NerdsPosted: September 11, 2012
A lot of scientists hate the TV show The Big Bang Theory, about a bunch of Caltech physicists who love comic books, video games, etc. One character is clearly meant to be “on the spectrum.” I like the show. Are the characters stereotypes? Sure. But I have met a lot of people with the same characteristics among real scientists. The show also has Jewish stereotypes, Midwestern stereotypes, South Asian stereotypes, athlete stereotypes, Texan stereotypes, to name a few. Stereotypes are useful narrative and thematic hooks, the trick is to not take them too seriously. And judging from sci-fi and video games, I’m going to go out on a limb and say this: nerds are obviously totally cool with stereotypes, just apparently not about them. I don’t think the show is mean spirited, as some have claimed. The audience empathizes with the characters or the show wouldn’t work as mass entertainment (empathy failure is the reason the best sitcom ever, the stereotype-filled Arrested Development, was canceled). Basically, I think that many nerds are thin-skinned and unable to laugh at themselves.
I have a complex relationship with nerd-dom. I liked the idea of D&D a lot but found the execution mind-numbingly lame. We would just have sword fights with scrap lumber until someone bled. I read a fair amount of sci-fi when I was kid, but not to the exclusion of other books. I liked the stories and ideas in Asimov’s books, but even as a teenager found his characters unbearable and could tell that he couldn’t write for peanuts. I’ve almost always hated fantasy because it’s so unhinged: there is no tension or interest if there are no constraints on what can happen.
I was an English major with a music minor until my 3rd year of college, and dabbled in several nerd subcultures that I did not fully identify with. Literature nerds who got wasted and shouted Hopkins from memory; philosophy nerds, who took acid and lay in tide pools; radio station nerds, who obsessed over every release and the station’s decades of vinyl (I always think college radio must be so fucking boring now that everyone just plays their own mp3s). Any literature nerds reading this probably caught the Martin Amis reference a while back – that’s the kind of insufferable shit lit nerds are into, fyi.
Anyway, back to the show. I like it because most shows treat academics or scientists as stuffy and insufferable. In movies, scientists are almost always evil. The characters on the show are actually pretty normal people, and I think their self-awareness as obsessive geeks about certain things is something nerd culture – any nerd culture – could probably take to heart a little.