Mediating the 21st Century Geek

In case you haven’t noticed, geeks are big.  Geek culture is big, geek subculture is ascendant, being mainstreamed and both ideologically and commercially incorporated by said mainstream. This trend is not entirely positive or negative, but is complicated, like most things.

For this post, I’m going to be looking at two new TV shows that debuted during the WGA-strike-shortened 2007-2008 broadcast year.  Those shows are NBC’s Chuck and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory.  Both of these shows star characters who I call geeks, though in the shows, they are often known as nerds rather than/in addition to geeks.

First, let’s talk about geeks vs. nerds.  I’ve been reading Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People, which is a cultural studies history of the nerd.  For me, Geek and Nerd are sometimes synonymous terms which refer to substantially overlapping subculture groups.

Here’s the important overlap — Geeks and nerds are conceived of as intellectually inclined, socially mal-adjusted individuals with intense commitment to non-majoritarian hobbies.  Geeks are more associated with fandoms, computers, and media, wheras nerds are more associated with academia and scholarship.

Geeks were the kids who played Magic: the Gathering during lunch.  Nerds were the ones with their noses who spent afternoons at Science Olympiad/Academic Decathalon.  In high school, I was both a geek and a nerd, since I did all of the above.  Geek has become the more dominant term, and is also the one with the greater cultural cache at the moment, given things like Best Buy’s Geek Squad, The CW’s Beauty and the Geek, and the like.

We’ll be bouncing back and forth between nerdiness and geekiness pretty quick here, which is why I wanted to define terms before diving in.

Chuck — Meet the Lovable Geek

In Chuck, the titular character is Charles Bartowski, the head nerd of the ‘Nerd Herd’ at a ‘Buy More’ — TV-world versions of the Geek Squad from Best Buy.  Chuck was an engineering major at Stanford, but was expelled from the school due to the machinations of his former best-friend, Bryce Larkin (who also stole Chuck’s girlfriend away from him).  Five years after his expulsion, we meet Chuck in his aimless path working in the Nerd Herd and hanging out with his even-geekier friend Morgan Grimes.

Chuck is depicted in an archetypal role I’ll call the Lovable Geek.  Chuck is handsome in a goofy way (because everyone important on TV is pretty), kind and intelligent, but awkward around women who aren’t either related or under-age.  For Chuck, being a geek is about being smart and technically adept and interested in things like Batman and Dune and Call of Duty 4.  Morgan serves as a counter-point to Chuck, the Uber-Geek to Chuck’s Lovable Geek.  In Morgan, we see what Chuck could/would be if he had less social acumen.  Chuck is our protagonist geek because he is more accessible, less esoteric in his personality and interests.

The Big Bang Theory — Four Flavors of Geek

In The Big Bang Theory (shortened as TBBT) we find a similar configuration, but with more variants of the geek archetype.  The characters in TBBT are more firmly nerds than Chuck and Morgan in Chuck, but they are also most certainly geeks (they all dress up as the Flash for a halloween party, they play Talisman and Halo, they geek out about acquiring the original time machine prop from the 1960 film The Time Machine.  The four geek/nerds in TBBT are all faculty at and/or employed by Caltech.

The Lovable Geek lead in TBBT is physicist Leonard Hofstadder, PhD.  Leonard is the most socially adept of the four, and frequently acts as the group’s interpreter to the rest of the world (most frequently the neighbor Penny, who Leonard has a crush on).  Leonard and his roommate/friend Sheldon Cooper, PhD are the host for the geeky/nerdy antics of their circle of friends, including Howard Walowitz, an engineer and Rajesh Koothrappali, an astrophysicist.

Leonard’s romantic interest is Penny, a classically pretty bleach-blonde from the midwest who moves in next door to the geek/nerds.  Penny works as a waitress while trying to break in to show business, and is completely ‘Normal.’  She’s Everywoman, frequently the straight woman to the geek’s jokes.

Sheldon Cooper is the Uber-Geek for the show, manifested more properly perhas as the Uber-Nerd.  Sheldon has the highest IQ of the quartet of geniuses, and the complete social incompetance to go with it.  Sheldon is an instance of the double-edge of genius that makes it harder to communicate effectively with the rest of the world.  Sheldon was a child genius, and looks down his nose at those less intellectually capable than he.  Sheldon is the standoffish insular and hermitish geek/nerd, who pulls Leonard away from the rest of the world and more into the realm of calculations and formula and speculation.

Howard Walowitz, the engineer, is the Annoyingly Extraverted Geek.  Howard has no problem speaking to women, in fact he does so all the time, and thinks he’s awesome at it.  However, his confidence comes off as arrogance and the obvious attempts lack any natural charm.  Howard knows about charm and how it’s supposed to work, but is incapable of implementing the techniques he sees from others.

Rajesh Koothrappali is an Indian astrophysicist and the show’s Painfully Introverted Geek.  Rajesh is incapable of speaking to women without either alcohol or experimental drugs.  He represents the ethnic geek, those geeks from recently-developing countries like India, China, South Korea, etc. who are lumped in with the geek world.

Nerds and Race

At this point, I’ll interject with some of Nugent’s theory.  Nugent constructs a continum of racism with regards to nerds/jocks and ethnic stereotypes.  Nugent identifies a Animal<->Machine spectrum, where peoples of different types are conceived as being more animal-like or more machine-like.  Caucasians get to be the ‘norm’ in the middle (yay racism!) with Jocks on the animal side of average and nerds on the machine side.  Africans go further towards the ‘animal’ side due to racist conceptions of Africans and African-Americans as being more animalistic, associated with physical endeavors, etc.  Asians are opposite Africans, placed on the scale towards the Machine side, due to racist conceptions of Asians as being less feeling, more mechanistic and associated with the technical.

Looking at the Flavors

In TBBT, Leonard and Sheldon are conceived as one pair of geek types: Leonard is capable of walking in the ‘average’ world, though his intelligence and geekiness sets him apart.  Sheldon is mostly incapable of walking in the ‘average’ world, cleaving to the world of his hobbies and profession.  Howard tries to court women but is unsuccessful because his confidence is untempered by empathic understanding/skill, while Raj is a ‘great listener’ (he once gets picked up by a girl at a party without ever talking — in bed, she praises his skills as a listener.) who has a mental/emotional block to actually conversing with women.

TBBT portrays four flavors of geek, and it’s no surprise who our romantic male lead is:  Leonard makes efforts to reach out beyond the geek community in initially attempting to pursue Penny romantically, then inviting her into their social group when his initial efforts fail (and by fail, I mean fail to happen at all).  Leonard is the geek interpreter, the middle ground between Penny’s Everywoman and Sheldon’s Uber-Geek.  Normality and Geekdom seem to be portrayed as a continuum like Nugent’s Animal<->Machine spectrum.  As Leonard reaches out towards Penny, his fellow geeks see him moving away from his geek roots.  The show seems to be trying to work out the possibility of a geek dating a non-geek, reaching across the subcultural divide without losing your identity.

On the other hand, Chuck’s interest in Sarah Walker, the CIA agent assigned to protect him, is also a question of identity, but one determined by the Spy Show genre association of Chuck.  Sarah’s cover is as Chuck’s girlfriend, complicated by the fact that Chuck is interested in Sarah and suffers through the fake relationship that he wishes was real.  This shows an uncomfortableness with the world of fantasy and make-believe–of course, for Chuck’s life, the make-pretend life is the boring cover and the real life is the dangerous adventure of a James Bond film directed by Judd Apatow.  Chuck has to keep his spy identity secret from those he cares most about, his sister and his best friend.  The secret makes him closer to Sarah, and if he were to leave the spy business, it’d mean leaving her as well.

Chuck, like TBBT tells a story of a geek coming out of his shell and becoming more confident.  His sister hopes that Sarah will help Chuck regain his confidence and gain some momentum in life.  The spy experience moves Chuck from the role of geek slacker and moving towards the geek-chic Analyst/Field Agent.  It’s a kind of geek fantasy — we have to pretend we’re slackers to protect those we love because we’re actually so cool that it’s dangerous, our technical/cultural knowledge is actually highly important to the world.

California — The Land of Geeks

Another notable similarity between Chuck and The Big Bang Theory is that both shows take place in Southern California.  This makes sense, as California hosts many of the centers of geekdom — San Diego ComicCon, Silicon Valley, Hollywood.  Geeks are a predominatly urban and suburban subculture, thriving in places with a preponderance of hobby stores, technological infrastructure, and media entertainment.  A number of other big cities are also geek-tacular, like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Austin, etc.

Geeks and Cybercultural Technophobia

Why are more geeks being depicted in leading roles in mainstream TV/film?  Here’s a possible reason that you might not have thought of.  Geeks are the stand-in for the technocratic citizen of the possible future, a future where everyone is plugged-in, technically adept without trying, communicates predominantly through non-embodied media.   Ambivalence about geeks is ambivalence about technology.  Returning to Nugent’s Animal<->Machine continuum, geeks are cyborgs–with Bluetooth phones and PDA exo-cortexes, we’re becoming increasingly disentanglable from our technology, and not everyone is happy about this.  Sometimes you want to turn off your phone, put up an away message on G-mail and just go run around in the park.

Leonard is negotiating between the romantic subsection of socialization, the scary embodied world of emotions aka ‘real life’ and the insular world of technology, science, and the mind.  It’s a false Cartesian dualism, but it’s one that continues to be propagated and used as argument against cyberculture.  There’s the fear that if we rely too much on machines, become too technically adept and cybercultural that we’ll lose our humanity, and so we use geeks as the testing grounds for those possible futures, trying to see how we can use the power of technology while remaining human.  It’s cyborg identity theory with geeks as the metaphorical (and sometimes literal–I mean, Chuck has a super-computer in his brain — even though it’s all still a flesh-and-blood brain) cyborgs for society to work out its issues.  And Leonard/Sheldon/Howard/Rajesh are test cases for the different ways that becoming technocrats/scientifically adept might affect our social/emotional capabilities.

Of course, I fall on the pro-geek side, but it’s interesting to see Geekdom not only being commoditized, but also used as a testing ground for us to try to resolve our ambivalent relationship with technological development and the growing role of mediated cyberculture.

3 thoughts on “Mediating the 21st Century Geek

  1. […] Mike Underwood wrote an interesting post today on Mediating the 21st Century Geek. Here’s a quick excerpt: […]

  2. k8

    The best thing about Penny in Big Bang is that she’s really *not* the Everywoman – she does a nice job of translating geek culture herself when Leonard can’t. Which i like quite a bit – she’s smart as well as pretty, and she also grounds the four geeks really well. As much as Leonard is the translator, it only works when he’s translating to Penny or the Geeks’ families (who are arguably used to meeting their kids/siblings halfway). To go with your own analogy/theory, Penny does a nice job of showing that you don’t have to be a cyborg to be cool with the cyborgs.

    And i like that Leonard occasionally gets laid, too, without it being a misunderstanding or a token thing. It’s nice that geeks get to be sexual people, too.

  3. Penny is cool and engaging because she transcends being just the Everywoman — she doesn’t take the geek’s crap lying down, she has her own agenda (getting Sheldon drunk at the Cheesecake factory, throwing Leonard a b-day party), and she does the translator thing, as you say.

    Penny lives among the cyborgs but isn’t one. She isn’t afraid of the wires, even if she doesn’t want to go under the knife just to get a cool new set of implanted goggles.

    I think the sexual lives of the geeks in TBBT is probably one of the most positive/progressive things about the show. It works against the stereotype that all geeks only go into relationships for ‘Light Years’ as Penny says. Geeks in TBBT are not desexualized, they’re just socially awkward, which can be a detriment to their sex lives, or in other cases, it can be irrelevant.

    It also brings up Leslie Winkle, the show’s token female geek. Leslie is close to Leonard in terms of competence in the ‘normal’ world, but takes a different trajectory in terms of sexuality/romance in that she has no need for romance and desires sex only once in a season or so — apparantly. Leonard makes a (classically geeky Ted-ing-out-style) fallacious assumption regarding their relationship after they sleep together, and Leslie takes the stereotypically male perspective of breaking it down and assuring Leonard that it was a one-time thing, a simple gratification of a physiological need.

    Geek sexuality is a whole other topic, one that deserves (a) post(s) of its own.

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