Being a Nerd is Subculture No More

Written by John Feigelson

Illustration by Ben Murphy

Popular culture is meant to embody the preferences and tastes of ordinary people. Modern popular culture can be boiled down to the key components of sports, movies, television, and social media. Movies, especially, are one of the fundamental elements of pop culture. Many of the top-grossing movie franchises concern stories and characters that could be considered nerdy. There are superheroes, secret agents, dinosaurs, spaceships, robots, and elves scattered throughout the most popular films. Nerdiness, as a rule, is often relegated to musty comic book shops and the back corner of the bookstore; it is a trait which many people try to hide rather than flaunt. There is a pervasive notion that nerdiness is subculture. Nerdiness should not be shoved under the rug and it should not be considered a subculture; it is an integral part of modern popular culture.

Nerdiness, as a term, has a certain stigma attached to it. From a young age, many children are taught that being too into science fiction or fantasy is a fast track to becoming a pariah among their peers. This idea of the nerdy outcast is present in many books, movies, and television shows. In Lev Grossman’s novel (and now television series) “The Magicians,” the central character deeply loves a series of fantasy novels. The protagonist’s love of these stories separates him from his peers, and marks him as different. In movies—from John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” to Disney Channel’s “Minutemen”—the characters who aren’t  “mainstream” or aren’t athletic are marked as outsiders. It is absurd that nerdiness is portrayed as a hallmark of an outcast because nerdiness is ingrained within the upbringing and the lives of hundreds of millions of people. There is no singular group, no matter how large, that purchased all 450 million copies of Harry Potter. In fact, the story of the young, English wizard represents the larger trend that nerdiness is not an underground vein of weirdos who don’t fit in with the larger population. Nerds are among us, and it is safe to assume that almost everyone on the Colorado College campus has an opinion on who their favorite superhero is or what Hogwarts house they would be in.

We are surrounded by nerds, perhaps most visible in those who work to define pop culture more than any other citizens: celebrities. President Obama, a man who has won two presidential elections, is an unabashed fan of Star Trek. He has had to win the hearts of millions of Americans, while proudly raising Spock’s Vulcan salute in pictures. Distinguished actors are heeding the call of nerdiness as well. Performers such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Brie Larson, Jeremy Irons, Amy Adams, Oscar Isaac, and Lupita Nyong’o are filling the roles of characters in nerdy movies (i.e. “Star Wars,” “Doctor Strange,” “Batman v. Superman”). The presence of such austere talent demonstrates that nerdiness is not an impediment to Hollywood success. Rather, it contributes to some of the strongest talent on film.

Nerdiness is not everything in pop culture. For every science fiction movie, there is a small-scale independent movie or a movie about an unbelievable athletic triumph. However, nerdiness is not a subculture. Nerdiness is a dominant force in modern pop culture, without question. Our movies are set in galaxies far, far away, our heroes carry mythical hammers and wear amazing suits of armor. Our books tell stories of aliens and gods, monsters and magic, yet these very same stories are considered “nerdy,” despite the element of aversion to nerdiness— as if it is something to be ashamed of. Nerdiness is an important and essential component of pop culture because those nerdy stories speak to us in ways that sports and romantic comedies can’t. The narratives that have become so dominant in pop culture tell tales of fantastic worlds and the unbelievable possibilities of the future. Nerdiness is not subculture—it is inspiring, important, and here to stay.

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