'Geek' And 'Nerd' Are Now Cool... So Is That Cool?

Ming-Na Wen
Credit: Denis Kwan

If everything old can be made new again, then maybe everything bad can turn good.

A few scant years ago, “geek” and “nerd” were legit insults, hurled at the pocket-protector crowd just before a swirlie. But that script has seemingly flipped. Geek and nerd are now labels to aspire to. Congratulations, you’re Hercules and Hera in horn-rims.

There’s a Gentlemen Nerds podcast for your listening pleasure, and all your beauty needs can be met by Geek Chic Cosmetics. And if you’re Neal Stephenson, you’re a two-for-the-price-of one: The Los Angeles Times calls him "the reigning monarch of geek novelists" in a headline that proclaims his latest novel as "moonstruck by nerdiness.”

Yes, Virginia, when million-selling novelists and belly button-baring actresses get hung with the “nerd” moniker, their publicists don’t rush to deflect the tag - they embrace it. Welcome to the day of #nerd.

A Nerd By Any Other Name

But language is tricky, fluid. Just what is that “nerd” you’re claiming to be and probably hashtagging?

Credit: Dr. Suess (Random House)

“Nerd” has its origins in, of all things, the 1950 Dr. Seuss book If I Ran the Zoo, in which a mythical zookeeper catalogs the mythical creatures he’d want to have in his menagerie, calling for “a nurckle, a nerd, and a seersucker, too.” By the ’60s, the term was in limited use, and usually meant someone who was bookish, awkward, and altogether not with-it. “Nerd” as an insult probably reached its apex in the ’70s with the hit TV show Happy Days, where it was the all-purpose (and Standard and Practices-approved) putdown.

Then, something happened.

Today’s best all-purpose definition of “nerd” that exists both inside and outside the “little villages” of comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, and whatnot is “somebody smart, who probably works in a technical field.” And with smart comes money. And with money comes power and prestige.

“So many Silicon Valley types have made so much money that it makes it easier to flip that term,” Charles Harper Webb told Newsarama. “Nothing turns people around faster than lots of money.”

Webb knows his terms. He’s an English professor at California State University, Long Beach and widely published poet. His collection of literary essays, A Million MFAs Are Not Enough, is a bestseller. And he’s seen “nerd” flip.

“It is something that groups and societies can almost will into action,” he said. “Some objectionable terms have flipped. ‘Queer’ is one. It used to be an all-out insult, but gay people took that word and tried to make it a badge of honor. And if enough people do it, it will change. Language bends to use. If you come to my college now and are interested in Queer Studies, they’ll sign you up.”

Revenge of the Nerds

We’re likely still a long way from “Nerd Studies,” but it looks like nerd has hit full mainstream acceptance. Walk down the street in any major American city and you’ll likely see equally as many Green Lantern logo t-shirts as you will baseball jerseys. Geeks are mainstream, in reality and online.

Credit: Newsarama

We now live in a day and age where your Twitter avatar is who you are, and Ming-Na Wen wears it. Literally. The Twitter profile of the Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actress shows her with a shirt screaming “NERD” across her torso.

“I’ve always considered myself someone who fits that category: Geek girl, nerd, or whatever,” said Wen. “I was always into science fiction, video games. I was a theater girl. I guess it’s something I’ve identified with ever since I was young.”

And it’s nerd o’clock to Wen’s mind.

“I feel the nerds and the geeks rule the world, so it’s a good category to be in,” she said. “Now, nerds and geeks, because of tech, are viewed as the people who are capable of creating this part of our world. So smart becomes sexy.”

And yeah, the “NERD” shirt is a very conscious choice.

“I think my avatar is a way to say you can be a nerd and still be cool, powerful, and sexy if you want. I’m showing off my belly button at an age [53] where most women are grandparents. You should be proud of who you are, and shouldn’t let labels of any sort dictate who you are, how you talk, or how you behave.”

Wen sees that “nerd” has come a long way, but maybe not all the way just yet.

“I know there are still struggles for teenagers, high school geeks,” she said. “They get picked on by the more popular, ‘pretty’ people, I guess. I have a teenage daughter and I see that there is still a stigma. But ultimately, if you want to label as a geek or a nerd, make it a positive label. Look at a Steve Jobs, a Bill Gates, or maybe even someone like me who gets to play Agent May. You can find strength in the word.”


Credit: Jim Lee/Scott Williams/Joe Rosas (Marvel Comics)


The nerd revolution was probably more an evolution. And Lou Bank had a front-row seat for it. Bank was director of sales for Marvel Comics from 1990-93, and went on to marketing positions at Dark Horse Comics, Rogue Ale, and the Dolores Kohl Education Foundation. When X-Men #1 sold 8 million copies in 1991, Bank was the one selling it. He agrees with the “Bill Gates Factor.”

“If you think about the attributes that make a male attractive, power is certainly one of them,” Bank said. “And money becomes power. I hesitate to say that’s the be-all, but it’s something that indicates that geek culture is acceptable. I think our audience was growing rapidly at the time because people figured out that ‘geeks have money.’”

And Bank is also an early adopter; a longtime comic fan who taught himself to read using comics starting at age 4. He still felt an outsider in the early ’90s heyday.

“I can remember making six figures, living in Manhattan, and still thinking I wasn’t cool enough to go to the hip bars,” he said.

But now, geek is hip. And it was people like Nightwing and Revival writer Tim Seeley who paved the way. They took a swirlie for you.

Seeley grew up in the ’80s in a small town in Wisconsin where the main interests were snowmobiles and wrestling. He was the comic book kid; the horror movie kid, but he kept it quiet. His nerd cred is impeccable.

Credit: Bob Larkin (Marvel Comics)

Once, when Marvel Comics told him he couldn’t put Crystar, the Crystal Warrior on a cover because Marvel didn’t own the character, Seeley told the legal department to go look again. They found out that, yes, Marvel did own Crystar. Seeley both talks the talk and walks the walk. He sees today’s nerd acceptance as a triumph.

“It feels like it’s about people taking back the term nerd, from being an insult to being something to be proud of,” he said. But he also sees backlash.

“I think there’s a bitterness on some level in ‘O.G.’ nerd culture, because they couldn’t be public with it,” Seeley says. “Older nerds feel a little slighted when the ‘cool kids’ come in. Maybe people feel like they paved the way, and now no one is thanking them for keeping the flame alive on Dr. Strange for 25 years so Marvel could make this billion-dollar movie now.”

Seeley calls jumping on nerds-come-lately “a bulls--t reaction.” And he reaches into the nerdy world of deep-cut music for an example.

“It's certainly not something we should be taking out on a younger generation,” he says. “It's not their fault, just like it's not my fault I couldn't get into Joy Division until much later because Ian Curtis died when I was two years old.”

Today, some combination of Steve Jobs and Spider-Man have broken the nerd ceiling, and geeks are no longer closeted.

“The current generation of kids, they share everything, and they’re very public on social media,” Seeley said. “My brother is a teacher, and another good friend runs an after-school program, and they tell me that kids find each other through nerdy stuff. They’re not quiet about it. They can share it, it’s okay.”

And Seeley sees that as a triumph.

“And now the next goal is keeping it going, making the audience bigger,” he said. “You can’t just say ‘Hell yeah!’ and kick back like it’s mission accomplished.”

And the most important part? Now that the nerd is the apex predator of the cultural landscape, it needs to remember its past and embrace its next generation.

“All these people ever wanted was for the world to be inclusive of them,” Seeley says. “People who today’s kids aren’t ‘real nerds’ or that they didn’t earn it…that pisses me off. If your purport to love something, just love it.”

- You can, should you so desire, “follow Jim McLauchlin on Twitter,” as the kids say. It’s @McLauchlin

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