The Nerd in His Natural Habitat

Oi. This essay by Willie Osterweil makes some important points. But the whole thing is so choked with social-justice cliches that his conclusion, I think, is almost completely off-base.

Osterweil is writing about nerd culture and cinema. He argues that persecuted white boys appeared in films of 70s and 80s as a way of diverting attention from larger social issues:

New Hollywood, the “American new wave” movement of the ’60s and 1970s, remains to many film historians the last golden age of serious Hollywood filmmaking. Though often reactionary and appropriative, the films of the period were frequently dealing with real social problems: race, class, gender violence. …

This turmoil, as much as anything else, produced the innovative Hollywood cinema of the period …

But along came American malaise, Reagan, the blockbuster era, etc., etc., and “films like A Woman Under the Influence, Serpico, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Network” gave way to the “miserable schlock” of the 1980s: “big-budget spectacles with lowest-common-denominator subject matter.”

In Osterweil’s view, this was part of a larger conservative backlash:

Reagan’s main political move was to sweep social conflict under the rug and “unify” the population in a new “Morning in America” through an appeal to a coalition of whites concerned about “crime” and taxation. … Hollywood in the 1980s worked hard to render social tensions invisible and project a safe and stable white suburban America (as opposed to urban hellscapes) whose travails were largely due to bureaucratic interference, whether through meddling high school principals like in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or the tyrannical EPA agents in Ghostbusters.

Well, all right. I’m wary of any cultural critic who puts scare quotes around the word crime, but Osterweil’s certainly onto something. The 80s really were a time when crowd-pleasing spectacle replaced the gritty sensationalism of the 70s and the socially conscious experimentalism of the 60s. (I think this made the 80s something a golden age for children’s cinema, but that’s a subject for another day.)

Osterweil goes badly awry, however, when he gets to the nut of his argument:

Central to this program of making social conflict disappear, oddly enough, is the nerd.

The archetypal nerd is a common figure in movies of many eras, including the 80s. But a central figure? Osterweil describes this stock character as:

a smart but awkward, always well-meaning white boy irrationally persecuted by his implacable jock antagonists in order to subsume and mystify true social conflict — the ones around race, gender, class, and sexuality that shook the country in the 1960s and ’70s — into a spectacle of white male suffering.

He goes on to blame this “myth of nerd oppression” for a host of social ills: Trumpism, white supremacy, neo-Nazis, the rise of the alt-right, GamerGate, the excesses of Silicon Valley, persecution of women and people of color–essentially every political problem of modern America.

Osterweil holds up Revenge of the Nerds as a prototypical fairy tale of nerd oppression. Revenge of the Nerds is certainly a lousy movie, and a good illustration of his thesis. But what’s most striking about Osterweil’s argument is how much it leaves out.

After all, the cinematic backlash that put white male antiheroes at the center of Hollywood revenge fantasies didn’t begin with the suburban melodramas of the 80s. It began with the exploitation films of the 70s–the very period Osterweil extols. In films like Assault on Precinct 13, The Warriors, Escape from New York, and the original Mad Max, heavy-hitting, hypermasculine men fought back against what they saw as a sick and declining society. The violent loners of seventies cinema were hardly “smart” or “well-meaning.” They were savage, broken, angry, vengeful. And they took to the streets to vent their rage.

This was an overt backlash to the social upheavals of the sixties, and, I think, a revealing one. These bitter white men didn’t simply replace minorities as sympathetic figures in tales of persecution and resistance. They actually did battle with violent hordes unleashed by broken social bonds–along with scheming authorities, hypocritical establishment types, and anyone else who stood in their way. They packed heat and hit the street, blasting away pimps, gangs, rioters, dealers, dope-fiends, anarchists, bums, and the shills and shysters of an effete establishment.

In this upside-down myth of American individualism, white male mavericks were the true rebels, the renegades, the loners, the underdogs. But the films did have a skewed sort of racial consciousness, and black men still had a critical role to play. They were often cast as unwitting accomplices of an evil elite, dupes or fools or unknowing tools, doing their best to play along with the rules of a wrecked society. The ubervillain would always be a white man in a suit, pulling levers behind the scenes. But the white hero frequently found himself in the company of a strong black man–a Billy Dee Williams, a Danny Glover, a Carl Weathers–who hadn’t realized he was carrying water for unworthy masters. Usually these unwitting accomplices came to realize how badly they’d been used. But by then it was too late.

What role, exactly, does the persecuted nerd of the 80s play in the context of this larger, longer trend? Most white-male rebels of the 70s and 80s hardly fit the profile of a skinny, geeky teenager yearning to score a date with a blonde cheerleader. Is Rambo a nerd? Is Rocky a nerd? Is Dirty Harry a nerd? Is Travis Bickle a nerd? Was Charles Bronson known for playing nerds?

What about the action stars of the 80s and 90s? By the time Arnold Schwarzenegger hit his stride, the conventions of the outdated Western genre had been thoroughly remodded as hip new tales of urban cowboys, post-apocalyptic loners, and wasteland warriors. The updated image of a white-male renegade, operating at the margins of society, had hardened into a durable cliche. Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone, and Steven Seagal all forged careers by playing variations of the type, while Bruce Willis and Schwarzenegger learned to woo mainstream taste by cannily playing against it. A lesser star like Kurt Russell could get away with doing both.

What surrounds and binds these icons, I think, is a simmering stew of white-male resentment that bubbled up in the 70s, was quicky channeled into an orgy of cinematic escapism, and slowly congealed into a set of caricatures. The horny nerd of 80s comedy is certainly one of those caricatures. But he’s hardly the most influential.

Even the films and characters cited by Osterweil offer little to support his thesis, and much to complicate it. The heroes of Weird Science, the character Brian from The Breakfast Club, Ted from Sixteen Candles: those are great examples of resentful geeks. But two of them are minor characters, and Weird Science is hardly a landmark film. What about the other names Osterweiler offers? Ferris Bueller, the too-cool-for-school slacker with rich pals, a gorgeous girlfriend, and a laid-back attitude–this is a nerd? The hard-drinking losers of Animal House–nerds? Skateboarding California kid Marty McFly–a nerd? (Perhaps Osterweil means George McFly, a much better example.) The everyday hero played by Ralph Machio in the Karate Kid? River Phoenix’s character in Stand by Me? The only nerd in The Goonies is Data, who embodies a troublesome stereotype but hardly advances a fantasy of white oppression, while the “bullies” in the movie are hardened bankrobbers. And Osterweil fails to name the ur-nerd of late eighties television: Steve Urkel.

There’s also a revealing elision here, in that Osterweil, like so many writers on this topic, slips freely between describing stories about nerds and stories beloved by nerds. When Osterweil says that today, “nerd culture is culture” he doesn’t mean that popular culture has been overtaken by sequels to Revenge of the Nerd, reboots of Weird Science, and integrated film franchises set in the world of Ferris Bueller. He doesn’t mean that overgrown nerds are lovingly curating their collections of Meatballs and Animal House DVDs. He doesn’t mean that a new generation of nerds is bickering about fan edits of The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles.

Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Men, Aliens, Indiana Jones, epic fantasy: these are the pop-culture products that nerds embraced in the eighties, and while they’re as white-centric as any other property of the period, they hardly play into the narrative of nerd-persecution that Osterweil has in his sights. If anything, these stories are notable for eschewing the curdled ressentiment Osterweiler makes his focus, harping instead on simple fables of stoic virtue and moral growth. The utopia of Star Trek depends on a legitimate and well-ordered establishment. Spock, the original nerd icon, is a model of Senecan self-restraint. Star Wars is a transparently anti-fascist fantasy. Indiana Jones and Captain America are the original Nazi punchers. I could go on.

That’s not to say these works aren’t flawed or flimsy in other ways. But if you take the white-male-frustration out of Rambo, or Dirty Harry, or Animal House, or Taxi Driver, you don’t have much left. You can put a black man at the helm in Star Trek, or a woman at the center of the Star Wars mythos, or zip just about anyone into a superhero suit, without changing the fundamental appeal of those stories. Which is why, I think, so-called nerd culture expanded to engulf the world, while the freaks-and-geeks celebrated by John Hughes and Judd Apatow ended up sequestered in a narrow market niche.

Finally, I have to mention my own experience. As a late Gen-Xer, I grew up in the period Osterweil describes. I wasn’t queer, fat, disabled, or nonwhite–traits Osterweil cites as targets of true oppression–but I was very much a nerd, and very much an outcast, at least up through middle school. And I was always baffled, put off, and not infrequently disgusted by the cliched depictions of nerds in mainstream culture, which I saw as having little connection to my own experience.

My mother often urged me to watch the kinds of movies Osterweiler critiques. Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Revenge of the Nerds: I saw them all at her prompting, thanks to her mistaken belief that I would find them comforting or cathartic. But I didn’t see myself reflected in the grubby caricatures of those films–gawky, bobble-headed, perpetually horny geeks, who never seemed to read or study but were addicted to shallow pranks and crass sexual humor. For that matter, I didn’t recognize the bullies onscreen, either. I didn’t think of myself as having been pushed around by jocks (who were, if anything, kinder to me than most other kids, precisely because their high social status relieved them of the need to buff their reputations by trashing geeks and dweebs). I didn’t get chased after school by gangs of meatheads. I didn’t dream of molesting and raping cheerleaders.

As I got older, I dreamed of having a girlfriend, sure. But the travesty of a movie like Revenge of the Nerds is that it doesn’t have much to do with love or even lust at all. It depicts a cynical and joyless world where girls are passed around as trophies in a savage male status competition–a bully’s view of life.

No, I’m pretty sure I saw this stuff for what it was: a bundle of gross stereotypes peddled by people who didn’t evince much genuine interest in science fiction, math, myth, or truth–who weren’t nerds themselves, and didn’t care to understand those who were.

And I didn’t think of myself as a good kid unfairly persecuted by a few cruel jerks. I thought of myself as someone who was legitimately hateful, and as a necessary consequence, universally hated: by athletes, by teachers, by the school bus driver, by mean girls, by nice girls, by ordinary kids, by video-game fans, by comic-fans, by straight-A students, by straight-F students: by every single person in school. That attitude is, of course, pathological in its own way, and throughout my childhood I oscillated between the familiar poles of narcissism–obsessive self-loathing and disdainful misanthropy–but I certainly didn’t think of myself as an ordinary kid victimized by alpha males. I thought of myself as a monster, an incarnation of all that was loathsome, repulsive, and odious in the universe. Sometimes I imagined that my monstrous status had given me a rare insight into the cruelty and hypocrisy of others–I liked to believe I could be both special and despicable. But I felt little affinity with the angry white men I saw on movie screens. In my view, they were, themselves, exponents and enforcers of an oppressive normalcy.

For solace, I looked to portrayals of creatures, characters, and entities who were in some way monstrous themselves: unreal, eldritch, or anyway, inhuman. My favorite 80s flicks were the Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Gremlins, Aliens, Krull, The Neverending Story, Return of the Jedi, and Little Shop of Horrors–anything, in short, with rubber monsters. Some of those movies have a strong dose of nerd-revenge in them (the original script for Gremlins is heavy going), but that’s not what attracted me. I liked the monsters themselves, the idea that you could be a sentient and self-aware animal without necessarily being human.

That fantasy, too, has its childish and self-involved aspects–as does the impulse to see oneself as uniquely monstrous, or for that matter, uniquely anything. But I’m not sure it’s resentful in quite the way Osterweil describes. It underlies, I think, a widespread tendency to find villains–flawed, colorful, shunned–more appealing than sanctimonious heroes. And as I got older, my fascination with monsters led me away from the white-bread patriarchs of classic science fiction, toward the countercultural misfits of sci-fi’s new wave. It led me away from stock stories about hypercompetent supermen toward outsider views of every kind. And it led me away from stories about loners in search of revenge toward tales of losers in search of grace. It may not be optimal to grow up seeing oneself as something other than a member of the human race. But if the antihero secretly longs for respect, the monster privately yearns for redemption.

Is this what other nerds and outcasts feel? I can’t be sure, but the nerd culture so prevalent today, for all its childishness and absurdity, strikes me as an implicit rebuke to the antisocial impulses enshrined in seventies and eighties cinema. The story that modern Hollywood tells–over and over and over–is a self-esteem-boosting fairy tale of personal transformation, the account of a humble kid who discovers a magical destiny, strives to be worthy of a special power, and ultimately saves the world. That’s a recipe for overblown effects and sentimental moralizing. But it’s a far cry from the implicit demand made by the antihero: that society change to meet his needs, while he refuses to change at all.

So what’s really going on? I think the story goes something like this. After the ructions of the 60s, America underwent a backlash of white anxiety and resentment that ultimately found an important outlet in mass culture. Moviemakers learned to channel social tensions into homey fables of heroic solipsism: one lone (white) maverick against the world. Over subsequent decades, Hollywood served up thirty-two flavors and then some of this kind of middle-class iconoclasm: macho warriors hemmed in by stuffy pencil-pushers, slobs and deadbeats harangued by pushy dads, broken veterans harassed by ungrateful civilians, stoners bothered by squares, snide ironists alienated from mainstream life, poor Molly Ringwald types persecuted by suburban snobs, preppy slackers chased by stuffy principals, disillusioned cops, underdog athletes, gloomy girls with suicidal tendencies, and a dozen other stereotypes of suburban nonconformism. Almost as an afterthought, nerds were added to the list, usually as secondary characters–sources of comic relief, convenient sidekicks, or peripheral additions to crews of misfits.

Meanwhile, what were nerds in the real world doing? Learning to code, studying science, obsessing over trivia, and diving into fantasy worlds. The fantasies they chose were the ones everyone loved. Every kid in the 80s loved Star Wars, every kid in the 80s played Nintendo. Nerds became associated with these cultural touchstones not because they were the only ones who liked them, but because they were unusually dependent on them–more obsessive about trivia, more limited in their tastes, more likely to use pop culture as a therapeutic crutch. A well-adjusted kid grew up with movies, TV, games, toys, sports, computers, school, friends, church, clubs, cars, books, and camping trips. A nerd might emotionally invest in a handful of those hobbies, becoming, as a result, overinvolved and weirdly possessive.

Those trends have run alongside each other ever since, and now we see the result. The nerds who learned to code are still coding. The nerds who loved superheroes still love superheroes–and most other grownups do too. Nerds are still weird, socially awkward, and irksomely overattached to their small set of cultural preferences.

Meanwhile, white resentment is very much with us, and still seduces whites of all types: elite businessmen, churchgoing soccer moms, grown-up jocks, potty-mouthed trolls, smarmy comedians, duckhunting woodsmen, graying feminists, and just about every type of white person imaginable. If millions of white people voted for Trump, and millions of white people are nerds, is it really so surprising that some nerds are also Trump supporters? And if nerds as a group are persnickity, socially awkward, clueless around people of the opposite sex, and tiresomely opinionated–well, isn’t that what being a nerd means?

Osterweiler, and many writers like him, attempt a kind of magic trick. They take a broad cultural trend–white male resentment–that touches every aspect of Western society. Then they take a specific stereotype–the nerd–that, like almost everything else in American culture, has been affected in some way by the trend. They wave their rhetorical wand and say, “Abracadabra–make the stereotype a metonym,” and voila: every resentful white male becomes a reflection, facet, or aspect of one type: a geeky, horny, awkward loser, masturbating to anime in his mother’s basement. Louche comedians? Just another type of nerd. Underdog heroes? Well, nerds see themselves as underdogs, so all underdogs can be, by inference, nerds. Gun-nuts? They’re resentful loners, and nerds are also resentful loners–so, yes, they’re also nerds. Drunken frat boys? Well, they’re rapey, and nerds are also rapey, right? Take the process far enough, everyone’s a nerd.

But this obscures the reality on the ground. Osterweiler, straining to draw a connection between a few flashy fascists and a handful of half-forgotten films, ignores how overwhelmingly mainstream the archetype of the white-male loner used to be. And if we’re serious about tracing the origins of modern social ills–well, it’s not as if libertarian coders have a monopoly on misogny. Harvey Weinstein; Roger Ailes; Bills O’Reilly, Clinton, and Cosby; all the way up to the big DT himself: are these men nerds?

It irritates me that this kind of sloppy sloganeering so often stands in for a sincere attempt to grapple with subtler issues–including the actual ailments of nerd culture. The pains suffered by shy, smart, sensitive kids may not amount to structural oppression, but they’re real, and they lead to real problems. And the place where nerd culture rubs up against feminism is a source of severe social friction, to say the least. But how are we going to cope with those issues if people insist on collapsing the cultural chasms that separate PewDiePie from Rush Limbaugh, Tom Cruise from James Damore, Richard Spencer from Louis C.K.?

By cherrypicking examples and skating over significant differences, Osterweiler makes nerds both more important and less meaningful than they are. He commits the mistake nerds themselves are often accused of: confusing fantasy and reality.

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