Can Pop Culture Save the Nerds?

TV Portrayals of the Smart and Awkward Are Nicer, But What Is Their Impact?


On TV, the nerds have traditionally played the role of sidekick or butt of the jokes: Screech Powers and Steve Urkel were better known for their unrequited crushes and awkward fashion statements than for their brains. But now the tables have turned, and sometimes it seems like the universe, both real and fictional, belongs to the nerds. Perhaps nowhere is that more true than on CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, where hyper-intelligent geeks find success in the lab and in love. In advance of a Zócalo event with Mayim Bialik, a UCLA-trained neuroscientist who plays a neuroscientist on the show, we asked experts on pop culture (some of whom are self-professed nerds), is contemporary television boosting the appeal of being nerdy?

Mainstreaming gets a bad rap. We usually assume it ruins whatever authentic, underground thing has been dragged out into the light. But for nerds and geeks, who have often thought of themselves as stigmatized, the pros–more big sci-fi movies and less mockery–may well outweigh the cons.

Whether sympathetic portrayals of geeks on TV are the ultimate cause, many people now believe nerdiness is positive–maybe even cool. And yet negative stereotypes persist. There is a hierarchy of lifestyles and leisure activities. Being “too” passionate or obsessive about something others consider trivial still may result in being treated as vaguely deviant. Especially if you are plain-looking, socially awkward, or would in any way be considered abnormal by 10th graders. This is as true in the workplace or at cocktail parties as it is on the playground.

When I talk with people who participate in “nerd culture” (comic-book collectors, gamers, fans, medieval re-creationists, etc.), it’s clear that words like nerd and geek mark boundaries between people. Speakers sometimes use them positively to indicate fellow insiders, sometimes to distance themselves from an unacceptably dorky person, and sometimes in a humorous, self-deprecating way. These labels don’t have any clear, stable meaning beyond the social work they do.

So I’m taking the academic’s cop out: “It’s complicated.” Whether contemporary TV has made it more appealing to be nerdy in the sense we’ve traditionally used that word depends on who’s asking and about whom. But by celebrating smart, quirky characters with geeky interests, it has developed a vocabulary for talking about the things we care deeply about–no matter what a 10th grader might think. In that sense, pop culture has made nerds of us all.

Benjamin Woo is a Ph.D. candidate at Simon Fraser University. For his dissertation, he has studied the “nerd-culture scene” in a Canadian city, exploring how participants produce a sense of community through and around their leisure activities. He blogs at his website, META-NERD, and tweets @wooesque.


The nerds have already won

It couldn’t hurt.

One of the biggest changes in the depiction of nerds on television is the mystery around nerdiness. It’s not always explicit anymore that a character is, indeed, a nerd. Clearly, six of the seven main characters on The Big Bang Theory are as identifiably nerdy as Urkel or Screech were in the ’90s. But are the scientists and lab techs on countless police procedurals, from the CSI shows to the NCIS franchise to Bones and several others, projecting a “nerd” image or not?

I’d argue that those characters and shows advance the nerd cause as much as the more stereotypical nerd characters. The TV tech sleuths are not shown dressed in ill-fitting, mismatched clothes or haunting the local comic book shop, but they’re nerds at heart. And if it means that people look at those performing scientific or technical work with a little more admiration–if they think of those jobs as cool–that’s a small victory for nerd culture.

Yet, even on The Big Bang Theory, with nerd stereotypes abounding, most of the characters have social lives and successful careers, which might subtly change the perception of nerds as Comic Book Guy living in mom’s basement. The characters’ social ineptitude, from which much of the comedy is derived, is counterbalanced by the fact that they’re all hyper-intelligent and do really cool things, including Howard’s going into space. And any show on which the big celebrity guest stars are people such as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is a net positive, especially if even one person sees the show, is curious about who these guys are, and looks them up.

Yet I’m not sure any of this matters too much. After all, even the most fervent stereotypical frat boy jock, the kind who beat up the nerds in junior high school (and ignored them in high school), went to see The Avengers, owns an iPhone and iPad, and can’t function without all the things nerds create, invent, and maintain. The biggest movies are all nerd culture phenomena, The Big Bang Theory and all those procedurals are among the top television shows, and everybody is constantly using the kind of online social interaction that was once the sole preserve of the computer geek logging onto a BBS. It’s harder than ever to pick out the nerds from “regular people,” because nerds ARE regular people. In real life, the battle has been over for ages.

Perry Michael Simon is editor-in-chief of, founded by Chris Hardwick and one of the Internet’s leading “nerd culture” sites. He is also vice president and news-talk-sports editor at, the leading radio trade website, and is a former radio program director, host, producer, and consultant.


Yes, and that creates new problems

In a word, yes. In two words “chef” and “orangutan,” but those words aren’t related to my answer. Contemporary TV is most certainly encouraging the concept of “being nerdy.” The great qualifier of course is being “nerd-Y” and not necessarily an all-out nerd. You can’t go full nerd. DON’T DO IT BRO. We’re not there yet I think.

But, yes, more “intelligent social outcast” nerd archetypes are filling leading roles rather than being relegated to the punch-line sidekick. The big question is whether TV made this shift to follow society’s willingness to boost the appeal of the nerdy, or if it was the other way around. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Society started rewarding the campaign of the nerdy, followed by TV doing the PR work.

Now, more shows can be tailored to a specific audience. When given the chance, some of these shows have wider appeal than previously expected. The success of nerd-centered shows proves that, though they (OK, we) have debilitating asthma and a sun-allergy, nerds are people too. They/we are a marketable audience. Being smart is cool. Having flaws is humanizing (stop wetting the bed though, you’re 27). We are in a great age of television writing that has created some really detailed characters.

Nerds are discovering there’s a negative side to being marketable: people who don’t understand you trying to capitalize on your popularity. As a result, you’re seeing watered-down nerds, insanely attractive people who just wear glasses and talk funny. There is no depth to these cynical corporation-created nerds. They haven’t contemplated Klingon nor debated how Sherlock faked his death (if this is a spoiler you’re not an actual fan and you weren’t going to see it anyway). It leaves us with a bizarre pseudo-nerd culture. People now want “in” on what it’s like to be cast out.

Kevin Anglin is a writer/comedian living in New York. He has written things on nerds and will do so again. He moderates his own site You can follow him on twitter @mrkevinanglin.


Yes, but it’s not enough

One day the nerds will inherit the earth. And if you look at shows like Big Bang Theory, you might think our time has come. But while there are zombie shows and summer blockbusters based on comic books, contemporary media isn’t the beacon of nerd hope we’d like to imagine. According to the Nielsen ratings for the week of June 18, 2012, the top rated show–not counting the not-very-nerdy NBA Finals–was America’s Got Talent.

That said, Big Bang came in sixth. But more importantly, that show exists … and is successful. It is the latest show to prove that smart, socially awkward people make for good television. Even in a world full of bachelorettes, big brothers, and housewives, there is no doubt nerd-pride has infiltrated the mainstream.

I’m not sure what came first … whether it started in television or in other aspects of pop culture, but one thing is clear: Being nerdy is OK, if not “cool.” We need more images of smart people as role models. So anything that supports “smart is sexy,” in any amount, is a good thing. Well, minus the hipsters wearing fake prescription glasses. (Don’t get me started.)

Robert Hernandez, aka WebJournalist, is an assistant professor at USC Annenberg. He recently co-founded #wjchat, the weekly Twitter chat for Web journalists.


No, the nerds are still being tormented

TV is not boosting the appeal of the socially awkward 15-year-old-boy-math-genius, tormented on Facebook by popular kids and suffering clinical depression, verging on suicide. TV is not boosting the appeal of the overweight smart black girl, ostracized by her black girlfriends for being “too white” and distanced from the white girls because she doesn’t fit their racialized aesthetics. Nor is TV boosting the appeal of loneliness, social exclusion, or cultural hierarchies based on gender, race, class, sexuality, and age–i.e., the tormented lived realities of nerds in contemporary culture. What TV is boosting is the tyranny of hip and the tempting promise of nerds as cool through an imagined transformation of the hip/square dialectic.

Here, I point to reality TV, where the transformation of the nerd is a staple in performance–based programs. Canada’s Next Top Model has featured a geek-to-chic photo shoot, where photographers in glasses transform themselves into brainless bimbos. So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew have showcased dances where nerds assume a new virility by shedding their identity for something more libidinally aggressive. In each, the nerd is momentarily brought out of his/her nerd shell with promises of acceptance by adopting more hegemonic forms of masculinity or femininity–the square who would become hip-only to return to the status quo after three minutes. Such a move works politically in several ways. First, the hegemony of mainstream ideologies is reified by assuming that “nerd” must be transformed in the first place. Second, social hierarchies, based on those same ideologies, are reinstated when the nerd must be expunged while its hip counterpart prevails. Third, the popularity and enjoyment of these performances may indicate a willingness to view a nerd on screen, but are audiences appreciating nerdiness or laughing at its expense?

We may be tempted to point to the increased quantity of nerds on TV as evidence of acceptance or appeal. But we must remember to examine the quality of each of those representations, and the contradictions that we find in the process.

Christine Quail is assistant professor of communication studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. She teaches courses on television studies, youth and media, celebrity, and globalization, and is researching reality TV in Canada. She has published an article on nerds in Television & New Media and is co-author, with Kathalene Razzano and Loubna Skalli, of Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows.

*Photo courtesy of dberm.