The Sexual (and Racial) Politics of Nerd Culture: A Dialogue* -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast


* “A Dialogue” sounds really official, like we sat across from each other in our finery while sipping from mugs of coffee inscribed with our logo, but really it was a GChat conversation. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ezekiel Kweku (Shrill): Hi, Priya.

Priya Alika Elias (Wordy): Hi!

S: Against my better judgment, and because I wanted to understand nerds better, I revisited an ancient and seminal nerd text: the 1984 teen comedy Revenge of the Nerds. And it was…uncomfortable.

W:  That movie is the Ur-text: it still informs the way that we think about nerds today.  The funny thing is, I thought it was about the persecution of nerds until I went back and watched it again. Then it didn’t seem so much like a cool revenge comedy.

S: Yeah, I realized about fifteen minutes in that my memory of the movie was much different from the actual movie. The basic structure is pretty simple. Nerds come to campus; they are mistreated by the alpha jock fraternity and associated sorority; they fight back, and eventually win. Oh, and they get the girl. It’s the basic nerd narrative.

W: Which is meant to be heartwarming: it’s about the triumph of the underdog and his romantic success. But how that plays out in the movie is more complex. If we’re going to ask “Who is being persecuted?” and “Who is being harassed?” the answers might not be restricted to the male nerds.

S: Exactly.

W: For one thing, there are female nerds in the universe of the movie, but we don’t see them being rewarded.

revenge-nerdsS: Right. So there are two central male nerd protagonists, Lewis and Gilbert. Gilbert falls for one of the jocks’ girlfriends, Betty, a classic “hot mean girl” type. And by “falls for her,” I mean he lusts after her in as superficial a way as you can imagine. She’s hot, and besides that, there’s nothing appealing about her character at all.  Whereas Lewis “falls” for a nerd girl, and they get together almost immediately when he teaches her how to use a computer.

W: It’s interesting that the girls that these geeks go for are always hot, but not portrayed as their intellectual equals.

S: Yes, that’s one thing that’s interesting about Lewis. Not only does he “win” her immediately, she’s presented as inferior to him in intelligence, even though she’s his female analog.

Revenge-of-the-Nerds-1984-revenge-of-the-nerds-11733853-950-534W: What’s prized in the man, intelligence, is not assigned equal value in the girl. So if the female nerd is intelligent but not physically attractive, that’s lower in the hierarchy than the place Betty occupies. Betty represents the classic “out of your league” story that we’re meant to root for. But yes, the way that story comes to a head is particularly disturbing to me.

S: The thing is, this is supposed to be a teen sex comedy, but there is only one scene in the film of consensual sex. Ironically, that’s a one-night stand between Gilbert and a nerd girl who he immediately discards in his pursuit of the ideal of Betty. All of the scenes of nudity are non-consensual, in fact.

W: These nerds are spying on the women in the movie, committing sex crimes and passing around nude photos that they’ve obtained through illegal surveillance. This is glossed over so much in the film. I read the Wikipedia description of the non-consensual sex scene in the movie, and it says “Lewis tricks Betty into having sex with him” — which I think is how we’re supposed to see it in the movie. It’s this benign act that we can forgive because it’s done in pursuit of a romantic goal. But that’s not the reality of it: the reality is that a nerd has sex with Betty while he’s dressed in the mask and clothes her boyfriend wore, so she thought it was her boyfriend.

S: And if that’s not terrible enough, there’s zero romantic tension between them. This is not a case in which she needs to “get past” the fact that he’s a nerd.  These are two people who are enemies in a way that has no chemistry or playful sexual tension at all, unless you wanna count sexual predation as chemistry. But let’s go back a bit to the panty raid/surveillance. The nerds pass around nude photos. They break into the sorority house and catch the girls naked. They steal their underwear, and install cameras which they use to watch the girls all night. Then they distribute stills from the videos to the public. All these actions are presented as valid retaliation for the girls essentially “being teases.”

W: There’s a cluster of nice-guy stereotypes around the nerd. The idea is that nerds are people who are nice to women, who treat them with respect, in contrast to the stark misogyny of the jock crew. But these actions, which are justified in the movie, are misogynistic and abusive through and through.

S: If you wanna talk rape culture, “you deny me, so I will violate you” is about as clean an example of it as you can get.

W: Yes. It’s a culture of entitlement.

S: Yeah. They deserve the women, basically, because they are “not jocks.”

W: I was thinking, what does the nerd have to offer, other than himself? At least the jock offers a certain social status. Being a jock’s girlfriend in this context comes with a social reward. Oh, but I’m leaving out sex. Remember when Betty asks “Are all nerds this good [at sex]?” The answer is yes, because the jock stereotype is that they don’t care about sex or their partner’s pleasure.

S: Yes, Gilbert’s line of explanation as to why all nerds are good at sex was “All jocks do is think about sports. All nerds do is think about sex.” This is probably one of the more dated lines in the movie, coming as it does before the prevalence of ubiquitous free internet porn. When you say “all nerds think about is sex” in 2014, you’re basically imagining them watching a lot of porn. And you can tell me if you think mainlining porn constantly makes dudes better at sex.

W: You probably know my answer but for clarity’s sake, absolutely not. It makes them much worse.

W: There’s an aura of sexual frustration around the geeks in the movie, so I find it hard to believe in the story of a satisfied Betty. She’s so satisfied that she isn’t even angered by the deception; she immediately accepts him as a more suitable mate than the jock. But that’s the idea, I guess: the nerd is the guy who was Right For You All Along. Give nerds a chance! That’s the constant refrain, culturally speaking.

S: And the corollary of that is “you don’t know what’s good for you,” with “you” being “women.”

W: Exactly, because these women don’t have the agency or intelligence to know what they need or want. The nerd has to tell them.

S: One thing that was interesting about this movie is that the trope that the nerd is nicer and more attentive to the hot girl [than the jock] is surprisingly absent.

W: Strange, because that trope has been present ever since.

S: I wonder if that’s what they substituted as the nerd’s appeal for “nerds are good at sex,” which is plainly ridiculous. In a sense, they present Gilbert in his “post-nice guy,” pickup artist stage. He doesn’t care about Betty at all, he just wants to have her. And why should he? She’s presented as having no appealing qualities other than her looks.

W: There are a lot of nerds who go through the PUA stage, because to be a PUA you don’t have to be a jock. The nerds in the movie are incredibly shallow, and that’s fine. But of course the women have to overcome their shallowness to see the nerds’ appeal. And when I say women here, I mean the hot women; the nerd women might as well not exist.

S: They’re there, but they’re second rate, a consolation prize. The nerd sorority is literally called the “Mu”s and the hot sorority is called the “Pi”s. Just in case there wasn’t enough objectification going on. The Mus are shown as the undesirable backup plan when the Pis don’t show up to the party.


W: Yeah, the nerd women don’t get a happy ending unless they’re hot, which is why all the movies featuring a girl nerd have some sort of makeover montage. I could easily see a remake of this movie having, say, one girl nerd from the Mus who “got hot” and thus had her unrequited love…requited.

S: Easily. There’s nothing desirable about a female nerd in that universe. Except perhaps her sexual availability.

W: What’s really changed? It’s still not enough for a woman to be smart in the way the male nerds are.

S: They have to conform to male desires.

W: Whereas the male has to realize his own inherent worth.

S: The problem with that is that out in the real world, not being a jock is not enough to get you the girl. Being a nice guy isn’t enough to get you the girl.

W: What we’re seeing is this clash of expectations and reality, and it gets very ugly when a “nice guy” realizes that the formula isn’t that simple.

S: Yeah, it’s the consequences of feeling entitled to a fairy tale.

W: There’s so much talk about women believing in fairy tales or being ruined by fairy tales, but it holds true for many, many men.

S: At least most women recognize it as a “fairy tale.” Men don’t even recognize it as a construction; they think that narrative is their right.

W: Yes! To be specific, this is the era of The Social Network, the post-Zuckerberg, Silicon Valley age. You know, in the past, nerd movies often focused on “the nerd grows up and he becomes a millionaire, while the bully ends up pumping his gas.” Movies like Can’t Hardly Wait deal with that plotline. Now it’s different because in the Zuckerberg era, you can be incredibly successful as a nerd at 16, 17. That’s ratcheted up the pressure and the frustation, because the nerd isn’t getting the money or the girl — the two things he’s been promised.

S: That’s one thing that has maybe changed over time. The end of the Revenge of The Nerds unveils this negative definition of nerds. The lead says, “All of us who’ve been abused by the jocks are nerds,” and that includes everyone who is not a jock. So “nerd” isn’t this elite group for which you need credentials to be included. It’s just “everyone else.” But now, nerds view themselves as an exclusive group, based on their personal merit (which may or may not actually exist), and they feel like they should be rewarded based on that merit.

W: That exclusivity is hard to maintain, because it’s easy to fake being a nerd today in a way it never was before.

S: Yes, to the extent that being “a nerd” is just having a body of specialized knowledge about some particular topic, it’s incredibly easy to fake in the internet age.

W: Encyclopedias on X or Y are immediately available.

S: Wiki everything.

W: How do you think the “fake geek girl” fits into this?

S: I think what it boils down to is an inferiority complex. A girl will “go geek” because she knows it will get her attention from thirsty geeks, and they resent that idea. They’re threatened by the idea of a girl being their equal intellectually.

W: For so long, certain things have been the domain of geek guys: gaming, comics, so on. And with a lowering of the barriers to entry, women may enter. That stresses geek guys out, because for so long the idea was, “let me pick you up by telling you about these things.” But now girls know that Wonder Woman’s first appearance was in such-and-such year, in this issue. In any case, the manufactured outrage nerds have about fake geek girls is entirely disproportionate to the perceived offense. But that’s typical of nerds: they overreact.

S: One way that you can see the whole PUA movement, particularly its adoption by nerds, is as a response to their supposed “mistreatment” by women. Being a PUA is being a performative jock. It’s a nerdification, gameification of all the stuff that jocks do, or at least that nerds think jocks do, to sleep with women.

W: That approach makes a lot of sense. Hence the sports terminology that PUAs use. Women represent the ultimate sport, to a PUA.

S: Yep. All the strategies, practicing, steps, etc., it’s all stuff that’s a merger of ideas and mindsets taken from video games and tabletop games and sports.

W: Plus the confidence that was traditionally only accessible to the high school football captain is the thing that these PUAs aim for. Shyness, physical timidity, etc., has to be discarded by a PUA. You’ve got to be super comfortable just going right up to a girl and grabbing her.

Revenge-of-the-Nerds-1984-revenge-of-the-nerds-11734841-950-534S: You’ve got to perform being a jock, and jocks are confident. The weird thing about it is that the knock against jocks is that they’re indifferent towards women. But the typical nerd PUA isn’t just indifferent, he’s openly hostile.

W: Nerds have never been indifferent to women. They long for women, and that longing turns to hostility.

S: That’s exactly right, Priya.

W: If you were truly indifferent, you wouldn’t be able to put in this much effort. No social interaction is innocuous when there’s a desirable woman around. Nerds make women into these mystical objects, these trophies.

S: Or prey. The idea of desire without affection is basically that of a predator and prey, isn’t it?

W: One hundred percent. You can’t really imagine a timeline beyond “getting the girl” if there’s no affection. Once you capture and consume the prey, it’s a wrap.

S: Write down your score and move to the next level.

W: That’s exactly how they think of it. Eight points for bagging an 8. Now advance to round 2.

S: Maybe my hormones are out of whack, but that sounds like the most boring thing of all time. Way to suck the fun out of primal human nature!

W: Ha, you’re not wrong, it sounds so dull to make what is deeply personal something so mechanical.

S: At least the jocks have fun.

W: The whole jock construct is about mindless physical action, followed by fun. You go to the game, then pick up a girl at the after-party. But nerds have to have a strategy. They think about it so much, which is odd to me. Why bother overthinking it if the goal is just to have sex, you know?

S: To leave PUAs for a second, what do you think about the construction of the nerd archetype racially? I think when most people think of a “nerd,” they’re thinking of a white male with glasses, right? That’s the default, and then there are “Asian nerds” and “black nerds,” etc.

Revenge-of-the-Nerds-1984-80s-films-25844171-1280-720W: White is always the default. I remember reading this linguist, Mary Bucholtz, I think, who talks about nerd being code for a state of “hyperwhite.” What’s interesting to me is that in many ways, “model minorities” (South Asian, East Asian) are taught to idealize nerd behaviors. Kevin Gnapoor from Mean Girls is the math club president who has no game. The stereotype is that these minorities are de facto nerds, born to nerddom. I’m curious about what you think of black nerds, because to me black racial stereotypes seem to be anti-nerd. I’m thinking of Childish Gambino rapping about how being a black nerd is rare.

S: There’s a whole debate in black America about how black people treat education. It’s about whether there’s some kind of cost to being smart, or “acting white,” that comes from the idea that black people see being smart as “white” and uncool. But the irony to me is that it was never black people making you feel bad for “acting white”; it was always white people trying to make you feel bad for acting white. It was white people patrolling those borders from the outside, not black people patrolling them from the inside.

W: I think white people are cool with Indian kids being nerds because to them, Indian kids are fulfilling the stereotype: being good at technology, working in call centers. But if white people have that “one black friend” who doesn’t fit into the stereotype, that’s disorienting to them.

S: Hence “I’m blacker than you,” etc.

W: It’s about coding blackness as being cool and glamorous in a way that nerds can’t access.

S: Right. I think that ties into “the nerd” as the archetype of the persecuted minority for white people.

W: Well, one can only draw that analogy if one doesn’t really have an experience or a history of being persecuted. I guess for lots of white people, that’s the closest they can get to it.

S: It’s weird, because being bullied for being uncool is by definition a temporary thing. That’s even part of the narrative. You get through high school and then it entirely disappears. Not to say that you can’t be treated badly and suffer severe and lasting damage from abuse in school, but that’s definitely not the norm.

W: Yeah, not in my opinion, and I speak as a former nerd.

S: Same. I wonder why we both choose to categorize ourselves as “former” nerds.

W: Nothing’s changed for me with regards to what I’m interested in, or how my brain works. The only thing that’s changed is my social success, I suppose. It’s really awkward to put it that way, but I think it’s useful. That’s central to the idea of “nerd”: some hint of awkwardness, of feeling shy or being uneasy in the social hierarchy. I feel as though nerds talk about oppression and say “well, this never changes” and try to imply that being shy or awkward is an immutable trait with lifelong consequences.

S: For me not much has changed in how my brain works nor what I’m interested in, either. But now I’m completely uninterested in associating myself with the larger set of people that identify themselves as nerds. It’s almost like looking in the DSM and seeing all these symptoms for nerddom and deciding it doesn’t fit.

W: In high school, it was a lot simpler. You sat at the nerd table and that was that.

S: Yeah. In elementary school and the first two years of high school, I was attending a school within a school, essentially. Because I was in gifted and talented programs or in International Baccalaureate, we had all our own classes and weren’t necessarily from the neighborhood the school was in. In that context, basically everyone was a nerd. But for middle school and the latter two years of high school, I was in private school, and there was a distinction. Going back and forth between those two left me with a somewhat looser identification with the idea of being a nerd. If you had asked me “Are you a nerd?” I would have said yes, but it’s not something that I thought about constantly.

W: I was definitely a nerd and I thought about it, but at my school, “nerd” just meant anybody who who wasn’t popular. No nerd symptoms, no long process of being diagnosed with nerdiness.

S: No accretion of cultural signifiers.

W: No sense of indignation or bitterness as a group, like in Revenge of the Nerds.

S:  Yeah. By the way, what do we categorize ourselves as now? Ex-nerds?

W: Hmm, I don’t know. Something that signifies something positive, like breaking out of a chrysalis. Outgrowing a cultural identity that is slapped on you even though you might not really want it.

S: We’ll have to come up with a word for it.

W: Definitely.


You can find Priya Alika Elias and Ezekiel Kweku holding down Twitter at all hours: dropping hot takes, telling bad jokes, and dunking on fools.

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again