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Nerds, Outcasts, Bullies and Beauty Queens

June 22, 2011 | David

Does the new Miss USA deserve her self-declared "nerd" title? And is nerd-bullying as bad as being bullied for being a nerd?

For many of us nerds, and I suspect this might be stronger in those of us in our mid-30s and older (though that’s just a suspicion), there’s a fair amount of upset over the labeling of Miss USA, Alyssa Campanella, as a “nerd” or “geek.” Not every one of us chooses to express it, but some have done so loudly and angrily. Those loud objectors have been admonished by a lot of our fellow nerds, especially the younger ones (this is where my suspicion above comes from, by the way), for engaging in geek-bullying and geek-gatekeeping; who are they to decide who is and isn’t a geek or a nerd?

And those brighter-side geeks are right. None of us have been appointed gatekeepers of nerd-dom. None of us are the guardians of geekhood. And if Alyssa wants to declare herself a geek, who are we to stop her? Is she really a geek in her heart? Or is she just a casual fan of Star Wars? In the end, who cares? She’s the recently crowned Miss USA, she’s the symbol of an old-fashioned idea of what is desirable in womanhood, and she’s turning that idea on its head and using her platform to encourage anyone who listens to her to embrace Sci-Fi and Fantasy and, more importantly, History and Science. That’s a win, no matter how you look at it.

On the other hand…

For many of us self-described nerds and geeks, that label is sort of a badge of honor. It was the label of the Outsider, the Oddball, and often the Despised. For many of us, “nerd!” was the last thing we heard before receiving a bully’s fist in our face, or feeling the sticky chill of a milkshake poured over our head in the lunchroom. Many of us spent our skinny (or fat), awkward childhoods trying to shed the label by trying out for sports or pretending to know who Larry Bird was or purposefully taking a dive on a math test so that we’d not be thrown into a locker for ruining the curve. Again. Many of us fought a frustrating, demoralizing battle against ourselves and that Outsider label, trying desperately to fit in, before finally accepting and embracing who we were, who we are. For those of us who spent our formative years crying “I am not a nerd!” or sobbing in our bedrooms at night wishing we were not such nerds, that we were strong or good looking or charismatic or stupid or just not so weird, it’s hard to look at the beautiful, beaming young winner that is Alyssa Campanella, Miss USA 2011, and not think, “you are no nerd.”

When I was a kid, “nerd” was an insult. While it generally meant something we should have seen as good, that we were smart and capable, at least where academics were concerned, it was interchangeable with “gay” and “retard” in the schoolyard (this was the 1980s, folks - these were the words we used). It meant that we were socially awkward, that we were physically inferior, that we’d never get the girl (or guy). It was a label we fought, even while we watched Star Trek re-runs and read pulpy sci-fi and played Dungeons & Dragons with our nerd friends. No one, or at least no one I knew, embraced “nerd” as a matter of pride, at least not in public.

I was lucky. I grew up in a very small town, the son of two very smart parents (my Dad was a science teacher and later a chemist at a coal gasification facility, my mom had been a journalism major and was an amazing writer), the brother of three probably smarter siblings (don’t tell them I said so). By junior high I had a close group of friends who, all of us nerds, outcasts, created a support system. Also, because our town and school were so small, even we nerds could play varsity sports (and a couple of us, myself included, did) as well as compete in the Academic Olympics, Science Olympics and Math Challenge (we had all three). At school, class sizes were small and we mostly avoided very serious physical abuse because teachers were ever-present (though getting punched, stuffed in lockers, doused with milkshakes, pushed down the stairs, pantsed, wedgied and other more disturbing humiliations, such as returning to your locker after gym class to find someone had peed through the vents onto your clothes, were still common). We even had girlfriends, some of us, for at least part of our time in High School. I dated a varsity cheerleader for almost a year - not a very nerdy thing to do, unless it’s in secret and you are the lead in “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Of course, that same year, when coming out of the locker room after gym, I was kicked in the stomach so hard I puked, and then admonished to tell no one or I’d be getting it every day. I was sixteen years old. I told no one. That year had its ups and downs. But, because I had strong support in my home life, from my family and teachers and friends, I eventually wore my nerdiness as a badge of honor. I was the Outsider and, though I suffered for it, it was clear to me this is who I was, and who I would be, and I was able to see that, once I got the hell out of high school, what made me a nerd would likely serve me well in life. And it did.

At some point in our society, “nerd” and “geek” stopped being insults and started being desirable labels. I usually point to it starting with the dot-com boom, when the proliferation of powerful and newly-wealthy nerds made starkly visible the advantages of being the smart one in class. As it became clear to everyone that nerds would be the players in our internet society, the trappings of nerdiness began to become cool. Others have speculated the nerd-to-cool drift began with Star Wars and the science fiction boom of the late 1970s and 1980s. There are lots of theories. But it remains that having “nerd” screamed at you in the hallway at school now no longer carries the same painful humiliation it once did. “Nerd” is no longer automatically something to hide. “Nerd” no longer automatically gets you punched in the lunch line. And that’s a good thing. If kids can read comic books in public and not get wedgied, if skinny guys can quote Star Wars without worrying that it will lose them the girl, if a girl doesn’t have to pretend to be bad at math to be popular, if collecting replica Sonic Screwdrivers does not automatically make you a social outcast - this is all a step forward for society.

But none of that changes the fact that, for many of us, our Outsider label means we suffered through humiliation and pain and survived. That the same label is applied to the beautiful and the popular, even such a symbol of an outdated, conformist social ideal as Miss USA, causes a visceral negative reaction in many of us. It’s not fair to Alyssa for us to feel that way, but many of us do.

My friend Jessica Mills, creator of the amazing geek show ”Awkward Embraces,” recently wrote, in an essay against geek-gatekeeping, “...being a geek means that we let a part of ourselves believe in magic, heroism and the best of humanity.” I’m not sure I agree. For me, being a nerd had little to do with that. It always meant I was an Outsider, that society said I should be ashamed of the things I loved and the person I was, even if I refused to do so. It didn’t mean believing in heroes, it meant pleading in the principle’s office for permission to go home and change my pee-soaked clothes. And I can’t help but think that probably never happened to our newly crowned Miss USA.

But I could well be wrong - I don’t know her, and I don’t know what she faced growing-up. And that kind of thinking is not the least bit constructive. No one benefits from my left-over childhood anger. I’ve not had to experience the recent “nerd pandering” backlash so many of my LadyGeek friends (who happened to grow up to be attractive women) are currently facing, which would almost certainly soften my gut reaction to all this. So I agree, intellectually, with the cheerier geeks who say that if Alyssa Campanella declares herself a nerd, she’s a nerd, and that’s a positive thing. I may not have much in common with her, but if her statements help one kid feel like less of an outcast, I’m all for it. I’m for raising the portcullis of the castle of nerdhood so many of us have jealously guarded and letting in whoever wants to watch a full Star Trek original cast movie marathon with me (except we’ll skip Star Trek V, because holy zod how was that disaster even allowed to happen?).

But I think those cheerier geeks should understand why some of us are upset. That frustration may be irrational, but it’s not illegitimate. It’s the anger of the Outsider who feels his/her hard-won identity devalued somehow, even if that’s not really true. It’s not constructive and it’s not permanent. But it’s also not malicious. It’s just human.

- David Nett, Nerd

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