The nerd appeared in pop culture in the form of a smart but awkward, always well-meaning white boy irrationally persecuted by his implacable jock antagonists in order to subsume and mystify true social conflict — the ones around race, gender, class, and sexuality that shook the country in the 1960s and ’70s — into a spectacle of white male suffering. This was an effective strategy to sell tickets to white-flight middle-class suburbanites, as it described and mirrored their mostly white communities. With the hollowing out of urban centers, and the drastic poverty in nonwhite communities of the ’80s and ’90s, these suburban whites were virtually the only consumers with enough consistent spending money to garner Hollywood attention.
In the 1980s and ’90s, an obsession with comics, games, and anime might have made this suburban “nerd” a bit of a weirdo. But today, with comic-book franchises keeping Hollywood afloat and video games a $100 billion global industry whose major launches are cultural events, nerd culture is culture. But the nerd myth — outcast, bullied, oppressed and lonely — persists, nowhere more insistently than in the embittered hearts of the little Mussolinis defending nerd-dom.
Of course, there are outcasts who really are intimidated, silenced, and oppressed. They tend to be nonwhite, queer, fat, or disabled — the four groups that are the most consistently and widely bullied in American schools. In other words, the “nerds” who are bullied are being bullied for other things than being a nerd. Straight, able-bodied white boys may also have been bullied for their perceived nerdiness — although the epithets thrown often reveal a perceived lack of masculinity or heterosexuality — but the statistics on bullying do not report “nerdiness” as a common factor in bullying incidents. Nevertheless, the myth of nerd oppression and its associated jock/nerd dichotomy let every slightly socially awkward white boy who likes sci-fi explain away his privilege and lay his ressentiment at the feet of the nearest women and people of color.
Willie Osterweil on nerd narrative.
Long quote from a long post, which is an absolute must-read in its entirety. Osterweil’s main argument is the one sketched there in the first paragraph, i.e. that the “myth of nerd oppression” is a way to re-frame the socio-political struggles of marginalized communities, particularly communities of color, into something for white male consumption (Revenge of the Nerds is widely cited).
If you were nerdy in the 80s or 90s, this article absolutely will kill your darlings, but it does so in a way that’s brutally insightful. Ghostbusters as Reaganite anti-government, pro-business propaganda? Uh, well, actually. Now that you mention it…