During last Halloween season, many of my friends posted pictures of their costumes on Facebook. A friend of mine and her husband dressed up as football players, their baby dressed as a football. Another friend of mine dressed up as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, complete with her dog standing in as Toto.
And there were plenty of fantastic costumes that would be traditionally referred to as ‘nerdy,’ and a few of my friends explicitly mentioned their nerdiness in their post. One dressed as Link from the Legend of Zelda (and had to explain to confused elders that Link was not, in fact, Zelda). Another dressed as Rey from Star Wars. Another dressed as a mashup of Doctor Who and Harry Potter.
Conventional wisdom is that these costumes, based on video games, science fiction movies and TV shows, and fantasy novels, are indeed ‘nerdy.’
But I think conventional wisdom has its drawbacks here, because I’m not entirely sure any of those costumes, or anything else on the Google Image search for ‘nerdy Halloween costumes’ are actually nerdy. I have my doubts that anything at all is truly ‘nerdy’ anymore.
Consider this: the nine-movie Harry Potter franchise has grossed over $8.5 billion worldwide. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, consisting of more than a baker’s dozen films, has grossed over $12.3 billion. Star Wars has grossed over $7.5 billion over seven films (and the entire franchise was sold for a whopping $4 billion to Disney five years ago). Of the top 12 film franchises by gross ticket sales, 10 (!) of them are science fiction or fantasy franchises.
What about video games? The industry generates about $100 billion in yearly revenue. Characters like Mario, Link, Sonic the Hedgehog, Master Chief, Lara Croft, and Pac Man are cultural touchstones. And television? Many of TV’s biggest hits over the last few years are, yep, science fiction and fantasy shows: The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, A Handmaiden’s Tale, Black Mirror, Westworld.
‘Nerdiness’ and ‘Geekiness’ are slippery terms to define, but I think they encompass two big ideas. The first idea is a distance from social norms, whether actively sought by nerds and geeks or thrust on them by the ‘cool’ kids. The second idea is that of an ‘in-group;’ in other words, the only thing required for access to the close-knit nerd community is a knowledge and appreciation for the culture around which said nerd community revolves.
Today, both ideas are invalid or watered down. It’s impossible for something so widespread and culturally powerful as Star Wars to actively be uncool. When the high school quarterback says, “Yeah, I saw the movie with Thor and the Hulk and Iron Man and it was wicked,” that’s pretty much the death knell of comic book characters being nerdy.
And as far as community? Over eight million copies of the seventh and final Harry Potter novel flew off the shelves in a single day when it was released in 2007. Hundreds of millions around the globe have read the series in dozens of different languages. Your aunt has probably seen a few Harry Potter films, and I do not care how old/young or clueless/hip she is. That’s just how it is. And so, yeah, it’s awfully difficult to have something be an ‘in-group’ when everybody is there.
So the weird thing is that ‘nerdy’ isn’t a functional descriptor of something sincere, but is instead used as a legacy adjective that merely designates a particular swath of pop culture. In that way, it’s like The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings used to be nerdy. Then Frodo and Gandalf and company went on a merry adventure and won a bunch of Oscars and now ‘YOU SHALL NOT PASS’ is as much (or more!) of the cultural lexicon as ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ or ‘I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.’
Is ‘nerdy’ then necessarily useless? Maybe? Maybe not. There are certainly some things that you could accurately describe as ‘nerdy’ today–role playing games, some tabletop board games, stamp collecting. Religious watchers of anime and voracious manga readers probably qualify. Cosplay, too.
But even some things that should be nerdy aren’t. Look at the curious case of fantasy football. By all accounts, it should be nerdy. Lots of numbers and analysis involved? Check. Game that you play need a computer/smartphone and an internet connection to play? Check. A sub-industry dedicated to intense fantasy football fans? Check. The word ‘fantasy’ in the name? Check.
No one calls fantasy football nerdy, though. That’s because sports are not nerdy, which is literally as nuanced and complex as the argument goes.
That throws a wrench into the existence of the word’s meaning. Put it this way: nerdiness is supposed to be about something that has a niche following, but the success of traditionally nerdy types of niche followings like Star Wars and Harry potter have nuked that definition. Nerdiness is supposed to be about traits or approaches that are not lauded by the ‘cool people,’ but the statistically-focused existence of fantasy football and sports discourse in general blow that definition out of the water. Nerdiness is supposed to be something the weird white guys did, but the continuing influx of women and people of color into the nerdy spaces has fundamentally changed that idea, too, without eroding the integrity or authenticity of the nerdy spaces itself.
There is a whole collegiate dissertation here for the writing. Actually, more than one: the gender history and implications of nerdiness alone is worth a dissertation itself. And so any conclusion of mine is going to be necessarily incomplete, but here it is anyway: while it is clear that nerdiness does not mean what it used to, and that applying the concept to wildly popular megafranchises like Harry Potter and Star Wars is inherently silly, being a nerd can mean different things to different people.
And isn’t that the point of nerd culture? For you to be you, no matter what you like to do?