For a long time I have considered myself a nerd; an avid reader and true academic from an early age. I embraced the term “nerd” more and more during the multiple summers I spent at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth summer programs, where I learned that it was cool to love learning, comic book characters, abstract television shows, and the unique brains of those around me. In my adult years, I have retained many of those endearing qualities that made me such an oddball little kid. This is an important piece of my origin story, because I believe this love of knowledge and asking hard questions led me to Women’s and Gender Studies, and then Higher Education, academic disciplines where I get to constantly question ideological structures and challenge people’s preconceived notions of identity and being. I had the opportunity to take a course in my Masters program titled “Men and Masculinities”, in which I explored the multiple masculinities that exist within our society. Since the course didn’t reference “nerd masculinity” within its material, I chose to write my final research paper on the topic, and uncovered some insightful information. So all of this (and my relationship with the one and only Higher Ed Geek, who eagerly pushed me to write about this topic) is what has brought me to this blog post.
I’ll preface this by saying that I recognize there is a difference between nerds and geeks, however there are enough similarities between the stereotypes of the two that for the purposes of this blog I will be referring to “nerds” and a generalized “nerd masculinity” for some simplification.
I started with analyzing some research of school-aged children, since those formative years shape who we become as adults (I suggest checking out NERDS; American Nerd; and The Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth if you are interested in children’s perceptions of nerd identity). Stereotypically, “nerds” in elementary and high school are social outcasts, these tend to be the students who have a high intellect, a touch of social awkwardness, and those who find comfort in rational thought. What struck me was that high intellect and rational thought are coveted traits in hegemonic masculinity (the traditional norms and standards society has constructed and expects men to act within); however, nerds are assumed to lack desirable physical traits or social or athletic skills which enable them to fit in with hegemonic standards. These traits may carry on into adulthood, and can become defining characteristics of men’s personalities.
Nerd masculinity is confusing; you might be thinking, “If nerds don’t fit into hegemonic standards of masculinity, how could things like Gamergate or hypersexualized comic book characters happen?” What I’ve learned is that specifically because nerds are ostracized by society (women and other men), they have to perform in a hypermasculine way to attempt to be accepted. This of course, is a generalization, but many nerdy men often feel marginalized within our society’s hierarchical structure, and thus feel the need to marginalize others in order to gain back some sense of power. Every social group (think: religion, ethnicity, national status, sexual orientation) has a hierarchal system in which someone gets oppressed.
Dr. NerdLove has a great article about these toxic notions of masculinity that enable this system of domination and oppression to work in our society. He defines it as a specific narrative about the ways men should act: “emotionally repressed, thuggishly violent, sexually aggressive”. Because toxic masculinity has seeped into every crevice of society, including popular culture and the media, even men who aren’t seen as highly masculine still subconsciously engage in hypermasculine behavior. This is cyclical—nerds are inherently oppressed within the hierarchy of hegemonic masculinity, so they seek out alternative spaces and create their own hierarchy by attempting to emulate behavior that will hopefully gain them more privilege within the hegemonic power structure.
As in all other masculinities, nerd masculinity cannot be understood as a simple blanket identity. There are definitely subtle variations of nerd masculinity that either embrace, or push away from, specific practices of hegemonic masculinity. While nerd culture is not the perfect alternative to hegemonic masculinity, it is certainly becoming absorbed and more accepted by popular culture (read: Marvel and DC movies are dominating the box office, board game sales are steadily increasing, and did anyone see how much Star Wars advertising there was?). Nerd culture is revolutionizing this technological age we live in, and the once ridiculed interests and hobbies of nerds and geeks are becoming popular and in high demand.
While there are still some downsides to nerd culture, including the sexual objectification of women (like women being groped and photographed without their consent at Comic Con, and the few women who are even represented in comics often have ridiculous body shapes and are in in ridiculous poses), as more men begin speaking out against this behavior, and as more women continue joining the nerd ranks, this behavior can and will readily change. Nerd culture has the potential to be a diverse and inclusive environment; just think of all the different characters, superpowers, magical lands, and origin stories that exist across its many different genres. Nerd culture also creates a space for imagination, fun, and creativity, which people of all ages deserve to have access to. Those who embrace nerd masculinity has the ability to subvert hegemonic masculinity and fight the good fight, they just first have to become conscious about what they are standing against.