Revenge of the nerds: Geeks take over

21:38, Feb 17 2009

Outsiders no longer, brainy, bashful, obsessive geeks are now the dominant force in popular culture. John Bailey and Melissa Kent report on the evolution of the nerd.

Not so long ago, experts considered The Geek an endangered species.

Their lack of natural defensive abilities made them easy prey for jocks, toughs and alpha males, and their lack of social skills reduced their reproductive opportunities.

Surely they were doomed to extinction. But somehow, the geeks have inherited the Earth.

They're running our corporations (take Microsoft's Bill Gates), gracing our glossies (musician Ben Lee), and dominating the ratings (TV's Rove McManus).

In fact, it's not "them" any more. In our tech-dependent, fantasy-loving, trivia-generating world, geeks are us.

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Even fashion is full of geeks: Balenciaga's Nicholas Ghesquiere is inspired by robots, Miuccia Prada dressed this year's models in woolly knee socks and granny glasses, and Marc Jacobs found his new muse in Pixar's animation feature The Incredibles.

So what is a geek, exactly? Definitions vary. Some suggest that a geek is anyone smart who isn't ashamed of it. Others add a lack of social grace, or an over-enthusiasm for a particular obsession - say, Battlestar Gallactica or Nancy Drew.

You can subdivide the overall category infinitely: the film geek is a different breed to the maths whiz or the gamer.

But how did geeks come to influence all aspects of pop culture? From rock stars in nice cardigans to the world's hottest nerds, we're full of geek pride. Not convinced?

Take a look at Australia's new Prime Minister. Kevin Rudd's "Computers for all" and "Let's upgrade our broadband!" catchcries are both daggy and endearing - and what other world leader would celebrate election victory with Iced Vovos and a nice cup of tea?

GEEK PRIDE

The negative stereotype of the geek can largely be traced to teen flicks of the '70s and '80s. No image of a high school or college campus was complete without a resident bespectacled dweeb ready to be flushed down a toilet.

The epitome of this demonisation came with 1984's Revenge of the Nerds, justly reviled but somehow spawning sequels into the next decade.

At the same time, however, geeks were taking over behind the camera. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas drew on the geek lore of their adolescence to create blockbuster hits inspired by comic books and sci-fi stories - seducing a whole generation with power fantasies about lonely dreamers destined to save the universe.

In the '90s, the film geek gained ascendancy. Quentin Tarantino appeared on the scene as the Man Who Knew Too Much (about obscure cult movies), populating his hugely successful films with loving footnotes of pop-trivia scholarship.

There is no shortage of role models for the aspiring geek these days.

Wes Anderson's 1998 film Rushmore quickly gained cult status with anyone who had ever felt themselves the underrated individual in high school, and the director's 2001 follow-up flick, The Royal Tenenbaums, furnished us with a whole family of eccentric obsessives and genius outcasts.

Now he's inspired a whole wave of arch, dweeby indie filmmakers who know how to light a cardigan.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004) raised the bar higher, with a central character so unapologetically dorky that he instantly became a T-shirt, an action doll and a role model for the next generation of shy boys. Ladies, you have been warned.

Meanwhile, the Hollywood power producer/director/writer Judd Apatow - creator of successive box-office hits The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad - has proven that the geeks now rule Tinseltown. And just consider where his troupe got their start: short-lived late-'90s TV show Freaks and Geeks.

Now? We're all geeks now. Monty Python's Broadway hit, Spamalot, just opened a Melbourne franchise.

Hip-hop sex-god Pharrell Williams proudly names his musical side project N.E.R.D.

And where are the geeks heading now? Into the nightclubs, if reports from urban cool epicentres such as Brooklyn can be believed.

More than 50 science clubs have formed across the US to unite physics and partying, according to The New York Times, performing science experiments in bars while DJs set the beat.

GEEK GIRLS

She's as familiar with solariums as her boyfriend is with gyms. Her clothes are second-hand, customised, or hand-knitted.

She blogs about the books she's been reading but sniggers at Facebook's emphasis on friends. If she sounds like you, you might just be a geek girl.

The geek girl's rise has been as steady as her male counterpart.

Buffy finally gave the geek girl a heroine of her own, but it was as likely to be the vampire slayer's library-loving bestie, Willow, as the high-kicking blonde.

And there's a new girl on the block - Kristen Bell's Veronica Mars is the modern-day Nancy Drew (another girl geek icon), a wise-cracking brainiac proficient in the latest spyware. And if there were any doubt about her credentials, the Geek Magazine covergirl has just become one of the mainstays of Channel Seven's surprise hit, the geekfest Heroes.

Maybe Enid Coleslaw - the cynical brat of the movement's lodestone film, Ghost World - sums up our geek girl's philosophy best. When she describes the film's socially inept record-collecting dork, Seymour, it's like a motto for the movement: "I kind of like him. He's the exact opposite of everything I really hate. In a way, he's such a clueless dork, he's almost kind of cool."

HOT GEEKS

When New Woman magazine surveyed 10,000 women last year to find the world's sexiest man, the latest Doctor Who, David Tennant, outranked Justin Timberlake, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. The weedy Tennant may demur, describing himself as "the least sexy man on the planet", but even Kylie's spending quality time with the Doctor this Christmas.

Geeks have never had it so good with girls: in film, overweight, unshaven Seth Rogen played Katherine Heigl's love interest in box-office hit Knocked Up; on TV, the ratings battle was won by music nerds (Spicks and Specks), political pranksters (The Chaser boys) and manga fanboys (Heroes); and in music, a barefoot nerd called Gotye won a swag of ARIAs.

But it's the comics who really brought sexy back to geekdom, such as surrealist Demetri Martin and four-eyed storyteller Daniel Kitson.

WHAT GEEK IS THAT? A NERD-SPOTTER'S GUIDE

Gamers With the advent of online games in which players share massive virtual worlds, gamers can fend off accusations of antisocial behaviour by pointing to the incredibly gregarious avatar they've designed for Second Life.

Gearheads Like a walking copy of Wired magazine, gearheads show off their latest tech acquisition before you've even heard of it. And they're willing to explain - at length - why it's already obsolete.

Otaku In Japan, "otaku" denotes someone with an obsession so fanatical - with videogames, for example - that they seldom leave their bedroom. In the West, however, it's more often a positive self-description for hardcore fans of Japanese anime and manga.

Cyberpunks Combining enthusiasm for high-tech gadgets with a rough and dirty punk aesthetic, cyberpunk fans envision a future where we are all cyborgs - internet-enabled, prosthetically enhanced, and ready to rumble.

Cardy Rockers From the retro-geek rock of '90s-era Weezer through to today's Brunettes, Concretes, and Shins, the easy-listening sounds of neatly dressed, baby-faced bands have become the soundtrack to a new generation of dress-alike fans.

Librarians For some, books aren't just collections of words - they're faithful companions, though each comes with its own needs and wants. If a friend fobs off your drinking plans in favour of a secret rendezvous with a new novel, you might be dealing with a librarian.

Boffins Plenty of people are smart, but only some wear their brain on their sleeve. Usually possessing prodigious knowledge on obscure and, sometimes, completely useless topics, a boffin should never - ever - be corrected on a point of fact.

Hogwarts Alumni For a generation who've grown up with the series, the adventures of Harry, Hermione and Ron are today's answer to Luke, Leia and Han. Expect similar lifelong dedication.

Film Tragics Some buffs take the study of favourite films, directors and movements to new levels of obsession. And like a friend with a new partner, they'll find ways to relate any conversation back to their true love - even if it's Italian slasher movies of the late '70s.

 

Sydney Morning Herald