
The Social Network amplifies the geek melodrama of Zuckerberg's story by framing his creation of Facebook as an attempt to impress his ex-girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). The opening sequence of the film depicts Erica breaking up with Mark after he insults her upbringing and her education, essentially accusing her of being over-privileged and unintelligent. He spends the rest of the film regretting his loss of her and channeling his anger at her rejection of him into his Facebook business. This explanation of the motivation behind the onscreen Zuckerberg's efforts is fictional. Not only is it impossible to verify whether or not the real-life Zuckerberg even had a substantive relationship with the woman the Albright character represents in the film, but he had already met Priscilla Chan—who became his girlfriend in 2003 and his wife in May 2012—by the time the events dramatized in the movie transpired. In other words, contrary to the film's narrative, he was engaged in a successful romantic relationship more or less the whole time he was working on turning Facebook into an international phenomenon. Fincher's choice to frame the narrative in this way, ignoring the existence of the Facebook creator's real-life girlfriend and future wife, heightens the film's geek melodrama by staging the entire narrative as a socially outcast computer geek's obsessive competition with jocks over women.
Of interest here is not so much The Social Network's fidelity or infidelity to real life events, but rather why this heavy emphasis is placed upon male competition for women in a film containing no significant romantic plot (or even subplot). The answer: to highlight the foundational battle between geeks and jocks for dominance in the heterosexual dating field. In the Social Network that core struggle of geek versus jock is used as a framing device, a backdrop to the battle taking place in the worlds of internet technology and business, but the film makes clear that for the fictional Zuckerberg, being humiliated by jocks and women is what fuels his desire to see Facebook succeed. Indeed, Chicago Sun-Times critic Jim Emerson notes of the onscreen Zuckerberg that "all of Mark's motivations appear to be old-fashioned, personal, emotional ones," and this bespeaks the mode of melodrama.
Even more interesting in this connection is the scene in which Zuckerberg confronts Albright in a restaurant about halfway through the film. She sits next to an unnamed African American guy, who asks her if "there is a problem here" as her tableside debate with Zuckerberg intensifies. She deals with Zuckerberg herself, explicitly referring to geek rage in her repudiation of him: "You write your snide bullshit from a dark room because that's what the angry do nowadays." Yet it is significant that this unnamed black companion is given screen time; the scene shows how the geek's self-righteous anger is directed at women and at jockish men, perhaps especially men who are ethnically marked and therefore harder to denounce on the grounds of untrammeled race-based cultural privilege.
If the white geek is often bested by jocks and black hipsters, a compensatory part of the white geek’s melodrama is to disparage Asian geeks as being even less hip, less authentic than he is. Even for a geek, a lack of “well roundedness” is a concept that can be used to marginalize Asian geeks. In this way of thinking, the Asian geek doesn’t “keep it real” because he is too mercenary: he is only interested in the types of geekiness which will benefit him academically or get him ahead. Hence the Asian Geek or any mercenary geek lacks the spirit or heart needed to redeem him melodramatically by the narrative's end. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) is a film well aware of these stereotypes, unlike less multi-ethnic films such as Superbad, wherein an Asian male simply serves as a temporary example of a more staid and less rambunctious colleague for Michael Cera's geek protagonist. HKGWC instead plays its Asians as central protagonists; in doing so, the film tries to grapple with some of the stereotypes ascribed to Asian male geeks while at times reifying them, showing John's Cho's character (who has obviously picked a profession based on its lucrativeness) initially supplicating himself to do accounting work for his cooler office mates as well as unable to talk to his love interest. Kumar Patel's slackerism can be read as a conscious revolt against stereotypes about Asians who dispassionately pursue careers in medicine in compliance with parental desires.
In fact, both Jews and Asians are traditionally stereotyped as academically focused "keeners" (a term of Canadian origin, which refers to a type of nerd who only cares about his grades). Only recently, with the films of Team Apatow, are Jews becoming more synonymous with “hip” (sexual) geeks. [open endnotes in new window] In Knocked Up, Ben Stone, played by Seth Rogen, foregrounds his Jewishness while embodying geek (and previously nebbish) qualities such as self-doubt and a living arrangement surrounded by immature young men interested in internet technology and other geeky pursuits. However, these qualities are also marshaled as authenticating features that make him sympathetic and imbue his character with a non-threatening, yet rakish masculinity in a postmodern milieu. This overlap is why the rise of the Jewish male protagonist is inseparably intertwined with the conceits of geek melodrama. In Superbad it is the put-upon, picked-on, identity of the Jewish keener that allows Michael Cera’s character Evan, who is harassed by bullies early in the film, to possess the virtues of suffering imbued by the melodramatic mode and thus become a morally superior protagonist who has the right to humiliate jocks and non-geeks, and ultimately get the girl.
Jewishness allows ethnic specificity yet middle class white appeal/identification, for, as Richard Dyer observes, whiteness "creates a category of maybe, sometimes whites" who "may be let in to whiteness under particular historical circumstances" (White 19). Even within one historical moment, Jewish geeks may fluctuate somewhat in how they relate to whiteness, sometimes appearing as "transparently" white, at other times singled out as a socially oppressed, "raced" minority. For example, in Superbad, the characters played byMichael Cera and Jonah Hill make no mention of their ethnicity and therefore can be read as transparently white, but in promoting the film, Cera, Hill, and Seth Rogen often referred to their collective "Jew fros," through their very language juxtaposing their less marked ethnicity with that of African Americans. This racializing of Jews through comparison / proximity to black characters is evinced even more pointedly in the Freaks and Geeks episode "Beers and Weirs" when Jewish kid Neal (Samm Levine) commiserates with an unnamed black friend:
In this context it is no surprise that Jewish geeks are so prevalent in geek culture, for they are possessed of a real ethnicity that nevertheless functions analogously enough to a "simulated" ethnicity—that is, it is hard to see visually (like whiteness) but is historically justified by (generations of) persecution and suffering—as to allow Jewish geek protagonists to operate as proxies for simulated ethnics who consume these texts. While the persecution of Jewish people and the Holocaust are certainly valid grounds for feelings of victimization, within the popular milieu Jewishness is similarly an authenticating device in the face of a postmodern crisis of authenticity which can set a protagonist apart from the square and unmarked (non-Jewish) white colonizer.
1960s: underground boomer geekdom
We begin our historical survey of media geekdom with one of the earliest and most influential of Boomer geeks, underground comics creator R. Crumb. We use Crumb as our starting point and early definitive geek because through his work, Crumb confesses to what all geeks conceal.
The first issue of Zap Comix by R. Crumb came out in 1968. This was the debut of R. Crumb’s famous “keep on truckin’” motif and, more importantly for this project, the character “Whiteman.” As the first place where the spelling “comix” was used prominently, Zap was extremely influential: prominent cartoonists such as Maus author Art Spiegelman would later adopt the term comix to emphasize the multimedia nature of the medium. Zap was a collection of mostly one to three page comic shorts wherein Crumb engaged themes of 1960s counterculture like free love and dropping out, while overlapping them with his own anxieties about sex, sexual fixation, and identity. Crumb’s work has often been analyzed for its extreme confessionality and scathingly harsh depictions of self. However, using Linda Williams’ insights into the melodramatic mode as a lens with which to interrogate Crumb’s work reveals previously unexamined explorations of melodramatic victimhood. While also a harsh critic of this phenomenon through the polyvalent and iconic medium of comics, intriguingly, Crumb is simultaneously a progenitor of geek melodrama and the authenticating devices of the geek hero.
A straightforward reading of R. Crumb’s "Whiteman" (R. Crumb Handbook 120) is that it depicts the stress of being white and middle class (Crumb and Whiteman's projection) in juxtaposition to a carefree lower-class African American existence. The character Whiteman finds himself off the beaten path in his city surrounded by African Americans (drawn in a consciously stereotypical Sambo-styled comics shorthand by Crumb). Whiteman grapples with his fear of the African Americans and his guilt because of his fear; meanwhile, the African Americans tell him to “Be cool!” and to listen to the laughing and the singing coming from down the street (in an intentionally problematic Stephen Foster-like depiction of the African-Americans as either simple children or happy-go-lucky charlatans).
“Whiteman” is significant in that Crumb positions a less marked white identity in juxtaposition with more marked non-white ethnicities and the angst that accompanies it. Crumb draws attention to the irony of this move by naming the character Whiteman. In terms of his name, Whiteman is quite marked, but in terms of his appearance, Whiteman is less marked because he lacks ethnic iconicity in the shorthand comics depiction of him. Crumb is highly aware of this contrast when he decides to hyper-exaggerate the stereotypically racist depictions of African Americans in early American comics. When subsequent artists and performers (such as the “Everyday Normal Guy” played by Jon Lajoie on YouTube and Sarah Silverman in her “Jews in German Cars” video) engage with this subject, they also create characters which are an exaggeration of, but not identical with, the creator’s standard public/comedic persona.
What is advanced here (and also in the tales of Skutch, Crumb’s later autobiographical work grappling with a popular and more typically masculine high school counterpart), regardless of Crumb’s ironic authorial intention, is Crumb’s self-identification with and interrogation of a put-upon yet unstudied identity, whiteness. This whiteness, because of so much attention paid to marked identities like ethnicity and gender, acquires a level of significance and interest that ultimately trumps, in the mind of the geek, traditionally marginalized identities based on gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. It is through suffering in the melodramatic mode and hence victimhood that Crumb’s protagonists gain authenticity as well as imbue their identity with a political cache that allows them to be sympathetic characters while simultaneously benefitting from a system that Crumb castigates. Even as Crumb intends ironic psychodrama, a through-line of non-ironic melodrama survives.
Still, it is important to address Crumb’s work as both ironic and confessional. Crumb’s depictions of women and of African Americans are shockingly racist, misogynistic, and objectifying. However, a valid reading of Crumb’s work integrates Crumb’s satirization of the racist imagery that haunts U.S. identity and the misogyny inherent in U.S. dominant ideology. With such a reading, our study of Crumb can come under fire for taking Crumb and his artistic conceits to task while misreading his own critical perspective on the very issues we accuse him of reifying. This is why it is important to acknowledge Crumb’s work as both ironic and confessional.
The misogyny and racism on the page is also Crumb’s depiction of the racism and misogyny he has internalized from our culture. Crumb confesses this inner programming to draw a reader’s attention to his or her own haunted impulses surrounding race and gender. However, as Crumb’s body of work bears out, he does not evoke these demons to exorcise them, but to repeatedly shed light on them. So, it is valid and useful to study Crumb’s work as a reification of cultural paradigms, especially in a study of cultural trends such as this one, despite Crumb’s possibly ironic and self-critical positioning surrounding these paradigms. By shedding light on his geek rage, Crumb does not exorcise it either, but provides it for readers to identify with it.
The relationship between Crumb and Skutch is tellingly analogous to the relationship between Whiteman and the African Americans he encounters in Zap #1. These African American men, as depicted by Crumb, are unselfconscious and thus are granted a carefreeness and coolness that is similar to that of Skutch as a popular high school student. This sheds light on the relation between geeks and ethnicity, and geeks and popularity. In both cases, the geek focuses on how his tortured identity, rooted in his thoughtfulness and lack of façade, is not recognized, while thoughtless jocks and African Americans, who are already regarded as cooler, get to live carefree and un-tortured lives precisely because of their perceived “inferiorities” to geeks. Again, it comes back to the melodramatized geek notion of a tragic female misrecognition of true worth – the female inability to see value in the geek and the failure to see through the jock or the African American. In terms of African Americans and Crumb, this is a continuing trope, including depictions of Jimi Hendrix and white groupies, to the African American crows in Fritz the Cat (1993) who accumulate white women while being more interested in getting high, while Fritz struggles with coming off as cool while the crows do so with no effort.
See also Crumb’s portrayal of the working class and non-intellectual (and therefore non-tortured) Bo Bo Bolinski in "Bo Bo Bolinski Relaxing On a Saturday Afternoon" from Id #3 (1991), who has easy access to his thick-legged (and therefore ideal by Crumb’s measure) wife and who doesn’t even appreciate her as he drinks a beer and watches Sunday football while nonchalantly copulating with her from behind.
More interestingly, in My Troubles with Women, Crumb portrays the androcentric consequences of geek rage. Of particular importance is the relationship between Crumb and his older brother Charles with the aforementioned popular boy Skutch. This begins in the section entitled “My Troubles with Women Part II,” which first appeared in Hup in 1986. The first panel opens with a woman, captioned “a woman,” saying, “Doesn’t this guy ever stop whining?”
The panel two caption, as if in response, explains,
In panel two, Crumb, wearing a Hugh Hefner-esque smoking jacket and smoking a pipe, signifying a mock playboyish mastery of romantic interaction, expounds,
Li’l Hitler Pig, henceforth LHP, embodies all the world-weary, cynical, and conniving ways to look at the world that dominant males (not Crumb) use to make meaning of their lives and “get” women (like Vince Vaughn’s “swinger” Trent of the 1990s). LHP provides knowing commentary on the events in Crumb’s life and even on his sexual fantasies.
Skutch, who is one with his sexually aggressive, seductive, callous side (his LHP), is a key player in “My Troubles with Women part II.” In the third panel of II, he is described as
In the geek-as-outsider formula, Skutch is also the most despicable character to appear in Crumb’s oeuvre, exponentially more despicable than Crumb himself, who is confessional, but more importantly, melodramatically “tortured” about his own problematic relations with women. What makes Skutch so despicable is his apparent agency in these relations, though once Crumb achieves recognition through his real-life fame as a comics artist and cultural icon, he becomes an attractive geek and gains just as much agency (though of a different kind) as Skutch ever had.
However, Crumb remains firmly in the camp of the outsider (and therefore ultimately forgivable), while the females who seek him out are aligned with the “insider” world Skutch embodies. Crumb maintains his outsider status by never engaging the carefree attitude toward life that Skutch had. Instead, it is the women whom Crumb sleeps with who are thoughtless and un-tortured. This alignment is apparent in Crumb’s misogynistic portrayal of these women as concerned only with the facades of cultural sophistication but not with the substance of it. Thus, their fascination with Crumb is still based in misrecognition: they do not appreciate who he is, but they appreciate his status. This is similar to the behavior of the high school girls who misrecognized Skutch and saw him as attractive. Crumb is an outsider to mainstream culture, and he is simultaneously a hero and outsider to the 1960s youth counterculture. Crumb is aligned with and wanted by hippies, and he created album covers for The Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Yet, Crumb did not truly fit in with them nor did he see their affection for him as a genuine assessment of his abilities or worthwhile qualities. In Terry Zwigoff’s documentary Crumb (1994), Crumb said that he felt he was often mistaken for a narcotics agent and is still stung by Janis Joplin’s question,
And while the tales of Skutch read much less transgressively than Crumb’s more well known confessional depictions of male-female interactions, the misogyny of Crumb is arguably more significant in the tales of Skutch because it is by comparison an unacknowledged misogyny, one to which Crumb doesn’t draw attention in the way he does in his other work. The geek’s misogynistic rage is this: Women are too shallow to recognize the good things about the sensitive, true, honest, and long-suffering, non-dominant males like Crumb and his brother Charles. Therefore, women deserve the pain and emotional torture they experience when they interact with males such as Skutch, but even more importantly, by this logic, they deserve the disdain and humiliation Crumb levies at them. When they do eventually see him and his comic geek proxies as worthy of attention (often, from Crumb's perspective, moved by shallow motives), Crumb’s depiction of Skutch provides a bridge from the identity politics of “Whiteman” to the modern geek protagonist.
Through the melodramatic mode, Crumb allows that the geek, be it Whiteman or Crumb, has the moral high ground in the face of women, African Americans (in Whiteman, Fritz the Cat, Jimi Hendrix), low-class rednecks (BoBo Bolinski), and bullies (Skutch), because of the geek’s tortured self-image and self–doubt. As Williams explains, in the melodramatic mode, suffering, regardless of its source, equals moral superiority. It is through this process that the geek hero becomes a justified and superior protagonist in the face of all other identities and regardless of the politics surrounding the geek hero’s straight white maleness. The melodramatic mode allows the geek hero a niche in the politics of identity which lets him paradoxically identify as the victim of the socio-political system from which he benefits and, thus, be the ultimate protagonist with which audiences identify in a globalized, postmodern discourse.
This final image of Crumb is meant as ironic because of Crumb’s complex awareness of his own vanity, greed, and guilt, but it also embodies actual conceits of contemporary mainstream culture as the popularity of the geek continues to increase. Geek rage arises from this melodramatic, self-pitying, and self-righteous understanding of geek identity. In Crumb, this plays out in his misogynistic depictions of the women who misunderstand him. These punished, objectified women in Crumb’s work are typified by the Devil Girl (who has her head removed and her body used as a sex toy) and the Vulture Goddess (who has her head pushed in and her buttocks used as a trampoline) before finally accepting a geek as her appropriate paramour. Even as he arguably confesses and interrogates it, Crumb displays his outrage on two fronts: hatred for non-geek males and for women.
1970s-1980s: mainstreaming the geek
The “Hollywood Renaissance” period, which spans roughly 1965-77, was a unique auteur-driven moment in Hollywood filmmaking, influenced by European art films, the French nouvelle vague, and the rise of the college art house theater circuit in the U.S. (see Biskind 14-17, 21-2, 33-5). The Hollywood Renaissance directors, all of whom (except the slightly older Robert Altman) were Baby Boomers, formed a boys’ club of “Movie Brats” who were surrounded by but to varying degrees separate from the hippie counterculture.
In the late 1970s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the two most culturally influential and economically successful Boomer geek filmmakers, helped reinstate the power of the studios over directors and inaugurated, with Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), the present-day era of the studio action blockbuster:
The new blockbuster cinema was founded on a synergistic model of entertainment production, marketing and promotion, wherein a film is not marketed in isolation but rather forms the core of a larger array of related products. In this model, a blockbuster film like Star Wars forms merely one strand of a larger revenue stream that includes ancillary products like action figures, comic books, cross-promotions with fast-food chains, etc. Demographically speaking, the films themselves, as well as many of their spinoff products, were (and are) targeted primarily at adolescent-to-teenaged males.
At the textual level, Spielberg’s and Lucas’ secret to success was that they brought low pop-cultural forms—monster movies, serialized science fiction—to larger budgets in Hollywood. Unlike the New Hollywood auteurs, Spielberg and Lucas revisited genre with little sense of irony nor much interest in social or political realities:
We see the Lucas-Spielberg influence today in the cinematic adaptation of mainstream comic-book properties like Batman, Iron Man, and The X-Men as the latest sure-fire blockbuster properties.
The geek’s centrality to this blockbuster formula, starting in the late 1970s, is in fact the principal reason for his rise to mainstream cultural prominence in the 21st Century, the era of postmodern geekdom.
Spielberg and Lucas modeled their cinematic protagonists—Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in Close Encounters, Curt Henderson (also Dreyfuss) in American Graffiti, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in Star Wars—after themselves, framing them as geeky outsiders who suffer for their causes and have what it takes inside to ultimately prevail as heroes. Of course, Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Ben Braddock in The Graduate (1967) is a key precursor to these late-70s examples(Biskind 34). The character of Ben, scantly described in the Charles Webb novel, was assumed to be "the scion of an apparently WASPy family, a cocky, aloof college track star" (Harris 26). The role was originally intended for Robert Redford, but then director Mike Nichols switched gears and cast Jewish actor Dustin Hoffman as Ben (Harris 236, 275). However, the ironic tone and ambiguous ending of The Graduate prevents audiences from fully sympathizing with Hoffman's Ben or his quest to win the love of Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross). It would take Lucas and Spielberg to sufficiently melodramatize the sufferings and heroism of the geek protagonist such that popular audiences would accept them in earnest.
In real life, Spielberg and Lucas are Boomer fanboys, nerds. They were of the first generation of American directors to go to film school and are known, along with Scorsese and DePalma, as the “movie brats,” which could as easily read: “film geeks.” Though Lucas and Spielberg rose to prevalence in the Hollywood Renaissance period when youth counterculture and director-based auteurism were in, they were nevertheless outsiders to that prevailing (if momentary) ethos; Spielberg is a computer geek who prefers the editing room to the set and Lucas is well-known for having more business and technical acumen than people skills or ability to direct actors (Steven Spielberg Interviews 103). Spielberg and Lucas both love computers and Spielberg in particular is a self-proclaimed video game “freak” who grew up feeling like “a wimp in a world of jocks” (Steven Spielberg Interviews 100, 104, 108-9). His contemporaries in 1970s Hollywood described him as having “no sense of style, [he] was just desperate to be cool like everyone else, but he didn’t know how” (Biskind 260). This is a description of a nerdy geek.
So when Spielberg got the chance to direct Jaws for Universal Studios, no wonder he cast the then little-known Richard Dreyfuss as one of the three leads. The character Dreyfuss plays, marine biologist Matt Hooper, is described in Peter Benchley’s novel as “handsome, tanned, hair bleached by the sun, ... about as tall as Brody, ... but leaner” who has an affair with police chief Brody’s wife and ultimately gets killed by the shark (85). As with Mike Nichols' casting of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Spielberg, by casting Dreyfuss, makes Hooper into a short Jewish nerd:
Spielberg’s film also nixes the Hooper-Mrs. Brody affair, and (somewhat improbably) spares Hooper’s life. Thus Spielberg’s Jaws asks us to enjoy and identify with Hooper’s snarky take on events in provincial Amity, all the while impressing us with his efficient analysis of the fictional island’s shark problem. Our identification with Hooper is increased in the film version when he becomes crusty fisherman Quint’s nemesis, another switch from the novel, where the cuckolded Chief Brody is kept as the trio’s outsider.
Luke Skywalker is perhaps the most popular and influential melodramatic geek protagonist figure of the late 1970s and 1980s. Luke's development from the whiny, naive hayseed of Star Wars to the confident Jedi of Return of the Jedi constitutes one of the most influential geek narratives of the period. Luke is essentially a kung-fu geek who learns a quasi-Eastern spiritual fighting system from an old white mystic, then uses this as a means of escaping his socially backward existence on a remote desert planet. Luke's geeky naiveté and awkward earnestness are brought into particular relief once he meets Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the embodiment of the hip, jaded, rakish scoundrel. Particularly in contrast to Han, Luke exemplifies throughout the Star Wars trilogy the naive geek hero who suffers melodramatically, saves his evil father from ultimate perdition, and, along with his mostly male buddies (and a defanged, feminized Leia), takes over rightful leadership of the galaxy.
Boomers like Lucas and Spielberg obviously “get” idealistic geeks (c.f., Luke Skywalker, Roy Neary), but they tend to disregard, render comedic, and/or rehabilitate rakish scoundrels and especially disaffected Gen-X slackers. Boomer geek creators frequently depict slackerism or social nonconformity as lonely and empty, as in Han Solo’s lack of idealism and “love of money” in Star Wars, which Luke and Leia both castigate him for. Slackerish rakes like Han Solo are usually reformed of their scoundrel tendencies in mainstream boomer geek films: as when Solo whooshes back in to save the day in Star Wars’ climax, the scoundrel sidekick has change of heart and grows up, revealing that he ultimately embodies the same conformist values as his geekier friends.
While true “slackers” cannot be said to exist prior to the 1990s, the geek protagonists in 1970s and 80s popular media nevertheless attract rakish, scoundrelly, socially nonconformist sidekicks and buddies: Han for Luke, Quint for Hooper, Peter Venkman for Egon Spengler, John Belushi for Dan Aykroyd. Indiana Jones, or Christopher Reeve playing Superman and Clark Kent, are geek superheroes, and need no consistent buddies because they contain both aspects in one body. All of these popular narratives are male-centered, predominantly featuring male buddy duos (or male-centered groups) and evincing their fair share of misogyny. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher, Star Wars trilogy, Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary, Jaws), Ronnie Neary (Teri Garr, Close Encounters), and Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, Raiders of the Lost Ark) all see their roles lessened over the course of their narrative arcs, either reduced to ineffectual or secondary roles (Leia and Marion) or ejected from the narrative entirely (Ellen Brody and Ronnie)—evidence of geek misogyny at work.
In various ways, Lucas' and Spielberg's valorization of nerdy man-boy characters through the 1980s lay the groundwork for the rise of the specifically Generation X geek, who grew up watching—and often obsessing over—the films of Lucas, Spielberg, and also 80s teen-film director John Hughes. Hughes' work in particular melodramatizes the plight of the geek, showing him to be a sensitive, intelligent, and sympathetic character type. Teen-film scholar Timothy Shary writes of Hughes’ seminal Breakfast Club,
In sum, Boomer geeks like Hughes and Spielberg made the young nerds of Generation X the heroes of their 1980s films, and the Generation X nerds, then in their childhood or adolescence, watched and identified with these depictions.