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The Geek Trope, Explained

Geeks have come a long way. How did they grow from rejected outcasts to an empowered community? Can they still be considered Geeks? In this video, we dive deep into Geek culture.

TRANSCRIPT

Do you remember a time before the geeks inherited the earth? It might be difficult to imagine in a world where comic-book movies dominate the box office, shows based on Star Wars and Star Trek are considered prestige TV, and everyone’s fluent in Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. But geeks were not always this out and proud.

For a long time, pop culture treated geeks as outcasts and weirdos. If we look at geek characters in TV and movies over the years, we can see some of the common patterns that define them:

They have specialized knowledge and niche obsessions, whether it’s with technology, academic pursuits, or pop-culture ephemera.

School Bullies: “Who ya gonna call? The nerds!” - Stranger Things 02x02

They’re romantically awkward and sexually frustrated, and often get flustered—even terrified—by interactions with people they’re attracted to.

George McFly: “My density has popped me to you.” - Back to the Future (1985)

Because of all this, they’re often filled with angst, longing to break out of their social station, find love, or otherwise change themselves to be less of an outcast.

But do these longstanding signifiers still hold true, in an age when the geeks increasingly hold all the power? And if they become confident, happy, and popular, are they even really geeks anymore? Here’s our take on the geek, and what happens when the outcast becomes the ruler of the pop culture world.

The Origins of the Geek

The term “geek” has often been used interchangeably with terms like nerd, dweeb, or dork. But it’s worth noting that the word geek comes from 19th-century carnivals, where the “geek show” would find performers biting the heads off chickens. So being a “geek” meant you were repulsive yet strangely fascinating.

Thus it’s fitting that early onscreen geek portrayals conflated nerdiness with freakishness. The 1963 comedy The Nutty Professor depicted the nerd as hyper-intelligent, but a buck-toothed, bespectacled, socially awkward mess. Jerry Lewis’s characterization became the classic geek standard, with his geek voice echoing for decades after. In this riff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the scientist resorts to creating an actual potion to transform himself.

And variations on this plot still appeared decades later in more stories about geeks who longed to use their smarts to achieve social acceptance. Early geek characters were usually ostracized from the main group, and the audience wasn’t expected to identify with—or even like—them.

So the ‘60s offered a notable exception when Star Trek‘s super-intelligent yet socially awkward Mr. Spock was portrayed as an essential member of the team who’s also comfortable with himself. He became an early geek role model, the kind of idealized geek that you could look up to—maybe even love.

It wasn’t until the dawn of the ‘80s teen comedy, led by writer-directors like John Hughes, that the geeks were allowed to be more than just freaks or human calculators. The geeks played by Anthony Michael Hall in Hughes movies like The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles weren’t typically the leads—and they didn’t usually get the girl. They were still goofy and awkward. But they were also treated with more sensitivity. And in movies like the Hughes-scripted Weird Science, they were even allowed to be the heroes.

Gary Wallace: “We’re gentlemen so we’re going to give you a choice.”

Wyatt: “Yeah, you can go in peace.”

Gary Wallace: “Or you can stay and die.” - Weird Science (1985)

With 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, the geek revolution officially began. A college comedy that showed that geeks could party just as hard as the frat-boys of Animal House, it also proved that they could be every bit as misogynistic—and problematic. Still, it allowed for a much greater diversity of geeks and nerds. And most importantly, it established the idea that there’s a little geek inside of everyone. This message resonated with an entire generation of geeks who finally saw themselves represented.

Harvey Pekar: “You identify with those nerds?”

Toby Radloff: “Yes, I consider myself a nerd. And this movie has uplifted me.” - American Splendor (2003)

Sympathy for the Geek

William Lichter: “Tonight is the night we fight back. Tonight is our independence night.” - Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)

Even after the nerds got their revenge, they were still subject to some eye-rolling caricatures. Characters like Saved By The Bell‘s Screech or Family Matters’ Urkel were portrayed as annoying, unwanted intrusions. The message to the young viewers of these shows was clear: You don’t want to be a geek.

Soon, though, the emergence of “alternative” culture in the ‘90s fostered the idea that being an outcast was not only okay but actually kind of cool. Suddenly, glasses-wearing geeks could be rock stars, with many of them winking at their own geekiness. At the same time, rising internet use meant that everyone was now tied to their computer. The internet allowed geeks to find thousands of others like them, creating a sense of community that reassured them they weren’t alone—and that their interests weren’t as niche as they once thought.

With the real-world geek in bloom, it was only natural that geek characters became more nuanced. Brian Krakow from My So-Called Life is awkward, uncool, and has no idea how to act with girls. But he’s also a sympathetic, multidimensional character that almost every teen could identify with.

Judd Apatow’s Freaks & Geeks went even further — looking past the popular kids to focus squarely on these characters that had long been consigned to the margins. The show treated their lives as every bit as joyous, confusing, and complex as any other teen’s. It also looked at more subtypes of social outcasts, as the central group of “geeks” are nothing like the so-called “freaks,” with their edgy, alternative-cool brand of slackerdom.

Neal: “They’re gonna ruin her life. If you don’t care about high school, you won’t get into a good college, and no future and you’ll wind up dead or in jail.” - Freaks and Geeks 01x02

Buffy the Vampire Slayer likewise found multiple types of geeks within the halls of Sunnydale High, from the more traditionally meek and studious Willow to the comic book-loving dork with a heart of gold Xander. Geeks could even be villains capable of causing as much pain as they endured.

Geekiness could still be funny on these shows, but the laughs weren’t usually at the characters’ expense. More often they were intended to include winces of recognition. And those more nuanced and empathetic portraits paved the way for geeks that a broader range of viewers could identify with—diverse characters like Ugly Betty or Abed from Community who showed us that geeks could come from anywhere.

Donald Glover: “The best part about Obama is that he’s a black nerd. I love that junk. Because I’m a black nerd and that sh*t was illegal until like 2003.” - Comedy Central Presents 14x09

Not only were the geeks often seen saving the day with their special skills, they were becoming downright aspirational. And geek girls were no longer just love interests for their fellow nerds. They were the romantic leads—the ones you suddenly realized you should have been falling for all along.

The O.C.‘s Seth Cohen even managed to become a genuine geek heartthrob. An emo-loving comic-book fan, Seth made being a geek seem like something not only to be proud of but actually desirable. The geeks were finally becoming the heroes of their stories—which turned them into other people’s heroes, too.

The Geek Inherits the Earth

Today, the geeks’ stories are our stories. CBS’s The Big Bang Theory centers geeks and geek love, yet this mainstream sitcom is about as far from a niche interest as you can get.

The same goes for movies: Erstwhile geek obsessions like comic-books and Star Wars now dominate the cultural conversation. Creators like J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, and Guillermo del Toro—who make no bones about their own geeky obsessions—are some of our most powerful, influential filmmakers, translating their personal interests into massive hits and industry-wide veneration.

But this mainstreaming has also caused a shift from a pop culture that sympathizes with geeks to one that panders to them. As critics of The Big Bang Theory will tell you, the show relies on broad caricatures not all that dissimilar from those early Jerry Lewis-inspired nerds. Meanwhile, it traffics heavily in shoehorned references, making its supposed embrace of geek culture seem largely superficial. These days it’s common practice for movies and TV shows to jump on that bandwagon by having characters proclaim their geek bona fides—however unconvincingly.

Sam Brenner: “I’m an amazing kisser. All us nerds are, cause we appreciate it more!” - Pixels (2015)

And in a more extreme form of pandering, movies, and shows increasingly tailor themselves to please the geeks who make up particularly vocal fanbases. This fan service and the constant, internet-fueled coverage of some of their dominating interests have led some geeks to believe that they hold all the power. And that can lead to the problem of gatekeeping:

As the tent of geek culture has become bigger, geeks have become increasingly territorial—attacking those who dare to criticize or enter their space without their permission.

Movements like GamerGate have exposed the toxic masculinity that’s long been percolating within geek culture, where geeks have often been characterized as awkward nice guys who are implicitly deserving of sex—as if this somehow excuses even their most disturbing actions.

Howard Wolowitz: “If it’s ‘creepy’ to use the internet, military satellites, and robot aircraft to find a house full of gorgeous young models so I can drop in on them unexpectedly, then fine, I’m ‘creepy.’” - Big Bang Theory 02x07

Stories that center male geeks as the heroes can engage in a, sometimes dangerous, romantic wish-fulfillment and encourage a sense of entitlement that’s an even more toxic influence than rejection. Fortunately, with more people self-identifying as geeks, we don’t need to define “geeks” so narrowly—or let the angriest or loudest control the narrative. In both pop culture and in real life, anyone can be a geek, and geeks are no longer freak shows.

This widespread acceptance has led to some frustration from quote-unquote true geeks. True—maybe it comes off as facile when attractive, popular, seemingly well-adjusted people proclaim their awkwardness. But feeling out of place, or just plain weird is a universal human experience.

If we allow everyone to express the geek inside, we all feel slightly less like outcasts—and maybe the nerds will no longer feel the need to exact revenge.

Wolverine: “What do you say? Give these geeks one more shot?” - X-Men (2000)