[Emily Gordon is a writer and comedy producer. It goes without saying that she has a podcast, hers is called The Indoor Kids and it's about video games. The one thing she has learned in life is that someone is always a bigger nerd than you.]

In news that is not actually news, nerds are no longer the shameful outsiders of society, they are celebrated and treated like exotic zoo animals, adorable and mystical and called fake by other exotic zoo animals. But how did this happen? It’s time to cue up Huey Lewis’ “Hip to Be Square” and trace the approval rating of nerds in pop culture throughout the ages. And as nerds are a detail-oriented bunch, I expect that you’ll let me know of all the many moments throughout the ages I’ve missed.

1951: Though the origin of the word “nerd” is hotly debated (this guy has done some great research), I’m gonna choose to go with my favorite early use of the word, in Dr. Seuss’ If I Ran the Zoo. That little guy is a total music nerd, and if Seuss didn’t like you, no one did.

In the 50s and early 60s every kid on TV shows and movies was pretty nerdy if they weren’t a greaser in a leather jacket, so let’s skip to a major moment in nerd history.

1974: The Fonz refers to socially awkward kids interested in science and math as nerds. The world gives him a big thumbs up and nerds a big thumbs down. Aaaaaayyyyy! Nerd approval remains at 0.

1978: Eugene Felsnic in Grease plays a pretty classic nerd: shrill voice, bad social skills, thick glasses, generally considered embarrassing. He’s the butt of a lot of jokes.

1984: Revenge of the Nerds is released in theaters and people delight in a movie where the nerds get to win. Sure, it’s portraying nerds in a fairly negative light, but they were the stars! You’ve got to learn to walk before you can fly. The line “We’ve got news for the beautiful people- there are more of us then there are of you!” made my young nerdy heart swell with pride. Nerd approval goes up slightly, to 20% or so. (Try to ignore the semi-rape scene in the funhouse)

1986ish: Welcome to the Hughesing of nerds. No one could create believable teenage characters like John Hughes. Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club; Anthony Michael Hall and the other guy in Weird Science; and Cameron and Ferris in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off- all humanized the nerds we’d made fun of before. He gave them feelings, hopes, dreams, and sometimes girlfriends- no longer were they just the butt of jokes. (Try to ignore Long Duk Dong) Nerd approval shoots up to 45%, a record high.

1989: Two steps forward, one step back: The Tori Spelling on Saved By the Bell effect. Nerd approval rating: 35%

1991: The first appearance of Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons. Worst. But. Most. Accurate. Stereotype. Ever. Though accurate, he takes the nerd approval rating down to 20%. Nerds remain dormant for a few years while grunge has its heyday.

1999: Star Wars: Episode I is released. I’m not going to get into a discussion of how good, bad, or childhood rapey those movies were, the point is that suddenly, people felt okay declaring how much they loved Star Wars. Nerd approval rating: 40%

2003: Seth Cohen in The O.C. Adorable, TV rumpled, neurotic, and a self-described nerd, wasn’t ashamed of his comic book collection as he should have been. And also, he was very vulnerable and adorable and every girl fell in love with him. Nerd approval rating: 55%

2005: Beauty and the Geek. This reality TV show, produced by Ashton Kutcher, paired up hot ladies with a nerdy dudes to force them to work together to win prizes. They competed in things like “Get a Girl’s Number”, “Math”, “Fashion”, and “Rocket Science”, and managed to be sexist as well as just weirdly offensive. Nerd approval rating sinks to 45%, despite the fact that some of the beauties admit being somewhat attracted to their nerdy counterparts.

2005: Entourage goes to Comic-Con. A show that showcases the most hubris-y, pointless celebration of wealth and fame and handsomeness and sex and convertibles…. goes to Comic-Con after Vince gets cast in a comic book movie. Isn’t it hilarious? The incidence of backwards baseball hats at Comic-Con that year increases dramatically. Look out nerds. Hollywood is coming.

2005ish: We have now come to the Apatowing of nerds. Nobody makes nerdy dudes more appealing than Judd Apatow. From Freaks & Geeks (which is older, sure, but a lot of people didn’t discover until the 2000s), to 40 Year Old Virgin, no one makes being a social outcast look more warm and inviting. Nerd approval rating- 50%

2007: The Big Bang Theory premieres, and is a huge enormous massive hit. A show that portrays nerds as being know-it-alls who are terrified of women or robotically Aspergery, sure, but stereotypes have a grain of truth, and at least they got their own show, right? My younger cousin got into Star Wars because of The Big Bang Theory, and I still don’t know how I feel about it. Nerd approval rating shoots up to 70%. (Extra credit: Johnny Galecki played a nerd on Roseanne, years earlier)

2010: Chris Hardwick starts the Nerdist podcast, and soon after it, produces a book, hours of standup, a BBC show, and a YouTube channel all devoted to the trials and tribulations of the nerd. He’s handsome, he’s a nerd, and he’s successful from something other than inventing a new technology. Nerd approval rating- 80%! Huge!

2012: Glasses for everyone! Once only considered cool by Urkel and Weezer, these days, everyone rocks thick black glasses when they want to be taken seriously or seen as deep and unconcerned with being cool. (The irony abounds) Ladies and gentlemen, we are at 100% nerd approval.

2013: In the newest season of Portlandia, one episode opens with a sketch where a real nerd (clearly not an actor) pleads for people to stop saying they’re nerds when they’re not. Sure, it could have used a female nerd in there somewhere (instead of reinforcing the idea that fake nerds = girls and real nerds = boys), but more to the point, it’s the crowning jewel of the growing backlash against “fake nerds”. You know you’re mainstream when you start trying to exclude people for not being enough like you.

2013: And here we are, getting our own game shows now. In this show, hosted by Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong from Revenge of the Nerds, pits 11 male and female nerds against each other in endless nerd trivia and contests like “costume creation” and “some sort of wizard bowling”. I watched an episode last night, arms folded, and instead found myself yelling the answers to questions like “What was Gregor Clegane’s nickname?”

Given our long and rich history, it seems unlikely that nerds are going to be leaving the cultural ether anytime soon. They’ll just be inserted more and more into what’s accepted until we won’t even remember why it’s funny that NBA stars wear big thick non-prescription glasses. Years from now, we’ll be telling our children that when we were kids, playing video games would get you bullied, and they won’t believe it. And we’ll just look wistfully into the sky, remembering a time when being a nerd was considered weird.

Comments (74)
  1. The interesting thing about this post is that Anything Edwards was (is?) considered a sex symbol a few years down the road. Cue “Stairway to Heaven.”

  2. Anthony–dam you, autocorrect.

  3. Addendum:

  4. For those who were left wondering, the answer is “The Mountain.”

  5. My son, a premium techie, trekie nerd, says the Big Bang Theory is black face for nerds. But he still watches and loves it.

    • I know! I’ve only watched about 30 seconds and it really seems like a horrible collection of antiquated stereotypes, but all of my super nerdy geek friends love it and watch it all the time! I DON’T GET IT.

      • I hate it because the one time I tried to watch, the nerds were having a nerdy conversation that was too nerdy to live and there was a laugh track and everything, and it was the exact same conversation I HAD THE DAY BEFORE. WHATEVER DON’T JUDE US BIG BANG THEORY

      • I am NOT a fan of that show. Just isn’t funny, IMO.

    • Nerd minstrels!

    • I hate this show more than any show in the history of television. It is a black hole of comedy and I’ve literally never been able to stomach more than 10 seconds (the time it takes to make my dog move so I can find the remote.)

      Also, the cutest guys I dated while living in LA were out of Caltech and JPL and had MUCH better social skills than the entertainment jerks I went out with. And I won’t even get into the misogynist cute girls can’t know computers and science nonsense.

      Seriously, the Big Bang Theory can go fuck itself or fall down a well and never ever ever get Sting to dig it out. Its popularity is more a testament to the antiquated measurements of television ratings and the jerks who are Nielsen families than anything else. #ripbitchin23

      • Don’t hold back, let us know what you really think :-}

        Seriously though, I Like the show because it is so ridiculous and over the top. there is even a sort of’
        nerd hierarchy even if it is mostly in Sheldon’s head. (I think of him as the King Julien of the group with his delusions of grandeur and utter disregard for the feelings and rights of others).

  6. I think what we’re experiencing right now is a great schism between “nerds” and “geeks.” What we tend to think of as classically “nerdy” (being interested in math and science) is now being claimed as “geeky,” whereas it seems that other interests (comic books, sci fi/fantasy) are being called “nerdy.”

  7. Question for my nerdy brethren: were you contacted about this “King of the Nerds” fiasco? I was not, and I have to say, I am worried. Will we be required to pay an annual taxes? Will we become serfs, forced to work the land in the kingdom of the nerds? How will they handle succession? There are so many questions!

    Also, thanks for calling out Revenge of the Nerds. It had been a favorite of mine until a re-watch last year, when it set of all the frown alarms.

  8. You forgot my boyfriend (yeah guys, he’s mine and I’m not sharing):

  9. So, being a teacher I, obviously, come across a lot of nerds and I have to say I do feel like things have changed. So long as they can maintain their nerditude (TM) through the first year or two, the high school nerd is now the equivalent to any alternative group.

    I teach this one girl and, who boy, she does not give a FUCK! I mean, she runs the gamut: Latin, Magic the Gathering, ComicCon, DragonCon, fan fiction, the works. And the kids really seem to like her for it. And if they don’t, she’s going to Yale so they can suck it.

  10. No mention of my beloved candy?

  11. I think nerd as a self-descriptor is a bit of a humblebrag. It’s kind of a socially acceptable way to tell people you’re smart.

    That said, TOTAL NERD HERE. But I did Mathcounts and got picked last for sports and my high school awkward phase started when I was 8 and lasted until I was at least 21 so I think I have some cred.


    • I think of it as more of a way to tell people you’re into stuff. Like “I’m a history nerd” or “I’m a food nerd.” With that, of course, comes knowledge about that specific thing. I’m seeing it used less as an overall and more as a specific descriptor.

      • Yea I think that is 100% accurate. The naked term, though, is often used to signify pure intelligence when really it should signify things like my comment below, which holy shit I am really mortified that the image came out that big.

      • You know what I’d like to amend my blanket statement to say, “I think a lot of people use nerd as a self-descriptor in a way that’s a bit of a humblebrag.” There are smart people who aren’t really nerdy but label themselves as nerds just because they went to a good college or whatever.

    • When I was in ninth grade I was obsessed with manga and I went into the computer lab during free periods and printed out manga art and took it home and cut it with an exacto knife and put it in an album. None of my friends know about this except for you guys now because it is mondo embarrassing.

      I for sure have this preserved in an album somewhere:

      • Darn the link worked for a bit. I’ll try a different one that’s just as illustrative and less embarrassingly large anyway:

      • When I was in high school I was super into Brad Renfro (RIP). I used to go to the computer lab and go to Yahoo and find pictures of him and secretly print them out. One day in math class we had an unplanned fire drill and my only thought was, “Get the Brad Renfro picture out of your backpack and save it from the flames.”

  12. I LOVED Beauty and the Geek

  13. Also, you guys should read this Neal Stephenson article on geeking out: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/17/opinion/17stephenson.html?pagewanted=all

  14. “You know you’re mainstream when you start trying to exclude people for not being enough like you.”

    So dead on. This whole “fake geek girl” thing is just so awful. That Portlandia clip really rubbed me the wrong way. I like the show, but sheesh, way to play up stereotypes that girls can’t be geeks. I’m really hoping people get over that in 2013.

    But also, is everyone aware of the Hawkeye Initiative or Escher Girls? They are the best.

    • The misogyny of this is certainly disturbing, and the exclusionary nature of it is sad. I think it would also be sad though, in backlashing against the backlash to lose the sympathy for the feelings of nerds who not only loved the world of nerdness before it was cool, actually suffered for it. The anger is misplaced and dangerous, no doubt. One would hope that a nerd would have the softness of heart to say, “great, there’s plenty of room for everyone!” as we would all hope for ourselves, or at least be gender neutral in their frustration. I won’t say “but” here because I don’t want to undercut that I agree with you. I will say that I hope there is a true acknowledging of the real pain of the downtrodden nerd, and the bitter pill when the culture that you suffered for becomes coopted by an already empowered group (the cool and famous, not women) I think a satisfying discussion of this is needed to avoid scapegoating of “fake geek girls” this clip was so close to the opening volley, but you’re right, a bit of a miss.

      • Yeah, if the whole “fake nerd” thing weren’t also inherently tied to women I’m not sure I would be as bothered. The fact is, though, that there’s a huge problem with women in comic book/videogame/geek culture. Women are to be looked at and fantasized about but aren’t allowed into the club. I also get annoyed about the cosplay stuff because almost all female characters are drawn in seductive/revealing clothing. You can’t scorn women for dressing that way when there are no characters that are portrayed that way. Like I said, I think it’s the gender-bias that gets me more than the “fake” thing.

        This all feels very high school, the whole “poseur” vs “punk” thing that used to go down. It just seems childish and I can’t believe that actual adults are making the same arguments that teens make.

      • I have trouble being all that sympathetic to the griping of a group that has systematically excluded people and currently expends huge amounts of energy antagonizing and acting hostile towards people who they don’t deem legit enough. I don’t know that I agree that there’s real pain in downtrodden (white male) nerds that isn’t also experienced (if not experienced far more harshly) by many other actually marginalized groups that nerds haven’t been especially welcoming towards.

  15. For a different angle you might like this essay over at the avclub, which notes that some “nerds” are really aspies.


    But also, the explosion of geekery in popular culture has left me somewhat cold because, while I have lots of friends who are math and science studs, it was never quite my flavor of nerdism. But I really like Jessie Eisenberg’s character in Adventureland, who gets out of college and is basically this over-educated introvert who can’t relate to the people around him. The liberal arts nerd is a different animal, I think.

  16. It’s funny how certain categories of things considered nerdy have entered the mainstream, but in a way that completely changes the category, rather than actually putting the nerd-desired object in the mainstream. I think that nerdiness has more to do the with the obsession with the object of nerd desire, rather than the thing itself, and that the things that fall under nerd categories, roleplaying games, comic book mythology, video games, computers, etc… took real obsession to enjoy. Being a nerd is about escaping into an esoteric world because the real world doesn’t offer you the sweet sweet nectar that the imagined or difficult-to-reach world does.

    The avengers example is a perfect one. The barrier to enjoying comic book mythology has significantly lowered. You don’t have to bury your nose in a comic book, or suspend disbelief as actively. It’s only fun to read comic if you really travel into the world wholeheartedly and mentally. A movie with sexy celebrities we already like, and incredible realism gives no challenge to access. Watching shiny new star wars of avengers movies is not accessing what made them nerdy in the first place, that you had to give in to them to enjoy, you had to invest so much of yourself in them to enter the world, they don’t meet you half-way. Modern movie meet you at about 90% of the way.

    The same can be said of computers. In nerd heyday, to enjoy them, you really had to dig into the functionality, and program for hours for very little tangible result. You had to be imaginatively invested in an abstract outcome to enjoy it. Now, a person will call themselves a “tech-geek” if they stand in line to get the new iPhone, which is so responsive a baby can enjoy it. The advancement of technology makes them more accessible, not nerdier.

    Finally. Can we really make a blanket statement that playing video games has “become mainstream?” no, videogames have become accebtably entertaining to the point that they breached their old category. You don’t all of a sudden see Kim Kardashian or matthew mcconaughey gushing about text-based adventures or even King’s Quest. To put modern video games in the same category, and thus describe a cultural shift is to miss what has changed.

    All that being said. It certainly has shifted. Being a nerd no longer gets one stuffed into a locker in way it once did. However, I think that true nerd-dom is an inward journey, set upon because of the harshness of the outside world,a dnt he glory to be found within. To invest onesself in a really good game of dungeons and dragon searches for the hidden gems within. Once these things become externalized, become humble-braggable, they take on a different flavor, like a nostalgia, or a cultural celebration whose context is oceans and centuries away.

    • I would end with “ranting, sorry!” but there are no apologies for long-winded overly obsessive posts on a nerd-related topic.

    • You definitely have a point about video games, but I do think they’ve actually become more mainstream, at least based on my anecdotal experience.

      Growing up, I was the classic “video game nerd”, dedicating hours to playing not just Super Mario Bros., but also your Final Fantasies, Megamen, Street Kombats, etc, all the while being picked on for it. Fast forward to grad school, where I played casual Soul Calibur matches with some young undergrads. They were pretty decent, and there reasoning was they in high school, guys would compete for the affection of a lady by impressing her with their skills at SC, which apparently was not uncommon. I immediately felt a thousand years old and retreated to my cave.

      • I agree completely. My only argument is that of the two forces bringing them into the mainstream: gradual acceptance of nerds and increase in accessibility of graphics, music, realism, the latter is player a larger role.

  17. Hey NEEEERDS, I wrote something for skeptical/science blog about The Big Bang Theory and its representation of nerds, if you’re interested: http://youngausskeptics.com/2013/01/space-oddities-the-big-bang-theory-and-science-on-tv/

  18. TOO BRIEF. let us not forget Jonah Friedlander: whose character on 30 Rock is not only a paradigm example of the nerd ascendent ‘Whass wrong BAY-BEE?’ but whose incredible performance in American Splendor managed to not only refer to ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ but seems unbelievable until you have seen the man he is impersonating. Note perfect.

  19. I have a couple of friends who are about five or six years younger than I am. Both are unabashed gamers and very into pop culture things like Dr. Who, Firefly and so on. I always told them to remember well the crap I took to ensure that what they were into was cool.

  20. All children of the 80′s should know that there are three categories of nerds:

    Dweebs, geeks and weirdos

  21. Eddie Deezen FTW

  22. Geeks and nerds of the world! Here it is your trivial!


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