Speaking as somebody who has been a nerd since long before that was a thing, these last 30 years have really been a trip as far as the way the word “nerd” has changed in the public sphere. I was a kid in the ’80s. Back then, nerds in pop culture meant short goofy men, usually named Louis, who couldn’t get it together under any circumstances. Now we have Zac Efron, Chris Hemsworth, Mila Kunis, Karlie Kloss, Michael Fassbender, and Selena Gomez all identifying as nerds on the record.
This is a real shift. It’s a juicy sociological question why and how. I don’t think anybody doubts that the ascendancy of Silicon Valley, e.g. the kingmaking of Mark Zuckerberg, had something to do with it. I’m inclined to believe that the internet had a more democratic role to play as well: the birth of virality allowed us, the people, at least briefly, to start declaring what was awesome without corporate mediation. Suddenly everybody’s private nerdiness had a mechanism to go public, and when it did, we crowned things that the arbiters of the pre-Youtube media landscape would have dismissed instantly, if they had even noticed them. Remember Chewbacca Mom? How about Chocolate Rain? Nerdiness has been validated by visible numerical strength. Well, anyway, I’m not trying to do sociology here, I’m just speculating. But something has really changed.
But it also hasn’t. But it has, but it hasn’t, but it has, but it hasn’t. The highest-rated non-sports TV show of the 2016-2017 season was The Big Bang Theory, which this fall will enter its 11th season. (I’m not presuming Nielsen ratings are still definitive of anything, but clearly it’s at least a big deal.) I feel like I’m supposed to like this show, but it’s always rubbed me wrong. It’s 2017 and “nerd” still means overgrown child? Female nerdiness is still essentially secondary and nonwhite nerdiness essentially tokenistic? Brainy people can’t aspire to social maturity and socially mature people can’t aspire to braininess? Maybe I’m being unfair to the show but that’s how it makes me feel.
Nonetheless, the more democratic side of nerd ascendancy has furnished us with a wider variety of screen representations than I could have imagined back then. So I want to take a moment to give some props to three + two of my very favorites.
Quick disclaimers: (1) I do not watch a ton of television. I’m sure there are a bunch of awesome nerds I don’t know anything about. (2) Spoiler alert! Information about these characters is freely discussed. You’ve been warned.
Ok, without further ado, and in no particular order,
My favorite nerds on television!
Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
C’mon, y’all, of course! Buffy’s shy, self-effacing, brainiac-hacker-turned-sorceress bestie is the first time I think I saw a nerd on TV get to be a whole person. This show was written into nerd canon the moment in the very first episode when Buffy, courted by mean-girl Cordelia, decisively sides with Willow instead —
and its place was sealed in episode 2 when Willow quietly sticks up for Buffy, and then for herself —
But Willow wouldn’t have been part of the inspiration for this post if things had stayed where they were early in season 1. The thing I love about the portrayal of Willow was that she got to be a multidimensional, changing human. I’ve seen seasons 1-5 and part of 6, and over the course of that time Willow investigates many different sides of herself and ways of being — group belonging vs. autonomy; sexuality and partnership; power, creation and destruction; selflessness vs. ego. A really wide range of self-experience is part of being human, but they never used to write nerds this way.
Case in point: when an ’80s / ’90s nerd obtains some swagger, it’s usually due to some sort of magical or science-fictional intervention, cf. Stefan Urquelle. (Drugs and alcohol can serve the magical purpose as well, cf. Poindexter.) The entertainment value is the contrast between the magic/science/psychotropics-enhanced version of the character and the swaggerless everyday version. Buffy plays with that trope too — in a classic episode in season 3, an evil vampire version of Willow shows up in town, rocking leather and taking absolutely no sh*t from anyone.
But in the Buffyverse, this is an opportunity for the character to grow. A plot device occasions the real Willow to have to impersonate her evil vampire twin, and she’s forced to try on some unaccustomed ways of being — assertive; fear-inspiring; fearless; sexually confident. They feel weird and uncomfortable to her in the moment, but they also resonate — indeed, it was a shy but defiant experiment in power and danger by real Willow herself that (accidentally) brought evil twin Willow to town in the first place. And without doubt, the whole experience opens up new avenues of selfhood for Willow to explore.
Seymour Birkhoff, Nikita
I don’t know why the CW’s reboot of La Femme Nikita wasn’t more of a thing. A and I were totally obsessed with it. And one of the (many) reasons was Seymour Birkhoff, the Star-Wars-Lord-of-the-Rings-quoting black-ops technology specialist.
In a lesser show, Birkhoff would have been a purely instrumental character, there to solve plot problems. “We need to hack into this network — where’s Birkhoff?” In this show, he’s a principal, and his relationship with the other leads, especially Michael and Nikita, are at the heart of the whole thing.
(Spoiler warning if you’re not in season 2 yet!)
Like Willow, over the course of the show’s 4 seasons, Birkhoff gets to be a whole person. Fearful, brave, valorous; selfish, loyal; supportive, needy; a truthteller and a deceiver. Powerful and vulnerable.
Like Willow, this range of experience never compromises the legit nerdiness. It’s a different flavor than hers: a familiar awkward cockiness coupled with a constant stream of references to canonical nerd material, from the aforementioned Lord of the Rings and Star Wars to Harry Potter and X-Men. Including, at the risk of a spoiler, literally my favorite use of “may the force be with you” in all of film, including the OT. At one point he almost gets himself killed with a poorly chosen Mr. Miyagi quote, but it’s not a joke at his expense. He reads to me as a “for us, by us” representation — if the writers and/or the actor don’t identify as nerds, somebody is really convincingly faking it.
Jane Gloriana Villanueva, Jane the Virgin
I conceived of this post when I was still in season 1 of Jane the Virgin. Even though I relate to Jane as a fellow nerd, I wasn’t completely sure it was right to claim her this way publicly. Whereas Birkhoff and Willow are clearly delineated by the scripts as their respective shows’ Designated Nerds — Birkhoff is literally nicknamed “Nerd” by Nikita — Jane is not explicitly so constructed. Was I “calling her a nerd,” then? (This used to be rude.)
Season 2 fully cleared that up as all the relevant features of Jane’s personality came into clearer focus. Between her late-night informational internet binges, her anxiety around school success (she’s working on a creative writing degree), her urgent need to get everything right, her tendency to overthink things, and her not even playing it a little bit cool around her father’s celebrity friends (see below), it was settled. And then, oh, right, she’s a virgin, deep into her twenties.
All of these are important aspects of Jane’s story and/or personality, but none of them pigeonhole her.
I think that’s the unifying theme of this blog post. Being a nerd is not a limitation on what’s possible in terms of the range of human experience. Nerds are not a homogeneous bunch — we are not even homogeneous internally as individuals. TV doesn’t always recognize this, but when it does, it’s glorious.
Cosima Niehaus, Orphan Black
While for me Cosima doesn’t quite meet the “for us, by us” standard set by Birkhoff, it still feels worth celebrating that we now have an earnestly-geeked-out-on-science character who is also “the hot one”.
Brian Krakow, My So-Called Life
My So-Called Life is a classic show for a reason. Every one of the characters had an interior life that was more richly and empathetically rendered than any prior teen show that I know of. From Angela Chase (to this date, Claire Danes’ greatest work imho) to Rickie Vasquez to Rayanne Graff, Jordan Catalano, Sharon Cherski, and the resident nerdy neighbor Brian Krakow, nobody was denied a point of view.
It’s not possible to overstate how much I identified with Brian when I was 18. I kind of felt like he was literally based on me. I’m putting him here in the “runners up” only because I’ve changed so much, and my historical identification with Brian reflects limitations in how I saw myself.
I guess that’s the point of all of this. Nerdy or not, humans are infinite. May TV reflect this infinitude.
Addendum 6/14/19: Chidi Anagonye, The Good Place
I wrote this post before I had ever watched The Good Place, but I had to come back here to give props to the first TV character that ever legit reminded my philosophy professor dad of himself.
 (a) Do not look this up on Youtube! It needs to be appreciated in context. If you’re curious, watch the entirety of season 2. (b) I suspect there are those who would question my nerd cred for suggesting that my favorite use of MtFBWY occurs elsewhere than the OT. Now, I forcefully reject the notion of “nerd cred.” An exclusionary posture about nerddom is both limiting (cf. the rest of this blog post) and a singularly bad look on people who have ever felt excluded. Nonetheless, I am happy to establish mine. Saying your favorite MtFBWY occurs outside the OT is kind of like saying that your favorite lightsaber fight is RvD2. You say it in the full acknowlegement that whatever you’re naming as your favorite owes its whole existence to the OT. Happy now? 😉