In Stuart Hall’s “The Spectacle of the ‘Other’,” he talks ...

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Representations of Nerd and Geek in Popular Culture


Image courtesy of Mark Rosewater (@maro254 on Twitter)

A Master Thesis by:

Paul van der Waerden

August 2011


Table of Contents

Introduction p. 2

Chapter 1: What is Nerd & Geek? p. 3

Chapter 2: Method p. 7

Stuart Hall p. 7

Joep Leerssen p. 11

Chapter 3: Case Studies (I) p. 15

Revenge of the Nerds p. 16

The Big Bang Theory p. 27

Nerd and Literature p. 32

Chapter 4: Case Studies (II) p. 37

Adam Savage p. 40

Chris Hardwick p. 41

Austin Tichenor p. 43

“Weird Al” Yankovic p. 45

Geek 2.0: The Female Geek? p. 46

Conclusions p. 48

Bibliography p. 50


I want to thank my parents for supporting me throughout the process of making this thesis and making sure that I would stay on track most of the time. Next, I want to thank Professor Hans Bak for supervising my thesis even though it was not entirely in his field of expertise. I enjoyed our conversations and your commentaries and suggestions helped a lot in making this thesis into what it is now. Finally I want to thank Inge Janssen for being there for me as a fellow geek to vent my ideas, share my enthusiasm, and her constant support.


Every year, in the third weekend of July, a very special event takes plays in San Diego, California: San Diego Comic Con. SDCC is perhaps the biggest convention of its kind, averaging over 100,000 visitors in the last few years. It started out in 1970 as a comic book convention, but has since grown out to become ‘Nerd Christmas,’ as some have called it. At the convention, there are panels on about every nerdy and geeky thing imaginable, a large exhibition floor with video games, comic book vendors, and cosplaying people all around (dressing up as one’s favorite superhero, film star, or comic book character). SDCC is not limited to the convention center; the whole city seems to be occupied with the event: large advertizing banners hanging off buildings, themed restaurants, and many off-site side events.

This all seems far removed from the dominant stereotype of the nerd: the socially inept young man who would rather live in a virtual world than go out in the real world. In my thesis, I want to find out how nerds and geeks are represented in popular culture. To do this, first it has to be established what exactly Nerd and Geek are, what the stereotypes are, and how they relate to each other and normative culture. As theoretical framework, the theories of Stuart Hall, dealing with representation, and Joep Leerssen, dealing with images, will be used. The analytical part of this thesis will be divided in two parts. In the first part, a number of fictive works will be discussed and analyzed on the way in which they present nerds and geeks. In the second part, a number of real-life nerds and geeks will be discussed, trying to determine in what way they see themselves as nerds and/or geeks, and how they contribute to Nerd culture in general. The research question for this analysis will be: “How are nerds and geeks represented in popular culture?” More specifically, “How does their representation relate to normative culture?”, “What cultural developments happen within the representation of Nerd and Geek culture?”, and “How can Nerd and Geek be explained, placed, and seen in a broader cultural perspective?”

Finally, the bibliography of this thesis will go beyond the sources discussed in the main body of it, to give a broader perspective on what could be included in Nerd and Geek culture.

Chapter 1

What is Nerd & Geek?

Before being able to look at the representation of Nerd and Geek culture, it has to be established what Nerd and Geek exactly are. The simplest way of doing this is by looking at the definition in the dictionary. The Merriam-Webster definition of Nerd is: “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially: one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” The origin of the word is from a 1950 work by Dr. Suess, If I Ran the Zoo, in which a nerd is one in a list of fantastic creatures. The first use of the word in a sense close to its current meaning dates back to 1951, when in Newsweek it was used as a synonym for a ‘drip’ or ‘square.’ In his book Nerds, David Anderegg gives two etymological sources for the current use of the word. The first is that it started as the acronym for Northern Electronic Research and Development, an Ottawa lab founded in 1959. The other origin tale is that it started out as a joke: the original spelling was ‘knurd,’ or ‘drunk’ spelled backwards. A collegiate ‘knurd’ was the opposite of a collegiate ‘drunk,’ or, in other words, someone who was ‘drunk’ on knowledge instead of intoxicated from consuming alcohol. The show Happy Days (1974-1984) is often credited with bringing the term to a large audience, as the character of the Fonz used it very often in its current sense.

The history of the word Geek is far older, but how it acquired its current meaning is also obscure. It seems to have the same etymological roots as the Dutch ‘gek,’ meaning a fool or a simpleton. Historically, it was used to describe circus performers, from which the first definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is derived: “a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake.” It also offers a definition for the current use of the word—“a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked,” or “an enthusiast or expert in a technological field or activity”—which is not related to this historical meaning, but how it moved to its current use is etymologically unknown.

All these descriptions are quite vague and a proto-nerd or –geek does not seem to exist. There is, however, a stereotype that is often used to explain what a nerd or geek looks like. The stereotypical Nerd is a young man who wears glasses, a button-down shirt with a pocket protector[1] in the breast pocket, and often pants that do not seem to fit properly. The Nerd is highly intelligent and often not afraid to boast of his intellectual achievements. They are usually overly interested in subjects like technology, science, pop culture, fantasy, or a combination of these four (one can think of video games like World of Warcraft, films like Star Wars, and television series like Star Trek). On the other hand, the Nerd is often socially awkward in his behavior, which sometimes is attributed to having a form of autism (usually a high-functioning disorder such as Asperger’s Syndrome). Combined, these three characteristics contribute to the Nerd’s asexuality, or in other words, nerds never get laid. Because this is a stereotype, not every Nerd or Geek has all these characteristics, and in the cases that will be discussed in this thesis the stereotype will often be broken through, reversed, or otherwise refuted. The Nerd is above all a social stereotype. It discriminates a certain group of people that is otherwise not linked through, for example, ethnicity or heritage. Anyone can be labeled as a nerd or geek, no matter his (or her) background. As a group, the nerds and geeks want to define themselves to make the often negative into a positive image—a Badge of Honor if you will.

Another way of defining Nerd and Geek that is presented by Anderegg is to determine what they are not: Jocks. According to Anderegg, Jocks are “self-conscious, socially skilled, attractive, popular, and, of course, athletic, and nerds and geeks are none of these things” (Anderegg 37). This is, again, a way of stereotyping the Nerd and Geek because in reality the characteristics of either category (‘Jock’ or ‘Nerd/Geek’) are not mutually exclusive. An example of this is former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling—as a professional athlete, he can be seen as a ‘Jock’—who, in 2006, started a video game development studio called Green Monster Games (later renamed 38 Studios)—video games as a characteristic of the Nerd. The foundation of the studio was still during Schilling’s active athletic career and he still works for the studio now, after his retirement.

The stereotype of the Nerd and Geek is further confirmed by the entries on , a user-generated, online slang dictionary. It has 311 entries for the term ‘Nerd’ and 90 for the term ‘Geek.’ Most of these entries deal with the attributes connected to the stereotype of the Nerd and Geek: high intellect, social ineptness, obsession with school/work, and technical skills. The difference between Nerd and Geek is often disputed. Some use the terms interchangeably, while others insist there is a definite difference between the two. Anderegg offers a clear idea of the difference between them: “a Geek is a person who obsesses in one area or another, whereas a Nerd is a highly intelligent person who is very scholarly and does well in many domains such as math, science, computing, etc. Nerds are more associated with obsessive knowledge” (33). Other differences stated on are, among others, that geeks do not necessarily have the high level of intelligence associated with nerds, that geeks can have the social skills that Nerds lack, a geek’s ‘area of expertise’ is not limited to computers or technology (as with Nerds), and that Nerd is almost always a negative term, while Geek is often positive when used within the group, but is considered insulting when used by others.

Anderegg, a developmental psychologist, offers an explanation for the negative image of the ‘Nerd’ stereotype, which starts to manifest itself in children at a fairly young age. According to Anderegg, children do not have a full idea of what a Nerd is, but that it is associated with the negative terms such as ‘baby’ (someone who seeks adult help or intervention too readily) and ‘suck-up’ (studious, but not in a good way; always wanting the teacher to think that they are smart). Later on, in high school, the studious characteristic stays, but the Nerd is also sexualized, or rather a-sexualized, as someone who “never, never gets laid” (49), another negative characteristic of the Nerd. For adults, the term ‘Nerd’ is seen as something “funny or hip or ironic” (50). They embrace the Nerd and Geek characteristics and costumes because it is a way in which they feel they can distance themselves from normative social behavior, but the problem with this is that both the stereotype of the Nerd and ‘normative social behavior’ are highly disputable terms.

Anderegg defines the ‘Nerd’ stereotype as a typical American stereotype. One of the reasons he gives for this is the effect of nerd prejudices on young people’s achievements. Taking up advanced math or science classes will brand one more often as a ‘nerd’ and therefore a student will not pick up those classes. To Anderegg and his colleague Mirka Prazak, a professor of anthropology who also teaches at Bennington College (71), the Nerd stereotype is a luxury: In a culture where the standard of literacy and education is low, ‘wise ones’ are almost always venerated; in a culture where everyone can read, stereotypes like the Nerd can take root. Another reason for viewing the Nerd as typically American that Anderegg suggests is that in other languages there is no term that is completely similar to ‘Nerd.’ Some that come close are the German ‘Streber’ (on an intellectual and achieving level), the Yiddish ‘Schlemiel’ (socially inept), and the Japanese ‘Otaku’ (obsessive behavior). This does not mean that Nerds do not exist in other cultures, but they are not always branded as such, nor are they always discriminated against for their intelligence. The absence of a word for Nerd might also be caused by the major role that English has in the world of technology and computers. To a first-language English speaker this may not be so apparent, which might be why Anderegg does not notice it.

To conclude, the stereotypes of the Nerd and Geek are not fixed. Most sources agree on the main characteristics: high intelligence, social awkwardness, unattractiveness, and technical skills. The difference between Nerd and Geek lies predominantly in the fact that Geeks do not necessarily have the high intelligence and academic interests that Nerds seem to have. The negative attitude towards the Nerd is supported by images of what children do not want to be while growing up. As Anderegg has stated, the term and the stereotype are often seen as something funny or ironic by adults, which can be used to distance oneself from normative social behavior, which is often positive when applied to oneself, but can still be hurtful when used by others.

Chapter 2


To examine how Nerds and Geeks are represented in popular culture, one needs a research method. As was established in the previous chapter, Nerd/Geek culture can be seen as a social subculture, and, as such, several cultural theories could be applied to discuss how it is represented. For this thesis the theories of Stuart Hall and Joep Leerssen will be used. Hall’s research in his book Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (1997), more specifically the chapter “The Spectacle of the ‘Other’,” focuses on African American culture, but the theories he has developed to analyze this specific culture’s representation can be applied to any culture. Leerssen’s theory of Imagology (or Image Studies), explained in his essay “Imagology: History and Method” (2007) focuses on national identities and stereotypes, but the ideas of trans-nationalism and post-nationalism discussed in this essay make its application to nerd/geek culture possible.

Stuart Hall

In Stuart Hall’s “The Spectacle of the ‘Other’,” he discusses the importance of difference when analyzing other cultures. The process of representation of differences in (popular) culture usually occurs through stereotyping. In this chapter of his book he focuses on racial and ethnic differences of the African American culture, but also notes that what is said “could be equally applied in many instances to other dimensions of difference, such as gender, sexuality, class, and disability” (Hall 225). Hall’s focus on the representation of African American culture brings with it another dimension, namely that of time. His main question is ‘have the repertoires of representation around ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’ changed or do earlier traces remain intact in contemporary society?’ (225). To examine his main research question, Hall presents us with four accounts of representation theory from several academic disciplines. He also offers three ways in which stereotyping can be reversed through trans-coding.

Hall’s goal in this essay is to make one ‘read’ images. Visual representation takes center stage because it is “the key first ‘moment’ in the cultural circuit” (226). To support this he uses Barthes’ theory of the ‘myth’: An image can be very powerful, but its meaning can be ambiguous. There is no fixed meaning (neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong’) but a preferred meaning that the makers would like one to see, but that is not necessarily the perceived meaning. A recent example of this theory, that also is also applicable to nerd/geek, is an intelligent but socially awkward person like Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes in the 2009 film with the same name. The characters in the film despise him for his awkwardness, but the audience is made to sympathize with him for his intelligence and resourcefulness. The terms that are used for this are denotation, or the shown image, and connotation, or the carried message or meaning.

The represented differences can have several dimensions. As Hall argues, African American athletes are not only ‘read’ through ethnicity and color, but also through gender and sexuality. With this also come several juxtapositions such as femininity versus masculinity, which can be used to create a preferred meaning for an image.

One might ask why difference matters in representational theories. Hall gives four theoretical accounts from different disciplines to explain the importance of difference. The first account is from linguistics. The main argument is that ‘difference’ “matters because it is essential to meaning; without it, meaning could not exist” (234). To use the example from the preceding paragraph: we know what masculinity is not because there is an essence of it, but because there is an opposite: femininity. This approach, however, is a “rather crude and reductionist way of establishing meaning” (235), as there can be a large grey area between opposites and, like a black-and-white photograph, there is little pure ‘white’ or ‘black.’ In addition, these binary oppositions are almost never neutral. One usually has a dominant meaning over the other, or, as Derrida argued, one is “the dominant one, the one which includes the other within its field of operations” (qtd. in Hall, 235).

The second account also comes from the theories of language, but has a slightly different approach. The main argument here is that “we need ‘difference’ because we can only construct meaning through a dialogue with the ‘Other’” (235). Hall points at Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin as main proponent of this argument. Bakhtin argues that meaning does not belong to any one speaker, but it arises in the give-and-take between speakers. As meaning is established through dialogue, it can change through interaction and interplay with another person. The negative side of this theory is that meaning cannot be fixed or completely controlled by one group. Meaning is always being negotiated between groups, so one cannot learn the meaning of for instance masculinity within a culture until one knows about femininity in that culture.

From anthropology comes the third account, namely that “culture depends on giving meaning by assigning them to different positions within a classificatory system” (236). Again, binary oppositions are crucial for these classifications. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss offers the following example: different kinds of food can be classified in groups such as ‘raw’ and ‘cooked,’ but also ‘vegetables’ and ‘fruits,’ ‘starters’ and ‘desserts,’ or ‘fast food’ and ‘health food.’ Again, the difference between the groups is crucial for their meaning. The negative side of this explanation is that problems arise when things turn up in the wrong category or fail to fit any category. To stay with the food example, pancakes are categorized as ‘dinner’ in the Netherlands, but fall in the ‘breakfast’ category in the United States. To either culture, the other one seems out of place and therefore breaks the symbolic meaning of the pancake. This is a relatively harmless example, but when this method of classification is applied in areas such as race—Hall gives the example of the Mulatto, who is neither ‘black’ or ‘white’—it can have serious implications for the cultural order. Hall quotes Babcock saying “Marking ‘difference’ leads us, symbolically, to close ranks, shore up culture and to stigmatize and expel anything which is defined as impure, abnormal” (237).

The fourth and last account is psychoanalytical. It relates to the role of ‘difference’ in our psychic life. The main argument is that “the ‘Other’ is fundamental to the constitution of the self, to us as subjects, and to sexual identity” (237). To explain this, Hall uses the Freudian theory of the Oedipus complex: “A unified sense of oneself as a subject and one’s sexual identity are not fixed in the very young child” (237). Only after realizing that one is different from one’s mother (for boys) or father (for girls)—the Oedipus phase—does one take on the masculine or feminine role. What this means is that the role that is given to the ‘Other’ is of importance in the formation of subjectivity and of a ‘self’ through the symbolic and unconscious relations with that ‘Other.’ The negative implications of this approach are that there is no given, stable core to the ‘self’ or identity. It is always an unconscious dialogue with the (internalization of) the ‘Other;’ even though it seems to complete us, it will always be something we lack because it lies outside us.

These four accounts show that the question of ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’ is significant in many different disciplines and academic approaches. The accounts are not mutually exclusive as they apply to different levels of cultural analysis—linguistic, social, cultural, and psychic levels. ‘Difference’ is also ambivalent: it can be both positive and negative. Both positive and negative approaches are necessary for the creation of meaning, but can, at the same time, be threatening to the ‘Other.’

Hall points out that the ‘regime of representation’ actually works through the representational practice of stereotyping. According to Hall, stereotyping “reduces people to a few, simple, essential characteristics, which are represented as fixed by Nature” (257). For the difference between typing and stereotyping, Hall introduces the reader to Richard Dyer. Dyer argues that we constantly use types to classify things and place them in categories. Typing is therefore essential to the creation of meaning. Stereotypes, however, reduce a person or object to a few “simple, vivid, memorable, easily grasped and widely recognized characteristics” (258), which are fixed. In other words, it makes ‘difference’ into a fixed and naturalized essence. Secondly, stereotyping divides “normal and acceptable” from “abnormal and unacceptable” (258). Stereotyping is used to symbolically fix boundaries and exclude everything that does not belong. Stereotyping creates clear boundaries between ‘Us’ and ‘the Other.’ Stereotyping is also an instrument of power and knowledge as it “classifies people according to a norm and constructs the excluded as ‘Other.’

To conclude his arguments, Hall wonders if a dominant regime of representation can be challenged, contested, or changed. He believes that through the process of trans-coding—taking an existing meaning and re-appropriating it for new meanings—change can be achieved. He then continues to explain three forms of trans-coding that have been used in the politics of anti-racist and other social movements.

First there is the reversal of stereotypes. This means that one values positively all the characteristics which would at first have been negative stereotypes. As an example, Hall discusses Shaft, a 1971 film in which an African American detective fights both black militants and the Mafia. What makes Shaft stand out, though, is the title character’s “absolute lack of deference towards whites” (271). The variety of characters in this film—and others like it—shows that one group is neither always better nor always worse than the other: they come in every human moral manifestation—good, bad, and indifferent.

The second form of trans-coding that Hall discusses is attempting to substitute a range of ‘positive’ images for the ‘negative’ imagery which continues to dominate popular representation. An example of this is the statement ‘Black is Beautiful,’ in which a derogatory term (‘black’) is coupled with a positive term (‘beautiful’) to increase the representational range of what it means ‘to be black.’ As Hall notes, this approach has an underlying acknowledgement and celebration of diversity and difference in the world. The negative aspect of this trans-coding strategy is that, even though positive images are added, this does not necessarily mean that the negative images are displaced.

The third form of trans-coding comes from within. It is more concerned with the forms of representation than with introducing new content. In other words, it works with the unfixed character of meaning and enters in the struggle over representation, while at the same time acknowledging that meaning can never be completely fixed. Instead of avoiding a dangerous terrain, one can deliberately contest the dominant definitions by working with them. For instance, a comedian can use witty exaggerations of caricatures to force his audience to laugh with them rather than at them.

As Hall notes in his conclusion, the theories he presents in this chapter and applies to ‘race’ can in many cases be applied to other dimensions of ‘difference.’ Nerd and Geek culture are no exception to that, as the case studies in this thesis will show. The practice of stereotyping as a form of representation, as well as trans-coding those stereotypes also occurs in Nerd and Geek culture.

Joep Leerssen

Joep Leerssen’s approach to ‘Otherness’ is slightly different from Hall. His theory of ‘Imagology’ ,discussed in “Imagology: History and Method,” focuses on the default value of one’s contact with different cultures. According to Leerssen, this always seems to have been ethnocentric, “in that anything that deviated from accustomed domestic patterns is ‘Othered’ as an oddity, an anomaly, a singularity” (Leerssen 17).

The history of Imagology starts in the 16th century with the Austrian idea of the Völkertafel or ‘Tableau of Nationalities,’ which saw ‘nation’ and ‘culture’ as “the natural and fundamental, mutually interdependent units of humanity” (18). These categories were mainly anthropological instead of ethnographic phenomena: they were seen as the patterns of behavior in which ‘nations’ articulated their own responses to their living conditions and experiences. In the 19th century, the idea of national characteristics also showed up in the field of linguistics and literary studies, guided by the idea that “culture was, unquestioningly, national culture, held a priori to be different from other cultures and singled out by the nation’s underlying characteristic individuality” (19). The thought was that, between various literatures, a ‘national philology’ could be discerned and studied in a comparative way. This model culminated in Hippolyte Taine’s 1863 theory of positive determinism. Taine presented a theory in which a given cultural artifact could be situated, characterized and understood with reference to three defining parameters: race, milieu, and moment. Of these three, moment is perhaps the most difficult to grasp. It is not only a chronological date, but also denotes a ‘spirit of the age,’ a mentality that is characteristic of the period. Milieu is explained as something physical and climatological rather than a social environment, for example ‘cold,’ ‘temperate,’ and ‘warm’ literatures. Race speaks for itself, as Taine unhesitatingly saw texts as “co-determined in their literary characteristics by their authors’ physical ethnicity” (19).

Leerssen dates the first ‘proto-imagological’ studies to the first half of the twentieth century. These included studies as ‘Frenchmen in Shakespeare’ and the approach was often that of Stoffgeschichte, listing and tracing a given type of literary preoccupation from text to text (across succeeding generations). Such representations are a byproduct or reflection of literature’s international traffic and contacts. The actual emergence of imagology as a critical study is reached after the Second World War, as, according to Leerssen, it could only take place “after people had abandoned a belief in the ‘realness’ of national characters as explanatory models” (21), which was one of the effects that World War II had caused. The importance of imagology was that in its method, if not in its subject matter, it would be post-national or even trans-national. Nationality could be studied as a convention, a misunderstanding, a construct; something which could be analyzed in its subjectivity, variability, and contradiction. Culture was now seen as a pattern of bricolage, communication between nations, rather than as a “nation-by-nation package deal” (22). The ideas of imagology also started to emerge in other disciplines than Comparative Literature, such as Anthropology, Postcolonialism, and Women’s Studies.

The method of Imagology is primarily one of studying literary representations, which “furnishes continuous proof that it is in the field of imaginary and poetical literature that national stereotypes are first and most effectively formulated, perpetuated, and disseminated” (26). Europe has a voluminous literary record that can provide fruitful results on many different topics. This literary record is also proof that images work, primarily because of their “intertextual tropicality” (26). Tropes, or in other words metaphors and characteristics, have become familiar because of repetition. This means that the primary reference is not empirical reality but intertextual, so these tropes are not based on observation or statements of objective fact, but a matter of hearsay. Thirdly, literary sources have a long currency and topicality, although this depends on their canonicity. Leerssen points at a canonical text like Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to display that it can be used not only to illustrate the attitudes towards Jews at the time of its origin, but that it also provides an “interesting track record of shifting attitudes in subsequent centuries” (26) in its reception history.

Fourth, there is reason to assume that literature is “a privileged genre for the dissemination of stereotypes, because it often works on the presupposition of a ‘suspension of disbelief’ and some (at least aesthetic) appreciative credit among the audience” (26). Leerssen also mentions that this can also be applied to “more recent poetically-ruled and fictional-narrative media such as cinema or the comic strip” (26). In other words, even though Leerssen’s focus is on “high” literature, the theories of Imagology can also be applied to popular culture.

On the basis of these factors, Leerssen lists a number of methodological assumptions which have been elaborated over the last decades:

1. The ultimate perspective of image studies is a theory of cultural or national stereotypes, not a theory of cultural or national identity.

2. Imagology is not a form of sociology; its aim is to understand a discourse of representation rather than a society.

3. Our sources are subjective; their subjectivity must not be ignored, explained away, or filtered out, but be taken into account in the analysis. For that reason, imagologists will have particular interest in the dynamics between those images which characterize the Other (hetero-images) and those which characterize one’s own, domestic identity (self-images or auto-images).

4. Imagology addresses a specific set of characterizations and attributes: those outside the area of testable report sentences or statements of fact.

5. The first task is to establish the intertext of a given national representation as trope (or commonplace).

6. The trope must be contextualized within the text of its occurrence.

7. Historical contextualization is also necessary.

8. The pragmatic-functionalist perspective: What is the text’s target audience?

9. In the long-term history of national clichés, certain constants and variables may be encountered, sometimes even vacillations between extreme appreciation or depreciation.

10. The area of self-images presents one additional perspective of particular relevance, especially in regard to self-other dynamics.

11. The study of national images is in and of itself a comparative enterprise: it addresses cross-national relations, rather than national identities.

For this thesis, especially the ideas regarding auto-images and hetero-images are of particular interest. In many of the cases that will be discussed in the following chapters both will apply. Most often there is an instance of hetero-imaging—the ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ label is given to someone or a group by another—that is taken up by this person or group and changed into a label that they feel is more suited to themselves (auto-imaging). Leerssen has analyzed Imagology as a tool to describe national cultures and images, but he also argues that today it can also have a transnational character. This allows it to be used to describe socio-cultural images as those of Nerd and Geek culture, as the ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ are neither exclusively linked to nor part of a specific national culture.

Chapter 3

Case Studies (I)


In the next two chapters a number of exemplary cases will be analyzed and discussed. All these cases have a particular way in which they deal with nerd and geek culture and the nerd and geek stereotype. The cases are divided in two groups: Representations of nerd and geek in fictive works such as film and television, and representations of nerd and geek in ‘real life,’ which mostly concerns persons that present themselves as nerd and/or geek. The cases have been selected on the basis of a number of criteria, most of which apply to each case. These criteria are the following:

1. It explicitly mentions nerds and/or geeks, for instance in the title, tagline, or other official publication.

2. People who see (and profile) themselves as nerds and/or geeks.

3. It is typical for the time period in which it was made and therefore might reveal ideas about nerds and/or geeks in that period.

4. The cases can be both fictive and non-fictive; in some the one is accompanied by the other.

5. It is a work (or part) of popular culture.

6. There is a variety in the media of the cases. This means that the cases can be from film, television, theater, music, literature, and the social media (blogs, podcasts, and other means provided by the internet).

7. It is accepted by the nerd/geek community as being nerd and/or geek.

For each case it will become clear how it deals with the nerd and geek identity, which will be analyzed with the help of the theories provided by Hall and Leerssen. The goal is to see whether or not there are differences between media, time periods, fictive and non-fictive, and environment in the representation of nerd and geek culture.

Case 1: Revenge of the Nerds (1984, 1987, 1992, 1994)

The Revenge of the Nerds quadrology may very well be the first series of films in which the nerds form the majority of the cast and get their ‘revenge’ at the same time. The four films feature episodes from the lives of a group of young people during college and their lives after graduating. First, the plot of the four films will be analyzed and then a number of the characters will be examined on how they deal with nerds and their own nerdness.

The first film, Revenge of the Nerds (1984), starts out with the two friends Lewis and Gilbert preparing for college. Right from the start, they can be identified as stereotypical nerds: glasses, pocket protector, an awkward laugh, and still clinging to home and their parents. They will be attending Adams College, a generic Midwestern college, which comes with everything one expects from a college. At first, the freshmen have their own dorms, but they get kicked out by the Alpha Betas—the jock fraternity—after they burn down their own house during a party. When the freshmen leave their building, the Alpha Betas call them, as a group, ‘nerds,’ so at this point the definition of ‘nerd’ is equal to that of ‘freshman.’ All this is done under supervision of Coach Harris, the football coach, who embodies adult power in this film. His motives are unclear, but he has an innate hate for everything and everyone that is nerd, so throughout the film, he encourages the Alpha Betas to make the life of the ‘nerds’ miserable. This type of character shows up in each of the four films, but, as will be shown further on, Harris is perhaps the least of the nerds’ worries.

The freshmen are temporarily housed in the gym of the college, but they are allowed to join fraternities. Lewis and Gilbert also want to join a fraternity, but they are humiliated when they try to join the Alpha Betas. At this point ‘nerds’ is equal to ‘those who were not picked by fraternities.’ They cannot stay in the gym forever, so together with the other people still there, Lewis and Gilbert go in search of an accommodation to make their new home. Eventually they find an old and abandoned house on campus that they can renovate. This happens during a montage sequence in which both the physical ineptitude and technical ingenuity of the nerds is shown. An example of this is a robot that can hold a broom and swipe the floor, in theory at least, but in practice it herds one of the nerds into a corner of the room. To complete their new house they want to start their own fraternity, but to be allowed to do this they need a national sponsor. They are turned down by almost every organization, except for Lambda Lambda Lambda (often shortened to Tri-Lambs), which turns out to be an African American fraternity organization. When asked what the nerds can give to become part of the Tri-Lambs they mention that they not only have a high GPA (Grade Point Average) but that they also do not discriminate. This last point is particularly interesting because it connects the battle that the nerds are fighting to the Civil Rights Movement (which the films allude to at a number of other occasions as well, but more on that later on).

To celebrate their trial membership, the nerds organize a party, but it is not what they had expected of it. Almost no one shows up, except the girls from Omega Mu, who are in many ways similar to the nerds, physically unattractive and socially awkward, but are never actually called nerds. The silent wallflower behavior changes when one of the nerds, Dudley “Booger” Dawson, brings in some ‘Wonderjoints.’ Apparently, intoxication makes them forget who they are and everyone ‘goes wild,’ until the Alpha Betas disturb the party by sending pigs into the house. The nerds get their revenge by using a number of ‘smart’ solutions, such as cameras to spy on the girls and ‘Liquid Heat’ (a muscle stimulant) in the boys’ jockstraps. They now become full members of Lambda Lambda Lambda because the head of the organization is proud they finally took matters in their own hands and struck back.

To get rid of the Alpha Beta rule once and for all, they have to win the Homecoming activities to be able to preside over the fraternity council. To do this, they again rely on their intellect in contrast to the Alpha Betas’ physical attributes. For example, they use alcohol-neutralizing pills in a drinking event and Booger uses his trademark nose picking to his advantage in the arm wrestling event. In the end, they win the competition, but this brings out the anger in Coach Harris. Under his supervision, the Alpha Betas completely wreck the nerd house. In the final scene of the film, the dean of the college—who also looks like a nerd with his glasses and bowtie—finally stands up to Coach Harris and the Alpha Betas, supported by the nerds and the leaders of the Tri-Lambs (type ‘Big, Black, and Angry’). The speech that Gilbert delivers at that point is aimed not only at the jocks and the nerds, but at everyone at the gathering. He asks the Alpha Betas why they targeted them: Because they are smart? Because they look funny? These two questions touch upon two characteristics that Anderegg describes as typically American: anti-intellectualism and xenophobia[2]. The film ends with Queen’s We Are the Champions playing while everyone who sympathizes with the nerd cause joins them: the nerds have finally won their battle.

Or so it would seem, were it not that the story continues in Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise (1987). In this film, the nerds go to the United Fraternity Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida as representatives of Adams College to “discuss the philosophy of brotherhood, to set guidelines for their organizations…and get laid” as the opening sequence (a scrolling text in the manner of the opening sequences of the Star Wars films) suggests. Most of the characters from the first film reappear in this one and most of the Tri-Lambs make the trip to Florida, except for Gilbert. He broke his leg playing chess—an ultimate show of un-athleticism—but with the help of technology and a meticulous travel plan he is still able to follow the rest of his friends on their journey.

When they arrive in Florida, their hotel reservations have been cancelled because the hotel manager, Mr. Mussinger, does not want nerds in his hotel. He is supported by the chapter of the Alpha Beta house that is leading the conference. They are plotting to get rid of the nerds once and for all, but the nerds go with the motto: “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” because, after all, they are Tri-Lambs. They will not be leaving, but fighting back, just as last year. When the Alpha Betas want to make an amendment that physical standards (as well as academic standards) have to be met to be able to join the conference—obviously playing on the nerds’ non-athleticism—the nerds organize a party at their new hotel to protest against this proposition. At this party they also perform, showing that they do have talents that go beyond the academic. Eventually the amendment is scrapped and a new one is proposed: those who break the rules will be expelled from the conference. This new amendment is proposed by the Alpha Betas, but they also involve the Tri-Lambs in getting the amendment passed. The Alpha Betas use this new amendment to frame the nerds by ‘kindly’ lending them a convertible and then reporting it stolen, as a result of which the nerds end up in jail.

In the following events, they find a number of new (unlikely) allies. Their bail is posted by two employees of the hotel at which they were denied a stay in the beginning of the film. One is Steward, the hotel bellboy, who looks like a nerd, the other is Sunny, the pretty front desk clerk who has a soft spot for Lewis and turns out to be more intelligent than her looks would suggest. Fresh out of jail, they get kidnapped by the Alpha Betas and dumped on a deserted island so they cannot defend themselves from being expelled from the conference. Sunny joins them voluntarily, but they also get the company of Ogre—as his name suggests, the Alpha Beta meathead. Ogre is dumped on the island with the nerds because he wants to brag about what they have done (which would reveal the Alpha Beta involvement in it). He cannot swim, so the nerds—good Samaritans that they are—rescue him and take him up in their midst. Lewis wants to give up now, but Gilbert appears to him in a dream (wearing a brown robe, another Star Wars reference) and tells him that he should not be ruled by emotion, but use his brain: he has to think rationally and get them off the island to prevent them being voted off the conference. Through observation and with higher math they determine where they are and the island they are on turns out to be a suspected hiding place of military supplies from the Cuban invasion. With a crude metal-detecting contraption they find these supplies, which include an amphibious landing craft. They use this craft to get back to the main land just in time to barge into the conference as the vote is taking place. Rodger, the president of Alpha Beta, is called out by the nerds and he tries to defend himself by identifying the nerds as a ragtag, ununified group of persons. He says that he is strong and they (the nerds) are weak, and that that is the way it is always going to be and there is nothing the nerds can say or do about that. In a reversal of his role as ‘Man of Reason’ to a ‘Man of Action,’ Lewis punches Rodger in his face and the nerds have once again had their revenge.

Back at Adams College, the closing scene is the inauguration of Ogre into the Tri-Lamb fraternity. He is ceremoniously given a pair of glasses and a pocket protector—one could argue the symbolic varsity jacket of the nerds—and he is also wearing the typical nerd attire of the checkered shirt and too short pants, rather than his regular outfit of jeans and a sleeveless shirt. Through this scene the film ends in an awkward duality. On the one hand the nerds have accepted one of their biggest (literally) bashers into their midst, showing that they are open to anyone, but on the other hand, they have made Ogre into a stereotypical nerd, where they advocated difference and diversity throughout both films.

The third film, Revenge of the Nerds III: the Next Generation (1992), skips ahead a couple of years. Lewis is now head of the science department at Adams College and he is married to Betty, the preppy girl he seduced in the first film. His nephew Harold is now a freshman at the college and everything has changed from Lewis’ time as a student there. The gym is now the computer center, the mascot is an atom, and Lambda Lambda Lambda is the most popular fraternity on campus. Lewis has also undergone a drastic change. He is now wearing contacts, a stylish suit, and he sports a slick ponytail. He now claims that “Appearance is Everything” and he criticizes Harold because he is such a nerd in the way he dresses and suggests that Harold should pledge somewhere else than Tri-Lamb. Betty simply argues that Lewis is embarrassed of his nerd past; nonetheless that is the Lewis she fell in love with. Harold still decides to pledge the Tri-Lamb fraternity.

When he first visits the Tri-Lamb house, he is welcomed by Malcolm Pennington III, a tall African American, wearing a baseball cap with an ‘X’ on it—an obvious reference to Malcolm X, especially when this Malcolm states that “Tri-Lamb doesn’t discriminate, nor does it segregate” when asked why there are also girls in the fraternity. This reference to the Civil Rights Movement is not new to the film series, but mentioning Malcolm X has another dimension to it. As Ron Eglash discusses in his essay “Race, Sex, and Nerds: From Black Geeks to Asian American Hipsters,” X can also be seen as a nerd. Eglash states that “Malcolm’s horn-rimmed glasses and insistent intellectualism recall the earlier figure of the egghead” (Eglash 53), and he also quotes Malcolm explaining his new surname: “X stands for the unknown, as in mathematics” (54). The similarity between Malcolm X and the nerds is that they both do not shy away from taking matters in their own hand when having to defend their cause. When Harold and some other freshmen decide to join the fraternity, there is no physical hazing, but there are some initiation rituals. One of those is that they cannot touch a computer for a whole week, much to the disgust of these new Tri-Lambs.

On the Alpha Beta side of the Adams College community, things do not seem to go as well. Without their reputation as campus leaders, the fraternity is only one of dumb boozers. When the university’s president Mr. Price brings his son Adam to the college and sees the deplorable state of the Alpha Beta fraternity, he is determined to do something about that. Together with Stan Gable—Alpha Beta president during the first film, but now a local police officer—he spurs on the Alpha Betas to take back the campus, starting with the gym-turned-into-computer-center. To prevent this from happening again (or rather, to be able to push through his own agenda), Price proposes Stan to the board as the new Dean. With Gable installed as the new Dean, the Alpha Betas can go back to making the life of the nerds miserable, because Gable plays innocent and tells the nerds that they should not push their lifestyle upon others. This excuse for Gable’s inaction is quite odd, since he attempted to push his (Alpha Beta) lifestyle upon others when he was in college. While Betty is worried about the Tri-Lambs, Lewis does not want to get too involved because he does not want to feel like he is in college again.

Nonetheless, when the nerd-bashing under Price and Gable continues, the nerds turn to the number one fighter for the nerd cause: Lewis Skolnick. He attempts to become Stan’s best friend, whilst suppressing his nerd side. An example of this is that when he tries to teach Stan how to use the computer and something funny happens he wants to laugh in his characteristic way, but is so embarrassed about it that he swallows his laugh. Another one of the original nerds comes back to Adams College to help the nerds fight against Price and Gable. Booger is now a lawyer and will help the nerds on the legal front. Unfortunately, the judge at the appeals court is also anti-nerd and will not rule in favor of them against Price, Gable, and the Alpha Betas. When Booger sees the way in which Lewis is sucking up to Stan, he calls him the worst kind of nerd: he used to be the nerd George Washington, but now he is the nerd Benedict Arnold. To drown their sorrows, the nerds have a party with the Omega Mu sorority (much like in the first film) but the police comes by and finds the whole basement filled with cannabis plants (obviously planted there). The Tri-Lambs get kicked from the campus and Lewis finally stands up to Stan when he will not admit that the nerds were framed and denies (to Price) that he and Lewis are friends. Lewis puts back on his nerd attire and he will have his revenge now. The nerds get to stay at his house, because the Alpha Betas have taken over the Tri-Lamb house. Similarly to the first film, they get back at the jock in a number of smart ways, for instance, they fill Price’s shower with paint (so that he looks like a candy cane when he comes out) and they have a robot replace the pimple clear at the Alpha Beta house with pimple inducers. When this does not have the desired effect, Lewis calls out for a nerd-strike. They have to show that the campus cannot live without the nerds. Everyone who sympathizes with the nerds should put down his or her work and join them, and many people in the town do. Among them are the works at the electric company, so the whole town is without power (except the nerds, because they have their own way of generating power). They even hold a nerd-in, another reference to the Civil Rights Movement. Stan wants to negotiate with the nerds, but Price has a final plan to bring down Lewis and the nerds: he wants to frame Lewis for misappropriating school funds. When this comes out, it seems to work at first because everyone goes back to work. Betty tries to convince Stan to step away from his place as Price’s puppet and tell the truth by playing on his personal pride. When Stan sees Lewis’ friends show up in the courtroom to support him he finds out nerds are true friends who support each other for better and for worse. This makes him tell the truth and point at Price as the guilty one and apologize to Lewis. He says that there is a little bit of nerd in everyone and that it is about what is in your heart, not your brains or bank account.

The fourth film, Revenge of the Nerds IV: Nerds in Love (1994) could just as well have been called, Revenge of the Nerds: The Reunion, because all the nerds gather again for Booger’s wedding. He is getting married to Jeanie Humphreys, an Omega Mu girl. Her family is upper class; her father is a self-made businessman (although he gets mad every time someone calls him ‘nouveau riche’) with political aspirations. When the family first meets Booger, Jeanie’s mother faints, but this is more likely due to Booger’s unkempt appearance than because he is a nerd. After she has come to her senses again, she says that she has nothing against nerds and that she has heard that they make wonderful husbands. Jeanie’s father, Aaron Humphreys, and brother-in-law, Chip, however, do not like Booger at all. Chip wants to break up the wedding, because it might ruin his father-in-law’s political career. The animosity against the nerds is no longer the feeling of a group, like it was in the first three films, but that of a couple of individuals (mostly Chip’s, because Mr. Humphreys seems to give Chip his blessing not because he hates the nerds, but loves his political career).

Lewis arrives first, driving a truck with a pregnant Betty in the back. He has installed all the latest technology in the truck to be able to monitor the baby’s and Betty’s well-being. He even got his diploma as a certified midwife. The other nerds, including Lamar, Harold, Stan (wearing glasses and now selling software in Silicon Valley), and Ogre (more like his old self in the first two films) arrive by bus, the driver claiming that this was the first group that completed ‘1 Million Bottles of Beer on the Wall’ (a play on the stereotypical mathematical meticulousness of the nerds). Where the men of the Humphreys family are plotting against the nerds, the women see them differently and are reacting positively towards the nerds. Throughout the preparatory celebrations Mrs. Humphreys is kind of charmed by the nerds and their peculiar habits, while Mr. Humphreys just seems to be annoyed by them. Jeanie’s sister Gaylord (to whom Chip is married), approves of her sister’s choice of husband, because she sees that her sister is really happy with Booger. Lois, Mr. Humphrey’s sister, even goes as far as seducing one of the nerds, namely Harold.

While most of the non-nerd guests are disgusted with the nerd behavior at first, they later admit that there is something to the atmosphere that the nerds bring with them and they also want nerds at their parties. In the rest of the plot of the film, there is not much ‘nerdness’ to discuss. The only thing that still can be noted is that the nerds are all ‘good guys.’ Lewis helps Stan and Judy experience all the festivities from their bed by giving them virtual reality helmets, Lewis’ father offers to wed the couple when the minister has not shown up, and Booger stays faithful to Jeanie no matter what Chip throws at him.

For the discussion of the characters of the films, four persons will be looked at: Lewis, Lamar, Booger, and Stan. When comparing these four to the classic stereotype of the nerd, only Lewis qualifies as one, even though all of them (at one point throughout the four films) are qualified as a ‘nerd.’

Lewis is the first character that is introduced in the series, and right from the beginning of the film, one can identify him as a nerd: he wears thick glasses and a nice shirt with pocket protector and he has an awkward way of laughing. He sees going to college as a way to make a new start and even though he makes some attempts to become popular, such as talking to a group of Delta Phi girls (which includes his later girlfriend Betty) and pledging Alpha Beta, he is also identified as a nerd. One could argue that he is the hero of the nerds in this film because he seduces the pretty girl, but he does not take up the role of leader of them so much as the actions of the nerds in the first film are a group effort. In the second film, however, he is forced into the role of the leader of the group because his best friend Gilbert is unable to go with them. In this film, he is obviously struggling with his role as appointed leader, but eventually (with the help of Gilbert appearing to him in a dream) he is able to rule his emotions with his intellect and leads the nerds to a happy end. In the third film he undergoes a transformation. At first he seems to be a great example for nerds: successful professionally and romantically, wearing stylish clothes, and he is socially accepted as head of Adams College’s Computer Department. He has done away with his glasses and pocket protector and seems to have grown up into a ‘normal’ adult, be it with a nerd past. On the surface this is true, but he seems to resent this nerd past, which can be seen when he criticizes his nephew Harold for his choice of dress and fraternity and every time he tries to suppress his characteristic laugh. Throughout the film, he finds out that he is missing the things that the nerd community was able to give to him but that he is not getting anymore from the rest of the society: friendship and respect. These two attributes weigh up to his sense of needing to be a ‘normal’ person, so he dusts off his nerd attire and becomes his old self again. A reversal of what Booger points out in the film occurs, from Nerd Benedict Arnold he becomes Nerd George Washington again. In the fourth film, his role is less important, but he has become a sort of mediator between all the characters. He is Booger’s Best Man, and as such has to arrange several activities surrounding the wedding, as well as keep an eye out on his pregnant wife. He uses a lot of nerdy gadgets for this, such as the computer-filled truck in which he monitors Betty and the virtual reality goggles with which he allows a sick Stan to experience the stag party, but he is not the one looked down upon as being a nerd. In the end, he is a perfect role model for nerds. He has a beautiful wife, a newborn son, friends who love him, and, as could have been seen in the third film, a great job.

Dudley ‘Booger’ Dawson is in his appearance not a typical nerd. He is most often seen wearing a leather jacket and a band t-shirt. His most characteristic habit (which also gave him his nickname) is consistent nose picking and overall he does not seem too worried about personal hygiene. What makes him a nerd then is his high intellect, eagerness to learn, and social awkwardness. In the third film Booger has become a lawyer, which means that he must have gone to law school, which in the United States is not a separate study subject as in the Netherlands, but rather a post-grad program that one has to do well on the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) for. His eagerness to learn comes forward in the second film, when he meets a Chinese man in the new hotel they have to go to. This man, nicknamed ‘Snotty’ is even dirtier than Booger, so Booger sees him as a wise guru. He teaches him how to spit from the soul, rather than the throat, and catches a fly with the spit.[3] Booger’s social awkwardness comes to the foreground in the last film. He is not socially inept, he is getting married after all, but there are a couple of scenes in which he does not know how to behave. When he first meets Jeanie’s family, there seems to be a complete clash of cultures. The neat and fashionable Humphrey family is appalled by Booger’s ragged shirt and unshaven appearance, not quite the impression one would want to give the soon-to-be family-in-law. Further on in the film, after Chip’s first attempt to ruin the wedding, Jeanie and Booger have a conversation about how they feel about each other. This turns into an awkward show of affection, which includes mooing. On another of Chip’s attempts—he has paid a stripper to seduce Booger—he reacts quite rationally, as he does not respond to her advances and tells her that he is getting married and loves his future wife very much, so he seems to have learned what is ‘normal’ social behavior. His bad behavior, however, has rubbed off on Jeanie, as she can belch almost as well as Booger can.

Lamar’s appearance in the films connects the fight of the nerds to other social rights movements. As an African American homosexual marked as a nerd, Lamar seems to have everything going against him. Unlike the rest of the nerds, he is trying to be fashionable and hip. When the nerds have to sleep in the gym, he can be seen doing aerobics exercises to an instruction video. His wardrobe seems to be his own take on (especially women’s) fashion, governed by the motto ’the more extravagant the better.’ This is opposite to the fashion sense of a stereotypical nerd (which is non-existent). His African American background is not emphasized, but it can be seen that the members of Lambda Lambda Lambda are of darker skin than Lamar. In the fourth film, one can see his homosexual side, as he is flirting with the Humphreys’ wedding planner (a rather posh, upper class man), who eventually falls for Lamar’s attempts. Unlike with Lewis and Booger, it is neither revealed where Lamar’s academic talents lie, nor does one find out what he is doing professionally after graduating from college.

Stan can be seen on both sides of the spectrum. In the first film he is the popular jock: Quarterback of the football team, leader of the Alpha Beta fraternity and president of the Greek Council at Adams College. He is absent from the second film, but in the third film he first is a police officer in town and then becomes the new Dean of the college, acting as President Price’s henchman. During the third film he finds out that he has perhaps put his priorities on the wrong things, and that he should focus on staying up-to-date and making friends, rather than try to relive days-gone-by and make a career. Lewis shows him that using a computer can also be ‘cool’ and perhaps something that one cannot live without. At the end of the third film, he proclaims that there is a little bit of nerd in everyone and that he is a nerd himself. In the fourth film, one finds out that he is now a software salesman in Silicon Valley.[4] His appearance has changed as well; he is now sporting a traditional ‘nerd’ outfit, with glasses, striped shirt, and pocket protector. When he falls ill, he gets the necessary TLC from Judy, one of the girl nerds that pledged with Harold in the third film. He is struck by the measles, which he says he gets now because he used to be ‘too cool’ to get them. Because he is stuck in his bed, his role in the film is only small, but he seems to be happy with his new identity as a nerd. He now seems to have everything that he did not have when he was on the other ‘team’: love, friendship, and happiness.


In the films, difference is constantly established, broken down, and built up again. There is always the opposition between the nerds and non-nerds. In the first films this seems to be nerds versus the rest of the world, but it gradually changes to nerds versus individuals. Without the opposition, the nerds are only a group of people with some awkward character traits, but they become a group—a force to be reckoned with—when they have to deal with a common enemy. As a group, the nerds confirm certain stereotypes, such as their intelligence and the social awkwardness, but the stereotype is also trans-coded. The nerd is also a social creature that does not shy away from finding like-minded people to become friends with and they know how to party. In the third film, one can see that the characteristics that are labeled as negative, high intelligence and technological knowledge, have been made into two of the main points of attraction of Adams College. In the second and fourth film, very few new nerd characters are introduced and the characters from the previous film(s) are being developed further. One can see other characteristics that have not been featured (prominently) before, such as Lewis’ leadership qualities in the second film, and Booger’s romantic side in the fourth film.

To conclude, the Revenge of the Nerds films are not so much about revenge as they are about acceptance. The nerds accept anyone in their midst, no matter who they are or what they have done to them in the past (as with Ogre and Stan). Over the course of the four films, they find likely and unlikely friends and supporters and the opposition changes from being fueled by a social feeling of threat to a personal disgust of their otherness. The films show that nerds are sometimes awkward, but never scary, and sometimes even affectionate, full of passion, and even cool.

Case 2: The Big Bang Theory (2007- )

The Big Bang Theory is a television sitcom that has been on CBS since 2007 and has just rounded up its fourth season. The series is produced by sitcom veterans Chuck Lorre (Roseanne, Two and a Half Men) and Bill Prady (Dharma and Greg, Gilmore Girls). Prady, a computer programmer before he started writing and producing for television, has suggested (at a panel at San Diego Comic Con 2011) that the series is loosely based on experiences in his life. At that same panel it was stated by Prady and Lorre that “We [the writers] were not doing a show about nerds, but about people we liked” and “the idea was it was not about nerds, it was about extraordinary people, and still is, it’s about great people.” The series is hugely popular among nerds and geeks, but also appeals to a larger, ‘regular’ audience as well as the critics, as they have been nominated for Emmy’s and even won some already.

In the series, the lives of four ‘nerds’ are being followed. The main setting is the living room of the apartment of Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper, two young and aspiring physicists at Cal Tech in Pasadena, California who have “a combined IQ of 360.” Together with their two friends and colleagues Howard Wolowitz (a mechanical engineer) and Rajesh Koothrappali (an Indian astrophysicist) they experience the lives of young urban professionals in Southern California. Each of them has his own characteristics that would qualify him as a nerd, and they all share the geeky love for films, technology, and video games. For example, in the second episode of the first season, they argue about the physical inaccuracies in the Superman films. In this case study, the five main characters (the four nerds and their neighbor Penny) will be analyzed, as well as a number of situations from the first season that could be identified as nerdy.

The four main male characters can all be identified as ‘nerds,’ although each has a personal set of unique characteristics. The things they have in common are their work environment, leisure interests, and circle of friends. Penny, the blonde girl that lives across the hall from them, is the odd one out (as she is female and a non-nerd), but throughout the series she forms a strong friendship bond with the nerds and even seems to inherently have and acquire through contact with the nerds some nerd characteristics herself.

Leonard is the only one of the four who seems to dress somewhat as a stereotypical nerd, since he wears glasses (quite thick, but still fashionable). With his smaller-than-average height he seems to be a typical nerd: an easy bullying target. Bullying is also done by his friends, as he is often belittled by Sheldon because he is ‘only’ an experimental physicist while Sheldon is a theoretical physicist. In the course of the series, one learns that Leonard has two parents who were also scientists who had him as a scientific experiment rather than out of love, and because of that Leonard feels the constant need to prove himself to be appreciated. One such instance is his crush on Penny. From the first episode on, she is his love interest, but they seem so different that they can never be with each other. In the first episode he says that the only way he will get Penny is through a combination of liquor and poor judgment, but Leonard always stays a gentleman; even when Penny—while she is drunk at her own Halloween party a few episodes later—basically offers herself to Leonard, he does not take advantage of her intoxication. One could argue that Leonard is the ‘good guy’ or the ‘best friend.’ He is always there for his friends and he would rather please his friends than push through his own opinions.

In this perspective, Sheldon is the opposite of Leonard. He would rather ‘betray’ his friends than admit that his opinion is flawed. In his appearance, Sheldon’s nerdness can be seen in the t-shirts he often wears that feature comic book superhero logos such as The Flash and Green Lantern. He seems to suffer (although this is never confirmed or denied) from a high-functioning autism disorder (Asperger’s Syndrom), which, according to Anderegg is often linked to being a nerd as forme fruste or shadow syndrome (a subclinical version of the illness) (Anderegg 100-101). Sheldon, however, seems to have the disorder in full form. Examples of this are that even though he graduated from college as a teenager (attempting to build a nuclear power generator in his back yard in the process, only to have Homeland Security prohibit it), he does not understand sarcasm, irony, or figurative speech. He also suffers from extreme OCD, as everything has to go the way he has planned it, otherwise it ruins his day. For example, he sorts his breakfast cereal numerically by fiber content, he has a specific place on the couch (where no one else is allowed to sit), and he always knocks three times while saying the name of the person on whose door he is knocking. He cannot normally interact in social situations, for instance he points out that he is observing Penny’s Halloween party as Jane Goodall would do with a group of chimpanzees. Sheldon’s mother is quite socially awkward as well, but in another way than Sheldon, as she is a South-Texas religious enthusiast, yet she is the only person that seems to understand the real Sheldon.

Howard is still living with his mother, much to his own distaste. He is usually picked on by the others because he ‘only’ has a Master’s degree. He can be identified as a nerd in two ways, one positive, the other somewhat negative. Of the four, he is the most interested in technology. In one episode, for example, he sets up an intricate online system that lets him send a signal across the globe to operate the lamp in their living room, while also allowing others to operate electronic equipment in the apartment. His negative side concerns his attitude towards women. He thinks he is quite the womanizer, but his attempts to seduce a woman almost always fail because he is seen as a pervert rather than a serious dating subject.

Rajesh (most often called Raj) is an example of the multiculturality of the nerd, as he is a first generation immigrant from India. His parents still live in India, but via webcam they still keep contact with Raj and try to influence his life with their traditional ideas. At one point, halfway during the first season, they set him up for a date (for a potential wedding), while he wants to find love on his own. This situation is a display of two issues Raj (and perhaps nerds in general) has to deal with. First there is the feeling of being caught between two cultures: their own and that of their parents. Especially Raj has to deal with this (as his parents’ culture is far removed from his own), but Howard’s Jewish background and Sheldon’s Texas roots also play a part in the problems they face. The other issue that Raj has to deal with concerns social interaction, especially with women. One would think that for someone lacking social skills an arranged marriage is a perfect solution to this issue, but Raj seems to hold on to the romantic idea of finding his true love on his own. This seems especially problematic for Raj because of his impairment: he seems to have the inability to speak to women. The other characters make fun of this from the beginning of the series (in the first episode, when Howard is being his mediator, Raj’s impairment is the only thing specifically labeled as ‘nerd’), but in this episode they find out that his impairment seems to go away when he has been drinking. One could argue that Raj has to lose his brains (through alcohol) to be able to converse with members of the opposite sex.

As noted before, Penny is not a nerd. She came to California to be an actress, but she is waiting tables. In her appearance, she seems to be the perfect blend of blonde bombshell and girl-next-door. She is not a ‘dumb blonde’ though, but her interests lie elsewhere than those of the nerds. One could even argue that she also has her nerd moments. At times, she can be seen experimenting, although her experiments are more of a social nature than of a scientific one. She even says “you do your experiments, I do mine” at the end of the episode in which they find out that Raj can talk to women when he has been drinking.[5] She also seems to have a natural talent for video games, which they find out when they need a fourth member for Halo night, and in one of the later seasons she even becomes addicted to an MMORPG[6] for a while.

The plot of every episode usually revolves around a blend of their social awkwardness, trying to apply their theoretical knowledge to everyday situations (often failing), and a number of pop culture and science references. A good example of this is the Halloween episode (Season 1, Episode 6). When the main characters are invited to Penny’s Halloween party, they immediately start thinking of costumes. At first they all dress as The Flash (a comic book superhero), but after some debate (they could walk behind each other all night to suggest they were moving really fast) they decide to each don another costume. Leonard dresses up like Frodo from The Lord of the Rings, Raj as Norse God—not the Marvel Comics one—Thor (“Why can’t an Indian guy be a Norse god?”), Howard as Robin Hood (although his outfit is more like Peter Pan’s), and Sheldon is the Doppler Effect (the effect of the change in frequency of a wave for an observer moving relative to the source of the wave, most commonly observed in police sirens). They apologize for being late at 7 past 8, when in fact they are the first ones there. When the party is in full swing the four nerds can be found sitting on the couch talking amongst themselves. Sheldon says that he is observing the other party goers as Jane Goodall would do with a group of chimps. When Penny’s ex-boyfriend (type: muscular jock) shows up dressed as Tarzan, Leonard is quite intimidated at first, but he believes that “Our society has undergone a paradigm shift. In the Information Age, we [the nerds] are the alpha males.” When he wants to “assert his dominance,” he is still bullied around by the ex-boyfriend. Back at home, Sheldon brings Leonard a cup of tea, because “when people are upset, the cultural convention is to bring them hot beverages.” Penny checks in to see if Leonard is okay, and bursts out in tears from a combination of alcohol and her sadness about her failures in choosing the right boyfriends. She starts to kiss Leonard, but he does not want to take advantage of Penny’s intoxication. Leonard is being the ‘good guy,’ doing what is best for everyone (especially Penny), rather than giving in to his own desire of wanting to be with Penny.


The notion of difference in The Big Bang Theory is presented mostly among nerds rather than between nerds and other groups. The four main characters are very diverse and create their own identity in relation to their fellow characters. There are non-nerd characters in the series, but aside from Penny they only play a marginal role in the creation of the nerd identity. Penny is a special case as she is obviously not a nerd, but over the course of the series she develops some nerd characteristics. As the producers have said, the series is not necessarily about nerds, but about people they liked, extraordinary people. This makes the characters likeable to a large audience while at the same time informing the audience about something that might seem weird and foreign, namely nerds. The ‘nerd’ is trans-coded into a likeable character that can be laughed with, rather than laughed at. The ‘nerd’ has become a socially normative person, rather than a social outcast.

Unlike the nerds in Revenge of the Nerds, the main characters in The Big Bang Theory are not portrayed as a group, but as individuals. Nonetheless, the series relies heavily on stereotyping the nerd, even though this occurs mostly without negative connotation. In effect, the series only confirms stereotypes, but it also shows that nerds can have friends, fun, and love.

Case 3: Nerds and Literature

So far, two examples of visual media have been analyzed: film and television. In this case study, literature will be examined through two texts: Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and Jay Clayton’s essay “Convergence of the Two Cultures: A Geek’s Guide to Contemporary Literature.” The aim of the analysis is to establish the ‘nerd’ as a stereotype (although it was not called that way) that has been present in American literature from very early on, and that the ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ are popular subjects in contemporary literature and literary discussion.

David Anderegg points out that nerds have been a part of American Literature for longer than one might think. He argues that Ichabod Crane, the main character from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—first published in 1819 as part of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent—might be the first proto-nerd in American Literature. Although Mr. Crane does not have computer technology at his disposal, which nerds are commonly associated with today, he does have a number of characteristics that could identify him as a nerd avant le mot. He is introduced as a native of Connecticut, but not one of the pioneers or woodsmen that one would expect from that place. Irving describes him as follows:

He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock, perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.[7]

Aside from being physically awkward, he also does not seem to have socially normative behavior. He does not have a wife, children, or his own home and therefore he lodges with the parents of his students. To provide for his lodging, he helps around the house doing small chores, but never physically demanding labor. He is intelligent, as he is the schoolmaster of Sleepy Hollow, tasked with teaching the children of the town to read and write. When he is not teaching he is pre-occupied with books about mysticism and the supernatural, arguably the 19th-century equivalent of fantasy novels.

As Hall notes, difference is essential to meaning. For the character of Crane, this difference is embodied by his adversary in his ‘quest’ to obtain Katrina Van Tassel’s love, Abraham (Brom) van Brunt. Brom, nicknamed Brom Bones, is everything that Crane is not. He is introduced as the most formidable of Katrina’s admirers, a “burly, roaring, roistering blade.” Brom is the hero of the region, with the strength and the looks that have him compared in the story to the mythological hero Hercules. He excels in almost everything and is a role model for his companion. Anderegg argues that Brom is the real American hero, the anti-intellectual frontiersman—sporting the stereotypical fox-tailed fur cap in Winter. When the story resolves, Brom is the one that gets the girl and is reaffirmed as the hero of the town, rather than Ichabod Crane. Muscle triumphs over Brains and one could argue that the nerd stereotype in literature has been born.

From 1819 onwards, protagonists with nerd-like characteristics show up occasionally in literature, especially in more recent years. For example, some have named Tom Sawyer (1876), Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951), and Oskar Schell (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, 2005) in American Literature and Harry Potter (1997) and Christopher Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, 2003) in British Literature as examples of nerds. Tom Sawyer is very intelligent (although not ‘book smart’) and seems to be obsessed by his own imaginations. Holden Caulfield is more of an anti-social ‘Booger’-type of character, who could not be labeled as a nerd for his school results but rather for his unwillingness to fit in. Oskar Schell is still a young child, at the age of nine, but he seems to have knowledge beyond his age. His knowledge mostly comes from books and he could be seen as socially awkward because many situations are new to him. Christopher Boone suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, which also contributes to some of his characteristics: his love for prime numbers, rules and order, and his lacking social skills. Harry Potter, lastly, is mostly a nerd in his appearance (glasses, haircut) and in his role as the ‘hero against his own will.’ One could even argue that Hermione Granger is more of a nerd than Harry because she is very much ‘book smart’ and as the voice of reason that seems to have to keep Harry out of trouble on many occasions.

Jay Clayton in his essay “Convergence of the Two Cultures: A Geek’s Guide to Contemporary Literature” (2002) discusses nerd and geek in contemporary literature. He points to the crossovers between (American) literature and nerd and geek culture. The crisscrossing between technology (the ‘realm’ of nerds and geeks) and more traditional forms of cultures (e.g. literature) is “the hallmark of important sectors of American society at the turn of the millennium” (Clayton 807). This division in “two cultures,” those of science and literature, is attributed to C.P. Snow. In 1959, Snow lamented the trend toward specialization that he had experienced while attempting to pursue dual careers as a scientist and a novelist. According to Snow, “most ‘‘literary intellectuals’’ possess a ‘‘total incomprehension of science’’ and are ‘‘natural Luddites’’ (TC, 4, 11, 22), whereas most scientists are utterly ignorant of literary culture, “often admitting only that they have ‘‘ ‘tried a bit of Dickens,’ rather as though Dickens were an extraordinarily esoteric, tangled and dubiously rewarding writer’’ (TC, 12)” (quoted in Clayton 809). Specialization also occurred within disciplines, such as the division between pure and applied sciences. Clayton wants to argue that the two cultures of literature and science are once again converging.

Clayton explores a number of authors in his essay that approach the crisscrossing “from the literary side—but their sense of interconnected nature of today’s culture would appeal to many computer geeks,” and indicates “some of the ways in which one might conceptualize the reconfigured culture emerging in the twenty-first century” (808). Clayton states that, in the 20th century, there has “opened a gulf” between the two cultures—science and literature—due to the trend toward specialization. Clayton argues that these two cultures are once again converging, predominantly as a result of the “blend of technical and artistic talents required by multimedia computer applications” (810). The apparent merging does not mean that there will soon be a seamless, integrated culture, nor a decrease of the emphasis on specialization, but simply “a recognition of the importance of maintaining close contact with other specialties” (811).

From the literary perspective, Clayton states that “the most intriguing sign of convergence is the increase in imaginative writing about science” (812). According to Clayton, writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson take up the challenge of constructing a lineage for the information age. This usually occurs in novels of this genre through a two-generational plot, which alternates between a contemporary group of characters (usually scientists of some sort) and characters from an earlier age. As an example, Clayton mentions Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (1993), in which two groups of literary-scientific characters, more than 150 years apart, enact symmetrical dramas, and Thomas McMahon’s novel Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry (1970), which parallels the life of a physicist in the 1960s with that of his father, who worked at Los Alamos, developing the atomic bomb. One could even argue that the first part of this chapter, attempting to label Ichabod Crane as a nerd avant le mot is a similar strategy.

Clayton concludes his essay with remarks about how to conceptualize the convergence between the two cultures and about what role literature might play in the convergence. According to Clayton, there are three principal models for the end of the two-culture split: synthesis, hegemony, and alliance. He argues that synthesis is perhaps the least convincing model, although it finds a following in utopian writing. This genre, however, lacks the critical skepticism and self-reflexive irony that make literary works more than just entertainment, and Clayton argues that “it is missing exactly what this new genre of literature aims to supply: a vision supple enough to affirm essential ideals without minimizing the countervailing pressures that may coexist within those ideals” (823). In essence, synthesis does not provide for a scenario in which the ideal is not achieved. The second model, hegemony, is the opposite side of the spectrum. In this model, science has achieved a virtual hegemony over all other forms of discourse, and literature and the other humanities have lost their claim to produce valid perspectives on the world and thus have become irrelevant to the real business of life. For literature, this would lead to dystopian visions that play an important part in contemporary literature and popular culture, but are less than desirable in real life. Clayton’s preference goes to the third model he presents: alliance. In this model, alliances are forged among disciplines, in which one draws from shifting pools of expertise. This way of building alliances is not a panacea, Clayton argues. One of the dangers Clayton mentions is the “erosion of distinctions between pure and applied science, which […] may also render conflict-of-interest questions more troubling” (825). In conclusion Clayton argues for a critical engagement with technology, not withdrawal. His final remark is that literature might very well be the tool to help negotiating between the advantages and pitfalls of an undisciplined culture. The critical engagement with technology allows the ‘nerd’ to maintain its position within literature and culture. Although Clayton mainly focuses on high culture, he does hint at the role of popular culture (and literature) in the nerd and geek debate.


Nerd-like characters have been in American Literature from the beginning. In Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, the intellectual Ichabod Crane is someone liked, but odd and awkward. He is opposed by Brom Bones, who is everything that Crane is not. In the end, the character of Crane is not trans-coded, but revealed for what he really is: a man without courage.

In more recent years, the nerd and geek have become subjects of literature. According to Clayton, one of the most used plot devices is creating a parallel for contemporary nerds with an earlier time where similar characters experience similar or consequential events. Not only does this create a difference, but it also allows for trans-coding of the contemporary characters by giving them precedents. In essence, designating Ichabod Crane as a Nerd avant le mot is a similar device to affirming the Nerd as a literary character. Crane might not have been a nerd in its modern sense, but by labeling him as such, one might understand the predicaments he is in better, as well as giving contemporary nerds a historical predecessor to relate to.

Chapter 4

Case Studies (II)


In the previous chapter, the focus has been on fictive representations of nerd and geek culture. In this chapter, a number of real-life nerds will be analyzed. These people identify themselves as ‘Nerd’ or ‘Geek’ (or sometimes as both), so we will see a lot of what Leerssen calls auto-imaging. They ‘market’ themselves through several media as ‘Nerd’ or ‘Geek,’ both through traditional media, such as television and books, and through ‘new’ (digital) media, such as social websites (Facebook, Twitter), blogs, and podcasts. The following people will be discussed: Adam Savage (Mythbusters), Austin Tichenor (Reduced Shakespeare Company), Chris Hardwick (Nerdist), and “Weird Al” Yankovic, and a separate section will be dedicated to the female nerd and geek presence on the web.

The aim of this chapter is to determine how (these) persons deal with their own nerdness and their role in nerd and geek culture. Some questions that are addressed can be: What makes them nerds/geeks or why do they label themselves as such? Can the work they do be defined as ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’? Are they professional nerds or are they nerds as well when they are not in the public sphere? Do they portray themselves as role models for other nerds and geeks? Through what media do they channel their nerdness?

The last question is perhaps the easiest to answer. Almost everyone that wants to be someone in nerd and geek culture has a presence on the internet. The titles of the subchapters will not only contain the person’s name, but also their Twitter handle. The internet in general is a gold mine for finding nerdy and geeky things. Not only do people like the ones that will be discussed here have a large web presence with their own websites and on social media, but there are also websites aimed at specific target groups or with a specific purpose. Examples of this are websites aimed at Geek parents (, geekdad) where the contributors combine their geekiness with parenting skills, showing that being a nerd or geek (often linked to adolescence) and being a parent (a sign of adulthood) are not mutually exclusive, nor is the combination hurtful for their children. A website like sells all sorts of nerdy and geeky apparel, ranging from t-shirts with scientific formulas (often with a pun, for instance ‘Obey Gravity, it’s the Law’) to a Star Trek Enterprise Pizza Slicer (see image).

This wide availability and variety of nerd and geek culture is also part of the critical debate on nerd and geek culture. An example of this is Patton Oswalt’s article “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die” from the January 2011 issue of Wired magazine. In this article, Patton argues that the nerd and geek culture of his youth (the late 1980s) has lost its ‘street cred,’ and today, for instance, one can find “Boba Fett[8]’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells.” He feels that there are no more “hidden thought-places”: everything is available on the internet and everyone considers himself otaku (having obsessive, minute interests) about something. Especially the availability is what Patton is critical about: it allows anyone to become otaku[9] about anything instantly, whereas in the ‘80s this was a more difficult and time-consuming process. Patton calls the present state of geek culture a state that seems to become Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever. This creates weak otakus, according to Patton: it does not produce new artists, only those that recreate (reboot, rewrite, redraw, etc., depending on the medium) something that is already there, and on top of that Patton claims that pop culture is nerd culture. As a solution, Patton suggests a pop culture “A-pop-alypse,” a hypothetical new start for pop culture, building it up again from the ground.

Patton’s view is not shared by everyone. Many see nerd culture still as a subculture within popular culture, and see nothing wrong with the state it is in now. For example, as a comment on the digital version of the article, commenter ‘Greylurk’ gives a different explanation of (and solution for) Patton’s laments, which might make more sense. Greylurk argues that Patton has outgrown the “secret language” of contemporary nerd and geek culture. It has not disappeared but it has changed, due to a new generation of youth making it ‘their’ culture. Each generation builds on what they loved when they were young, which is not necessarily what the contemporary generation might love. More often than not, the nerds, like Patton and the others that will be discussed in this chapter, who thought of themselves as nerds for what they watched or read, are now the watched and read icons in that very same culture.

Adam Savage (@donttrythis)

If singing Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ in the voice of Gollum (with tissues in his nose to stop a nosebleed)[10] does not qualify Adam Savage (New York, 1967) as a nerd, his work as a Mythbuster might. On Discovery Channel—which could be considered to be the ‘nerd channel,’ as it is focused on broadcasting documentary television on popular science, technology, and history—Savage, together with Jamie Hyneman, presents the show Mythbusters.

In this show, Savage and Hyneman use their vast experience in film and television special effects to put urban myths to the test. With their scientific and empirical trial and error, they decide whether the myths are true, plausible, or untrue, or in other words ‘busted.’ In later seasons they have been joined by a younger (but not less enthusiastic or intelligent) second team consisting of artist Kari Byron, builder Tory Belleci, and robotics expert Grant Imahara. At first they assisted Savage and Hyneman in their tests, but later on they started testing myths all by themselves. Outside the show, all of them also work to promote science and they profile themselves as being nerds and geeks. For example, Savage and Hyneman recorded a segment for the show with President Obama in 2010, promoting science as a school subject, and Grant Imahara created the robot Geoff as a sidekick for Craig Ferguson in his late night talk show.

Mythbusters is not the only television show that uses science to find explanations for urban myths. A similar show is British Sky TV’s Brainiac: Science Abuse. In this show, experiments are carried out as well, but it lacks the scientific background that Mythbusters has. This does not mean that it is any less informative or insightful than its American cousin, but it seems to be more of a ‘science in bite size chunks’ (exemplified by the segment ‘47 second science’) compared to Mythbusters’ thorough investigations. The test persons, or ‘Brainiacs’ in this show are ordinary people, more like Booger than Lewis to speak in Revenge of the Nerds’ terms. There are even segments in which viewers of the show are allowed to participate in the experiments. For Mythbusters, viewers can submit myths to be examined and they are sometimes used as test subjects, but they are no regular part of the show.

Adam Savage’s Gollum impersonation took place at a W00tstock show, a special event billed as “3 hours of Geeks & Music,” headlined by Savage, actor Wil Wheaton (who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: the Next Generation. Both Wheaton and his character on Star Trek are now considered nerd icons), and musical comedy duo Paul & Storm. They are usually supported by a number of special guests, for example author Neil Gaiman, Chris Hardwick, and musical duo Garfunkel & Oates (not to be confused with either Simon & Garfunkel or Hall & Oates) have performed at one of the shows. One could argue that W00tstock is a tribute to the original meaning of ‘Geek,’ that of circus performer. The performers at W00tstock are no social outcasts, but they perform in their own geeky ways.

Chris Hardwick (@nerdist)

No better way to introduce the nerdness of American comedian Chris Hardwick (Louisville, KY, 1971) than by quoting the opening paragraph of his biography on his website :

Chris Hardwick was born on the starship Enterprise and is the product of two red-shirts that quickly met their demise in a transporter lovemaking mishap. He was banished by the Federation to earth after “inappropriate conduct” on the holodeck with a computer-generated Buffy Summers. Since then, Chris has become a professional stand-up comedian and a self proclaimed nerd.

By trade, Chris Hardwick is a stand-up comedian, but he also acts and presents on cable channel G4. In his spare time he has set up a website called Nerdist,[11] the title he also uses to refer to himself. His Nerdist Network consists mainly of the website (with other regular contributors), and a Nerdist podcast, on which he alternately interviews colleagues in comedy, film, television, or the world of internet and talks with his two friends (and comedy colleagues) Matt Mira and Jonah Ray about nerdy things that interest them. Recently, he opened his own comedy stage in the back of Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles called Nerdmelt, from which he has also hosted a number of live podcasts. Hardwick has also written a book, The Nerdist Way, which will come out in November of this year and he has created a pilot for a television version of the podcast which aired on BBC America on August 24, 2011. Hardwick has also become a sort of nerd ‘enabler,’ in that he offers others a stage to do their thing for the nerd world. For instance, he helped Mira start his stand-up career by paying him for his contributions to the podcast and website (through sponsor deals on both) so he could work his ‘regular’ job part-time as well as by giving him a chance to host the open mic night at Nerdmelt. A number of other podcasts have also been started under the Nerdist banner, all dealing with subjects that might interest the nerd and geek community. These podcasts are The Questionauts, on which the hosts answer listeners’ questions (in a comedic way), The Indoor Kids, about video games, and Making It with Riki Lindholme, about starting up one’s career (mainly she interviews persons from show business, but the general messages could apply to any trade).

The people that Hardwick interviews on his own podcast come from all sorts of trades, some better known than others. For instance, he has interviewed Ozzy Osbourne, ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic, and the Mythbusters cast (at SDCC 2010), but also relatively unknown comedians and actors that he wants the rest of the nerd community (and perhaps the world) to know. On the podcast, he always asks his guests whether they see themselves as nerds or geeks and what the nerdy things are they enjoy. Most often this is a particular film or television show, but sometimes it is something unexpected, such as figuring out how a particular diet works and then following it (as Hardwick has struggled with his weight himself, he interviewed Tim Ferriss, whose prescribed diet in his book ‘Four Hour Body’ all three hosts on the podcasts were implementing to varying degrees of commitment).

Hardwick’s own nerd past knows many forms; among others he was roommates with Wil Wheaton, and he has hosted several geeky shows on G4 (an American cable channel aimed at a young adult audience), such as Web Soup (a sort of ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ with digital video clips) and Attack of the Show (a program that reviews gadgets, pop culture, and digital media). With his experience as a television presenter as well as stand-up comedian he is often asked to host panels such as the ones at SDCC. This year, for instance, he moderated the panel on The Big Bang Theory, as well as two live podcast shows, one with Doctor Who’s Matt Smith and Karen Gillan (and special guest Wil Wheaton), and the other with comedians Kevin Perreira and Judah Friedlander.

In essence, Hardwick lives up to his name as the Nerdist. He is in the middle of nerd and geek culture and enables others to express and experience their nerdiness, while at the same time being a total nerd himself. Professionally he has become so successful that he can help spread nerd and geek culture and live the dream life of a nerd by being able to meet (and become friends with) so many other nerd icons.

Austin Tichenor (@reduced, @austintichenor)

Actor and writer of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, Austin Tichenor (San Francisco, 1960), is a self-proclaimed nerd and geek. Next to performing in and writing the shows, he produces and hosts a weekly podcast. Compared to Hardwick’s podcasts, the RSC podcast is reduced in length (20 minutes on average, compared to hour-long episodes of the Nerdist podcast), but they are somewhat similar in content. Tichenor also interviews colleagues, friends, and other interesting people (usually from the theater world). When he is not conducting an interview, he usually talks about a subject related to one of their shows with his co-actors. These podcasts are often recorded during a show intermission (one can usually hear when the podcast will end due to the stage call by the stage manager in the background).

One of the recurring themes is nerd and geek culture and Tichenor identifies himself as both a nerd and a geek. In an email responding to my question how he would define himself within nerd and geek culture, Tichenor said that “we're nerds of a variety of stripes (Star Trek, baseball, theatre, etc), but our use of gadgets and social media (laptops, smart phones, podcast, Twitter, etc) makes us geeks too.” The podcast has a number of episodes dedicated to nerd and geek (episodes 76 and 204 are labeled ‘Nerd vs. Geek’ and ‘More Nerdy Geekery’ respectively), but also nerdy and geeky subjects, such as fantasy baseball and the Kirk vs. Picard[12] debate. One of the most interesting statements that is made about the difference between the two is that “the nerdiness applies to the diligence with which and the geekiness applies to the technique with which” one does something. According to Dave Shepherd (interviewed in episode 76) ‘Nerd’ applies more to the knowledge and ‘Geek’ to the ‘toys’ that are used, in line with Tichenor’s own statement. One of the other observations is that the anti-social behavior is not necessarily something inherent to the nerd or geek, but that it is a result of being so obsessed with something that there is little time for other things (such as social interaction).

Although the Reduced Shakespeare Company itself is not necessarily labeled as ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’—Tichenor states that they are just trying to be funny—there are many aspects that could be labeled as such. Since 1981 they have been trying to bring a larger audience to the theater and the theater to a larger audience with shows like The Complete History of America (abridged), The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged), Completely Hollywood (abridged), and their latest show The Complete World of Sports (abridged). As their name already hinted at, they started out performing reduced versions of Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet at Renaissance fairs, which eventually led to their first full-length stage show The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged).[13] As the titles suggest, the plays all try to be a comprehensive hour-and-a-half show about the particular subject. With some subjects this is a measurable amount, for instance the Shakespeare show deals with all Shakespeare’s plays, as well as his sonnets. Some are discussed at length, such as Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet, while others are only mentioned or are combined into one sketch, as they do with Shakespeare’s comedies. With others, such as Sports or Hollywood, it is harder, but they try to include all, or at least show a way to include anything they have left out. For instance, in the Hollywood show, they boil down every movie to a couple of basic plots, namely ‘Fish out of Water,’ ‘Boy Meets Girl,’ ‘The Jesus Story,’ and ‘Coming of Age’–although they immediately goof off with examples such as Brokeback Mountain (‘Boy Meets Boy’) and Jesus Christ Superstar (‘Fish out of Water’). In the Sports show, they discuss at length whether something is a sport or a game, and if it can be neither or both.

What all shows have in common is that all are performed by a company of three actors. In the beginning of the RSC, these were the same three actors, but today there are many actors that work with the company, sometimes there are even several groups performing in different parts of the world. The three characters in the play all have a specific role, which can be identified as ‘The Professor,’ ‘The Enforcer,’ and ‘The Man-Child.’ One could argue that each of the three is representative of nerd and geek culture. The Professor represents the intellect. This character is often introduced as a scholar of sorts, but at the same time is revealed as ignorant for other explanations. In other words, he is book smart but not street smart. The Man-Child represents the enthusiasm one can have for a subject. This character thinks of himself as smart, but is sometimes too enthusiastic about something that he will forget to think things through. A good example of this is in the Shakespeare show, when he has to express Othello, the Moor of Venice. He pretends to be a place to tie up boats instead of a person of North-African descent. The Enforcer represents obsessive behavior. Not only does he have to keep the other two in check, he also wants to make sure that the show can go on as planned.

“Weird Al” Yankovic (@alyankovic)

“White & Nerdy” (2006), a parody of the song “Ridin” by Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone, might be the sole reason why “Weird Al” Yankovic (born Alfred Matthew Yankovic, Downey, CA, 1959) should be included in this thesis, but there is much more to him that makes him a nerd example for many others. Since 1976, he has recorded over 150 parody and original songs; his latest album, Alpocalypse, was released only a couple of weeks ago. Yankovic is not only a talented songwriter, but he is also a gifted musician. His main instrument is the accordion, not really a fashionable instrument (one could even argue a geeky instrument because it can be hard to master), but he uses it to his full advantage. In his early years, Yankovic’s appearance could have been considered nerdy, specifically because of his glasses. After eye surgery he abandoned the glasses, which made his appearance less nerdy, but still quite ‘weird.’

His oeuvre consists of three main types of songs: originals, parodies, and (polka) covers. For this thesis, the parodies are the most interesting (although the polka covers could be argued to be nerdy because there are usually five to ten popular songs mashed up in them). His parodies are often smart and clever ways of poking fun at the original song, the artist, an aspect of society, or all three at once. A good example of this is the first single of his latest album, “Perform This Way,” a parody of Lady Gaga’s number one hit “Born This Way.”[14] In the music video, Weird Al can be seen wearing even more ridiculous outfits than that Lady Gaga would wear (satirizing her choice of wardrobe), but at the same time it seems to be a subtle attack on the song itself. Lady Gaga (born Stefani Germanotta) is a constructed image, or as one critic has said, “The Gaga of “Born This Way” may be who she is now, but she was certainly not actually born that way.”[15]

“White & Nerdy” is also an example of a parody song that works in clever ways on many levels. The original, “Ridin” by Chamillionaire,[16] is about the protagonist of the song having the feeling that he is unjustly persecuted by the police (“they’re trying to catch me ridin’ dirty”); Weird Al’s version[17] is about the protagonist having the feeling that he is unjustly left out because he is too white and nerdy. In the music video, Weird Al has two stereotypical outfits: one of the ‘nerd’ (glasses, dress shirt, bowl cut) and one of the ‘gangster,’ similar to Chamillionaire in his video, but even that outfit is poked fun at as Weird Al is wearing bracers instead of a ‘grill.’

Weird Al knows what he is doing when he parodies a song, and carefully picks which ones to parody, but he is also a ‘nice guy’ about it. He always asks the original artists for permission to use their song and put it on his albums, and even when the song has already been completed and the artist revokes his permission (as happened with Al’s cover of James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful,” “You’re Pitiful”) he does not release it.

Geek 2.0: The Female Geek?

So far, almost all nerds and geeks discussed in this thesis have been male. Does this mean that there are no female nerds? No, with the rise of the internet, there has also been a rise in the nerd and geek presence on it and an interesting group that seems to be extremely vocal consists of the female nerds and geeks. It seems that they have to try even harder than male nerds and geeks to make themselves heard simply because they are of a different sex than one would expect a stereotypical nerd or geek to be. On the other hand, they use their femininity to their advantage. Terms like ‘sexy geek’ and ‘geek chic’ are not uncommon in their descriptions. In the introduction of the book Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture, Sherrie A. Inness confirms this by stating that “popular media provide a fertile environment for challenging the stereotype that the most intelligent people are men. At the same time, however, the media also affirm that a brilliant woman should be slender and beautiful, showing that women can break some gender stereotypes, but not all” (Inness 2).

Through social media, especially Twitter, they are able to reach large audiences fairly easily, and the direct feedback and communication that Twitter offers allows nerds and geeks to get into contact with each other in a heartbeat. On top of that, celebrity role models also have a presence on these social media. Examples of this are Mythbusters’ Kari Byron and actress Felicia Day (creator of The Guild, a web series about a group of people playing a MMORPG). Even though the line between famous and ordinary seems to fade (not only are ‘famous’ people easy to contact, but it is also much easier to become famous—although ‘fame’ in today’s society is relative) this does not have to mean that the quality of cultural production is fading as well.

Blogs are another medium used to create a presence on the internet. These have names like ‘Geek with Curves,’[18] ‘Star Wars and Wine,’[19] or ‘A Nerdy Girl Talking about Geeky Things.’[20] Most of these blogs have entries that could be on any woman’s blog, talking about fashion, men and dating, or going out with girlfriends, or any nerd’s blog, talking about Star Wars, conventions, or gaming. Many of them also have entries on a combination of both: what does it mean to be a girl and a nerd or geek? Some feel neglected as a viable consumer group and try to prove that it is possible to be a girl and a geek, and be beautiful to boot. Miss USA 2011, Alyssa Campanella, is living proof that one can be all three. She is a self-proclaimed Star Wars geek, and proves this in a live questioning in the television show Access Hollywood.[21] Interesting to note is that she freely uses the word ‘geek,’ but when the male host asks her if she is a Star Wars nerd she changes it to ‘fan’ in her response. This could be argued to be another confirmation of the negative connotation of the word ‘nerd,’ which ‘geek’ no longer seems to have.


In this chapter, a number of celebrity nerds and geeks have been presented. Each one of them is a nerd or geek in the way they are, the things they do, and the things they like. In most cases, these persons have become representatives for the nerd and geek culture they consume. They have become role models of nerd and geek culture themselves. For some, like Patton Oswalt, this seems to be a burden, diminishing the culture they grew up with, while for others, like Chris Hardwick, it seems to be a blessing, which they use to augment nerd and geek culture and try to bring it to a larger audience. Social media, such as blogs, podcasts and Twitter are important instruments in spreading their message. These media also allow ordinary people to create a stage for themselves from which to proclaim their nerdiness and geekiness. Some even attain celebrity status among nerds or among a larger audience. Real-life nerds and geeks are just as important in the formation of nerd and geek culture as their fictitious counterparts are.


The aim of this thesis was to gain more insight into the way in which nerds and geeks are represented in popular culture and how developments in nerd and geek culture can be related to the larger social and cultural context. The terms ‘Nerd’ and ‘Geek’ are used alongside each other, often with the distinction that a ‘Geek’ does not necessarily need to have the high intelligence and academic interests that a ‘Nerd’ seems to have. ‘Nerd’ seems to have a negative connotation, especially when used by others, while ‘Geek’ does not have this negative connotation. When used for oneself, the terms do not seem to have this connotation; rather it is used as a statement to distance oneself from normative social behavior.

Stuart Hall’s theories of difference as important signifier of representation and meaning can also be applied to the nerd and geek in popular culture. To characterize nerds, most often there is a group that is the opposite of the nerd, to which the nerd is related. In most cases discussed in this thesis, trans-coding takes place, making the nerd from an unlikeable character into the likeable hero. There is no complete transformation, however, as the nerd often keeps certain characteristics that could still define him as a nerd, such as a laugh, computer gadgets, or glasses.

Joep Leerssen’s theories of auto-imaging (opposed to hetero-imaging) as an important factor in the formation of meaning can be applied especially to self-defined nerds. They have consciously chosen to label themselves as ‘Nerd’ or ‘Geek’ and ‘wear’ these terms as a badge of honor. Many of these nerds are role models for others, also because they have gained some kind of celebrity status in traditional media (television, film) or in social media (the internet). The nerd/geek culture is no longer one that acts in the margins of popular culture, but seems to be right in the middle of it. For some, this is alarming, as the nerd seems to lose its identity, but for many it is finally a confirmation that being a nerd or geek and being socially normative are not mutually exclusive.

However, there are still aspects of nerd and geek culture that are not all positive. First, the nerd stereotype still has to deal with negative connotations. Especially when growing up, being called a nerd is not something one is usually happy about. Second, representations of nerd and geek still rely heavily on stereotyping as a basis. The characters can evolve into rounder characters, but they are still singled out as not socially normative before this evolution can occur. Last, the female nerd and geek seem to be an underrepresented group in popular culture. They are a large audience with an enormous presence on the internet, but in more traditional forms of popular culture, such as film and television, female nerds and geeks are more often supporting characters than that they are the lead.

The question remains whether or not nerd and geek culture has become part of the socially normative mainstream culture. This does not seem to be the case, although it is no longer only a small niche, but perhaps one of the largest subcultures within popular culture. For example, almost everyone knows about Star Wars, but only a select group knows Star Wars: almost everyone knows of the existence of nerd and geek culture, but only a select group is interested in nerd and geek culture, let alone label themselves as nerd or geek. It does seem to offer a way to differentiate one’s self from socially normative mainstream culture, which is perhaps its most important function.

In the course of doing research for this thesis and writing it, many more cases of nerd and geek in popular culture have come to my attention than those that have been discussed here. Many of these sources can be found in the expanded bibliography at the end of this thesis. For further research, one could research in several different directions. First, one could examine the role of video games, tabletop games, and gaming itself in the representation of nerds and geeks, as well as their role in popular culture, specifically nerd and geek culture. Interesting phenomena in this area could be World of Warcraft, Magic: the Gathering, Nintendo Wii, and Facebook gaming. One could also research the role of nerd and geek characters in programs aimed at specific groups, especially children. Do characters in cartoon series like Phineas & Ferb, Kim Possible, or Totally Spies—many of them have intelligence as one of their strongest assets—celebrate nerd and geek culture, or do they shy away from this debate entirely.

As a final thought, be not afraid that you might be a nerd or geek for liking Doctor Who or Star Wars. It does not matter that you do not know the difference between a Klingon and a Vulcan, but that you can name the RBI averages of every New York Yankees player since 1990. There are so many different kinds of nerds and geeks that I can safely say that there is a little bit of nerd and geek in everyone.

Works Cited

• Anderegg, David. Nerds: How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies, and Trekkies Can Save America, Tarcher/Penguin, New York, 2007.

• The Big Bang Theory. Creators: Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, Perf. Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco and Jim Parsons. CBS, 2007-.

• Clayton, Jay. “Convergence of the Two Cultures: A Geek’s Guide to Contemporary Literature,” American Literature, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Dec., 2002) pp. 807-831.

• Eglash, Ron. “Race, Sex, and Nerds: From Black Geeks to Asian American Hipsters,” Social Text 71, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer 2002), pp 49-64.

• Hall, Stuart. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Sage Publications, London, 1997.

• Hardwick, Chris. The Nerdist website, .

• Innes, Sherrie A. (ed.), Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2007.

• Irving, Washington. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. 1819. Version used from: The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction, 1917. Accessed at

• Leerssen, Joep. “Imagology, History and Method,” 2007 .

• “Mythbusters.” By Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman. Discovery Channel, 2003-.

• Oswalt, Patton. “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die,” Wired Magazine, January 2011, .

• Revenge of the Nerds. Dir. Jeff Kanew. Perf. Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong. Twentieth Century Fox, 1984.

• Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise. Dir. Joe Roth. Perf. Robert Carradine, Ted McGinley, and Curtis Armstrong. Twentieth Century Fox, 1987.

• Revenge of the Nerds III: The Next Generation. Dir. Roland Mesa. Perf. Robert Carradine, Ted McGinley, and Curtis Armstrong. Twentieth Century Fox, 1992.

• Revenge of the Nerds IV: Nerds in Love. Dir. Steve Zacharias. Perf. Robert Carradine, Ted McGinley, and Curtis Armstrong. Twentieth Century Fox, 1994.

• Tichenor, Austin. Reduced Shakespeare Company podcast, episode 76: Nerd vs. Geek, May 12, 2008.

• Tichenor, Austin. Email to the author. June 7, 2011.

Expanded Bibliography

This is a reference work for more sources of nerd and geek culture that were found during the making of this thesis but for different reasons were not included in it. Hopefully this list can provide one further entry into the world of nerd and geek. The entries are alphabetically categorized by medium (visual, written, music, and persons). Each entry has a short description of the work.

Visual Sources


• Fanboys. Dir. Kyle Newman. Perf. Kristen Bell. Third Rail Releasing, 2008.

A group of Star Wars fans travels to Skywalker Ranch (George Lucas’ home) to steal an early copy of Star Wars: Episode I: the Phantom Menace.

• Napoleon Dynamite. Dir. Jared Hess. Perf. Jon Heder. Twentieth Century Fox, 2004.

Napoleon Dynamite is a stereotypical nerd teenager who has to deal with his strange family, while at the same time helping his friend Pedro to become class president. Perhaps the most memorable part of this film is Napoleon’s Dance Scene: .

• Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Dir. Edgar Wright. Perf. Michael Cera. Universal Pictures, 2010.

Young adult Scott Pilgrim has to battle with ex-boyfriends of the love of his life. The setting of the whole film is videogame-like.

• Sydney White. Dir. Joe Nussbaum. Perf. Amanda Bynes. Universal Pictures, 2007.

Modern retelling of the classic faerie tale Snow White, set on an American college campus. The seven dwarfs have been reworked into seven dorks, and Sydney is sort of geeky as well (reads comic books).

• The Social Network. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Jesse Eisenberg. Columbia Pictures, 2010.

Fictionalized biography of Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook.


• The Hard Times of RJ Berger. Creators: Seth Grahame-Smith and David Katzenberg. MTV Productions, 2010.

Series about RJ Berger, a nerd in high school who suddenly becomes popular because of his penis size.

• Kim Possible. Creators: Mark McCorkle and Robert Schooley. Disney Channel, 2002.

Cartoon series about teenage crime fighter Kim Possible. Discussed in Rebecca C. Hains’ article “Pretty Smart” (included in Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture) as having a “serious, intelligent approach to fighting crime.

• The King of Kong. Dir. Seth Gordon. New Line Cinema, 2007.

Documentary about a rivalry between Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, two experts of the arcade video game Donkey Kong. This documentary shows how serious video games can (and have) become.

• My Life as Liz. Perf. Liz Lee. MTV Productions, 2010.

Scripted reality television series, focusing on the life of Liz Lee, a geeky high school girl that is trying to find her place in the world.

• Phineas and Ferb. Creators: Jeff Marsh and Dan Povenmire. Disney Channel, 2007.

Cartoon series about two brothers who spend their summer creating all sorts of nifty contraptions such as a time travel machine and a giant rollercoaster. In the series there are numerous references to other episodes, popular culture, and nerdy and geeky things.

• Totally Spies!. Creators: Vincent Chalvon-Demersay and David Michel. Marathon Productions, 2001.

Cartoon series about three teenage girls who happen to be international super spies. One of them, Sam (short for Samantha) is discussed in Hains’ article (see entry on Kim Possible) and is labeled as the ‘smart one,’ while the other two could be seen as the ‘sporty’ and ‘pretty’ ones.

• Veronica Mars. Creator: Rob Thomas. Perf. Kristen Bell, Percy Daggs III, and Tina Marjorino. United Paramount Network, 2004.

Series about Veronica Mars, the teenage daughter of a private investigator, who runs her own investigations. She is an outsider in her high school, mainly due to the events around which the plot of the first season revolves (which also turned her father from town sheriff into a private investigator), but in later seasons she purposely puts herself in the outsider role.


• I’m Such a Nerd. Perf. Katrina Bowden. June 13, 2011. .

Viral video making fun of female nerds. The character played by Bowden is a bigger nerd than her male date.

• The Guild. Creator: Felicia Day. Perf. Felicia Day. RobotKittenGigglebus Entertainment, 2007.

Web series about the members of an online guild, The Knights of Good, who play an unnamed MMORPG video game. The members are all very different characters, ranging from a stay-at-home mother to a bored teenage girl, but they share a love for video games and all sorts of other nerdy and geeky things. All episodes can be found at .

• Hodgman, John. Speech at the 2009 Radio and TV Correspondents’ Dinner, June 19, 2009 .

In this speech, Hodgman attempts to clarify the differences between nerds and jocks and nerds and geeks. He also praises President Obama for being the first Nerd President. Hodgman and Obama finish the speech with “the only true American greeting”: ‘Live Long and Prosper.’

Written Sources

• Bucholtz, Mary. “”Why Be Normal?”: Language and Identity Practice in a Community of Nerd Girls,” Language in Society, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Jun., 1999), pp 203-223.

Essay on how members of a local community of female nerds at a US high school negotiate gender and other aspects of their identities through practice.

• Burton, Bonnie. Personal website. August 25, 2011. .

Personal website of Bonnie Burton, on which she posts regular updates on a number of nerdy topics, such as arts & crafts and nerd dating.

• Fashionably Geek. August 25, 2011. .

Website dedicated to geek fashion for both men and women. The website does not sell anything, but it ‘approves’ other websites that have products that they appreciate.

• Geeks Are Sexy. August 25, 2011. .

One of many websites dedicated to providing the latest news on technology, science, and other geeky things such as cosplay (dressing up as film, comic book, or video game character).

• Granderson, LZ. “Why I’m Raising My Son to be a Nerd.” CNN Living, June 28, 2011. Stable link at: .

Article written for CNN’s Geek Out! by a father who supports his son in both his athletic and academic achievements, showing that those two can go together hand-in-hand.

• Hoevel, Ann. “Are you a nerd or geek?” CNN Living, December 2, 2010. Stable link at: .

Article written for CNN’s Geek Out!, in which Hoevel attempts to explain the difference between nerd and geek, but, similar to this thesis, she cannot give a definitive answer about a true difference between the two.

• Kendall, Lori. “”Oh No! I’m a Nerd!”: Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum,” Gender and Society, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Apr., 2000), pp 256-274.

Essay on language use and social interaction on an Online Forum predominantly used by people who consider themselves ‘nerds.’

• Konzack, Lars. “Geek Culture, The 3rd Counter Culture.” Aalborg University, 2006. Stable link at: .

Essay in which geek culture is positioned as the third counter culture, after the hippie culture in the 1960s and 1970s and the yuppie culture in the 1980s and 1990s. Special attention is paid to the influence of (video) games on geek culture and vice versa.

• Nugent, Benjamin. American Nerd: The Story of My People. Scribner Book Company, New York, 2007.

Half auto-biography, half academic research, Nugent attempts to place the nerd in a historic perspective while at the same time trying to dissect the several sub-casts of nerds.

• ‘Rosalind.’ “Geeky Woman Role Model: Kari Byron. May 11, 2011. Stable link at .

Article on Mythbusters co-star of Adam Savage, Kari Byron. She has become a role for female geeks, as well as for geek mothers due to her work on the show.

• Thompson, Vicki Lewis. Nerd Gone Wild. St. Martin’s Paperback. New York, 2005.

Young adult romance novel in which the nerd is the romantic interest of the female main character. The ‘nerd’ in case starts out as an unlikeable character, but is transformed (also by the main character) into a handsome stud.

• Pantozzi, Jill. “Hey, That’s My Cape! – I’m a Geek, Girl (& You Can Too!).” May 4, 2011. Stable link at .

Article about being a geek and a girl, and the trials and tribulations that come with that.

• Wheaton, Wil. Just a Geek. O’Reilly Media, Sebastopol, 2004.

Autobiography of Wil Wheaton, an actor and geek role model both in his fictional roles (foremost Wesley Crusher in Star Trek) and in real life.


• Garfunkel & Oates

Not to be confused with either Simon & Garfunkel or Hall & Oates, Kate Micucci and Riki Lindholme are one of the few female musical comedy duos. With their sweet voices and guitar/ukulele instrumentation they get away with songs about hand jobs and medicinal marijuana. Website: .

• Paul & Storm

Comedy duo Paul Sabourin and Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo. Founding members of W00tstock, together with Adam Savage and Wil Wheaton. Their latest album (from 2010) was called “Do You Like Star Wars?” and included songs called “Frogger! The Frogger Musical” (after the classic video game) and “Boolean Love Song” (describing a love triangle based on Boolean logic). Website: .

• Weird Al Yankovic, The Saga Begins, 1999.


Parody of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace on the music of Don McLean’s American Pie


• Felicia Day (Huntsville, 1979)

Actress, writer, gamer and self-proclaimed nerd. This article on the website of Hollywood Reporter gives a good indication of how she made her web series The Guild into a success:


• Bill Gates (Seattle, 1955).

Founder and chairman of Microsoft and perhaps one of the wealthiest, successful, and most famous nerds worldwide. In his appearance (glasses, haircut, style of dress) he still looks like a stereotypical nerd, but he is living proof that that does not limit one in becoming successful.

• Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826)

Austin Tichenor (of the RSC) pointed out in an email to me that, after visiting Monticello (Jefferson’s mansion), he discovered that Jefferson was a huge geek, always interested in the latest gadgets and inventions.Steve Jobs (San Francisco, 1955).

• Steve Jobs (San Francisco 1955)

Co-founder and former CEO (resigned August 24, 2011) of Apple Inc. Also served as chief executive of Pixar Animations, one of the first companies to use computer animation to make feature films, combining technology with creativity. He returned to Apple in 1996 and is seen by many as the guide who led Apple into the era of iPods, iPhones, and iBooks, earning him the (joking) title of iCEO of the company.

• Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Leonardo Da Vinci could be considered a nerd avant le mot, as he was both interested and skilled in the fine arts as well as science. Some of Da Vinci’s inventions were far ahead of its time, for instance his flying machines.


[1] A pocket protector is a plastic object that can be placed in the breast pocket of a shirt and in which pens and other writing utensils can be placed. It originated from a time in which pens could easily leak ink and thus ruin a shirt.

[2] Anderegg uses Emerson’s The American Scholar to point out that the ideal American in the eyes of Emerson is the Man of Action, the person who goes out to find wisdom, while the Man of Reason is related to European scholars who gain their wisdom from books instead of empiric research. (pp 83-90)

[3] A reference to The Karate Kid (1984), in which Mr. Miyagi catches a fly with chopsticks, which in turn is spoofed in the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, by hitting the fly with a swapper that is in the other hand

[4] Silicon Valley is the nickname for the southern part of the San Francisco Bay area in California. It is known for its high-tech industry, especially computer technology. The name comes from the element silicon, which is used in the manufacturing of computer chips.

[5] At this point, one can see Sheldon singing a Yiddish song and playing the piano at the Cheesecake Factory. Penny tells Leonard that she has made Sheldon’s Virgin Cuba Libres slutty (e.g. put rum in the cocktail) because she was curious what would happen.

[6] Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game

[7] The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction, 1917. Accessed at

[8] Boba Fett is a character from Star Wars. Although he only had a relatively small part in the feature films, he plays a more prominent role in the franchise’s expanded universe.

[9] In Japan, the word ‘otaku’ refers to people who have obsessive, minute interests—especially stuff like anime or videogames. It comes from a term for “someone else’s house”—otaku live in their own, enclosed worlds. Or, at least, their lives follow patterns that are well outside the norm.



[12] Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) are the two best-known starship captains from the Star Trek franchise. One of the biggest debates among Star Trek fans is who they like better as a captain.

[13] Further information on the content of the Shakespeare show, one can find in “Shakespeare at the Movies,” my bachelor’s thesis on Shakespeare in contemporary popular culture

[14] This song has an interesting backstory. Yankovic always asks the original artists for permission to use their songs and, at first, this permission was denied by Gaga’s management. Because of this, the song would not be on the album, but Yankovic felt that the song was so good and powerful that he shared it with his friends through his website and Twitter. In turn, his fans contacted Lady Gaga about it (also through Twitter), and she admitted that she had never seen the lyrics or heard the song, let alone denied Yankovic permission to use it. Apparently, her management thought that Gaga would not like the song and never bothered to actually ask her opinion. In reality, she loved the song and gave Yankovic permission to use it and therefore it ended up on the album, and even became the first single. This story shows the power of social media in a nutshell.









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