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‘Nerd’ is the word

A little over three weeks ago, Hurricane Irene passed through New York City. Although residents greeted warnings from authorities with wildly varying degrees of seriousness, their response was nearly uniform: hunker down. Even for those types relishing the chance to buck official admonishment, there wasn’t much point. Concerts were canceled, beaches were closed, and untold numbers of brunches went unserved.

I wasn’t, in truth, all that bothered by the state of affairs. Though I was under mandatory evacuation, it quickly became clear that this unprecedented do-nothing weekend would provide me and the friends offering me sanctuary with the cover to spend all day inside watching movies. And so, at four in the afternoon on a Saturday, as weather.com reached category five hysterics, I found myself blissfully revisiting one of my favorite movies growing up: Revenge of the Nerds.

Revenge of the Nerds is not a complicated film. In fact, its title may be one of the pithiest distillations of plot in movie history save for The Battle of Algiers. (If you insist on further explication, a quick read of one of the film’s taglines should provide resolution: “They’ve been laughed at, picked on and put down. But now it’s time for the odd to get even! Their time has come!”) Thus wholly sums up the movie’s story arc, and probably explains why, though only eight or nine years old, I could find it so satisfying. The social costs of being branded a “nerd” were impossible to miss: the chief protagonist, archnerd Lewis Skolnick, was a pocket protectored computer whiz, and his rival, Stan Gable, was a Greek Council president with a deep tan and a peppy girlfriend. Adding even more fuel to the bonfire of indignities, the only type of people willing to associate with Lewis had names like Arnold Poindexter, Harold Wormser, and Booger. Believe it or not, but America once loathed its nerds.

Revenge of the Nerds, 1984

Brooklyn, 2011

Released in 1984, Revenge of the Nerds was only one of several films to bear witness to the nerd narrative. Though the last two movies in the series, Revenge of the Nerds III: The Next Generation (1992) and Revenge of the Nerds IV: Nerds in Love (1994) went straight to television, that the franchise spanned four films and ten years indicates that the sad plight of the nerd has been taped to American consciousness like a pair of thick frame glasses. TVtropes.org, perhaps the world’s most assiduous chronicle of American screenwriting clichés, has detected the presence of a remarkable 60 tropes throughout the Nerds lifespan, including “Jerk Jock,” “Annoying Laugh,” and “Nerds are Virgins.” The spirit of Lewis Skolnick has endured, even if his annoying laugh has not. Best Buy’s Geek Squad, the TV show Chuck, and countless parodies have all ridden to success on the supposedly inverse relationship between intelligence and social prowess.

While this relationship may live on in a vacuum pack of pop culture mythology, that is now the only place. Today, in the real world, Harvard-educated mathematicians are some of the nation’s most popular matchmakers, and football players are doubling as Rhodes Scholars. Recently, over the course of a few hours, I kept a twitter search query open for the term nerd; by the time I closed it nearly five hundred tweets had hashtagged the term (#nerd). Judging from their photos and numbers of followers, the hashtaggers are not the sort of people who would have hobnobbed with men named Arnold Poindexter—in the 1980s, at least. Indeed, so muddled are our contemporary notions of nerds there’s actually a blog devoted to Hot Chicks Misidentifying as Nerds.

“Nerds” and “geeks” and “dorks” (I’ll leave it to somebody else to parse the difference) now rule the American cultural sphere. Beer nerds, tech geeks, Kate Plus 8 reviewers—to be a nerd or a geek in 2011 is to proudly, self-consciously assert one’s enthusiasm for the frivolous. To be uninterested in the latest 4G hardware is to be boring or uncool (epithets, once upon a time, synonymous with “nerdy”). If we’re not geeking it up over the Uerige Doppelsticke at last night’s dinner party, then we must be nerding out over the Napa cabbage in this week’s CSA. And darn right! The new “nerd” is not only happy in his esoteric knowledge, but he’s unrepentant. Often attractive, socially adept, and—horror of horrors—popular, latter-day Lewis Skolnicks blend more and more into Stan Gable with each scathing pizza critique.

In the end, of course, Lewis and his crew of lovable misfits pay back Stan and his math-allergic fraternity goons. From where things now lie, it’s more than a little amusing that this victory was once considered outrageous enough to embody yet another trope . Our nerds are no longer just Bill Gates and Steve Jobs—they’re Olivia Munn and Justin Timberlake (and Booger, the name of a forthcoming solo exhibition if there ever was one). It won’t be too long, I predict, until would-be Stan Gables shed their red sweaters for a pair of suspenders, now conveniently available at Urban Outfitters. To paraphrase Lewis’s triumphant final speech: Today, we are all nerds. And that is the sweetest revenge of all.

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  1. […] Blog continued the nerd conversation with a post about who exactly is a nerd, while Sesquiotica parsed the difference between nerd and geek. At the Boston Globe Ben Zimmer […]

  2. […] Within the past few weeks, reporters have returned to South Central on a mission to find out how the neighborhood has changed since the riots. A New York Times report concludes that the LAPD, once an emblem of police violence and pervasive corruption, has reformed. “Racial tension has also receded, at least on the surface,” says The Guardian. Nevertheless, a few small-scale development projects aside, the poverty that has dogged the neighborhood — now officially referred to as “South Los Angeles” — remains. Regardless of their various findings, all of the reports are in agreement: the shadow of the riots still covers Los Angeles. Adam Rosen is an editor of the Oxford African American Studies Center. Read more about the Los Angeles Riots and view a photo essay of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots on Oxford African American Studies Center online. The Oxford African American Studies Center combines the authority of carefully edited reference works with sophisticated technology to create the most comprehensive collection of scholarship available online to focus on the lives and events which have shaped African American and African history and culture. Adam Rosen has previously written about nerds on the OUPblog. […]

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