Here’s something I don’t want you to know about me: as a tween, I was a Star Trek fan. A very big Star Trek fan. I watched every ridiculous hour of the franchise’s many incarnations in film and TV. My middle school yearbook quote is from Deep Space Nine. I had a poster of Captain Picard on my wall. I read Star Trek fan fiction. I...I even wrote some.
Today, as a grown man who enjoys literature, girls, and self-respect, I’m proud to be ashamed of myself.
Nerds are everywhere these days. They didn’t used to be. It happened fast. The year before I was born, Terms of Endearment was the second-highest grossing film of the year. Nerdification was very much afoot - the top spot went to Return of the Jedi - but by the next year, nearly every film in the top ten was sci-fi or fantasy - especially if you count Eddie Murphy being a fancy cop to a catchy synth beat.
Today, of course, we as an audience are charged with watching muscled men in spandex jump around an animated, high-technologized landscape assaulting evil-doers every other weekend.
In doing so, we are asked not to wonder why the glossy, lovingly photographed advanced weaponry - planet-destroying lasers and what not - pale so miserably in comparison to the mighty badassery of a man with chiseled abs. Those pesky ray-guns just keep skittering away across the latticework when you need them most.
We’re also asked to ignore the many hundreds or thousands of human beings who form the backdrop to the confrontations of demi-gods, poking their heads in now and then to ease the apocalyptic tension with an easy joke. People and their concerns are ornamental, expendable, the cute friend who talks about sex too much but whose love life doesn’t matter to us.
We’re asked to view the world through the prism of a thirteen year-old boy flexing his bicep for the first time. As it would be for him, the interest in women is present but vague and diffuse - with wiry, bafflingly strong vixens arching their way to one flawless victory after another over the vicious thugs who never seem quite able to muss up her hair. It’s a view of female empowerment that hedges its bets on surprising upper body strength and sculpted asses.
The nerdy boy-view of the world holds firm for the big moral questions, nearly all of which seem grounded in the conviction that random street crime constitutes the fulcrum of good and evil. Endemic poverty, hunger, people drinking dirty water, child abuse, addiction, the violation of international law, human rights standards, genital mutilation, dishonored treaties, deforestation, rising seas, poisoned seas, disappearing bees - whatever it is, it can be boiled down to the person being mugged in the blue-lit alley of a fictional metropolis. I’ve heard of this - teacher mentioned it in English class - a metaphor! One. Fucking. Metaphor. Over. And over. Again.
The worst of it is that, apart from being a simple-minded metaphor, it's an irresponsible one. Earnest hundred million-dollar homilies on the virtues of a police state are hopelessly out of touch in a country that criminalizes its own populace on an historically unprecedented scale. One out of a hundred Americans is currently being processed through the penal system. Putting more people in jail has never been a weaker argument for true justice than it is now.
Here’s a more salient metaphor: all of these nerd fixations are about male puberty. That’s why these stories matter so much to young boys. Peter Parker gets bitten by radioactive testosterone, and feels an overwhelming sense of his own power and promise. He wants the girls to like him, so he impresses them by being stronger than the other boys. It’s hard, and he’s afraid it won’t work, but sexual selection happily includes him and he’s slinging web in no time. The end.
If this weren’t so, science fiction and fantasy properties wouldn’t always, always feature the Hero. This is the guy in the costume, the one with the powers, the holder of the ray gun, the captain of the ship, the poster on my embarrassing tweeny-bopper wall. It’s the one every boy who suddenly sprang up three inches last summer wants to be, and feels like maybe he can be now. It’s a fantasy, a stupid but pardonable one, an escapist thrill for boys who are definitely not Batman.
And even if they were, they shouldn’t want to be.
The mainstreaming of nerd culture may have been based in simple economics - teenaged boys vote on culture as much as seniors vote on politics - but it’s taken a much broader hold on our psyches. There’s a Nerdist network devoted to glossing up the nerd image. There are genuine crossover monster hits from the nerd genres, like Game of Thrones and The Avengers. An obsessive fan from the video store is the coolest director in Hollywood; a fat guy who’s really into creature features and Tolkien is the richest. Nerds are asserting themselves everywhere, and it’s got to stop.
Here’s why: nerd can be purely a bad thing. In its most precise usage, it is a bad thing.
The boogie man in all this is anti-intellectualism: the nerdy conviction that stupid people hate smart people. It’s an offensive idea, even in its formulation. It flatters the accuser and never identifies the accused, leaving an amorphous blob of contempt over the whole of humanity. It’s a presumption that elevates the self and denigrates the other - and that’s before the question is even considered.
People - even hard people out there in the bad old world outside a comic book - don’t hate people for being smart. Hell, in fiction, even Tony Soprano was smart. It was the source of his power. Justin Timberlake is smart. That’s why he’s so charming. Jerry Seinfeld is smart. That's why he's so funny. Dr. Dre is smart. Do his millions of fans find his celebrated music and successfully managed business ventures off-putting?
Being nerdy is not being smart. It’s acting smart. It’s an overemphasis on intellect, not an emphasis. It’s using ten dollar words when all you have to say could be bought for $2.50. It’s lording things over people instead of being direct. It’s assuming people hate you because you’re too smart.
To many of us, the intensity with which people hate or love video games, fantasy, sci-fi, comic books, and all other fanboy ephemera has the disturbing aura of pathology. They don’t come off as passionate about what they love. They come off as desperate.
It’s not a healthy way to live your life, and it’s a natural social reaction to call them out for it - to tease, as humor theorist Mikhail Bakhtin put it, as a way of bringing them back into the fold. Nerd is the word we use for that. When you’re a grown person dressed up as a character from a 70’s movie about a galaxy far, far away, the people around you have the right to wonder if you haven’t drifted a little too far - and not only from them, but from anything that has more substantive meaning to people in the here and now.
True, if pushed too far, it can be hard to distinguish art from escape. But there is a difference, and we know it when we see it, and whatever else you can say about it, paying too much attention to Star Wars or Star Trek is nerdy. They’re commercial properties designed to deliver a blast of novelty and escape. They have limited artistic value, there’s much more beautiful art to experience, and there are more important things to care about in this world.
It doesn’t have to be sports or sex or whatever else the healthy teenagers were into when you were shaping your worldview, but it has to be something larger than this. Life is too short and too beautiful to care too much about stuff that doesn’t matter. Don’t just be smart. Be cool.