The stereotype of the “geek” in movies and television keeps changing as the years go by. In the past, being viewed as a geek was equivalent to being viewed as a loser. Geek characters might be written sympathetically, or in the case of superhero stories have a secret stronger “jock”-like side, but in general geeks were the pathetic comic relief. Today, the social landscape has shifted and geeks are often successful and even “cool.” Of course, the media is still navigating how the landscape shift affects geek characters, as writers face the challenge of how best to address both the positive and negative aspects of contemporary geek culture.
The 15 characters on this list present geekiness in a positive light. Many still have the social awkwardness of the classic “geek” stereotype, but even if they’re not traditionally “cool,” these are characters audiences fell in love with. They both reflect and promote the omnipresence of geek culture. These aren’t your Comic Book Guys, your stereotypical yet all-too-often unfortunately accurate reflections of the worst geek culture has to offer. Those portrayals have their place, but these are the characters who can make you feel proud to be a geek, and who make geeks look attractive.
- Velma cosplay/photoshop in feature image by Danielle Denicola.
15. ABED NADIR
It’s oft been said the big difference between Community and The Big Bang Theory is that the latter show was merely about geeks, while the former was made by and for them. That’s why none of the BBT characters, though they have their fans, made this list. Abed Nadir from Community, in contrast, might be the most honest and sympathetic portrayal of a certain breed of Aspergers-y pop culture-obsessed geek.
Has there ever been a bromance as sweet as the one between Abed and his jock roommate Troy? For all his awkwardness, Abed was probably the best person in his eccentric study group. His boundless imagination and his use of TV cliches as a way of understanding life was both a great source of comedy and relatable to much of Community‘s geeky fanbase.
One of the most lovable characters among the Disney princesses, Belle from Beauty and the Beast is certainly the geekiest of the bunch. Her “fair facade” might not be your stereotypical image of a geek, but as the song goes, she’s certainly “rather odd!” She’s a bookworm and the daughter of an inventor living in a time when any sort of intellectual, let alone a female intellectual, was automatically viewed as suspect.
Anyone who ever felt like they didn’t fit in, who dreamed of their unusual interests and intense curiosity being rewarded rather than shunned, can relate to Belle’s struggles. Her story moved millions, earned a Best Picture nomination and inspired a blockbuster live-action remake starring Emma Watson (who also portrays another character on this list).
13. BEN WYATT
Sometimes a geek just comes in and steals the show. State auditor Ben Wyatt wasn’t introduced until near the end of Parks and Recreation‘s second season, but quickly became one of the series’ central characters. A more pessimistic counterpart to series protagonist Leslie Knope’s optimism, he became her boyfriend and eventual husband. He’s also completely obsessed with science fiction and Game of Thrones.
Ben’s an interesting case in the evolution of the geek on TV in that, despite being “the geek,” he’s also often positioned as “the straight man,” the relatively normal one amidst an eccentric cast of characters. Of course, he does get some wackier moments where he really gets to show off his geekiness, like when he invents a board game or writes Star Trek slash fiction.
12. BRUCE BANNER
Of the Avengers’ “science bros,” Bruce Banner feels more classically geeky than Tony Stark. Tony can talk tech with the expertise of the most obsessive geeks, true, but he carries himself as more of a playboy rock star than a geek. Where Tony postures at being cool and above it all, Bruce openly embodies the awkward and enthusiastic earnestness of passion that makes geekiness endearing.
Of course, while Bruce Banner is a geek, The Hulk, at least in the majority of his forms (yes, there is a “Nerd Hulk” in the comics), absolutely is not. The Banner/Hulk dynamic is the “geek secret identity, jock superhero identity” taken to the utmost extreme. While becoming Hulk can be freeing at times, it’s more often than not terrifying; losing your intellectual self in this completely different creature.
11. CHIDI ANAGONYE
Recently deceased moral philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place is so smart that he becomes annoying. Then he becomes so annoying that he becomes hilarious, and then so hilarious he becomes absolutely loveable. Is he worthy of living in The Good Place? He certainly tries harder to be a good person than almost anyone, and it’s his striving for morality which elevates all those around him.
Really, this show is almost impossible to write about without getting into spoilers and it’s one that absolutely should not be spoiled, so if you’re not watching The Good Place, you should get on that ASAP. The first season’s on Netflix and the second’s on NBC’s website. And for those who do watch the show, don’t you just want to be boot buddies with Chidi?
10. CLARK KENT
What is it with glasses as a signifier of geekiness? Put a pair of glasses on a beefcake and suddenly he goes from Superman, paragon of jock-like physical perfection and traditional masculinity, to Clark Kent, uber-geek. This transformation’s always been silly, but it’s essential to why Superman was such a perfect fantasy figure for geeky kids in an era before “geek chic.” He could play both roles, one whom geeks could relate to and one whom they aspired to be.
Christopher Reeve modeled his portrayal of Clark Kent on another classic geek character from the ’30s, Cary Grant’s David Huxley in the movie Bringing Up Baby. What makes the Clark Kent persona feel authentic and not, as Bill in Kill Bill claimed, a mocking put-on, is that as an alien, Superman understands the feeling of being outsider, which was central to previous generations’ conceptions of geekdom.
9. DANA SCULLY
Both of the lead characters of The X-Files, Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, can be considered geeks, and both are charming, likeable characters. Why, then, list Scully but not Mulder? Realism. No, not that Scully is the character with the more realistic outlook compared to Mulder’s paranormal beliefs, but that in the real world, Scully is the type of geek you’d want to be friends with and Mulder would be one you’d want to stay far away from.
Scully’s a hyper-professional multidisciplinary science expert who’s skeptical without being divorced from spirituality. Mulder’s a conspiracy theorist with with no social skills and a… “movie” addiction. Let’s just say if Mulder was a real person, he’d probably look a lot less like David Duchovny and more like one of the Lone Gunmen. Real conspiracy geeks are generally not the coolest of geeks.
8. HERMIONE GRANGER
Everyone knows the bookworm Hermione Granger is the real hero of the Harry Potter series. Well, her and Neville Longbottom, but Neville’s merely a heroic dork rather than a full-on geek type. Harry honestly doesn’t have any exceptional skills except playing Quidditch, being the “Chosen One” and carrying “The Power of Love.” Hermione had to save his sorry butt at least once per book/movie.
In many ways, Hermione represents the best that geeks can be. While she starts off as something of a bratty know-it-all, she matures into a compassionate young woman who uses all her book smarts to stand up for justice in the face of evil and oppression. If humanity is to survive as a species, the world needs as many geeks like Hermione as possible.
7. DR. IAN MALCOLM
What is it about Jeff Goldblum that makes him so utterly appealing? He’s not your traditional leading man. He’s weird and nebbishy and usually doesn’t have the clearest diction. He manages to exude charisma in large part because he’s so different and so unapologetically, well, “Goldblum-y.” Naturally, he plays geeky scientist characters often.
He was a stand-out in the Independence Day ensemble and a compelling tragic figure in The Fly, but his best loved role has to be Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park. Being a movie about scientists, a lot of characters would qualify, but Dr. Malcolm’s the most memorably eccentric of the bunch. It’s telling that the thing many viewers are most excited about in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is Dr. Malcolm’s return.
6. DR. JILLIAN HOLTZMANN
Yes, Ray or Egon could fit just as easily on this list as well, and even just acknowledging the 2016 Ghostbusters in any article is bound to inspire a slurry of angry comments (if you’re considering adding to them, please, just… don’t). And yes, the reboot has problems. Kate McKinnon’s Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, however, is not one of them. Even critics who weren’t hot on the movie as a whole found her character funny and charming.
Probably a lesbian, possibly on the autism spectrum and definitely a wild genius, Holtzmann steals pretty much every scene she’s in. Whether busting ghosts with her own inventions or trying to explain her feelings through physics metaphors, she’s both extremely geeky and easily the most popular character to come out of the controversial reboot.
To be clear, this is Merlin from the Kingsman movies (though the Arthurian Merlin might also count, in a sense, as a loveable geek). The spy agency’s tech expert, his role’s similar to Q in the James Bond films. A sign of our increasingly geeky times, the tech geeks in these spy films take higher prominence than ever before. Ben Winshaw’s Q is more actively involved in the plots of recent Bond films than previous Qs were. Merlin goes even further as one of the Kingsman series’ main heroes.
Merlin takes down the bad guys alongside Eggsy and Roxy in Kingsman: The Secret Service, and his explosive decisions in the climax completely reshape global politics. In the sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, he plays an even bigger role representing the Kingsmen. The sequel also introduces his American counterpart Ginger Ale, who might make this list if she had more screentime.
4. PETER PARKER
Peter Parker was the natural evolution of the “geek secret identity.” One of the things that made him so likable and popular was that he didn’t stop acting like a geek when the costume came on. Spider-Man acts like just as much a geek as Peter does normally. The three film incarnations all go different routes in presenting the character’s geekiness.
Tobey Maguire’s Peter is very much the classic put-upon dork you’d see in older movies. Even when he gets the Venom symbiote in Spider-Man 3, he just becomes a more obnoxious kind of dork. Andrew Garfield played Peter cooler, to the point where a common criticism was that he was almost too cool. Tom Holland’s performance finds a medium between the two extremes. Geeks are no longer so put-upon and Holland’s Peter is relatively well-off socially, but has an unmistakably geeky sense of enthusiasm.
3. SHERLOCK HOLMES
For over a century, Sherlock Holmes has been perhaps the most popular geek in all of pop culture. He’s easily the one who’s been adapted for film and television the most frequently. Maybe it’s the Benedict Cumberbatch version from Sherlock you fell for. Maybe it’s Johnny Lee Miller from Elementary you prefer, or Robert Downey Jr. from the Guy Ritchie movies. It could be Basil Rathbone, if you’re old school, or one of many others.
What remains constant is that Sherlock’s a great detective with near superhuman attention to noticing details others ignore. He obsesses over his cases to the exclusion of all else. He doesn’t form close social bonds with the notable exception of his faithful companion Dr. John Watson. And he’s always attracted an obsessive fanbase; you can trace the evolution of modern fandom from that of the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories.
If Sherlock Holmes was the beginning of geeky fandom as we know it, Star Trek was the point where it became a major cultural force. Geeks kept the struggling series alive and turned it into a pop cultural touchstone. There’s a lot that made the series so beloved: its optimistic view of the future, its balance of escapist adventure and progressive politics, its memorable cast of characters. One character in particular, however, appealed greatly to geeks.
Spock became a geek role model because the show embraced his geeky qualities. Half-Vulcan and half-human, he struggles with human emotions but is successful at navigating the universe through his strong sense of logic. He’s vital to the Enterprise’s five-year mission as the science officer and his quirkiness is accepted among the crew. His odd couple friendship with Captain Kirk is at the heart of the original series.
1. VELMA DINKLEY
If you want evidence of the rise of the geek, just look at how popular perceptions of the Scooby Doo Mystery Gang evolved over the decades. Ask your average person on the street who the most attractive character is, and just 20 or 30 years ago, the answers would almost always be the preppy ones, Daphne or Fred. Today, Velma the geek is finally getting her due.
She’s the brains of the group, and intelligence is always attractive, especially when your main objective is solving mysteries. She cares for her friends and has a sarcastic sense of humor. Her style might not have been the height of fashion in 1969, but the rise of the hipster in recent times suddenly makes her fashionable. Velma’s also developed a devoted LGBTQ following.
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