The (Second) Rise of the Nerd
Girls are again eyeing guys who love Converse sneakers and Japanese animated comics
Anyone who owns a “Geeks are Hot” T-shirt can tell you that the dictionary definition of a geek – a stupid or inept person — is passé.
Call them geeks, dorks or nerds, those once-uncool people ostracized for loving comics, obscure card games and computer code have loads of allure these days. Socially-awkward Seth Cohen on the TV show The O.C., for example, has become a huge hit.
Beatrice Filenger, 20, has dated lots of jocks, preppies and bad boys. Now Filenger – who is tanned and gorgeous, the type of girl geeks hang posters of in their rooms – says she likes the idea of dating nerds.
“Someone who is intelligent, interesting, and quirky, in a cute and funny way,” as she puts it.
Per the stereotype, those who get they label are interested in things most other people their age think are weird: Japanese animated comics known as anime; Dungeons and Dragons games, and fantasy card games like Magic: The Gathering. The Converse sneaker –old-fashioned lace ups in a world of sleeker sports shoes– is part of the uniform.
But Filenger cares less about those trappings, and more about other things nerds are often into, like school.
“Girls have to realize they want guys, like dorks, that are not into themselves,” said Filenger. “They want guys that are into things that matter, guys that have goals.”
Think Google creators Sergey Brin and Larry Page. During an interview with the New York Times, they reportedly played with Legos.
Nerds were first thrown into the limelight during the first dot-com era in the 1990s, when some became multi-millionaires. Intelligence and hard work were suddenly popular on campus.
Too, tastes change between high school and college.
“In high school, no one looks at the dorks,” Filenger said. “But in college you realize they are the people you want to be around.”
High school senior Alina Mikhaylova, 17, an ex-cheerleader who wants to be homecoming queen, said she could “never” date a dork. “They are not into the same things as me,” she said. Mikhaylova, who says her priorities include partying and drinking, noted that geeks “don’t wear name brands.” And, she said, “their clothing is worn out.”
Nerds attain more status in college, when students start accepting the idea that people who enjoy different things can be worth knowing, sociologists say.
Lori Kendall, a professor at the University of Illinois and author of “Nerd Nation: images of nerds in US popular culture,” says societal perceptions of nerdism wax and wane.
“In the 80s and early 90s, computer use was becoming more ubiquitous and people were marveling over the success of computer entrepreneurs,” she said. That brought phrases like “revenge of the nerds” and “triumph of the nerds” into article and movie titles. “It was a bit more okay to be knowledgeable about and care about computers,” Kendall said.
That faded for a while, Kendall said. But now nerds are again in – sort of.
“New uses of the nerd stereotype are playful and ironic,” said Kendall, citing Best Buy’s “Geek Squad” ads as an example. “But they are clearly relying on a lingering stigma.
“So on the one hand, nerds are now held up as useful (Geek Squad will come fix your computer), but still different and perhaps awkward, asocial, and sartorially-challenged. The same set of stereotypical nerdy characteristics is still familiar and held up as something not to aspire to, even if some elements are admirable.”
Weird Al Yankovic’s new music video “White and Nerdy” was Kendall’s example for that argument. But that’s a persona – and people see through it.
“Either you are a dork or you’re not,” said Justin Bonilla, 20, who says he is one.
“You can’t pretend to like video games,” said Neil Shah, 20, who likewise calls himself a nerd. “A guy is who he is. There are things that he loves.”
Shah stormed into a bar one recent evening with his hair messy and untamed. He looked as though he’d dressed in the dark. He wore his signature Converse sneakers (he owns only Converse), a pair of tight dark jeans, a simple ribbon belt, and an olive green thermal under a wrinkled polo the color of a “screamin’ green” Crayola crayon.
He walked up to his friends, and nervously asked two of them:
“How do I look?”
“Like a dork,” one of them answered.
“But hot!” yelled the other.