Four Common Geek Stereotypes: Myths and Realities

As a self-professed geek, nerd or whatever term is hip nowadays, I grew up seeing people like me portrayed with a lot of stereotypes.  These stereotypes were almost always negative, and even the positive ones included a qualifier to say “don’t be like this guy.” You know the ones, “he may be super smart, but he’s got no common sense!” etc. etc.

I expect most people reading this to be geeks themselves, so I don’t have to tell you how much BS a lot of these stereotypes are.  However, some of them are derived from a bit of truth that I think we often overlook.

  1.  Geeks Are Super Smart, but Have No Common Sense

I’m starting with this one because it’s really stood the test of time.  It’s half of the premise of “The Big Bang Theory,” a show so popular that some people think it created the universe.  I think… right?

It’s not just bad TV shows, though. The trope is older than I am and you see it in everything.  The oldest example that comes to mind naturally is Wile E. Coyote, who in his limited speaking roles is shown to be a brilliant mind with a great understanding of technology. Still, he is unable to do basic things like avoid walls or just order food instead of futilely chasing the Flash’s avian ancestor.  Need a good non-furry example?  Watch almost any movie about college life from the ‘80s or ‘90s.  I recommend “Real Genius.”

The Reality

In my experience there’s not much in the way of truth to this.  I was a bookworm growing up in school, as were many of my friends, and for the most part we’re all normal people who live normal lives.

What is more likely is that geeks will lack an understanding of common interests.  I grew up with no interest in most sports, so when I watch a football game I have to ask what’s going on.  That’s true for me with most sports, as well as with cars or shoes or clothing brands, because I care about those things as much as the average person when I was growing up cared about Magic: the Gathering.  Not that those are mutually exclusive interests, because I know a few car guys who are more than happy to sling some dice.

I guess I should address the other end of this too, the stereotype that being geeky always makes you really bright.  I guess most of the nerdy folks I know are pretty intelligent, but that’s also because I try to surround myself with people who are smarter than me.  I have plenty of bright friends who aren’t particularly geeky, because it takes more than common interest to form friendships.  I’ve also known, over the course of my life, a few people who were just as nerdy as I am but who needed help to not fail their classes in high school.

If you’re looking for a guy to be like Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory” then you’re probably looking for someone with a legitimate mental disorder.  One of the qualifiers for autism spectrum disorder is “restricted interests” and “repetitive behaviors,” which can lead to an individual who may know everything about the history of Greece, but neither knows nor cares how to do laundry.

  1.  Geeks Have No Social Skills

This is another one that has stood the test of time.  It’s also the other half of the premise of “The Big Bang Theory.”  Whether you’re talking about Sheldon or the comic book guy from The Simpsons it’s universally understood that geeks can’t handle themselves in social situations.  We’ll struggle and stagger through even the most basic of sentences when a member of the opposite sex is around and can never wait to dive back into a good book.

The Reality

Remember what I said earlier about common interests?  Well, there was a time when geeky things like comics and videogames and especially anime were far more niche than they are today.  Dragonball Z used to come on one of my local networks on Saturday mornings, and finding someone to talk about it with was difficult because other kids were usually watching different cartoons or playing outside at the time.

Because geeky hobbies were obscure (and in some cases derided, but that’s for another time), it was easy to assume that the guy who was really into comic books or role playing games didn’t have any, or at least not many, friends.  After all, when do you have time to make friends when your nose is always buried in a book?  It was worse in the 90s, when the internet wasn’t so common and you had to hope you ran into the one other kid on the playground who wanted to talk to you at length about Godzilla.

The thing is, this stereotype makes absolutely no sense if you have even a basic understanding of the hobbies that even the most stereotypical nerds engage in.  Tabletop Games are inherently social activities, and you will always need someone to argue with about whether the Stormtroopers could take out the Imperial Guard, assuming even numbers and no interference from Space Marines, Darth Vader, or other related but more powerful sources.  Beyond that, we have entire CONVENTIONS where we meet up with other nerds to form fleeting bonds, gain lasting friendships and occasionally fall in love.

And again, if you’re looking for someone like Sheldon from TBBT, you’re still looking for someone on the autism spectrum.  Look, I promise that isn’t going to be in every entry but the other two parts of ASD are “social challenges” and “communication difficulties,” which the DSM-V rolled into a single category of “social/communication deficits.”

  1.  Geeks Are Always Unattractive and Un-athletic

Quick, think of a stereotypically geeky character.  What do they look like?  Are they beautiful and athletic?  Well, yes, probably.  Go back to the ‘90s and early 2000s, though, and things change a bit.  The geek image was always scrawny kids in glasses like Steve Urkel, or chunky kids like Horace from “The Monster Squad.”  These two basic images, along with the ponytail and glasses “nerdy girl” marked every openly geeky character you would see in movies.

Even in the modern era where you’ve got the Hollywood Nerd who is played by someone who is objectively physically beautiful the audience will talk about them as though they are plain and dull.

The Reality

There’s some truth to this one because a lot of geeky hobbies aren’t particularly active, which means that if they’re what you do most of the day then you’re not getting a lot of exercise. This means that we might be a little more likely than the average person to get chubby or stay scrawny.  After all, as fun as a game of Dungeons and Dragons may be, it’s not very physically demanding.

That doesn’t change the fact that some geeks are very athletic and very attractive.  Look at Vin Diesel, for example, and when you get done looking at his sculpted physique you can think about the fact that he’s been playing Dungeons and Dragons for over 20 years and wrote the introduction for one of their anthologies.  Ronda Rousey, who is probably one of the baddest fighters on the planet, male or female, is a big enough fan of Dragonball Z to show up at Wrestlemania wearing an “It’s Over 9000!” t-shirt.

Of course, those are celebrities and could be rare exceptions. My personal experience says that there’s a pretty wide range, though, and several of the geeks I know either are in solid shape or at least were when they were younger.  I also ran into quite a few nerds in my time in the army, and while we weren’t always topping the physical fitness charts, you can’t be totally un-athletic without getting kicked out eventually.  To give a specific example, the guy who got me into Dungeons and Dragons when I was a teenager also fought in full-contact karate tournaments.

  1.  Geek Culture is Sexist

Oh… this one’s going to be fun.  This stereotype is gaining more momentum lately, which is weird because stereotypes usually start to die when we gain more information.  In case you’re not familiar, though, the stereotype boils down to this:  every part of geek culture is sexist, from fantasy and sci-fi literature to video games and RPGs to anime.  Women are depicted as less capable and less competent than men to satisfy a primarily male target audience.  Geekiness is a boys club and if we even acknowledge that girls exist, we certainly don’t accept them as one of our own.

The Reality

Where to begin? I’ll start by saying that in some areas there’s a healthy amount of truth to this, but not as much as some people think.  I could probably give this its own article, and I might in the future, so if I miss something don’t be too mad.

For starters, a lot of geeky media has been pretty progressive.  Oh sure, there’s only like, three female talking characters in The Lord of the Rings movies and when they made three movies out of The Hobbit they had to create the most poorly written character in the history of anything just to have a girl in the story, but those three characters in The Lord of the Rings were IMPORTANT.  Hell, Eowyn was not only tough enough to fight the Witch King, but clever enough to kill him with a semantic loophole (And yes, I know Merry and his magic sword had a hand in it, but she dealt the deathblow).  Why do I use The Lord of the Rings as my go-to reference?  For one, it’s what pretty much all modern fantasy is derived from, and for two it was published in 1954.  Society was barely getting used to treating non-white, non-male individuals like people at the time and here was Tolkien being like “Yeah, the biggest and scariest dude available with a physical form?  I think it would be really cool if it was a woman who did him in.”

What really puts a lot of what is called geek culture in the sexist realm is that a lot of it was made in a really sexist era.   Even video games, one of the most modern forms of geeky media, got their start in an era where it was assumed the boys fantasized about saving the world and girls fantasized about making us dinner when we got home.  So the main characters were usually boys, doing what seemed so cool back in the day, rescuing our current or potential girlfriend.  A lot of those tropes stuck around because of how successful they were in the past.

But the term “geek culture” includes not only the media but the attitudes of the consumers, so what about that?  Well, I can tell that I grew up being led to believe that girls just didn’t dig geeky things.  Girls were more impressed with the football players and of course wanted to be cheerleaders.  I don’t exactly know where that came from, but the first time I met a girl who liked video games and anime I thought I had found a mystical creature.  Because of that, there’s still this disconnect in my head that tells me that geek girls are a relatively new thing and I still have an inexplicable moment of surprise when I see one.  This is ridiculous, of course.  Geeky girls have always been around, but for some reason we used to see them as being like unicorns: rare, precious, and only seen around virgins.

Now what’s unfortunate is that sometimes things happen that don’t paint a wonderful picture of the male geek population.  I have a good friend who walked into her local comic store at a young age and was hastily told where she could find the Archie comics because no girl could possibly be into Batman.  I’ve also been on the internet enough to see the term “fake geek girl” get slung arbitrarily at any female who starts talking about their interests.  Then there was the time millions (an arbitrary, not scientifically accurate, number) of gamers inexplicably cared way too much about Zoe Quinn’s sex life.

The thing is, it’s getting better and it will continue to get better.  Yes, as with any culture there are problematic elements.  Any culture is slow to change, but I honestly believe that geek culture is more feminist than most people give it credit for and will grow in that direction in the future.

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