Is Everyone A Nerd These Days?

Amanda Marcotte's new piece on female nerds in television is perceptive — but it also shows how diluted the word "nerd" has become.

Writing in The American Prospect, Marcotte pegs her piece to Glee's Rachel Berry, but also namechecks Leslie from Parks and Recreation, Hermione from Harry Potter (as a rare filmic ladynerd), and of course, Liz Lemon. Marcotte does a good job of summarizing the oft-made criticism regarding the chasm between Liz's stated and actual hotness: "characters have to constantly remind the audience that the female nerd is hard on the eyes, because we couldn't figure that out by looking at her." But she also argues that the modern-day female nerd has graduated from object of scorn to full-fledged character: "Even as the term Tracy Flick enters the American lexicon to suggest that the overeager, whip-smart woman equals a cold-hearted she-beast, these characters persist in having love and friendship in their lives."

I agree with Marcotte's conclusion that "female audiences fill seats and spend money, and they're hungry to see more female characters who display ambition and humor and who don't just stand around looking pretty." Indeed, my quibble is a small one: is everyone a fucking nerd these days? When I was the age of the characters in Glee, "nerd" had a fungible but still relatively restrictive definition. Nerds were obsessed with something arcane, often from science fiction, they liked talking about facts, and they were socially awkward. I passed in and out of nerddom often enough (social awkwardness ebbs and flows in high school, as does one's willingness to share arcana) that I got to know the category pretty well, and Marcotte's description of Rachel Berry doesn't quite fit the bill: "She puts gold stars by her name, works out while staring at pictures of her life goals, and always is the first in class with her hand in the air." Sure, the bit about raising her hand sounds apt, but the gold stars? The life goals? Those are the traits of someone, however misguidedly, chasing mainstream forms of achievement. Someone like Election's Tracy Flick, who frankly doesn't strike me as much of a nerd either.

Not only has the list of obsessions now considered nerdy expanded to include student government and working out, it also encompasses things traditionally thought of as cool. I'm not sure when the phrase "music nerd" came about, but certainly after my adolescence, and fifteen-year-old me would have found "sex nerd" a contradiction in terms. I'm a little bummed that I came of age before the big-tentification of nerdiness, but I'm mostly okay with it, especially insofar as it blurs lines of coolness that seemed really stark in my teenage years (then again, maybe lines of coolness will always seem stark to teenagers). My only quibble is that using the word "nerd" seems to imply a subculture, a slice of humanity that's outside the norm. And Marcotte's summation of the female nerd — "characters who display ambition and humor and who don't just stand around looking pretty" — should frankly describe everyone.

Rise Of The Female Nerds [The American Prospect]