Four Reasons Nerd Culture Went Mainstream In The ’80s

The Avengers has made a billion dollars. The Dark Knight Rises is well on its way to making a billion dollars. Gaming is becoming a crucial aspect of mobile computing. Game of Thrones is one of the biggest shows on television. Everywhere you look, nerd culture is supposedly going mainstream.

And it’s really annoying some nerds. The latest to be annoyed is Cracked’s own John Cheese, who seems to be under the impression that it was the 1950s right up until The Dark Knight came out.

Honestly, I’ve seen a lot of these rants, and have for years. They’re just usually on /b/ and contain the word “newf**s” in a much higher percentage. But this is really, really, REALLY late to the party. It’s pretty safe to argue that by 1990, being a nerd was fairly mainstream.

The problem is that really being a nerd is defined not by interests but by extremes. All the people turning out for superhero movies are no more nerds now than they were then. This is just the natural culmination of a process that started in the ’80s and had made nerd culture thoroughly mainstream by the mid ’90s. And if you don’t believe me, here are four arguments for my case.

Nintendo Changed What Gaming Was

People tend to forget that the entire reason gaming and being a nerd are so closely tied together is because until 1985, the only way to play games was to own some form of primitive computer. Well, primitive to us. Back then it was a new and rare beast.

Nintendo was a different beast. You weren’t supposed to code your own programs. It simplified the process of playing games to insert tab A into slot B, press down, and press the power button. And it sold 62 million consoles.

When there’s a game console in every home, you’re already mainstream. This isn’t even considering the Game Boy, whose sales dwarf the NES. In other words, millions of kids literally grew up gaming and never stopped. Hipsters didn’t suddenly decide Mario T-shirts were awesome: They grew up playing Mario just like us.

1989’s Batman

It’s easy to forget that this was one of the single most disruptive movies to ever hit Hollywood after Star Wars. But at the time Warner Brothers was widely considered to be insane to be making this movie.

At the time, Batman was a pop culture joke. He was defined by the ’60s TV series to most people. Everybody liked Batman but most people thought of superhero movies as defined by the increasingly campy and awful Superman film series. So why the hell was a respected studio making a serious movie starring some comedian and directed by auteur Tim Burton? The very idea was ridiculous.

Then it grossed about $700,000,000 worldwide and everybody got to work ripping it off.

If you weren’t around for it, or weren’t a kid at the time, it’s hard to overstate just how crazy everyone went for Batman. They turned out Batmerch as fast as they could crank it. Every kid in my grade had Batman or Joker shoes. And for better and for worse, Batman would inform every blockbuster and would-be blockbuster after.

Watchmen And The Dark Knight Returns Created The Graphic Novel In 1987

So why did Warner Brothers even take this gamble in the first place?

Well, two comic books with adult themes becoming bestselling books would be the reason. We all know this story since it’s so often discussed, but these two books started a process of comics being taken seriously and being seen as material for adults. It gave Moore and Miller a springboard to advocate for other comic artists: Miller in particular probably sold more reprints of The Spirit than Eisner did, in the ’80s.

That was the thing: Warners owned DC and as a result, they had the sales numbers. Batman comics were selling millions of copies… and selling them to adults.

But even that isn’t nearly as big a breakthrough as what was happening on TV.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Was One of The Most Successful Shows On The Air

In the nerd stereotype, Star Trek is integral: If your nerd isn’t wearing Spock ears, it’s because they don’t go with his gold shirt.

To Paramount, Star Trek let them pull off one of the biggest coups in the history of television.

The financial achievement Paramount put together on the back of Star Trek: The Next Generation is nothing short of staggering, so much so that it’s literally a case study in entertainment law and market economics. The Next Generation never aired in a specific time slot or day in any market, yet it commanded ratings that consistently crushed most network hits. Name a show that supposedly defines the late ’80s and early ’90s and it was probably beaten by TNG in the ratings.

The premiere alone was watched by 27 million people and right from the start, Paramount was making a 40% profit on every episode. And this was in 1987, when being a Trekkie was still supposedly a social disgrace.

More than the movies, this really emphasizes that arguing nerd culture was under the radar was a fallacy. It wasn’t. It was mainstream culture.

So enough with the noob arguments, OK? They’ve been around since the ’80s.