If nerds won the war for pop culture, why are they so angry all the time?

05.11.16 12 months ago

I was new to the school, and I didn”t know anyone.

When you”re a kid, moving is hard. But moving when you have the last name “McWeeny” was next-level difficult, and it taught me to live by prison rules early. The first person to come at me with jokes about the last name had to be destroyed, and then I could settle into my new life. When I showed up for my first day in the fourth grade at my new elementary school, I was coming from a fairly disastrous stay in Texas that came to a Biblical conclusion, the flooding of our neighborhood complete with an entire bridge being washed away. I had a chip on my shoulder about the entire time in Texas, and I wasn”t sure what to make of Chattanooga yet. I didn”t feel like I fit into the South, and I knew I had to protect my secret identity as a giant nerd.

After all, when I was a kid, being a nerd was basically hanging a target on yourself for idiot bullies, and that was a big part of the message sent by media. Nerds were meant to be picked on, and the things they loved were absurd. While I find the film problematic to revisit now, there was something genuinely thrilling about the release of Revenge Of The Nerds, and it was part of a slow cultural swing where the nerds went from the fringe of culture to the center of it. When I first started submitting material to Ain”t It Cool News back in 1996, we were watching aghast as Hollywood turned out Batman & Robin and Lost In Space, and it felt like the people who were adapting our favorite properties hated those properties. One of the things I enjoyed about being a contributor to the site in those days was the sense that we could yell at Hollywood that we just wanted them to treat our favorite things with a little bit of goddamn respect.

Here”s the good news: we won.

When I look at the landscape of pop culture right now, there is no argument anyone can reasonably muster that positions nerd culture as outsider culture. We are not the underdogs, and we have not been the underdogs in a long time. There was a moment in Captain America: Civil War where I had a sort of out-of-body epiphany as I was watching the film. Spider-Man crawls across the front of Giant-Man”s helmet, right across the goggles, and part of me thought, “Well, that”s just crazy that we just saw that image in a giant $200 million summer movie.” The idea that multiplexes are packed with audiences of all ages and genders who are concerned with the fine details of what happened in Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World is mind-blowing to me. We won. We should be celebrating in the streets en masse, one big joyous nerd hive mind in triumphant ecstatic exclamation of victory, and instead, Batman fans are sending rape threats to movie critics they dislike and people are starting petitions to prove shadowy conspiracy theories. Fandom eats itself with gleeful abandon at the exact moment it should be enjoying its status as conqueror.

Why? Why are we at our worst now that we”ve made the mainstream nerdier than it”s ever been at any point in pop culture history?

Let”s go back to that first day of school in the fourth grade. There was only one kid who spoke to me all day long, and it was because his nerd radar was keenly honed. Pete Nelson was a nerd who flew his flag as high as possible. From his Dukes Of Hazard Trapper Keeper to his Grover lunchbox to his Yoda socks, he was unafraid to wear his loves literally on his sleeve in some cases. I was a stealth nerd at that point. I had learned to try to keep things on the DL, and while I might carry a Starlog or a Mad or a Famous Monsters with me in my backpack, I made sure I was clandestine about actually enjoying them. Pete sniffed me out, though, and he immediately offered up his unconditional friendship. He knew the truth about geek life in those days; there was safety in numbers. If you could find enough people to play Dungeons & Dragons, then you probably didn”t have to worry about being bullied at all. You had someone who had your back. You had your tribe. Pete had no one, and he looked at me and decided, “That guy probably has a Star Wars figure collection and I”ll bet he makes big cardboard sets for those figures so he can stage his own original stories.” And, amazingly enough, he was right. I was indeed a nerd, and Pete did indeed speak my language.

He was my first friend in Chattanooga, and he went out of his way to try to seal the deal. I think it was the third day of school when he started asking me over to play after school, and my mom was happy to make it happen. She knew that I was anxious about settling in, and she drove me over to Pete's several times over the next two weeks. When I was at his place, he went overboard. He was an only child, and his parents were more like grandparents, older and seemingly laser-focused on making sure every moment of Pete's life was sunshine and lollipops. We had extravagantly prepared snacks, we watched whatever we wanted on afternoon TV, and we played with Pete's outrageous Star Wars figure collection. At school, though, I found myself almost always anxious about anyone seeing me talk to Pete. He wasn”t cool, and he certainly wasn”t well-liked. The more I spent time with him, the  more I worried about his uncool rubbing off on me. He was that kid who always got picked last for everything, and I was in danger of joining him at the bottom of the social ladder.

Pete was a flaming wagon, and hitching my social hopes and dreams to him was a bad idea, which put fourth-grade-Drew into an untenable position. And here”s where I tell you that this is a very ugly story, and I did a very ugly thing, and I don”t feel good about it even now. But if I”m being honest, then I have to admit that I made the choice that Pete would be the sacrifice I made to get everyone else onboard. I tell this story to make it clear that there was a point in my lifetime when being a nerd was social death, and I wasn”t strong enough or secure enough to be honest about my own unabashed nerdhood at that point. Pete was. Pete simply was what he was, unconcerned with how other people saw things. He loved what he loved, and he was happy it existed. If he could find anyone to talk to about the things he loved, even better. That”s what he saw in me. That”s what he was desperate to cultivate in our friendship. And for his efforts, I got a terrible, terrible idea, and I put it into action. It was very simple. I picked the three or four most popular boys in my class, and I waited until they were together at recess. I took a single sheet of paper and wrote across the top: MEMBERSHIP.

Then I approached them to explain that I”d been talking to Pete and I had realized that he was, without a doubt, the biggest nerd I”d ever met. I told them that he was such a big nerd that it was a threat to the very fabric of society. I told them that I wanted to be very clear about my position on the Pete Nelson subject, and that they”d be welcome to join my new organization, The Pete Nelson Haters Club. I can”t tell you where I got the idea, or what genuinely rotten corner of my soul that came from, but that”s the truth. I got the entire class to join the club, and in doing so, I opened the door to conversation with every kid in my class. Overnight, I had made everyone laugh, I had made them notice me, and I had made it abundantly clear that I wasn”t a nerd like Pete. To join the club, you just had to do one thing like sneeze on Pete or step on his foot or accidentally knock something off his desk. Teeny tiny things, but all crystal clear as acts of malice.

There was no actual club. It was meant to be a one-and-done joke, and it did what I wanted in terms of getting the kids in my class to talk to me and include me. But I”d done it in the worst way possible, throwing this poor kid under the bus. I stopped going to his house and I told my mom I just wanted to do other things. But two weeks after that, Pete didn”t show up for school for three days in a row, and on the third day, I got called out of class. Pete”s mother was there, with the teacher, and they asked me if it was true that I”d started the Pete Nelson Haters Club. Even now, at the age of 45, I can remember the hot shame that spread from my roiling gut to my entire body, and the horrible sensation that ran through me as she explained just what a toll it had taken on Pete. He wasn”t sleeping. He wasn”t eating. He had thrown away many of his favorite things. My own secret shame about who I was and what I loved had led this kid to his own attack of self-loathing. They pulled him from that school and sent him somewhere else rather than have him come back into a classroom that he now feared and dreaded, all because of the person who he had reached out to befriend when no one else bothered. It is, by far, the shittiest thing I ever did to another person, and I did it because mainstream culture had already effectively drilled into my head the idea that nerds were bad and that being a nerd made you a loser. I would watch Harryhausen and Dr. Paul Bearer on Creature Features and Ultraman and I”d go to the theater for Godzilla double-features and I”d convert almost every penny of my lawn-mowing money into Star Wars toys, but when it came to school, I left all that other stuff at the door, and I did my best to blend in.

My kids will never know what that was like. The mainstream now is the geek culture of my youth, and it”s so completely and utterly taken over that it almost doesn”t feel real. Nerd culture has taken over, which means that we are no longer underdogs, and there is some part of being a nerd that almost requires that element. It”s where so much of our art has come from. Letting go of that part of the identity is hard, and it appears to have curdled in a certain percentage of the people who love the same things we love. It”s not enough for them to love something; they have to love it more than you do, and they have to feel like you don”t get it. They have to have some dividing line that separates them from everyone else, and they have to be able to defend that line with a rabid intensity. Without that, they don”t feel complete. When I see people starting petitions like this and I read the comments and I see what a weird and absurd idea some people have about film critics, what I really see is different subsections of geekdom deciding to fight with each other since they no longer have to protect the things they love from being ridiculed. They pick fights where no one else would, and they invent reasons to be insulted or to feel persecuted. If you thought Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice was a great movie, I”m genuinely happy for you. I”m glad you got something out of it that I couldn”t. I”m glad you were satisfied with that version of those characters. Anything I say about that film or write about it or compare it to is not meant to tear down your response to the movie. It”s simply because of my own reaction to it. Even if I don”t like something, that doesn”t mean it is beyond discussion or not worth serious consideration. I like being able to have one of those long rambling nerd debates about something super nerdy. That”s not what online discourse seems to be, though. Instead, there is an ugly aggression that feels like it is not about anybody”s individual reaction to the film. I don”t think it”s inherent to Batman fans, either. I think any nerd subculture has the potential to turn rancid and terrible when “attack” becomes their default. Why do we have to fight at all? Can”t we all just celebrate the fact that we live in a time when the mainstream has caught up to our interests and we”ll like some of what happens, and we won”t like some of what happens, but the point is this is what we asked for, and now that it”s here, we seem to be, by and large, unhappier than we”ve ever been.

There”s a scene at the very end of the new X-Men movie that feels like director Bryan Singer flipping the double-bird to Tom Rothman, packing in all the things that Fox refused to give him on the first film because Rothman was afraid of the comic book nature of the source material. That one shot is emblematic of how far we”ve come since just the start of that series. More and more often now, it”s been proven that it helps if you actually embrace the thing you”re adapting instead of just reflexively changing it because you don”t get it. That approach was what we were advocating way back in those early days of Ain”t It Cool, and when I look at something like Deadpool or the Spider-Man stuff in Civil War, it”s clear that the model works. Respect what you”re adapting, and you”re at least on the right track. It”s hard to respect a fandom that behaves the way people have been behaving lately, though, and all that happens when you become bullies and you use threats to shut people up because you don”t like what they”re saying is you become the thing that used to keep us from being able to openly share all this amazing stuff with each other. Nerd culture went mainstream and curdled into bullying, and that is unacceptable.

We may not always see eye to eye, but the first step to any kind of meaningful discourse is accepting that my love of nerd iconography is no better or more profound than your love of nerd iconography. We each have our own reasons and our own interests, but that common ground and a constant acknowledgment of that common ground should be the foundation of a happier, healthier fandom. I”m tired of the fighting and the name-calling and the general bad behavior. I”m tired of seeing women writers take a disproportionate amount of the abuse. And I am tired of disliking the people who like the things I like. That”s not the fandom that eventually saved me from being the self-loathing piece of garbage who made poor Pete Nelson's life so awful for one month over thirty years ago. When I finally found a community that was tied together by these books and these TV shows and these movies and this shared love of certain genres and archetypes, I was struck anew by just how poorly I treated Pete Nelson, and it made me aware of just how important those shared connections can be. I hope he eventually found his tribe, because I have certainly been lucky enough to find mine, and it has meant everything to me.

Nerd culture won. So now we can stop fighting, and simply get busy enjoying? Passion is part of fandom, but anger doesn”t have to be. No more battles, because there”s celebrating to be done. Let”s not burn the Golden Age down when we worked so hard to get here in the first place. Next time you see another nerd say something that enrages you, ask yourself why instead of jumping into the comments section. Shrug it off. Go find a positive comment somewhere else, one that raises a point you want to discuss, and turn that passion into joy instead of fury.

It”s a big Internet. Let”s stop being small.

Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Captain America: Civil War are in theaters now.
That is insane.

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