Tag Archives: nerd


16 Aug


I’m in the US! I’ve been here for six days and I cannot believe the amount of stuff that has happened since I left Australia on Tuesday. So many adventures that must be chronicled.

But first: BACK STORY.

1. It’s not the most interesting backstory in the world, however backstory is necessary in order to provide context; context which will hopefully enhance feelings of triumph attached to some incredible moments of fortune.

This trip has officially been planned since January but has been in the workings ever since I started my research on nerd identity. I’ve always wanted to take the pilgrimage to Nerd Mecca, Nerdvana – COMIC-CON! Seriously, how can you do a PhD on nerds and not go to Comic-Con!? There is no way that I could experience nerdom on such a massive collective scale in Australia. And in the last few years Comic-Con has become a major port from which nerdom is exported across the world. I’ve been desperate to know whether the nerdom I experience everyday is at all similar to the nerdom I observe – through many layers of mediation – in the States – the place where the nerd label originated. How much negotiating and modification takes place in the exportation of nerd identity from the States to Australia?[1] There’s no way to adequately answer this, but I sure as hell can get closer by going to SDCC. It would be a sort of ethnographic pilgrimage.

So I’ve been saving up for a few years with such a trip in mind. In January one of my close friends (she is Canadian, from here on in she shall be called: The Canadian Friend) called me up and said that she and some of her friends were going to road trip from Toronto to San Diego for Comic-Con (nerds are CRAYYY-ZEE-eee!) and asked if I would like to join them. I said yes.

Now, planning a trip to Comic-Con is hard. Especially if you live in a timezone outside the States. The dates of the event are available quite early in the year, however, very little notice is given for when tickets go on sale. You basically have to stalk the crap out of the SDCC site everyday for months, then when you do find out, the tickets inevitably go on sale at 3 in the morning for Aussies. If you don’t check the website for a week, or set your alarm, you can pretty much guarantee you have missed out on tickets. On top of this, hotels in San Diego are booked out almost a year in advance of the event.  Getting to Comic-Con is a hassle and a half.

So, because the tickets go on sale so close to the event, if you’re travelling from overseas you need to take a gamble. You need to book airfares and accommodation without knowing whether you’ll actually get to go to SDCC. I took this gamble.

Lady Fortune likes me though. I have family who live in San Diego. So a trip to Comic-Con would not just be a trip to Comic-Con, it would also involve a ridiculously special catch up with my lovely cousins with the bonus of free accommodation.

Having relos in San Diego turned out to be a very good thing, because I did miss out on tickets to Comic-Con, and a few other things I’d applied for fell through (it’s best to spell your name correctly on forms – just a handy hint for people), and The Canadian Friend couldn’t make it to SDCC after all. SO. I was going to be in San Diego at Comic-Con time, but wouldn’t be going to Comic-Con. Bummer.

But HOORAY for family!! And HOORAY for (a kind of) holiday[2]!!

The end of back story: Start of ‘MUrrrrkAH!

It takes a long time getting to LA. Left Wollongong at 5:30am to get to the airport on time. Boarded plane at about 8:30am. Landed in LA at 10am the same day I left but 14 hours later. Very little sleep, probably got about an hour and a half the whole trip. But, on the plus side, I had an isle seat and there was no one sitting next to me which meant I was able to score extra pillows and blankets to form an amazing cocoon-like structure around me, expand myself over a large area, and in the process become one of those horrible passengers that others have to do gymnastics to push past in order to get to the loos. There’s power in being that person.

I’d heard a lot of unsettling stories about getting through American customs, so during the flight I was bracing myself for a bit of hostility and bureaucracy.

Again, loooooong lines waiting for customs (customs officials must get REALLY bored, no wonder they look so uncheerful).

Finally got to the front counter. Passport. Declaration form thingy. Fingerprints. Face scan. Short, disguised interrogation: “What brings you to the US? How long are you here for? What do you do back in Australia?”

“I’m a student”

“Ahh. What do you study?”

“I’m doing my PhD on nerd identity”

“Nerd identity!? You can DO that!?”

Customs Officer launches into a five minute monologue on nerd identity/ culture and the history of changing attitudes towards nerds since a particular American basketball player started wearing thick nerdy glasses about 7 years ago.

Felt sorry for all the people waiting in line behind me. Felt more sorry I didn’t have my Dictaphone at the ready.

Post-Customs Anti-jetlag program initiated .

Turns out the best thing to unfreak someone who is slightly twitchy after navigating a large-busy-unknown-foreign-place-post-14-hour-cramp session is the sight of three screaming family members[3].

Best. Arrival. EVER.

Now, I’m not a screamer. But it’s hard not to get swept up in it when everyone else around you is talking in capslock and exclamation marks. It feels liberatingly deviant.

After we had screamed/hugged/flailed ourselves out, my cuz filled me in on the plans for the day. Her anti-jetlag policy was to keep travellers awake until 10:30pm. On this particular occasion she was taking me and the kids to Universal Studios in order to achieve this.

Best. Intro to America. EVER!

Summer weather, rollercoasters, studio tours, Mexican food, more screaming = no sleep = no jetlag.

Went past the Hollywood Walk of Fame and then stopped at an amazing tiny Manhattan Beach restaurant for dinner on the way back to San Diego (was served an entire chicken). Got a bit delirious during the drive down the coast. There is a point where tiredness is painful and the line between awake and asleep gets seriously blurred.

But the pain was worth it when I met the love of my life: The Princess Bed.

Not a bad first day in The Land of Nerd.

[1] Actually, the question needs to be even more specific than this. Does Comic-Con as an event shape the idea, performance and appearance of nerd identity, and how much of this (if indeed it does) get transported to a small city in Australia such as Wollongong? Basically, does my experience of nerd identity align closely with the experience of others who live more than a 14 hours plane ride away?

[2] Thesis writing needed to continue – there are no breaks from thesis.

[3] I was staying with my Mum’c cousin (here on in: Pony) and her two kids, Sippy and Fil. My Mum used to look after Pony when she was little; Pony looked after me; and I have looked after her kiddies.


Freaks and Geeks

27 Feb

I have a new favourite show.

It’s called Freaks and Geeks. It was broadcast in 1999 -2000, lasted only one season, but it’s become a cult classic. For good reason. It’s fantastic.

I did a bulk Amazon order a couple of weeks ago, purchasing a truck load of nerd related media – it’s actually quite expensive keeping up with nerd culture. This order included a nice shiny box set of Freaks and Geeks.

My entire family have become addicted to this show. Even my Grand Designs-loving dad would get home and request an episode of Freaks and Geeks. It’s like TV crack.

I think Freaks and Geeks was before its time. If it had come out even five years later I’m pretty sure it would have lasted more than one season. I’m not complaining though, the fact that it didn’t continue means it didn’t have time to wreck itself, the whole show gets to remain perfect. And even though I think it missed its “ideal” time and context, shows like this have paved the way the for our current nerd-centric pop culture landscape.

Freaks and Geeks is one of the earliest mainstream texts I can think of where the protagonists are nerds who are depicted with complexity, sympathy and affection. The way it focuses on the experiences of the marginalised American high school fringe is supremely nuanced. I don’t know if there is a show that achieves such as faithful, subtle and ultimately joyful representation of being an outsider, even now. The blending of teen experience with geek experience seems to be hard for television creators. It’s almost as though the two themes have become distinct generic conventions that refuse to be used together.

Lots of high school dramas tend to be unintentionally gratuitous in their desire to authentically portray the hardships and angst of adolescence. I’m thinking of shows like Skins. I mean, I love Skins (especially the first two seasons) but it’s a little like watching Jackass meets Glee. By the third season I think the creators conflated awkward and experimental with disgusting and dangerous. Sure high school can be messy and confusing, but Skins takes it to an extreme that ends up representing what I think is a most limited version of the high school experience. Everyone is SO trendy and SO bad and SO quirky and SO messed up and SO selfish that every character is a caricature.

Then you get high school dramas like Degrassi, 7th Heaven and Glee that are so didactic they make you want to roll in garbage just so you can re-establish healthy grit equilibrium. Stop telling me how to behave Schuester! You’re creepy… dancing with children…!?

On the other hand, in shows that have nerd protagonists, the nerds tend to lack subtlety, think Big Bang, IT Crowd or even Numb3rs (lol! Pun! I totally didn’t even intend that but now it’s there I think it needs to stay. Hilarity!). When I say shows like these lack subtlety, I mean that the geeky protagonists, despite often being loveable, are completely defined by their nerdiness; they have little characterisation beyond “oh, this situation reminds me of Star Wars”, or “I’ll use maths to resolve this problem in our relationship”. And while there’s a diverse array of these types of characters, they’re still relatively two dimensional.

Freaks and Geeks, however, manages to blend teen drama and geekdom without falling into these conventions that are so prevalent in mainstream entertainment. The show is balanced. Simple as that.

I don’t know how to explain it any better than “balanced”. But I feel it deserves more explanation, so, here are my top 5 favourite things about Freaks and Geeks:

5. Sam Weir’s laugh. It’s the cutest most genuine and unselfconscious little character trait. He might be on the social fringe, but he’s not too cool to be enthusiastic and happy about the things he likes… if that makes sense.

(It’s really hard finding a clip of Sam laughing, so this will have to do)

4. Bill’s physicality. How can the way someone moves make you feel so much!? I think what makes him so sympathetic is his unpracticedness. He moves like no one is watching him, and that’s really kinda refreshing. I just want everything good in the world to happen to Bill.

3. The way it treats women. I mean, Freaks and Geeks isn’t perfect in this respect, but it still does a pretty good job of providing female characters who are multifaceted, intelligent (socially, emotionally and educationally), interesting, friendly, independent and considerate. Even subsidiary characters who are only in the show for a few minutes total, like Bill and Neal’s mums, are more than simple cardboard cut outs. I find the end of the series particularly uplifting in regards to representation of gender. It also passes the Bechdel Test.[1]

(Ok, this doesn’t really prove my point, I just like it. I couldn’t find any of the clips I was looking for…)

2. Sets up the cliché then rips it to shreds. This makes it sound like a fractured fairy tale or something: Sleeping Beauty…… IS A GANGSTER!!!! But it’s not really like that, because that has become clichéd itself. Freaks and Geeks is like a minotaur called Degrassi: Next Generation who is running straight for you and then, just as it’s about to collide with you, you elegantly pirouette to the left (or right, it doesn’t really matter), where you find yourself safe and sound with your brain remaining intact.  That’s what it’s like.

(no clip for this, I feel like I’ll ruin entire episodes if I just put up the punch line)

1. There’s lots of unexpected niceness (even if it is often marijuana-induced…) . I’ve been doing a lot of research on student experiences and status power in American high schools, and it’s actually been really depressing. I thought Hollywood movies exaggerated the cliquiness of American student bodies. But, according to a lot of my reading at least, they do tend to depict an unfortunate truth. So my brain has become trained to expect the worst when it comes to depictions of outsiders’ experiences at school. But in Freaks and Geeks there are remarkably few characters who are unrestrainedly nasty to those lower down on the high school status hierarchy, while those characters who are really cruel tend to undergo satisfying character development –WIN! Cheerleaders and scary freaks will start amiable conversations with geeks, burnouts will participate in sing-alongs with the unusual Christian mathlete, conservative parents will take in stray freaks, gym teachers will be considerate of the non-athletic nerds. Freaks and Geeks doesn’t take the easy way out by deriding those who are traditional fodder for ridicule.

Hopefully this is indicative of a broader student experience across the US. Or that those who watch it see options for alternate performativity (that’s right, I want viewers to LEARN A LESSON! 7th Heaven-style! Ambivalence alert).

Basically, Freaks and Geeks has an over-all attitude of “I don’t give a fuckedness”. One of my field research participants used this phrase when she was talking about defining features of nerds, and I really liked it – I think it’s one of the clearest articulations of the combination of genuineness and unselfconsciousness inherent in nerd identity. The ways Freaks and Geeks does this is not by being extremely anarchic, or bolshie, or cruel, rather it’s through things like Sam’s laugh, the friendliness of characters, the lack of didacticism. This show doesn’t care about being cool, or having a lesson to teach, or being angsty, or beautiful. And in this way I think it’s one of the most accurate and hopeful portrayals of the nerd experience out there.

Go watch it.

Sexing Chickens*

22 Nov

I’ve been trying to refine my definition of ‘nerd’. It’s difficult, but necessary. I’ve discovered that this is what most people are interested in: a definition. In fact, what I think most people are actually interested in is whether or not they are a nerd.

At a family lunch earlier this year my grandad interrogated me about my thesis; what was I doing and why and therefore**. A week later I decided to show him the research proposal I submitted for the scholarship committee.

“I can see why you had trouble explaining it last week!” he commented after he had read it through a couple of times.

However, this didn’t stop him asking again:

“Therefore…? A nerd is…?” He looked at me, “I still think there needs to be a ‘therefore a nerd is’.”

I had endeavoured to capture the sense of nerd identity in the first line of the proposal: The nerd identity encompasses notions of intellectuality, obsessive interests, esoteric knowledge, and social awkwardness.

This was apparently not enough for The Grandfather, who continued to give me the same look he gives Pollock paintings.

I really didn’t want to meet the Blue Poles wrath, so I decided to go down the ‘nerd identity is really hard to pin down because it’s actually quite huge and means different things to different people’*** route of explanation. I explained that a person could be considered a nerd if they tinker with the minutiae of computers, just as a person who dresses up as Darth Vader and attends conventions could be considered a nerd.****

“So, is a scientist a nerd?”

The conversation turned to old scientists and philosophers and whether they were nerds or not. I decided that in retrospect they might be considered nerds. Conversational tangents which touched on cultural expectations, racism and gender took place at a confusing and alarming rate, but somehow, SOMEHOW, this train of conversation lead to a discussion of the computer revolution and how this had a significant impact on cultural valuing of nerds; that through this nerds had became necessary, their interests were practical and in demand.

We were now in a galaxy far, far away from definitions. I liked this. This was safer. This was good…

For the next few minutes we discussed nerds as professionals, nerds as amateurs, and scientist geeks. Participation in the conversation had expanded to include my uber-nerd uncle who works in a chemistry lab, programs computers, builds machines and is WAY into astronomy, music and western philosophy.

Then, while I was in the midst of receiving a history lesson on Henry Ford (go figure: “you can have it in any colour, as long as it’s black”), The Grandfather got to what had been plaguing him all this time:

“I don’t know how I could be put in the same category as him!” He almost exploded.

He wasn’t talking about Henry Ford, he was pointing at The Uncle. It seemed to come out of the blue, it took me by surprise, but this was it, this was the heart of the matter for The Grandfather. The week before I had made an off-hand remark calling him a nerd – his voluntary involvement in philosophy classes at his local university campus, his level of engagement with the subject matter, his choir and music obsession, and even his love of cross-words led me to call him a nerd. That I labelled him as such hadn’t been brought up since that conversation. But it had obviously stayed with him.

“Oh, ok. Here I’ve been thinking we’ve been trying to define what constitutes a nerd, but really, you’ve just been trying to work out whether you are a nerd or not! Well, that’s a different matter all together!” said The Uncle smiling. “’I mean, being a nerd is fine, but I just don’t think I am one!’”

It became very silly after this, Seinfeld quotes abounded. But I think it revealed something quite important. Actually, a few things that I think were important. Nerds might be becoming socially acceptable, but they are still not quite – “He was a nerd, not that there’s anything wrong with that”. It also showed that even within one tight-knit family, there are several different understandings of the term.

And perhaps most significantly, I realised that I still wasn’t exactly sure myself what I thought a nerd was. Slowly, as I’ve read more, my ideas of nerdidity have expanded and I’ve neglected to refine as I went along. This lunchtime I realised my definition of nerd was now so broad that its integrity had been severely compromised. It had lost its specialness, and therefore it had lost much of its power.

At the moment, it seems a little like identifying a nerd is like sexing chickens*****. I’m not sure how we do it, but somehow we do.

*Gutter: mind out of!

**”If you’re a carpenter you put up shelves, and you can put things on shelves. What is your thesis for?” Well, you will be able to put things on it…

***woefully imprecise even:-)

*** This example was somewhat ambitious since The Grandfather holds Star Wars in deep contempt. It probably wasn’t the best way to win him on side:-)

***** For more on the exciting world of chicken sexing: http://cogprints.org/3255/1/chicken.pdf

Woefully Imprecise

16 Nov

The name of this blog comes from a phrase used in Michael Chabon’s Manhood For Amateurs. In the chapter ‘The Amateur Family’, Chabon talks about his family and their quirky cultish interests. He loves the eccentricity and enthusiasm his children show for things such as Doctor Who and comic books. He wants to encourage and nurture it. And yet, he seems dissatisfied with the labels frequently used to describe such behaviour. In this chapter he says:

I had always hoped and worked with patience and care – offering running seminars in Vulcan physiology, Jon Anderson lyrics, the history of the Marvel universe – to have geeky children, though the term geek, like its common synonym nerd, is woefully imprecise, with connotations of physical awkwardness, high-water trousers, loserhood, emotional retardation, etc […]

Perhaps there is no perfect word for the kind of people I have raised my children to be; a word that encompasses obsessive scholarship, passionate curiosity, curatorial tenderness, and an irrepressible desire to join in the game, to inhabit in some manner – through writing, drawing, dressing up, or endless conversational riffing and Talmudic debate – the world of the endlessly inviting, endlessly inhabitable work of popular art. (294)

I love this description. It beautifully captures the joy in nerding. I get that bursting, colourful excitement that comes when you feel understood and connected. And despite Chabon’s claims that terms like nerd are inadequate, I think his description is the closest thing I’ve come to a definition of nerd identity. He articulates so clearly the intangible aspects of what it’s like being geeky – the bits that don’t necessarily have accessories or any sort of materiality – the bits that I believe make being a nerd all the more worthwhile, whether it be for participation or for research.

It reminds me of my own experiences with my siblings. Some of my favourite moments have been sitting around, not just discussing what had taken place in whatever texts we’re obsessing over at that point in time, but theorising about them, getting so into them that we had to whip out pens and paper and record our imaginings:

“What would happen if Buffy met The Doctor?” “… the Doctor would probably kill Giles thinking he was an evil Krillitane bat thingy…”

“I think Mary Poppins is a Time Lord! Think about it…”

“Ultimate army?” “The Doctor and Buffy strategising while the Harry Potter wizards hold the evils at bay – Gandalf is the go-between. Herminone and Willow BFFs! Aslan would be the ULTIMATE victor!” “Is it cheating to let Aslan join?…”

Cue the fan art and battle diagrams.

It’s like the texts are our own; as though we can, and indeed do, inhabit them. “Conversational riffing”, “Talmudic debate”!? I don’t think Chabon could have chosen better words.

The more I research, the more I understand Chabon’s trouble with using a single word to describe this unique yet vast and diverse identity. I have had a hell of a lot of trouble trying to articulate and in some way delineate the boundaries of nerdom. If I’m spending three years of my life researching nerds and nerd culture, I should probably have a clear idea of who and what I mean by ‘nerd’. Surely!?

But as Chabon so eloquently points out, the terms ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ are often woefully imprecise, perhaps especially for those who identify as such. And any attempt to explain this identity and the culture that surrounds it, I’m too quickly discovering, is always going to be woefully imprecise. In fact, my working title for my introduction is ‘wibbly-wobbly, nerdy-werdy’*.

But I think this lack of specificity is ok. I think anything else is reductive. I’m just going to plod away, and piece by piece assemble a picture that hopefully resembles the wibbly-wobbly nerd in all its woefully imprecise glory.

*Too nerdy?:-).

I’m a blogger now. Bloggers are cool

15 Nov

My name is Rae. I’m a PhD student in cultural studies. My thesis is on changing attitudes to nerds/geeks and the implications of this shift on power relations (with a particular focus on gender and ethnicity). New media is a big part of my study, so I thought it was probably time I practiced what I preached (I think new media is pretty cool and important but I’m a bit of a luddite). Ultimately this blog is for a couple of things. 1. It’s for writing about where my life intersects with my research. 2. It’s also for keeping people up to date with my study.

I actually decided to start a blog months ago. I set it up. I made passwords. I wrote stuff. I drew stuff. It was great. But that’s where my blogging ended. I had the space, I had the content, but putting that content on my space was just too scary.

The idea of keeping a kind of public diary freaks me out a bit. Even the idea of ordinary, unpublic diary keeping unsettles me. My paranoid self tells me no matter what precautions I take, someone will find it and read it and that would be, you know, bad.

But that’s my paranoid self. However, my more rational side is slightly unsettled by it too. I was watching the Ken Burns documentary series The Civil War with my dad recently. Diary keeping was huge among the soldiers during this time. The fervency with which these men kept records of their experiences was incredible. One soldier’s bloodstained diary was found at Cold Harbor; he’d spent his last moments writing “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed”. I thought stuff like that only happened in fiction (I always zif* the bit in LOTR where Balin and the Dwarves keep writing when they are about to be attacked by orcs. I mean, put down the frickin’ pen and run!). Yet, apparently it happened.

After seeing this doco on the American Civil War, I found it slightly disconcerting that these people would go to so much trouble and place so much importance on keeping a record of their lives. I found it a bit sad. It’s almost like the record became more important than the life. Sometimes I worry that living takes second place to making sure that people knew you existed.

In a strange way this fear of missing out on living is what has finally compelled me to stick my content on my space. It got to the point with my research that I felt I was just distantly critiquing nerddom and no longer participating in it. I was getting increasingly jealous looking through other people’s blogs, vlogs, and deviantART pages. I missed the fun involved in being a nerd.

This is my space to be a nerd: I’ll write, draw, squee and keep people up to date with my research. And hopefully it will be fun:-)**

* For more on “ziffing” see:  (it’s around the 4 minute mark). Or better still, buy the whole series!:-)

**At least for me… I can’t guarantee this for people reading it.