It’s a strange time to be a nerd. Recent conversations—ranging from responses to the UC Santa Barbara shooting earlier this year and recent reexaminations of such key texts as 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds to the increased visibility of misogyny in gamer culture—have called nerds’ seemingly intrinsic “underdog” status into question. In all these conversations, the nerds are by definition male. Their self-proclaimed rank as society’s pariahs, despite the dominance of the tech industry and the increasingly mainstream success of everything from comic books to MMORPGs, allows them to see women at best as plunder to be won from enemy alpha males, and at worst as poseurs and saboteurs bent on destroying the industries and narratives nerds hold dear.
Perhaps more than anything, this conversation should serve as a wake-up call that there is no faction or fandom so downtrodden that its members cannot find excuses to exclude or victimize women. For nerdy girls who grew up in these subcultures, of course, none of this is really news. But we also know that, beyond Revenge of the Nerds, there are nerd icons any boy would do well to emulate. Here’s a collection of nerdy men that geek dudes these days should look to as role models.
1. and 2. Chris Knight and Mitch Taylor, Real Genius
If you’re searching for a perfect antidote to Revenge of the Nerds—in which the titular nerds seek revenge on their “jock” enemies by selling nude photos of popular sorority girls and date raping one of the jock’s girlfriends—then Real Genius is it. Released in 1985, the year after Revenge of the Nerds, it concerns a group of brilliant young student scientists as Pacific Tech, a CalTech stand-in. In particular, it follows the antics of carefree genius Chris Knight (played by Val Kilmer at the height of his toothsomeness) and his tense new roommate, Mitch, who at age 15 is the school’s youngest and most naïve student.
Mitch looks more than a little like a Girls Just Want To Have Fun-era Sarah Jessica Parker (and a perfect world she would have won the part), but his biggest problem is the fact that his intelligence only seems to make him miserable. The movie’s first half is largely about Chris’ attempts to help him loosen up, and use his intelligence to help him enjoy life. They prank other students and throw parties that doubtless put CalTech’s to shame, and Mitch falls for Jordan (Michelle Meyrink, a Revenge of the Nerds alumna), a girl who is just as brilliant as he could ever hope to be. (She’s also an icon for all girls who take pride in never sleeping, i.e., uh, me.) In the movie’s final act, however, the nerds of Pacific tech use their smarts not to pillage sororities or punish imagined enemies, but to reroute the plans of a deadly laser and make the world a more peaceful place—complete with plenty of popcorn.
3. Brian Johnson, The Breakfast Club
In a movie about stripping away your layers of defense, no one was more defenseless than Brian Johnson. As the “brain” of the group, Brian is laughably naïve and sincere (“I’m in the math club, that Latin club, and the physics club…uh, physics club”), until suddenly he isn’t. He may be a couple of grades behind than the movie’s other characters, but he looks almost a decade younger (maybe because, in the case of actors like Judd Nelson, he actually was). Anthony Michael Hall plays the role with a puppyish kind of vulnerability that comes partly from his abilities as an actor and partly from his appearance alone: his hands and feet are still too big for his body to grow into and his wide-eyed stare suggests that he doesn’t really mind if the joke is on him, so long as he gets to be included.
In Sixteen Candles, released the year before, Hall’s character—known simply as “The Geek”—was a caricature used largely for laughs: he danced, he strutted, he yearned for “fully aged sophomore meat,” he made martinis, he crashed a car, and he talked himself up as a playboy so much that, miraculously, he woke up as one, a sleeping prom queen by his side. In the end, The Geek was the bluntest and most regrettable kind of nerd fantasy figure, and enjoyed a victory well within the Revenge of the Nerdsmodel: humble the popular kids and claim their poster girl as your prize.
But in The Breakfast Club, Hall’s Brian Johnson ends up alone. Instead of winning a girl as a trophy, he brought the group together with his childlike belief that they all really could find common ground and would all be friends on Monday. That congratulatory little punch in the arm he gives himself in the arm at the end of the movie? Completely earned—and not just because his dance moves had improved so much since Sixteen Candles.
4. and 5. Sheila, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and Mark, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child
And here's Sheila:
This one’s a twofer, partly because the standard Nightmare on Elm Street character template of a nerd/troubled girl/babe/soft-hearted jock friend group yielded too many additions to winnow down to one—not to mention a vision of the kind of morning-after-The-Breakfast-Club social dynamic we all yearned for as high schoolers.
Mark, the comic book nerd who loves his teen-model best friend pure and chaste from afar until Freddy kills her in an all-too-real depiction of the adolescent female headspace (filet de Barbie, anyone?), seems to get his haircut ideas from nine-year-olds and his fashion cues from Ya Kid K. Yet the futility of his love is reflected not in ironic distance and passive aggressive comments, but in hisvaliant—and, of course, doomed—attempt to avenge her death.
Speaking of doomed love, I sometimes think about all the things I want to do with my life—my plans for books written, degrees earned, journeys undertaken, and dogs bandanna’d—and think of tossing it all aside in favor of spending 40 to 50 years writingfanfiction about Sheila, the shrimpy, sarcastic nerd of A Nightmare on Elm Street Four, and her best friend Debbie, a hardcore weightlifter, soap-watcher, and Lita Ford lookalike. They may have just been friends, but their relationship—Sheila does Debbie’s trig homework, and Debbie mercilessly insults anyone who dares harass Sheila—surely could have blossomed into love, if not for the whole obligatory death count thing. Boys seeking to catch the eye of a Lita Ford lookalike, take note: do her trig homework, and the rest will follow.
6. Neil, Todd, Charlie, Knox, and all the other boys of Dead Poets Society
Show me a movie more tailor-made for bookish adolescent girls and I will retreat into a blanket fort and spend the rest of my life watching it. As it is, I have a hard enough time emerging from the house once in a while when I know I have a VHS of Dead Poets Society at the ready. The boys of this movie are dream material for every fourteen-year-old girl who once spent a lunch hour swooning over Keats: earnest, passionate, wide-eyed, thoughtful, and profoundly virginal (with the exception of Charlie “Nuwanda” Dalton, who at the very least has done some passionate necking with a ‘Cliffie he met while visiting an older brother at the Harvard-Yale game).
Yet the very best thing about these characters—and the quality that keeps me coming back long after my fetish for navy blue blazers and tartan dressing gowns has been sated—is the fact that they are not just the boys we bookish girls once wished we could have dated, but the boys we identified with. Finally, here was proof that boys and girls, those groups apparently rendered total opposites by adolescence, had far more in common than we might have guessed. We could both be ardent without irony. We could both be gentle with our friends, and with the selves we saw emerging as we grew into adults. And we could both know that we were not just the hormonal beasts society wrote us off as, but able to appreciate all the poetry life held, and, occasionally, the poetry of our hormones—which would be best appreciated, of course, in a cave in the woods just outside a New England prep school.
Though all the boys of Dead Poets Society were wise, it was perhaps Nuwanda Dalton who best spoke for the movie’s female viewers, when he said: “Mr. Nolan? It’s for you. It’s God. He says we should have girls at Welton.”
I’m still waiting for my acceptance letter to arrive in the mail.
Sarah Marshall is still waiting for Knox Overstreet to show up in her classroom, poem in hand.