Read an Excerpt
Introduction: The Nerd Dilemma
or Why Ashton Kutcher Is Your Kid's Worst Nightmare
Not so long ago, in the days of classic television shows like The Twilight Zone, people were entertained by the “alien visitor” exercise: If beings from another planet were visiting America, what would they think of us? What would they conclude about how our society works? The exercise was weird, and fun, because it invited us to look at ourselves with a fresh eye, to examine what might not otherwise draw our attention because it is so familiar. The alien visitor has gone on to be a comedy staple since then—think the Coneheads, Mork and Mindy, or Third Rock from the Sun—and although the ponderous self-examination of Rod Serling has been replaced by something much lighter, or sillier (depending on how ponderous one is feeling on any given day), the exercise is still a good one. With that in mind, I ask you, dear reader, the following question: Have you ever watched Beauty and the Geek?
Imagine you were a visitor from another planet and you watched an episode, or (God forbid) the entire season of Ashton Kutcher's recent venture into television “reality.” If you were an alien visitor, you would learn one important thing about American culture: American earthlings come in two subgroups. There are beautiful people who appear to be hotly desired by everyone else for something called “sex” and there are ugly people who are not desired at all for the thing called “sex.” And then there are intelligent people, who seem to know an awful lot, and stupid people, who seem to be, well, really stupid. And here's the really interesting part, if you're the alien visitor: All the really intelligent people are ugly, and all the beautiful people are dumber than a box of rocks.
A charitable alien might say, “How nice! How fair! All the good qualities human earthlings demonstrate are distributed so nicely and fairly! No one gets to be beautiful and smart, and no one has to be dumb and ugly!” A less charitable alien might say, “How nice! They will be easy to conquer because the smart ones all want to mate with the dumb ones, and therefore earthlings will never get any smarter! We won't need much more than a weed whacker to take over this whole planet!”
Whatever the extraterrestrial aliens might end up thinking, they've got a lot to mull over when they watch Beauty and the Geek. But my point is not about those aliens. It is about the little terrestrial aliens already in our midst: our children. Children are just like those aliens; even the cultures they are born into are alien to them. They need to make sense of the adult world, the world of their own culture, and they approach this world with alien eyes. Some of the rules are easy to learn: their native language, what to eat and what not to eat:—things that are simple enough. But learning complex cultural constructs takes time and practice and maturity. And the more complicated a cultural construct is, the more time and growth it takes for kids to get it.
That's what this book is about: how kids learn the complicated constructs “nerd” and “geek.” Even the subtle distinction between nerds and geeks is not easy for kids or grown-ups to learn, as we shall see. But learning the whole complex is an even larger undertaking. American kids are not born knowing what a nerd is, and what they learn and how they learn it says a tremendous amount about them and, of course, about us, the adults doing the cultural transmission. This book is about how we let kids in on the notion that beauty and brains are mutually exclusive…well, sort of. As I said, the notion is complicated. But this book is also about what happens when you send a complicated message to an uncomplicated recipient. What parts of the message are received, and in what order? Because kids are a lot less complicated than we are, they get the message in parts. This book is about the parts: what parts of the message kids get first, what they get later, and what effect it has on them.
If you watch Beauty and the Geek for a whole season (an exercise I wouldn't wish on a dog, but never mind that), you'll see that the message really does get complicated. Toward the end of the season, the “beauties,” all beautiful women who appear to have IQs hovering somewhere on the basement stairs, try to teach the “geeks” something about being beautiful. And indeed, the geeks, people who look like they are allergic to every kind of soap, become somewhat more beautiful. Because all's fair in Kutcherworld, the geeks do the same for the beauties. Toward the end of the season, they try to teach the gorgeous young women to be smarter, and the gorgeous young women do indeed learn a lot of things. So one could argue that the message of the show, even for kids, is that people do not have to be stuck in their stereotypes: People can change and become multidimensional. Whether or not kids get this message is another story, as we shall see later.
Beauty and the Geek is not really so unusual; it has the formal properties of a lot of popular culture. It's actually a lot like the Berenstain Bears books for children or The Simpsons. Papa Bear or Homer Simpson might learn a lesson or two in the course of an episode, but by the beginning of the next episode he has reverted to his old stupid, infantile self. If he didn't revert, he wouldn't be Papa Bear or Homer Simpson. It's not a bildungsroman, and we shouldn't expect it to be, right? So what Beauty and the Geek might teach our little aliens is that some clueless, ugly, smart people can be rehabilitated, and some moronic sex objects can be enlightened. But it takes effort, a lot of effort, and of course when the next season starts you realize there is an unending supply of moronic beauties and ugly geeks in the world. Let's just say that no matter how uplifting the late-stage transformation, it never calls the show's basic premise—that beauty and brains are mutually exclusive—into question.
How Nerds Are Like WASPs, Except When They're Not
So this book is about the process of stereotype acquisition and the nerd/geek stereotype in particular. But anyone writing about stereotypes needs to come clean about his own attitudes and his own positions about a particular stereotype and stereotyping in general. So, being a responsible citizen, I state my own biases here: I don't think the nerd/geek stereotype is particularly healthy for kids or for American society. I don't think kids should have to give up things they really love, even if they are nerdy or geeky things, in order to get a date. I don't think hunky scientists should have to pose for beefcake calendars just to prove there is such a thing as a hunky scientist. And I don't think kids or grown-ups should be so eager to punish “geeky” enthusiasm with shaming, even if the enthusiasm is for arcane things.
It is this last point that is most important, at least to me. I spend a lot of time with kids, and I like them because they are kids. One of the things that makes kids kids is their lack of self-consciousness, and one of the things that most distinguishes nerdy kids from nonnerdy kids is exactly this quality, as we shall see later on. One might say that the kids whom others label as really nerdy are the ones who are the last to develop the self-consciousness of adolescence or, in other words, the last to grow up. The weird enthusiasms, the willingness to cooperate with adults, the lack of social skills—all these things seem nerdy and pathetic to sophisticated, self-conscious teenagers. But nerdiness has its own charms. We might even stop to celebrate the fact that many of our religious traditions recount that we are all descended from Adam and Eve, the First Nerds, who, when they disobeyed, got a lot more self-conscious—and a lot more miserable.
Despite my biases, I don't expect the nerd/geek stereotype to wither away anytime soon. And I certainly don't intend to scold my readers into shamefaced silence and expect them never to use the hated terms again. Contemporary social-science research has demonstrated conclusively over the last twenty years that having stereotypes (i.e., knowing the content of stereotypes) is practically universal. It has also shown that people who wish not to be biased and who do not act in a biased fashion can be shown to act according to stereotypes when those stereotypes are unconsciously cued. Stereotyping is universal feature of human information-processing, probably derived from the need of our ancestors living on the grassy plains of Africa to reduce complex information relatively quickly when survival was at stake. So although I think nerd/geek stereotypes are not generally good, don't worry; this book is not intended to be a sermon. All stereotypes reduce their bearers' humanity, no matter what they are. But there you go: Being human isn't all that pretty.
The nerd/geek stereotype is, of course, a good one for study because it is used so frequently. People have not been shamed into silence about using it, because it is seen as a fun, harmless stereotype: It is negative and pejorative, but it is applied to people who will be just fine, or maybe even privileged, anyway, so who cares if their feelings are hurt? Nerds and geeks will end ruling the world anyway, right? One need only look to nerd Exhibit A, Bill Gates, to get the picture. So taking them down a peg now is only fair, or maybe just an expression of a not-so-unconscious envy, a subject to which we will also return. In this sense nerds are very much like WASPs or “yuppies,” two other complicated stereotypes kids need to be instructed about if they are going to participate in grown-up American culture.
Let's take the WASP stereotype, for example. When you think about it, it's pretty complicated. WASPs are, like nerds, not immediately visible to kids, at least not to white kids. They are not of a different color, so their differences are not immediately apparent to a kid. Kids need to learn how to recognize them; how else to explain the mysterious popularity of The Official Preppy Handbook? Kids do not immediately know that the following things do actually go together: blond hair, madras pants, a passion for wooden boats, attendance at Episcopalian churches, locked jaws, a genuine unironic taste for foods cooked in aspic, riding lessons, playing squash, bad cooking, islands off the coast of New England, gin, and an ethical code the first principle of which is “Never spend capital.” We know who they are, and we mock them freely, even now. For a contemporary example, we might look to Lorelei's parents on Gilmore Girls. We can all use the term “WASP” without worrying about seeming to be prejudiced or mean, because WASPs can look out for themselves. (Indeed, if the stereotype is correct, they are very good at it.) But learning the stereotype can take time, especially if one grows up in Iowa or Arkansas, where WASPs aren't exactly a dime a dozen: it takes practice to learn that when people say “the vineyard,” they mean the Vineyard (as in Martha's Vineyard), not just any vineyard.
Yuppies, of course, are even more mysterious. Yuppies are worse than WASPs, execrable in every way, but who the hell are they? Young urban professionals, okay. The term is used in such a protean fashion that it is almost meaningless; listing the stigmas of yuppiedom, as we can easily do for WASPdom, is a very difficult project to undertake with any degree of certainty. It is easy to insult yuppies, of course, because the membership group is so mysterious that no one quite knows how to decide who is one…and therefore one can deny (at least to oneself ) group membership. Indeed, this term may have come and gone, because its referent is so vague that people just can't understand it or because the implication of conspicuous consumption is so widespread that everyone is one.
The nerd/geek stereotype is kind of like these, because it is complex and not immediately visible; it requires some training. But as is not the case with “WASP” and “yuppie,” kids apply the terms “nerd” and “geek” to one another. They know it is a bad thing to be, and they know they don't want to be one, even before they know what it is. They know from other kids' intonation that it is a term of scorn, and therefore something to be avoided. It is, of course, a painful moment in the life of all kids when they hear the term applied to themselves and realize that it fits. But it is also painful for kids whom the term does not fit; those kids have to spend time trying to figure out of they are nerds or geeks, and they have another thing about which to vigilant.
Take a trip down memory lane to when you were a kid and heard a new derogatory or illicit term. For me, the prototype was when I was nine, and a fourteen-year-old sister of one of my friends said to us, “You don't want people to think you're a snerd, do you?” The way she said it made it perfectly clear that it was a terrible thing to be, but neither my friend nor I knew what it meant. Of course, we begged for enlightenment, and we were told with perfect clarity that a “snerd” was a boy who went around sniffing girls' bicycle seats. We were both way too embarrassed to ask why anyone would do that; at nine, I hadn't a clue. The term I remember from way back then has changed, of course. Now the Internet will tell a kid with perfect authority that someone who goes around sniffing girls' bicycle seats is a “gink,” or a “quibbie,” or a “snurge”; it is also an activity associated with a “nerd.” All I remember is being confused, a little ashamed, and determined not to be one of those.
American childhood is full of such moments. Indeed, shame is part and parcel of what it is like to be a kid. Grownups are well insulated from shame, and because it is such an awful thing to feel, they avoid it at all costs. But to go one step beyond Art Linkletter, kids feel ashamed about the darndest things. That, too, is what this book is about.
Talking to Kids About Stereotypes
I am a clinical child psychologist and a college teacher in developmental psychology thirty years ago talking to kids, and watching kids talk to one another, about their friendships, and since then I have talked to kids about all kinds of things: superheroes, how to remember things, death, being Good and being Bad, disease, parents, geometry, music, magic…all kinds of things. And I am privileged to be able to talk to kids about all kinds of things in a sheltered setting where they usually feel comfortable enough to open up. But talking to kid about stereotypes is not easy. That shame thing, for instance, makes a lot of kids, especially the younger ones, reticent. They think it's not okay to talk about mean things. It's kind of like swearing, and they think they're not supposed to. Speaking to six- or seven-year-olds when they are first developing the nerd/geek stereotype is interesting, but it is mighty hard to do. They get embarrassed and balky if they have heard the words, because frequently all they know is that they are bad. (They sure don't know what a pocket protector is or an SAT score.) But if they haven't heard the words, it is not at all nice being the bearer of bad news. When kids haven't really heard or thought about the terms “nerd” and “geek,” no grown-up, me included, wants to introduce them. Any kid being grilled about nerds by a grown-up will ask himself or herself, Why am I being questioned about this, and why is it so important? The first thing kids will want to do is go out and learn all they can (from their friends) about nerds and geeks.
Anthropologists know all about this and try to avoid it whenever possible: changing the phenomenon under observation by the act of observation. It makes the project, interviewing younger kids about the concept, difficult. But it is also more than a little unsettling from a moral point of view. If part of the experience of nerds is that they are unself-conscious, a good long interview on the topic can spoil all that in a second. It's kind of like being the snake in the Garden of Eden: introducing self-consciousness where it does not heretofore exist. It's not a nice thing to do.
So the interviews with kids in this book tend to be with older kids who are in high school or college, who all have been well indoctrinated in the ways of the nerd by then, have lots to say on the subject, and remember enough of their childhood to recall when they started thinking about these issues. The reported interviews with younger kids arose mostly in casual conversation about other things and tended to be brief to avoid that snake-in-the-Garden thing. But those in a position to overhear kids when they are on the playground or when they are in the backseat of the car will recognize the truth in the fragments I have been able to provide.
The Full-Disclosure Part
Full disclosures of potential conflicts of interest are all the rage on the op-ed pages these days, so why not here? Readers may want to know, is this book just some sort of special pleading? Is it the work of some raging nerd seeking revenge in his own understated, nerdy way? Don't you deserve to know if I am myself a nerd?
Happy to disclose, but it all depends on whom you ask. As noted in the following chapters, some people, especially young people, adopt a broad definition and define a nerd as anyone who wears glasses, on the theory that anyone would wear contacts if he chose to, so wearing glasses must be some sort of badge or nerdity. In that case, I am indeed a nerd; I have never been able to get used to contacts. And in a historical sense, I have certainly done some pretty nerdy things: In my fourth-grade class play, I played the part of the Dictionary. I wore a cardboard box spray-painted black with the word “Dictionary” in white letters across the front while I went around helping kids by defining words for them. I don't remember being called a nerd, but I think my classmates and I were just a little too young and, besides, the term then was “brainiac.”
In high school, I was saved by the counterculture: Just when I was sinking into terminal nerdiness as a member of the high school band, I discovered hippiedom. My long hair and enthusiastic embrace of hippie clothes and politics saved me from the approval I once had from nearby adults, the pathognomic sign of the high school nerd. And by the time I got into college, of course, it no longer mattered. So when I write of nerdiness, I know whereof I speak, although I usually spared myself the overt hostility of my classmates by being crafty. So revenge, dear reader, is not on the agenda. If it's revenge you want, go elsewhere. (I can direct you to a lot of websites where pissed-off nerds and geeks call for Armageddon in the never-ending war on jocks, but I advise you to stay away if you want a good night's sleep.)
The Plan of this Book
In the following pages, then, I hope to address the question: if you were a visitor from another planet, how would you really understand Beauty and the Geek? In the first four chapters, we take a look at the current and historical versions of the nerd/geek stereotype. What do we think nerds are, and what do our kids think nerds are? We'll inspect the landscape and try to map the cultural definitions of “nerd” and “geek” and then compare them with kids' understandings of these concepts. As we shall see, we get two very different maps. We'll also look at the concept cross-culturally and historically to find out why it is so uniquely American. In chapters 5 through 9, we'll look at the specifics of the nerd/geek stereotype, at least as defined by “Are you a nerd?” self-tests on the Internet. We'll consider the Five Foundations of nerdiness: Nerds are, by definition: (a) unsexy, (b) interested in technology, (c) uninterested in their personal appearance, (d) enthusiastic about stuff that bores everybody else, and (e) persecuted by nonnerds who are sometimes known as jocks. We'll look at research data and talk to nerdy and nonnerdy kids to find out what they think about what they think about the Five Foundations, and we'll ask whether these attributes really go together at all. In the last chapter, we'll think about what it all means. Is this something we can, or should, change? If we can't change the stereotype, can we mitigate some of its bad effects? Or should we embrace our inner Kutcher and have fun picking on people who will be our future masters while we still can? Perhaps, at the end, we can send our alien visitors back to their home planet a little more enlightened then when they arrived.