by Jay Johansen | Jan 1, 2011
A message often found in Hollywood TV shows and movies is, "Geeks are people too", and "Be nice to the geeks." After all, not everyone can be cool and popular like you and your friends. Those poor geeks all desperately want to be part of your "in" crowd. It's not possible, of course, because, well, because their geeks. But you shouldn't rub it in. You can at least be pleasant and polite to them. This theme turns up a lot in TV shows aimed at teenagers, but is also found in programming for adults.
By the "cool people" it is apparent that they mean people who spend most of their time going to parties, who wear the latest fashions and listen to the latest popular music, etc. By "geeks" they mean people who spend their lives in academic or intellectual pursuits. When it's high school kids this means the kids who are in the math club or the science club or the computer club; when it's adults it's the accountants and chemists and inventors.
Well, I'm all for being nice to people. But every time I see programs with this little moral I just laugh at the silliness of it.
It's pretty obvious that the people who make these TV shows consider themselves among the cool people. So the cool people are always the "us" and the geeks the "them". I'm sure these people would call me a geek. When I was in high school, I was president of the science club, which I guess made me the chief geek. Today I'm a computer programmer. A couple of years ago I wrote a book on how to build databases. My sister commented that she couldn't even understand the description on the back cover, never mind the book. So I'm still a geek.
And I have a secret for the Hollywood "cool people": We geeks do not envy you or wish that we could be part of your group. We don't care. We are geeks because we like being geeks.
Let me give three quick examples. I've deliberately chosen examples spanning many years because it strikes me that this theme has been floating around Hollywood for a long time. (Oh, quick disclaimer: My quotes are not exact quotes but are from memory. Excuse me if I didn't take the time to find original scripts, but this isn't intended to be a scholarly paper, just chatting.)
One: A few years back my kids were watching "Sabrina the Teenage Witch". In this episode Sabrina magically turns the snooty head cheerleader into a geek. She immediately becomes the leader of the geeks. In one scene she leads a couple of geeks into making jokes about the lack of mathematical aptitude of a group of cheerleaders, leading Sabrina to exclaim, "Now the geeks are making fun of the cheerleaders!" Apparently this struck the producers as completely incongruous, as of course in the normal order of the universe, it is the cheerleaders who make fun of the geeks. The episode ended with the cheerleader being turned back into a cheerleader, but having a new understanding that geeks are people too, etc.
But, ummm ... Didn't the writers know that high school geeks routinely make fun of the ignorance of the cheerleaders and other cool people? When I was in high school with my science club friends, it wasn't at all uncommon for us to laugh at the ignorance of people who weren't as smart as us. Yes, it's mean to make fun of other people. But we were high school kids.
And how is it that this girl instantly became the leader of the geeks? That's not just my interpretation: There was a line in the program where one of the geeks says, "She's our leader." Even in a program trying to get across the moral that we should respect others, the producers apparently had the underlying assumption that their group is superior, and if somehow one of them did join the other group, they would naturally and inevitably instantly become the leader because of their innate superiority.
Two: Maybe thirty years ago, an episode of the comedy, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show". Mary is, of course, the star of the show and is supposed to be a supremely cool person. In one episode she has a conversation with a geek who whines about how he has never been part of the "in" crowd. He says, "In every high school there's a boy who's the captain of the football team and a girl who's the head cheerleaders, and they're deliriously happy, while everyone else is miserable." The humor of the scene is supposed to come from the fact that Mary quickly becomes defensive because she has always been the cool insider. Like this poor guy goes on to say that when we was in high school, he was "business manager for the yearbook". He then asks what she did, and she replies, "I ... um ... I was ... um ... head cheerleader."
Well, as I say, I was president of the science club. I never had any desire to be captain of the football team. I never had any desire to play football. I've always thought sports were mostly boring. Oh, I'll occasionally play some casual sports with friends. But the fun is being with friends, not the sport. One of my geek friends in high school did join the football team. The rest of us all wondered why. None of us were miserable because we weren't on the football team or the cheerleading squad.
Three: A recent episode of "House" included a young woman who is a genius medical student. In a crucial scene she tells another character how she is desperately trying to fit in, and how her whole life growing up as a child genius what she always wanted most was to be one of the "normal kids". You see this idea a lot in TV shows with a child genius: The kid hates being a genius and longs to be like all the other kids. Often there's a tyrannical parent who forces him to spend time developing his intellect when what he really wants is to be out playing in the mud or whatever.
(I found this one particularly odd as "House" is, after all, supposed to be about a character who is a very odd-ball genius. I don't think this program is aimed at "cool people". Whatever.)
But again, the last thing I or my geek friends ever wanted was to be "normal". We don't want to be part of your supposed "in" crowd. Because you see, when you say that you and your friends are "popular", what you mean is that you are popular among you and your friends. We geeks have our own circles and our own friends. I suppose you could say that we are popular in our own circles, just as you are popular in yours. The difference is that we really don't care. We have friends because we want to have friends, not because we measure our worth by how many friends we have.
We don't want to be "normal". We like being smarter than the average person. We enjoy intellectual pursuits. As hard as this may be for the cool people to believe, we actually like spending our time studying math or astronomy or computers or whatever. It's fun. It's exciting. Maybe you just don't get this, but to us it is a lot more fun to discuss a new scientific theory with our friends than to discuss the latest clothing style. Learning how a complex machine works is far more interesting to us than learning which group of musicians sold the most albums this week. And actually discovering or inventing something new is far more exciting to us than the idea of getting drunk and throwing up on yourself. I know, this thought is hard to comprehend, but that's how we see it.
If the fact that you know more than us about the latest fads in clothing or music or celebrity scandals or drug abuse makes you feel superior, well, good for you. Have fun. But let me ease your mind a little bit: You don't need to feel sorry for us geeks. We're perfectly happy the way we are.
© 2011 by Jay Johansen
Sasquatch May 23, 2014
I guess I'm a double-agent. I tried out for the football team, but decided not to pursue it. I was also president of the computer club. That taught me the irrelevance of elected office since I was, at best, a distant second at programming. I was actually quite popular my senior year, placing second for class clown. Yet I still managed a fair 1290 on the SAT, excellent scores on the ASVAB and other standardized tests, and my very own MENSA card.
It is possible to live in both worlds. I do strongman training and work on old cars to feed my "jock" side. I run Linux on my laptop and watch all manner of geek TV to feed my "geek" side.
Jay Johansen May 25, 2014
Huh, brings up the interesting question of how many people move through multiple social circles. Like, when I was in high school I dated a girl who was in the science club and was also in the orchestra. I recall others commenting on how it was unusual that she was in both the "scientific" world and in the "artsy" world. While I was dating her I ended up going to a lot of parties with kids who were interested in music and art and totally uninterested in science. And as I mentioned in the above article, one of my science club friends was on the football team. So I can think of a handful of examples myself, though only a handful.
Personally I do some of my own car repair and my own plumbing, so I'm not totally divorced from the "tradesman" world.
Someday I have to write up my entertaining time with Mensa.