I think it’s pretty indisputable that the language surrounding “nerds” has drastically changed in the last decade or so, at least in the United States. Looking back at dated nostalgia pieces, the rhetoric surrounding “geeks,” “dweebs,” and “nerds” gets pretty scary and antagonistic. As our country has matured (in some ways) we have seen a slight shift in this language, where scholastic achievement is being valued alongside physical and social. However, I know many people who have been repeatedly demeaned and shamed for their interests and intellectual tendencies. I am one of those stories, having had schoolmates, adults, and anonymous internet personas ridicule, tease and make me feel worse about myself because my interests didn’t align with theirs. This was confusing to me, as I thought that I was supposed to be supported for wanting to learn and grow. I felt like I needed some examples of how to be a nerd in the world, as I couldn’t find it in my own environment.
Around the time “nerd” turned chic, there came a surge of characters and stories that attempted to tell the story of the “nerd” in an enlightening, endearing, and refreshing way. As is par for our beloved industry, many of these stories centered around white men, and their struggles with “not fitting in.” Based largely around the cult works of John Hughes and his muse Anthony Micheal Hall, as well as the rape-filled Revenge of the Nerds, the “adorkable” protagonist began to skyrocket in popularity.
Enter The Big Bang Theory. Countless articles, thinkpieces, and video essays have been written about the famed sitcom, ending its 12 season run today. Many of these concern its especially horrid treatment of women and unhealthy attitude around sex. This is obviously inexcusable and needs to be called out, especially due to the pain it causes to those who commodify. However, because I cannot speak to that experience, it would feel inauthentic to make that the focus of this piece. Instead, I would like to speak on how this show and attitude have affected the countless young male nerds it seeks to inspire, including myself.
As should be no secret to anyone, growing up is hard. Figuring out what you like, how to like it, and how to express that is one of the more difficult tasks the developing youth of America is forced to tackle. For me, this led to a lot of confusion. The men I was told to be like were often those I didn’t identify with. I couldn’t relate to these brawny, charismatic leading men. The pop stars my crushes fawned over didn’t look or talk anything like me, and when I tried to emulate their behavior, it felt unnatural and alien. At the end of the day, I was desperate for a role model. Someone who liked the stuff I liked, and who was respected for it.
How could I not fall for the alluring trap of The Big Bang Theory? The biggest show on television was making jokes about Doctor Who, the same show I was made fun of for falling in love with. The interests and social awkwardness that made me feel terrible about was being rewarded, rather than degraded. My naive, developing, pre-adolescent mind was not taught to raise alarm when jokes like this were made, I was just happy to have a role model. The laugh track only made this worse. The misogynistic comments made by the characters were explained as funny and inconsequential to me, by both the show and the audiences enjoying it.
Of course, now that I’ve had the luxury of intelligent women calling me out, as well as legitimate male role models, I have fallen out of this mindset. This means that I can confidently conclude The Big Bang Theory’s main goal: to prey on the minds of developing nerds. The behavior the show presents is portrayed as the way that people like me interact in the world, professionally and socially. When I heard the damaging rhetoric my friends were using about my female peers, my first instinct was: “Oh, they sound like Sheldon! Cool!”
Personally, this is epitomized in the show’s use of Wil Wheaton. A nerd icon, and a personal hero of mine, his validation of the show still troubles me. Seeing Wesley Crusher as a character in this nerdy show made everything fit together. Of course, now, it only makes me fall apart. How can the person who articulates my development so well participate in such toxic culture? I do not pretend to know the answer, but I do know what happens to a manipulated mind.
So how do we reckon with this? I know I was not alone in being conditioned into disgusting behavior by a show marketed to me. At the same time, we must not excuse the damaging actions of others, as the “male nerd” narrative is not and should not be the predominant one. I can only hope that the end of this show makes room for other, healthier representations of nerds. I trust that someone is willing to provide the role models that our young, insecure men so desperately need.