"The Nerd Within": Mass Media and the Negotiation of Identity Among Computer-Using Men.
"An unhealthy fascination with technology on the part of a few adolescents had awakened the nerd within us all." --Robert Cringely, narrator, "Triumph of the Nerds" (documentary) Ulysses looks in henri's glasses and sees his reflection and exclaims, "Oh NO! I'm a NERD!" --From a transcript of a conversation on the online forum BlueSky
Identity formation and performance occur in the context of enduring social structures and relations of dominance, subordination, and resistance. In this article, I look at a particular masculine identity, the "nerd." In particular, I consider media representations of nerds as part of the cultural context within which individuals negotiate their identities. I juxtapose analyses of various media images of nerds with statements and interactions from my research on an online forum among people who use, resist, and negotiate their relationship to the cultural definition of the nerd. In considering connections between people's nerd identities and media representations of the nerd, I seek to complement several other threads of research which address similar issues, including research that focuses on socialization (Fine, 1987; Thorne, 1993; Willis, 1981); analyses of images and messages contained in mass media (Gray, 1995; hooks, 1990; Pfeil, 1995; Smith, 1993); and studies of the relationships of media fans to the cultural objects of their critical affection (Jenkins, 1992; Penley, 1991; Radway, 1991).
Whereas fans might meet specifically to enjoy and discuss a particular media object, groups of friends such as the one I studied online constitute a group for other reasons, and may not organize their time and relationships with each other around particular media. Yet, media messages form part of the cultural and interactional context of individuals' negotiations of identity even when those individuals are only casual consumers of media. While I do provide some evidence of familiarity on the part of my research subjects with some of the media objects I analyze, in the main I elide the question of specific exposure entirely, treating the nerd as an ideal type and discussing both media references and people's identity performances in relation to that ideal type.
My use of the ideal type of the nerd reflects the everyday practice of my research subjects themselves. As Berger and Luckmann (1966) suggest, typifications form an important part of our relationship to the social world. While given little conscious thought in the "natural attitude" of everyday life, they enable us to organize our perceptions of the world around us and to coordinate smoothly our actions within that world. The participants on the online forum BlueSky(1) use the ideal type of the nerd, derived in part from media depictions of nerds, in negotiating their identities. They measure their own and others' identities and behaviors against this type.
In what follows, I first describe my online research and the media sources I examined. I then outline the basic stereotypical components of nerd identity and discuss the relationship of this identity to Connell's (1995) concept of hegemonic masculinity. I also discuss the BlueSky participants' understandings of their own identities in light of this nerd stereotype. The nerd identity carries with it specific implications regarding race, gender, sexuality, and class (especially as class identities are played out in work environments). Using examples from media and from online discussions among BlueSky participants, I explore these implications and analyze the meaning of the nerd identity with regard to relationships of power in U.S. culture.
THE BLUESKY GROUP
BlueSky is a type of interactive, text-only, online forum known as a "mud." Mud originally stood for Multi-User Dungeon (based on the original multi-person networked dungeons and dragons-type game called MUD). Most mud participants pay little attention to the acronym or to muds' origins, using the word mud as both a noun and a verb. Thus, "mudding" refers to online participation on muds and "mudder" refers to a mud participant. As in other online chat programs, people connect to mud programs through Internet accounts and communicate through typed text with other people currently connected to that mud. Unlike "asynchronous" forums such as email listservers and bulletin board services, people on the mud see text from other participants scroll up their computer screen almost as soon as people type it. Mud communication thus resembles face-to-face conversation in its timing, and many mudders have the feeling of being in a virtual place.
BlueSky, which runs on the workplace computer of one of the participants, functions primarily as a social meeting space. Like most muds, it is available without charge to those with Internet access. Most BlueSky participants log on while at work, and frequently use BlueSky as a forum for discussing job-related information. (Many work as computer programmers or system administrators.) People come to BlueSky for help in solving work-related problems, especially programming questions. They also exchange information concerning job openings, and several people have hired other BlueSky participants.
For over two years, I was a participant-observer on BlueSky. In addition to spending time with BlueSky people online, I've met them and other mudders offline for social activities and gatherings. I supplemented my participant-observation on BlueSky with many hours on several other social muds and by reading various online resources relating to muds, including Usenet newsgroup and email list postings. I also conducted 30 indepth face-to-face interviews with BlueSky participants in several U.S. cities.
The people who connect to BlueSky have in some cases been mudding for more than seven years and have formed relationships with each other that often extend offline. Most discovered mudding while in college, and currently have college degrees. (Several also have graduate degrees.) Almost all come from middle-class backgrounds, and the majority are white, young, male, and heterosexual. Approximately 27 percent of the regulars on BlueSky are female, and approximately six percent are Asian American. Most participants are in their mid to late 20s.(2)
MEDIA IMAGES OF NERDS
The media sources I examined include: the Revenge of the Nerd movies; Triumph of the Nerds, a documentary about the growth of the personal computer industry; several web sites relating to nerds, including a "Nerdity Test," which allows people to determine their "nerd quotient"; Coupland's (1995) novel Microserfs, about young computer programmers working for Microsoft in the late 1980s; and business-related magazine and newspaper articles obtained using searches on the term "nerd." For purposes of the comparisons I make herein, most of my discussion focuses on the Revenge of the Nerd movies.
"JUST WHAT IS A NERD.?"
A recent copy of the "nerdity test,"(3) provides a useful summary of the expected characteristics of the nerd. The test, based on the perennially popular "purity test" (in which affirmative answers to questions about experiences with sex and drugs yield a percentile score of one's "purity"), lists 500 questions about activities, knowledge, and experiences associated with nerds, revealing a modern portrait of the nerd. Although only one question on the nerdity test explicitly indicates gender, by and large, the test presents nerds as male. Nerds enjoy school and do well in it, especially math and science courses. The more types of computer experience, the higher the nerd score. Nerds have high IQs and possess large amounts of esoteric technical knowledge, but are socially inept. Nerds also collect objects connected with knowledge (atlases and maps; mathematical and scientific equipment such as telescopes and slide rules; etc.), and are avid science fiction fans. Section 10 of the test, concerning clothing and apparel, lays out several of the stock features of the nerd stereotype: uncoordinated clothing, pocket protectors, lack of personal hygiene, too-short pants ("high-water" pants or "floods"), and glasses, especially with ad hoc repairs (i.e., held together with tape or glue).
This familiar stereotypical portrait reveals the nerd's relationship to "hegemonic masculinity," which Connell (1995) defines as "the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women" (p. 77). The nerd stereotype includes aspects of both hypermasculinity (intellect, rejection of sartorial display, lack of "feminine" social and relational skills) and perceived feminization (lack of sports ability, small body size, lack of sexual relationships with women). Thus the nerd is one among many types of "subordinated masculinit[ies]," including "wimp, milksop, nerd, turkey, sissy," etc. (Connell 1995, p.79), but is also complicit with hegemonic masculinity.
While once almost entirely derogatory, the term nerd now accords some respect and status, owing in part to the increase in computer use in both work and leisure contexts. I argue that this represents a reconfiguration of hegemonic masculinity to incorporate some aspects of the previously subjugated nerd identity, especially as that identity relates to the understanding and use of computers. This reconfiguration relates to changes in economic and job prospects for middle-class white males, as I discuss below.
BlueSky participants have on several occasions referred to the online nerdity test and compared scores or commented on particular questions. In addition to socializing online, BlueSky participants employ computers for work and leisure activities, playing computer games and accessing a variety of entertainment resources on the World Wide Web. They recognize their fit with the social stereotype of the nerd, and must negotiate their own relationship to this potentially stigmatizing, but also partially respectable identity.
After a face-to-face interview, I toured the house of Perry, a graduate student in computer science and frequent BlueSky participant. Perry's three roommates are all employed in computer-related jobs, and one is also a long-term BlueSky participant. As in many of the houses of mud participants that I saw during my research, the decor here is minimal and haphazard, giving the ambience of a college student house, even though most of the inhabitants now work outside of academia. The furniture is mainly cast-offs or hand-me-downs, and there are very few wall decorations. The refrigerator contains almost no food. Most of Perry's roommates make good middle-class salaries as computer professionals, but the only visible signs of that income are in the form of electronics. The complex stereo system is sleek and up-to-date. Next to the television are shelves and shelves of videos, mostly copies of Japanese animation.
The house also contains seven computers of various ages and capabilities. As in many business settings, these computers connect to each other, forming an in-house net work, and connect to the Internet via an outside phone line and Internet service provider. Perry demonstrates this network for me, explaining what functions the different computers perform, and pointing out where the in-house muds reside. To maintain the Internet connection and the availability of the in-house muds, several of these computers are always on, providing a constant background hum some would find annoying or too reminiscent of the workplace, but which the residents of this household take for granted. The bland, spare suburban home of Perry and his roommates reflects a particular middle-class masculine identity. The investment in computer and media equipment rather than decor reflects an instrumental and technophilic (as opposed to sentimental or sensual) relationship to domestic life.
BlueSky participants acknowledge the connections between their lifestyles and the nerd identity. They both embrace and distance themselves from that identity, reflecting the nerd's inclusion of both desirable and marginalized aspects. On the one hand, nerds have an expected mastery of technology, which conveys masculinity. On the other hand, nerds stereotypically have low social skills and little or no sexual interaction, compromising their connection to hegemonic masculinity. BlueSky participants reflect these contradictions in their references to themselves as nerds, as in these quotes from my logs of online interaction:
Jet says, "HOW DID I GET SO NERDY" Randy <- fits one of the standard nerd slots Mender says "when you publish please feel free to refer to me as `nerdy but nice'" Ulysses looks in henri's glasses and sees his reflection, and exclaims "Oh NO! I'm a NERD!"
In the above quotes, BlueSky participants humorously identify themselves as nerds, and connect with each other through play with that identity. But they also indicate their understanding that this disqualifies them from a more hegemonic masculine identity. Ulysses' mock dismay at his supposedly nerdy looks and the "but" in Mender's phrase "nerdy but nice" indicate their evaluations of the nerd identity as not completely desirable.
Mercer (1991) challenges researchers to "make `whiteness' visible ... as a culturally constructed ethnic identity," asserting that "the identity of the hegemonic white male subject is an enigma in contemporary cultural politics" (p. 206). Pfeil (1995) also points to the "dialectical co-construction" of masculinity and cautions against representations of white straight masculinity that do not recognize variance within that term (p. ix). Analyzing nerds as a particular type of white straight male helps illuminate facets of that category and the relationships between white and non-white masculine identities. Exploring the discourse around nerds as reflective of changing relationships of masculinities sheds some light on the enigma of white male identity by viewing some of the cultural processes implicated in its ongoing construction. In particular, the nerd's marginalized but white status allows him to speak a generic bid for tolerance and equality without explicitly acknowledging the oppression of racially marginalized others.
For instance, the Revenge of the Nerds movies were released during a time when hard-won civil rights gains for African Americans were being pushed back under the Reagan and Bush presidencies and when movements for gay rights were becoming more visible. The figure of the nerd, particularly as he appears in these movies, substitutes for these other oppressed groups and recodes bids for the overturn of the dominance of white straight males, in part critiquing white straight masculine authority without actually considering the plight of oppressed peoples directly.
Revenge of the Nerds ("Revenge") was released in 1984, utilizing as its title a phrase which had already entered popular discourse to describe the surprising success of garage start-up computer manufacturing entrepreneurs such as Stephen Wozniak.(4) Those geeky guys who couldn't get a date in high school, the story goes, became millionaires through the very act of technological manipulation that had labeled them nerds to begin with. Money confers status in the U.S., and business and monetary success confer masculinity. Hence the "revenge" of this previously non-hegemonic group.
The movie presents its two main protagonists, Lewis and Gilbert, as quintessential, stereotypical nerds. The plot of Revenge revolves around these underdog heroes' attempts to get housing after being kicked out of the dorms to make room for the football fraternity, the Alpha Betas, who have burned down their own frat house. The nerds attempt to qualify as a fraternity. No national fraternity will sponsor them because they send in their photos with each application, and none of the fraternities want a "bunch of nerds." Finally, they forget to enclose a photo to an African-American fraternity, Lambda Lambda Lambda, and qualify for probationary inclusion through a technical loophole, which, in their obsessive attention to detail, they readily exploit. Through this plot maneuver, the film codes the nerds as fraternity "brothers" to the black "brothers." This coding of the nerds as black continues throughout the rest of the movie. The strong and strapping white, blond Alpha Betas terrorize the nerds using numerous examples drawn from the history of African-American oppression. Just in case we don't get the connection, at one point the Alpha Betas burn a NERDS sign on the nerds' frat house lawn.
Throughout most of the movie, the head of the national black fraternity, U.N. Johnson, stands silently by, observing the treatment of the nerds. Ostensibly, he serves as final arbiter of the fraternal status of the nerds. But he also raises the specter of blackness, and the displaced bid for civil rights, which will instead be spoken by and for the mostly white nerds. His approval of the nerds' bid for fraternal inclusion represents a wish-fulfillment for conservatives that they can obtain African-American approval of a hegemonic masculine order that places whites at the top of hierarchical relationships between men.
The end of the movie presents this displacement with amazing clarity. Gilbert, finally pushed too far, attempts to wrest the microphone from the jocks at a pep rally while being choked by their coach. Arriving as the last-minute cavalry, U.N. Johnson and a cadre of large black men enter to a "funky" baseline music track straight out of '70s blaxploitation films. Johnson demands that the coach release Gilbert, and then hands the microphone to Gilbert. Here, the film raises the specter of "one of white America's worst nightmares" (Smith, 1993, p. 125). Deal with the nerds, or you'll have to deal with the real threat: strong, organized, black males. To complete this "speaking-for" role of the nerds, Gilbert declares in his final victory speech that "no one's really gonna be free until nerd persecution ends."
Lewis then takes the mike and, in a close-up shot of Lewis's face in which U.N. Johnson's silent black face can be seen blurrily in the background, calls for everyone present to join with the nerds, invoking their common experience of oppression. Lewis's pathetically bland examples of oppression (being called names, not feeling like one of the "beautiful people") enable nearly anyone to declare themselves part of the nerd camp.
Lewis's inclusive invitation to all oppressed people to declare their solidarity with nerds in the final scene evokes but excludes African-American men. After their menacing entrance, the black members of the national Tri-Lamb fraternity disappear from view (except for the still blurrily seen U.N. Johnson). Because of their status as, outsiders, they are invoked to arbitrate in conflicts between white males. This outsider status stems in part from " one of the deepest mythological fears and anxieties in the racist imagination, namely that all black men have huge willies" (Mercer, 1991) (a belief jokingly referred to throughout the second Revenge movie). The Revenge films represent black males as stereotypically embodying aspects of hegemonic masculinity (strength and large penis size), without allowing them to inherit the benefits thereof. At the end of Revenge of the Nerds, they stand to the side, handing the phallus (in this case, a microphone), from one group of white males to another.
This evocation and subsequent displacement of African Americans occurs online as well. Many online participants, including some on BlueSky, insist that race doesn't matter online. But when questioned about this, several BlueSky participants specifically raise the issue of African-American status online:
Corwin is a white boy and hasn't seen as how people have any clue what race anyone is; he's pretty sure nobody realized for ages that a few black [mudders] were black, for instance elflock whispers "I rarely see race playing a major factor in BlueSky discussion--like many other forms of online interaction, one's race isn't glaringly obvious. It was years before I even knew Sand was black, for instance. Peg whispers "well, I don't know unless someone mentions it, obviously, but people don't seem to act any differently, there was one girl (katrina?) who was black but it never came up in conversation"
These white participants associate race and racial relations specifically with the question of blackness. In these statements, the ultimate test of whether race matters online is the ability of black people to pass as white. This emphasizes both the presumed desirability of hiding blackness and the assumption that people online are white. While the latter assumption is not unreasonable, given the current demographics of online participants, it demonstrates the extent to which anonymity online cannot be classified as an absence of identity characteristics. When black participants must state that they are black in order to be recognized as such (so that it will "come up in conversation"), anonymity carries with it a presumptive identity of whiteness.
Like the BlueSky participants quoted above, many online participants (a large majority of whom are white) claim that race doesn't matter online. For instance, John Perry Barlow (1996), a well-known 'net personality, commentator, and writer, has stated about online culture that:
We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.
Similarly, Carets, a BlueSky participant, says about BlueSky:
This and places like it are the real laboratories for the future--the place where we find out what interaction will be like when it's all through a computer and you're judged on what you say and how you say it, and not on who or what you are. In RL [real life], if I'm black, or handicapped, or don't have a college degree (or even a high school degree), that will affect how I'm treated. That matters for nothing here, really.
These and similar statements suggest that racism inevitably follows from physical differences, and that the meaningfulness of race can be left behind when people enter the bodiless realm of cyberspace. However, the presumptive whiteness of participants, like the presumptive whiteness of the nerd, demonstrates that claims like those of Barlow and Carets merely displace and silence the bids for civil rights from groups experiencing racial discrimination in the United States.
ARE WE NOT MEN?(5)
On a more personal level, this displacement also provides language through which the relatively privileged group of middle-class, mostly white men on BlueSky can understand their relationship to hegemonic masculinity. While they arguably represent a privileged and dominant group, many must reconcile this status with their experience of themselves as relatively powerless, or even subjugated, in their everyday lives. Their ambivalent embracement of the nerd identity explains their situation as the result of a hypothetical bargain with the universe. In this "bargain," they trade some aspects of hegemonic masculinity for others, losing social and sexual status and gaining intelligence and prowess over technology.
Connell (1995) points out that "a large number of men have some connection with the hegemonic project but do not embody hegemonic masculinity" and that understanding their situation requires understanding "the relationship of complicity with the hegemonic project" (p. 79). This complicity relates specifically to men's relationships to and domination of women. In order to show the nerds as worthy of heroic redemption, the first Revenge movie must establish their masculine complicity. It does this through demonstrating that the nerds have the same relationship to women as "normal" men, and that they possess the same presumed "masculine drives."
The nerds (except for one token gay male in the group) display their heterosexuality throughout the movie. Within the first few scenes, Lewis and Gilbert leeringly discuss the prospect of dating "college women." Their efforts to get dates serve as pivotal plot devices. In fact, the national Tri-Lamb fraternity requires the nerds do so as a group in order to qualify for full fraternal membership. The nerds must hold a successful fraternity party with guest attendance by a sorority. The Pi sorority sisters set the nerds up for failure by reneging on their promise to attend the party. The movie portrays the entirely white, mostly blond Pis as snobby but desirable. The running gag of their unattainability to the nonhegemonic nerds sets up one aspect of the nerds' "revenge" at the end of the film, when Lewis wins the love of the cheerleader head of the Pis, Betty.
After the Pis fail to show, the Omega Mu sorority attempts to save the day. Just as the film contrasts the hegemonic jock Alphas with the nerdy Tri-Lambs, it opposes the mostly white Pis to the ethnically mixed Omega Mus, portrayed as the least desirable sorority sisters on campus. Not surprisingly, this demonstrates a hierarchy of attractiveness that puts white people--especially blond white people--at the top. While the successful revenge of the nerds displaces this hierarchical standard of attractiveness somewhat for men, the portrayal of Betty as the ultimate desirable female leaves it firmly in place for women.
The nerds exact revenge against the Pis (for their broken promise to attend the party) in a significantly sexual way, staging that hoary example of collegiate masculine gender dominance, a panty raid. But the panty raid serves only as a cover. The nerds' real revenge consists of the covert implantation of remote-controlled cameras throughout the Pi house. The nerds spend the next 24 hours observing the sorority women in their most intimate moments. Rather than showing toothbrushing and sleeping as mundane activities, our nerds'-eye view through the surveillance equipment reveals these private activities in purely pornographic form. For instance, we see Betty writhing in bed as if she knows the camera is there and loves the exposure. These scenes show nerds possessing the same sexual drives and desires as their more hegemonic opponents, the jocks. They too want to survey and control women as sexual objects, and they use their own special strength--control of technology--to express these desires.
To accomplish their covert mission, the nerds don black "spy operative" and camouflage military clothing. They creep theatrically through the halls to the accompaniment of the Mission Impossible theme. The juxtaposition of the ultra-cool, suave spy identity and its near opposite, the nerd, provides the humor in this scene. This humor fits the kinds of self-deprecating irony that BlueSky participants frequently direct against themselves. Hence, in a BlueSky discussion of a news story concerning the theft of communications cable from a freeway overpass, Ulysses refers to the above-described Revenge scene:
Ulysses pictures nerds in black turtlenecks sneaking around the overpass with wire cutters to the sound of the "Mission Impossible" theme.
Participants followed this comment with several minutes of joking with each other about their own nerd identities as partially connected to their knowledge of the usefulness of fiber optic cable. Ulysses' reference draws on the common knowledge of nerd identity, which connects that identity to technology. Presumably, only nerd thieves would steal something like communications cable.
"BLUBBERY PALE NERDETTES": NERDS, GENDER, AND SEXUALITY
BlueSky discussions also reflect connections between gender identity and sexuality and demonstrate the dilemma that nerd identity introduces into this connection. Nerdism in both men and women is held to decrease sexual attractiveness, but in men this is compensated by the relatively masculine values attached to intelligence and computer skills. In women, as the example of the Omega Mu sorority in Revenge illustrates, lack of sexual attractiveness is a far greater sin. The following excerpt of a conversation about attendance at science fiction fan conventions among several male BlueSky participants demonstrates this:
Mike Adams says "that's half the reason I go to cons. Sit and have these discussions with people." Bob. o O (No it isn't) Mike Adams says "well, okay it's to ogle babes in barbarian outfits" Drog says "*BABES*?"(6) Drog says "you need new glasses" Drog says "pasty skinned blubbery pale nerdettes" Locutus laaaaaughs Locutus says "ARRRRR `tis the WHITE WHAAALE" Drog wouldn't pork any women he's ever seen at gaming/other cons, not even with Bob's cock. Perry says "that's because pork is not kosher, drog" Locutus says "women-met-at-cons: the Other White Meat" Perry LAUGHS Drog HOWLS at Locutus
While apparently quite misogynistic, the impetus for this conversation relates at least as much to the BlueSky love of wordplay (another "nerdy" pastime) as to negative attitudes toward women. The word choices and the source of the humor in the above banter also reveal some key assumptions about, and perceptions of, nerd identity. Besides the implication in Drog's description that female nerds, like their male counterparts, do not spend much time outdoors or engage in exercise, his and Locutus' statements also represent nerds as white. While the term "nerd" may be applied to non-white males who meet other nerd identity criteria (see, for instance, Cheng 1996), the ideal-typical nerd is white. Similarly, nerds are presumed male, as evidenced by the term "nerdette." This term, like use of the phrase "lady doctor," defines the normative case of nerd as not female.
This connection between nerdism and masculinity may be what makes a nerd identity so damaging to women's potential and perceived sexual desirability. The participants express the assumption that "nerdettes" who would attend science fiction conventions by definition lack sexual desirability. Like the misfit Omega Mu sorority in the Revenge movies, con-attending nerdettes share equivalent status to con-attending male nerds. However, the male nerds, like their more hegemonic brethren, would rather "pork" women deemed appropriately attractive by mainstream society. Thus the other participants quickly join in the joke set by Drog's critique of Mike Adams' potentially transgressive desire. (Mike Adams ceased further participation in the conversation until the topic of cons had passed.)
Drog's description of "women-met-at-cons" as "pasty skinned blubbery pale nerdettes" reveals several further aspects of these men's negotiation of nerd identities. The connection between female undesirability and fatness (as expressed by the commonly seen bumper sticker "No Fat Chicks") connects these men to hegemonic masculine heterosexuality. The term "pork," probably derived from "poke" to indicate heterosexual intercourse, itself conveys implications of animalistic corpulence and women as meat. (A similar reference occurs in Revenge, when the Omega Mus are referred to with a long drawn-out "Mooooooo.") Like the Revenge nerds, BlueSky men represent themselves as nerds, yet desire non-nerd women.
A NERD WORLD ORDER
While the above discussion connects nerd identity to heterosexuality, nerds need not be heterosexual. The reincorporation of nerds into congruence with hegemonic masculinity may in fact be expanding who counts as male, specifically with regard to sexuality. Two of the participants in the above conversation identify as bisexual, as do several other BlueSky participants. Despite the political conservatism of many BlueSky regulars, homophobic remarks are not generally tolerated on BlueSky, and the homosexuality or bisexuality of participants does not impair their social status within the group,. The participation of bisexual males in conversations such as the above demonstrates that conformity to conversational norms of masculinity counts for more in this online forum than adherence to the hegemonic masculine norm of heterosexuality. This possibly relates to the lack of physical proximity of participants, which may diffuse the common tension between homophilic social interaction and homophobic concerns regarding physical contact between males. However, it also emphasizes that hegemonic masculinity hinges more on the subjugation of women than on any particular relationship to other men.
The first Revenge film includes a flamboyantly effeminate gay character who nevertheless helps set up the surveillance of the Alpha Pis. However, the nerd inclusion of homosexual males receives much fuller treatment in the third of the Revenge movies, Revenge of the Nerds: The Next Generation ("Revenge: TNG").(7) That inclusion also demonstrates a change in conceptions of nerds as an outsider group to nerdism as a condition to which anyone may be susceptible. While still displacing African-American claims for civil rights, nerds in Revenge: TNG also borrow language from similar claims of homosexual men. This language relates to the relationship between computer skills and masculinity.
The ending of Revenge of the Nerds incorporates nerds into approved masculinity, dismisses African-Americans males from consideration, and concludes with the fantasy that the nerds' kinder, gentler new order now includes all except for the previous top of the heap: the fraternity football players and their coach. (As the film fails to even allude to feminist bids for rights, it includes women only as a sexualized auxiliary.) Released in 1992, when "angry white males" appear prominently in public discourse, Revenge: TNG takes up the problem of the previously hegemonic, but now excluded, males. The angry white male jocks in Revenge: TNG seek the restoration of their place in the masculine hierarchy. In order to reincorporate the jocks, the language of Revenge: TNG changes from a type of civil rights discourse focusing on race, to that borrowed from the discourse on homosexuality. In the process, nerdism also changes from an "external" property of groups (compared to race), to an "internal" property of individuals (compared to sexual identity).(8)
Revenge: TNG opens, as the first did, with two young nerds on their way to Adams College. But the nerds' previous victory has transformed the campus. Now, nerds run the college, allowing athletics to languish, while converting the gymnasium to a computer center that Lewis runs. Lambda Lambda Lambda has gone from the underdog fraternity to the most popular frat on campus. A tour of the Tri-Lamb house early in the movie exposes a multi-cultural, self-sufficient utopia. The nerds grow their own food, and cook it in gourmet meals. They sing, they dance, they do archeology in the basement. The film overplays this utopic vision to the point of parody, partially undercutting the presentation of it as desirable. The ironic style of the film during our tour through the Tri-Lamb house suggests both desire for and unattainability of such a "multi-culti" utopia.
The film does not call into question the exclusion of most women (a few belong to the Tri-Lambs) from nerd status. Rather the plot turns upon the problem of the exclusion of white straight males. The quintessential hegemonic males, the Alpha Beta fraternity, have fallen on hard times. But Stan (the quarterback from the first film, who here becomes dean of the college) returns to incite them to start a campaign of "nerd-bashing" to attempt to win back their previous position on campus. When Lewis fails to help the nerds fight back against the nerd bashing, Betty (the cheerleader from the first movie, and now Lewis's wife) accuses him of having become "the worst kind of nerd: a self-hating one." When Stan's secretary, a professional-looking middle-aged woman, goes on strike in support of the nerds, Stan says, astonished, "you're not a nerd!" She replies "No, but my son is, and whatever he is or wants to be, I support him one hundred percent." Here is the nerd version of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays)--I suppose we can call it PFNERD.(9)
But the most striking incidence of gay-rights-type language occurs in Stan's conversion during the final, Perry Mason-style trial scene. The nerds have gone to court to attempt to stop the nerd-bashing campaign. The emotional high-point of the movie (although almost completely meaningless plot-wise) comes when the "old gang" of nerds reunites and enters the courtroom to show their support. The dramatic entrance one-by-one of characters from the first film (given the "gay" theme here, the effeminate character Lamar appropriately enters first), moves Stan to say that this display of nerd solidarity has taught him "what real friendship is all about." His witness-docket speech at this point clearly demonstrates the individualistic bent of Revenge: TNG:
My whole life I've hated your kind. And really I hated myself. As I sat last night at the computer, I realized that ... that I was a nerd; and that there's a little bit of nerd in everyone. I guess I was just afraid to face that part of myself, but now I'm not. I'm A Nerd! Trapped in a beautiful body, but a nerd nonetheless.... It feels so great to come out of the closet. I always had these feelings.
His use of a computer brings Stan face-to-face with the "nerd in everyone" a part of himself that he finally learns to accept. Publicity for the Revenge movies echoes Stan's revelation. A 1987 Los Angeles Times article quotes a Fox spokesman regarding the first two Revenge movies, "The films appealed to the nerds in us all" (Horovitz, 1987, p. 6).
MEN AT WORK: NERDS AND COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY
Stan's statement that "there's a little bit of nerd in everyone" positions nerdism as an individual quality potentially accessible to everyone who uses a computer. Or, as Robert Cringely says in the epigraph to this article from the documentary, Triumph of the Nerds, "an unhealthy fascination with technology on the part of a few adolescents had awakened the nerd within us all." As noted earlier, the nerdity test also identifies computer use as a characteristic of nerds. This aspect of nerd identity provides for a specific relationship between nerds and hegemonic masculinity.
The nerd's connection with technology, particularly computers, gives him a liminal status. Sherry Turkle (1984) has suggested that people maintain an uneasy relationship to computers because of the ambiguity concerning whether computers actually "think" or are in some sense alive. Their apparent ability to "think" blurs lines between humans and machines. Contact with these liminal quasi-creatures itself conveys liminality. If computers are sort of like, but not quite, human, and therefore liminal, what status does this impart to people who understand and, worse still, enjoy computers? Uneasiness regarding the answer to this question fuels the current nerd stereotype. Aspects of the nerd seen as asocial and incompletely adult (sartorial disregard, bad hygiene, and lack of social skills) create a category of human partitioned off from the rest of humanity, thus guarding against the taint of the potential compromise through close relationship with computers.
Although reminiscent of Haraway's cyborg (1991), the computer-generated liminality of the nerd differs in purpose. The creative potential of Haraway's cyborg arises precisely from its escape from normative definitions of humanity. Haraway thus conceives the cyborg as a site for creative manipulation of liminality towards the political aims of the underprivileged. The negative stereotype of the nerd, on the other hand, polices that very boundary, dividing the human from the not-human. Like most liminal figures however, the nerd threatens the very boundary he protects, through his ongoing demonstration of the close relationship possible between the human and the not-human.(10) The increasing number of contexts within which people encounter computers increases the tension along this boundary.
In particular, the "PC revolution" in the early 1980s challenged the fragile equilibrium of the boundary between humans and computers through the increased use of computers in business, especially by managers and other non-computer science people. At the same time, the use of microprocessors in a wide range of consumer products also increased, and the computer entered people's homes as a consumer object itself. As businesses sought to harness the perceived efficiencies of computers to manage routine information, and as computer manufacturers attempted to sell the utility of computers in the home, computer use of some sort became more and more likely for a wider and wider segment of the American population. This provoked a reconsideration of the meanings of computer use, and a reconceptualization of the stereotype of the nerd.
For instance, Revenge: TNG specifically connects nerds with business needs. The nerds, subject to oppression again now that a jock has taken the dean's post, stage a strike. Images of striking workers explicitly expose the ubiquitousness of computers in daily life, and the necessity of nerds to run them: gas pumps won't work because the computers in them have failed; power plants halt without the engineers to run them; and, of course, all telecommunications come to a halt. More significantly, the film shows a variety of different types of workers as nerds, or at least sympathetic to the nerd cause. Phone operators, engineers, and even disc jockeys join in the strike and shut down all campus functions.
Similarly, many newspaper and magazine articles portray nerds as computer users and rely on stereotypical notions of nerdism, especially antisociality or lack of social skills and poor sartorial habits. These stereotypes are sometimes invoked without critique, and sometimes in order to dispute them as applied to particular computer users. For instance, a Forbes article from 1992 profiles several successful computer entrepreneurs whom, they claim, are not nerds, because they make money and exhibit other aspects of hegemonic masculinity. ("What of bespectacled William Gates? He is into fast cars and tennis and has shown a talent for making money since his teenage years" [Weigner, 1992, p. 272].) A second Forbes article (Poole, 1994) indicates that "it is often difficult to get information systems personnel to work well and interact with other departments because they tend to be computer nerds" who "aren't always used to dealing with people" (p. 132). However, "despite socially unattractive personalities, these are people who work constantly" (p. 132). Nerds in this case represent a somewhat tainted yet usefully exploitable resource.
These two seemingly contradictory articles from the same publication detail the conflictual project involved in the reincorporation of nerds into hegemonic masculinity. Their relationship to computers defines nerds, but the changing economy of late capitalism requires the incorporation of computer use into acceptable masculinity. Thus, these Forbes articles differentiate between nerd and non-nerd computer users. This presents "socially inept" information systems workers who need careful management as nerds, while monetarily successful, business-owning entrepreneurs escape such designation. "Nerd" retains its negative meanings and its association with computer-users, while computer use itself paradoxically no longer guarantees nerdity.
"DEAD BUG WALKIN'"
BlueSky participants negotiate the contradictory implications of computer use for their identity by emphasizing the masculine qualities required to accomplish their computer-related jobs. Their online identity performances often include information concerning their offline work activities. Some types of work are tedious and routine enough to be performed while simultaneously providing occasional commentary for the social group. Among programmers, the most likely job to receive this treatment is "bug-fixing"--hunting down errors in computer code. In the following, Locutus comments on his progress in attempting to fix a particularly problematic bug. He begins his commentary with a mock-sexual suggestion common to masculine discourse in various forums. (I've inserted spaces into the log excerpt to indicate pauses in the conversation. My character name here is Copperhead.)
Locutus says "man this bug can blow me" Locutus hate hate hate Copperhead snerts Locutus prays to the gods of mail merge Locutus thinks it's grandma's cookies time Locutus says "bringing out the big guns" Locutus says "mother FUCKER i just figured out this bug" Locutus debug debug "hey that looks bogus" look at code "how did this ever work?" Locutus says "answer: it didn't" Copperhead says "go Locutus go" Locutus is a CODER AFIRE Locutus says "AAHAHAHAH bugs who know me know FEAR" Thistle says "DEAD BUG WALKIN' !"
In suggesting that a computer software error can "blow" him, Locutus almost certainly has no explicit image of sexual activity in mind. His expression derives from widespread slang usage particularly common among males. As such, the sexual imagery serves more as an expression of general displeasure, yet nevertheless suggests that the "bug" holds a subservient (feminine) position to Locutus' masculine prowess as a programmer. This utterly mundane expression illustrates the degree to which the concept of competence, both at work and in life, is intertwined with expectations and assumptions regarding masculinity. As Cockburn (1985) comments, "technology enters into our sexual identity: femininity is incompatible with technological competence; to feel technically competent is to feel manly" (p. 12).
Debugging programs can be an extremely tedious and frustrating part of programming work. By commenting on progress in this way, programmers on BlueSky can express their frustration regarding difficult problems, as well as receive encouragement and congratulations when they manage to fix them. In a way this turns programming into a spectator sport; something with a higher degree of masculine status, that is, greater congruence with hegemonic masculinity, than sitting in front of a computer.
Despite its negative aspects, the nerd identity provides a rich conceptual resource for BlueSky participants. It gives them language with which to accomplish their own identity performances. Cultural understandings of nerds and masculinity also enable them to interpret their own and others' identities. The nerd's implications for aspects of identity, including race, sexuality, gender, and class, form a part of their negotiations of the tricky and often contradictory elements of masculine identity. While the nerd identity problematizes masculinity in some ways, it also provides connections to hegemonic masculinity, which some men might otherwise find difficult to access.
These malleable and contradictory elements of the nerd stereotype enable it to hold out the promise of inclusion and disruption of hegemonic masculinity, while encouraging whites to continue to ignore the experiences of people of color, and men (regardless of their sexual identities) to continue to relate to women in dominant and subjugating ways. The timing of the increased prevalence of nerd references in the culture, especially in mainstream media, synchronizes with a backlash against Affirmative Action and other civil rights efforts. Nerds become an oppressed straight white male identity that then stands in for other oppressed groups, waylaying critiques of hegemonic masculinity while only slightly expanding its definition.
(1.) BlueSky is a pseudonym, and I have changed all names of its online participants.
(2.) I am able to state these demographics with confidence, because I have met many BlueSky regulars face-to-face, and many of them have also met each other.
(3.) See http://220.127.116.11/nerd-backwards.html.
(4.) See, for example, Ciotti (1982) regarding a biography of Stephen Wozniak.
(5.) I have borrowed this subtitle from DEVO, the quintessential nerd rock band.
(6.) All caps usually connotes shouting online. Most mud programs do not allow people to underline words, so Drog also uses asterisks on either side of the word "babes" for added emphasis.
(7.) Revenge of the Nerds II (1987) is mainly a rehash of the themes originally laid out in the first Revenge of the Nerds. Therefore, I am skipping over it in favor of an examination of the changed logic of Revenge: TNG.
(8.) Covering the entirety of the convoluted and inconsistent plot along with the myriad subplots of Revenge: TNG is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, I pull out the various references to nerds within the movie that highlight what nerds are and what their position in society is taken to be.
(9.) I'm indulging in a little nerd humor here. PFNERD closely resembles the term "fnord," a reference from the Illuminati Trilogy (Wilson 1977, 1980, 1981), with which most "nerds" are familiar.
(10.) Poovey (1988) makes a similar analysis of a liminal identity in her discussion of the role of the governess in Victorian England. As Poovey explains, the governess both protects and threatens the separation of work from home, male from female, and working class from middle class through her performance of traditional motherly tasks for a working wage.
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Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Lori Kendall, 2367 Hilgard Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lori Kendall received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Davis in 1998 and is currently a lecturer in the sociology department at UCD. Her dissertation, "Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub: Identities, Masculinities and Relationships Online," examines issues of race, class, and gender identity online. Kendall's recent publications include articles in Symbolic Interaction and The International Journal of Cultural Studies and a chapter in the edited volume Everyday Inequalities. (email@example.com)
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|Publication:||The Journal of Men's Studies|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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