According to Hollywood, geeks and nerds come in very specific shapes and sizes. Your standard “starter pack” for a classic nerd is somewhere between Urkel and Clark Kent: thick-framed glasses, tightly tucked-in shirts and a finger constantly twitching to raise up and accompany an annoying interruption, “Actually, I think you’ll find [insert unnecessary fact correction here].” Modern updates to this image swap sweater vests for XXL t-shirts sporting pop culture references that nobody else understands but keep the air of disdainful cluelessness about how to interact with “normal” people. Think Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons or Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory.
At their least offensive, these stereotypes patronizingly paint those devoted to particular fandoms as being adorkable loners who spend every other day being wedgied by the “cool” kids or being freaked out by the presence of the opposite sex in a comic book store. At their worst, they give free passes to nerdy characters being absolute creeps towards women, create and perpetuate false assumptions about people with physical or developmental disabilities and underrepresent anyone in the geek community who isn’t a straight, white dude. Given that geek culture has been injected with a serious amount of mainstream credibility over the past few years, most of these Hollywood stereotypes are looking seriously out of date, too.
15. THEY’RE SUPER SMART (BUT HAVE NO COMMON SENSE)
Because stereotyping dictates that anybody who is into traditionally nerdy things is also the smartest kid in the class, there’s an assumption that anyone with a sizeable comic book collection also must have an equally high IQ. The gang of geeks on The Big Bang Theory, for instance, are all laden with PhDs and multiple degrees in science and engineering and we accept this as a cartoonish but recognizable types of real people.
It seems like a bit of a non-complaint really, given that people assuming someone to be super smart is pretty complimentary, even if it’s untrue. Still, it’s worth pointing out that the two things aren’t always a given together. What’s more frustrating is the conjecture that intelligence and nerdiness always comes at the cost of worldliness or “street smarts.”
14. THEY’RE ALWAYS HOPELESSLY SINGLE
In movies and TV shows, to be a geek is to be romantically challenged. The combination of having “unusual” interests that no “normal” guy or girl would want to talk about on a date with the myriad of social ineptitude, anxiety, health problems and introverted nature on-screen nerds have always seems to make them wildly off-putting to any potential love interests.
The reality, of course, is that nervousness about dating is something that we can all relate to, whether we know our Star Trek lore inside out or don’t know the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars. Similarly, there are plenty of people who feel just as comfortable, say, spending an evening slaying goblins in an imagined dungeon as they would in a crowded singles bar.
13. THEY’RE REALLY DIFFICULT TO BE FRIENDS WITH
According to Hollywood, nerds generally break down into one of two social breeds: chronically shy, skittish and hopelessly awkward around anyone they don’t know very well (think George McFly from Back To The Future.) Or, they’re loud, obnoxious and isolate any potential new friends by being insufferably, well, nerdy about everything (think Minkus from Boys Meets World.)
Basically, they’re extremely difficult to befriend for anyone outside of their sphere of interests. It’s not that these types of people aren’t believable — we’ve probably all known at least one or two of them during our lives — it’s just that they’re far too ubiquitous in pop culture. We need more characters like the adorkable Stranger Things kids, whose crew we all want to be a part of.
12. THEY HAVE NO INTEREST IN SPORTS
You know this stereotype well. Nerds, geeks and “dorks” are totally useless at any kind of athletic activity by Hollywood’s reckoning, and have little to no interest in any kind of sport that doesn’t involve broomsticks and a Golden Snitch, or some kind of roleplaying element. Usually, this is to set up the classic Jock vs. Nerd scenario, which typically ends with the latter being stuffed into a locker.
In reality, there are plenty of people who can do both, including some grown-up jocks who are secret (or not so secret) nerds. Tiger Woods has admitted his nickname in college was “Urkel;” NBA player Tim Duncan is super into Dungeons & Dragons and has even been to the odd Renaissance Fair, and don’t forget about Shaquille O’Neil’s superhero movie turn as Steel, either.
11. THEY’RE MASSIVE CREEPS
This is an unfortunate stereotype that has persisted in Hollywood for a long time. If they’re not stumbling over chat-up lines or breaking into a cold sweat every time someone attractive walks past them, geeky guys are depicted as overly creepy around women. (And, yes, it is always guys.) Think of Howard Wolowitz’s predatory and unapologetic grossness in The Big Bang Theory to Morgan Grimes’ obsessive behavior in Chuck.
What’s worse is that these fictional nerds’ bad behavior around and towards the opposite sex is often played off for laughs or to boost empathy — and is even rewarded. Howard, despite having the sexual maturity of a hormonal twelve year-old, ends up marrying the woman of his dreams. Meanwhile, Morgan — who got in trouble for watching porn at work and for sexual harassment — bagged impossibly beautiful girlfriends.
10. THEY HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO LOOK GOOD
Oversized glasses. Sweater vests. Tucked-in shirts. High-waisted pants. A t-shirt with some kind of obscure comic book character on it. Terrible hair cuts that are somehow too long and short at the same time. Nerds have a long history of never looking good on-screen. Apparently when all of your brain power goes into mathematical forumlas and memorizing X-Men members, you lose any ability to dress in a flattering way.
We all go through awkward or questionable style phases when we’re young, but there are plenty of famous fashionable geeks around Hollywood to prove that these phases are exactly that. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Olivia Munn, Zachary Levi and Gillian Anderson are among the many famous faces in the industry to have both massive nerd and style cred.
9. THEY’RE ALL STRAIGHT, WHITE MEN
Be honest, when you hear the word “nerd” or “geek” or even “poindexter” (for the old school) you picture a white guy drooling over scantily-clad, made-up women in comic books. And, it’s not that those guys don’t exist somewhere, it’s just that we see a lot more of them in pop culture than we do any other kind of geek.
Though it may not seem like it from the outside — or from certain places within — the geek community has always been filled with a diverse range of people: women, people of color and LGBTQ folk. While their representation in movies and TV shows is steadily improving, it still has a long way to go, mainly because it’s also that much harder for those groups to break into Hollywood to be able to tell their own stories.
8. THEY’RE ALL TECH SAVVY
There’s a pretty short list of places where you’ll find a nerd working according to Hollywood: a video rental store (for the pre-millennial) a comic book store, some kind of lab or anywhere that specializes in selling or mending tech. Because, in regards to the latter career path, all nerds are apparently Tony Stark when it comes to technology.
Any nerd worth their salt is supposed to be a veritable computer-whisperer, able to hack into a government mainframe or take apart and rebuild your iPhone, because years of binging sci-fi shows has to amount to something, right? Of course, in reality, being technologically savvy and being into nerd stuff don’t always go hand-in-hand at all.
7. THEY HAVE WEIGHT PROBLEMS
Very few famous nerds in pop culture are secretly hiding a Superman physique under their lab coats and Doctor Who t-shirts. Because the convention for nerds to be practically allergic to physical activity is so prevalent, they’re often depicted as being either unhealthily under or overweight.
They either seem to have the lanky and gangly bodies of Napoleon Dynamite or, usually because of an online gaming addiction and/or aversion to leaving their mother’s basement, they develop chronic weight problems like the South Park boys do in the “Make Love, Not Warcraft” episode. It’s not that these types of bodies shouldn’t be visible but maybe they could be presented more positively, Hollywood?
6. THEY’RE ALWAYS ‘THE NICE GUY’ (NO MATTER HOW BADLY THEY ACT)
This is a stereotype that appears positive at first, but if you think about it from a different perspective, is actually pretty damning. By “other perspective,” we’re talking about a female love interest and, by nerdy “nice guy,” we’re talking about the romantically-neglected, creepy best friend, or the persistent weirdo whose leeriness ultimately pays off, or even the emotionally stunted man-child who is occasionally respectful.
We’re used to the antagonizing, athletic boyfriend who treats his girlfriend like crap who we’re (rightly) supposed to hate. But, if a nerdy character is equally misogynistic — like the abuse that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock often gives poor Molly Hooper — we’re expected to excuse it under the guise of a genius’ social naiveté. We could use with more actual “nice guy” nerds like Parks and Recreation‘s Ben Wyatt on our screens.
5. THEY HAVE NO INTEREST IN ANYTHING NON-NERDY
Geeky characters are usually represented as being obsessive and thirsty for knowledge — all the knowledge. This means that they seem to have a laser focus trained only on things that come under the nerd umbrella. While most self-proclaimed nerds probably wouldn’t dispute that they have at least trace elements of these qualities, it would be unusual to find anyone whose interests were that limited.
Really, you can be “nerdy” about anything: music, sport, literature, fine art. If you know a subject or a sphere of interest inside out, discuss it regularly with other people with a similar interest and attend events dedicated to it, then that makes you “nerdy” for it. Geeky folk may wander around with their head in a fictional universe but that doesn’t mean they don’t also have an off-switch for it.
4. THEY HAVE LOADS OF HEALTH PROBLEMS
Let’s name some conditions that your average nerdy caricature will likely suffer from: asthma, rashes, acne, dandruff, bad vision, speech impediments, weight problems, allergies, physical disabilities… the list could go on and on. The assumption that most geeks suffer from multiple health problems is a strange but persistent one.
The most obvious root cause for this stereotype’s origin is that nerds are usually thought of as being painfully shy and prefer to stay indoors so that they can spend all of their time pouring over vintage comics or sinking hours into a MMORPG. In other words, they aren’t your outdoorsy, adventurous type in perfect health. It’s also a quick way to drum up empathy for an underdog, which nerds are always portrayed as being.
3. THEY’RE INTO “NICHE” THINGS (THAT ARE ACTUALLY MAINSTREAM)
This is a particularly pertinent bugbear in a world in which geekdom is firmly in the cultural spotlight. Things that are considered nerdy or geeky have been considered sub-cultural and niche for a very long time, and it’s an assumption that seems hard to shift even when our screens are currently saturated with comic book characters and sci-fi/fantasy properties.
Under the still widely-accepted wisdom that geek culture is for the minority rather than the majority, things like Star Wars and Marvel properties — billion-dollar franchises whose characters are household names — seem hard to class as “niche.” Of course, there’s a difference between being a casual and hardcore fan, but if you’re trying to convince an audience that your character is into deeply nerdy stuff, maybe avoid anything owned by Disney.
2. THEY KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT EVERYTHING
To outsiders, geek culture might seem like one, big homogenous pool of nerdiness that everyone swims in. If you’re into comics, you’re into all comics, right? If you’re a gamer, then you’ve played all video games, yeah? And if you’re super into The Hunger Games, you must have read every YA, dystopian novel series. Some of these assumptions do have an element of truth to them but geek culture actually breaks down into many different tribes.
You’ve got your comic book nerds, your sci-fi aficionados, your LARPers, your otaku, your gamers… and, while there’s a lot of crossover, there’s also a lot of division between and within all these different areas. Not every comic book nerd is into superheroes, for instance. It would be like assuming that someone who is really into basketball must be into every other kind of sport, too.
1. THEY ALL HAVE MASSIVE SOCIAL ANXIETY
By far the most common misconception that movies and TV shows make about nerds is that they all have either full-blown or borderline developmental or behavioural problems that mean they struggle to make friends and shrink away from social situations. There are, of course, many people for whom this is true, but the conflation between the two things is disproportionately prominent.
It probably speaks to inherent stigmas and assumptions we make about people with disabilities and mental health problems more than nerds. Because geeky interests are usually used in film and TV as shorthand code for “loser,” we associate this sign of “weakness” with our negative and incorrect perceptions of certain disorders and anxieties. Despite what we keep getting told, the two things don’t always come packed together.
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