I’ve been pondering this question for a few weeks now, as I feel it has a not-insignificant role to play in our personal and public perceptions. The very need to distinguish someone as being a nerd, gamer or any interest-based label really bothers me, because its proliferation actually does more harm than good in our society.
What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “nerd?” I’m willing to bet that most people imagine someone who has a passionate interest in comics, video games, science fiction, anime, manga or other such forms of popular culture (or, alternatively, academics) that borders on (or crosses) the edge of obsession. They wear their enthusiasm quite literally on their sleeves, with their favorite book, game or movie characters emblazoned on them. And above all, they possess very little in the ways of conversation and social graces, and (particularly in the case of males) are consistently deemed unattractive and sexually undesirable.
Excuse me for stating the obvious, but that’s a severely negative stereotype, one that has sadly been upheld by society since the term entered public vernacular some time around the early 1950s. Even today, in a world where movies based on comic books are mainstream summer blockbusters and one of the most popular mainstream TV series is based on a popular graphic novel, there’s a continued belief that nerds are a distinct subset of the human race.
Part of the problem is that the term “nerdy,” originally used to describe someone with poor social skills, has become so pervasive as to be colloquially tied to a person’s interests rather than their sociability (the lack of which has become implicit with passionate interests). Dating coach and frequent blogger Harris “Dr. Nerdlove” O’Malley argues that this association has its roots in the patriarchal tradition of ideal masculinity, which dictates that expressing emotion isn’t “manly.” Passion, which is at the heart of the enthusiast image of the nerd, is by definition, an emotion. Therefore, per traditional masculinity, a person who expresses an aspect that is at the core of their very humanity is considered sub-human for doing so. It doesn’t take a philosophy major to understand the logical inconsistency here.
Sadly, it is this continued implicit ostracision of passionate individuals that further leads to a “nerd closet” of sorts. Because of the inherent negative association between pop culture and social capacity, people associate (if unconsciously) an interest in, for example, video games, with a certain amount of shame. Thus, people tend to feel apologetic and embarrassed about their hobbies when dealing with others who don’t share the same interests, out of fear of being written off as socially undesirable. This makes no sense today, when “The Avengers” sets box office records and video games have penetrated virtually every market demographic out there. As a society, we have all adopted “nerdy” interests in some fashion. Everyone is supposedly “guilty” of being a nerd.
Therefore, if everyone is “a nerd,” why do we even need to make a distinction? The “nerd” descriptor is redundant. Indeed, I suppose there is some appeal in being able to categorize people with multiple common interests in a collective term, and that “nerd” is a convenient label that rolls off the tongue far more nicely than “connoisseur of dope stuff.”
But it’s this desire to give in to traditional standards and terminology that unintentionally backfires on those who self-identify as nerds. Again, it’s easy to understand why they do it, but it does more harm than good. To demonstrate “nerd pride” is to declare you’re different from everyone else merely for possessing knowledge and interest in something.
I refuse to pull punches when I say this: if you’re into pop culture, you are not special. Just because you like comic books and can elucidate on obscure facts about Batman doesn’t mean you get to judge the rest of society. This belief that nerds are somehow better than everyone else has a tendency to be an expression of resentment for decades of bullying, in a way it’s self-victimization. It relieves responsibility; it’s not their fault for being socially maladjusted and refusing to do anything about it, it’s society’s for oppressing them!