Nerds are the kings of our culture these days—but what is a nerd, exactly, and who gets to call themselves one? This show digs into gender, race, and nerdery with an organizer of GeekGirlCon, comedy nerd Phoebe Robinson, music nerd turned Yale lecturer Allyson McCabe, and (of course!) a rigorous discussion of feminism in Star Trek with two hardcore Trekkies. Listen in!
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SARAH MIRK: This is Sarah Mirk and this is Popaganda, Bitch Media's feminist response to pop culture podcast.
Thanks to our sponsor, She Bop, a women-owned sex toy boutique that specializes in body safe products and education. Check them out at sheboptheshop.com.
If there's one maligned group in society that has transformed its image in the past decade—just one—I'd argue it's the nerds. We've moved from the idea of nerds being unbearable, suspender-wearing whiz kids like Steve Urkle to nerds being both beloved and ubiquitous. It seems like everyone considers themselves a nerd these days. You can be a comics nerd or a movie nerd or a politics nerd, we're all a nerd about something. And yet, there's still this gendered aspect to nerdery. Many groups of nerds like to be exclusive, they consider begin a nerd being a gatekeeper. In the world of technology and science and comic book conventions, being a female nerd is still kind of big deal. Women still find ourselves running up against barriers and snobby attitudes and sexism from dudes who say, "We're the real nerds."
Today we'll talk about some of our favorite nerds in pop culture, talk with a genuine comics nerd, discuss changing perceptions of nerds over time with one of the organizers of Geek Girl Con. And, of course, no show about nerds is complete without a discussion of feminism in Star Trek. We've got that too.
SARAH MIRK: First, we're going to start with a group discussion about, "What is a nerd?" I'm here in the studio with some distinguished guests.
ANDI ZEISLER: I'm Andi Zeisler, co-founder and editorial creative director of Bitch.
EMILLY PRADO: I'm Emilly Prado, aI'm the editorial intern at Bitch.
MIRK: What's the difference between a nerd, a geek, and a dork?
I think historically, we think of nerds as smart outcasts, whereas geeks are outcasts who are not smart. And then dorks are just beyond redemption. I don't know what dorks are, but it's not good. You don't want to be a dork, it's not good. Whereas with a nerd, it's kind cool.
PRADO: I think with a nerd or a geek, there's an interest in something that's counter culture, like D&D.
MIRK: I think of a nerd or a geek as someone who's into a specific thing. So whether you're a film nerd or a movie nerd, you're very knowledgable on it, and it becomes a cool thing.
ZEISLER: And we need to talk about they way intellectual capital has really expanded in coolness over the past several decades. When I was growing up in the eighties, nerd was this outcast who had to redeem him or herself. Revenge of the Nerds was a big movie. Now it's become very much of a nerd society, where people actively want to identify as nerds.
MIRK: Nerds have money, nerds have power. Let's talk about some of our favorite nerds.
PRADO: My favorite nerd is Bill Haverchuck, from Freaks and Geeks. In Freaks and Geeks, you've got Bill, Sam, and Neil, each has their own niche of nerdom, but Bill really shines because he's really not trying hard.
ZEISLER; With the other two, you get the impression that the other two are going to outgrow their nerdery, but Bill is just not. But that makes him all the more realistic and that makes you love him more.
MIRK: I think my favorite nerd in high school was Daria. She's probably my favorite, just because I was so surprised to see a character like her on TV. A smart, funny, dry female character who's got awesome artsy friends who didn't care about being cool, she's a nerd because she's really into books and reading and hates high school. I'm not nearly a dark or combat boot friendly as she is, but I was also not that into being in high school and I connected with her in a big way.
ZEISLER: I think 80s teen movies are a real wealth of nerd characterizations. I feel real affection for all the characters in this movie, but Real Genius. It's set at a hotbed of neediness, a science college, and there's this one girl nerd Jordan, who is really lovable. She's not apologizing for who she is, she is very smart and within her environment is very well liked, but is very much against the 80s ideal of the blonde prom queen, or someone who secretly aspired to be that. She just didn't care. After the 80s, we got a lot more nuanced characterizations of nerds, like there wasn't the automatic separation from the popular kids. Think of Gilmore Girls—Lane Kim and Paris Geller were characters who were very deeply nerds, but they weren't outcasts, they're very entrenched in the social fabric of their schools and their communities.
MIRK: i think the best example of that these days is Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec, who is both a super nerd and in charge of everything. She's at the top of the heap, and yet a central part of her character is that she's obsessed with public process. She's both a popular girl and a nerd. You know who changed my life growing up was the character from Jurassic Park, Dr.Ellie Satler, who was a nerd, but it was never really a big deal. She's got an amazing career as an archaolgoist and knew a lot about plants, but it was never demeaned or diminished. It was actually cool and sexy that she knew so much about, like, ethnobotany. I think that character is why I developed a lifelong love of science and spent my summers in high school working as a volunteer archaeologist. Which, uh, I can definitely say I was a nerd in school because of that.
MIRK: One of my new favorite comedy nerds is Phoebe Robinson, who I saw at Bridgetown Comedy Fest here in Portland and who runs the blog Blaria, the Black Daria. Thanks for joining us on the show, Phoebe.
PHOEBE ROBINSON: Thanks for having me!
MIRK: A lot of your work that I've seen relates to being a nerd and nerd culture. What are your favorite aspects of nerd culture and how do you feel like you're a part of it or not?
ROBINSON: The thing I like about nerd culture is it just owns it. I'm very into cultures in general that say, "This is who I am," and just embraces it.
MIRK: Do you consider yourself a comedy nerd?
ROBINSON: I try to watch every comedy special that comes on TV.
MIRK: That's a lot of comedy specials.
ROBINSON: Yeah, it's a lot. And when i do shows, a lot of people don't like to watch everyone who performs, but I do. I've been doing it for five years and I never get tired of watching other people perform. I listen to stand-up tapes on my way to work. I try to learn as much as I can because I never wanted to be a stand-up comedian, so I feel like I have to play catch up to people who knew from, like, age 5 that they wanted to be stand up comedians and what they did their whole lives, i"m trying to cram into five years. I definitely do obsess.
When you're watching comedy shows and listening to stand up tapes, do you get analytical about it, or do you just get swept up in it?
ROBINSON: I get swept up in it, but once it's over I'll analyze and think about it. When I'm listening to it, I try to listen to it just like an audience member. But in person, I'm like half and half. I'll look at the audience and see how they're laughing, if it's edgier material, I'll pay attention to how a comic will do crowd work and dovetail that into a joke they want to talk about, or they'll have to step off a joke to address something else, then get back into it. Those kind of things, I pay attention to in person.
MIRK: How do you prepare your own set? Do you prepare things and then tear them apart and put them back together, or are you more loose?
When i was first getting started, I was very rigid. I would write everything out, then memorize it in front of the mirror, just recite it. Now, I'll hand write a joke, then I'll memorize it enough that if I got off track, I could get back on track. I always allow room to riff, to get sidetracked and see what else works. It's looser and i have more fun writing because it's not like, "If I say 'the' here, but not here, the joke is ruined.'" Memorizing your jokes are pretty much all you have control over. Like, you're funny, but you don't necessarily know why you're funny. Your voice isn't defined yet, so you say, 'Oh, that joke was great, but I don't know how to make another joke like that.;
MIRK: Once a year, downtown Seattle overflows with women who identify as nerds. An annual convention called Geek Girl Con draws hundreds of people to the city. I called up Geek Girl Con staffer Raychelle Burks, to talk about the conference and perceptions of nerds.
Do you think perceptions of female nerds have changed since the time when you were growing up?
RAYCHELLE BURKS: Oh, when I was in high school, being a nerd was a bit derogatory. It wasn't a positive thing. It meant you weren't popular. So today I think the perception has changed. As far as gender issues and race issues within nerddom, women having to provide bonfires of how nerdy you are, so you're not a fake nerd.
It's funny, because all nerds are into out-herding each other. Who knows more about Star Wars? Who has the definitive opinion on Ravenclaw vs. Hufflepuff? But it feels different to me as a woman, and I'm sure it feels different to you as a black woman, feeling like I have to prove I'm a nerd because I'm female. That kind of proving feels different.
Very much so. There's the natural competitiveness. We both know that you can have nerd-offs almost. How nerdy are you? But it's totally different that you ever 'should be here.' That you are even in the realm of being a nerd. And so I think that's a completely different thing. The kind of a great thing about geek girl con is you walk into a place and there is no feeling out of place, there is no feeling that people are looking at me like I shouldn't be here, that people are looking at me and I need to impress them with my neediness. Everyone is a nerd in their own way and there doesn't seem to be this, you need to prove how much of a dork you are. With the mission, the staff, is to make it as inclusive as possible for all types of people for all areas. Someone just asked Will Wheaton at a con recently, what does it mean to be a nerd? And he answered, I'm paraphrasing, it's the way you love something, being passionate about whatever this thing is and you want to be with like-minded people and get into it. It's a really broad approach to neediness, but it's reflective of what Geek Girl Con is about. It's a position of privilege when just by being male, no one's going to say, well really, you're a nerd. But I've definitely felt like, I need to prove that I'm a nerd, that I'm a fan of Battlestar Galatica.
That was Raychelle Burks. Check out the convention yourself at GeekGirlCon.com.
SARAH MIRK:What happens when a music nerd goes to college and falls in love with academia? We have this story, from Yale lecturer Alison McCade.
MCCABE: My mother grew up dirt poor in Philadelphia. She dreamt of marrying up and out and realizing her lifelong fantasy of becoming a Jewish-American princess. Instead she married my father and became addicted to diet pills. I fell in love with rock 'n roll. As I stumbled awkwardly towards adolescence, my mother emerged from her dexotrim induced haze, doubling down on her goal of upward mobility. Step one: transforming me from a miniature Joan Jett into a marriageable Jennifer Grey. Step two: launching a highly lucrative bar and batmitzvah theme party business. When I refused to give up guitar and black coal eyeliner, my mother forced me to work in a dumpy craft store so at least she could get a discount on Styrofoam. That's where I met Lisa Berkowitz. Lisa's parents divorce meant transferring to Northeast High, a school so awful we took a vow of truancy. But Lisa and I weren't your typical dropouts. We were hardcore rock nerds, completely convinced that rockstardom was our ticket out of Philly, just as it had freed Bob Dylan from Hibbing and Janis Joplin from Port Arthur. So while the other 748 students in our graduating class prepared for careers in office cubicles, fast food kitchens and shopping malls, Lisa and I spent our days parked in front of MTV, studying for our parts. But, we were also drinking our way through her mother's liquor cabinet and smoking her day through her endless stash of weed. In other words, partying like rock stars without getting around to forming the amazing band that might have made us rock stars. One day I'd had enough. I rode the L past the office where I'd been working as a data entry operator to the central branch of the public library. Stumbling upon its vast collection of college guides, I discovered an alternative escape route: Hampshire College. A school in Massachussetts that didn't consider SAT scores, require majors, or assign grades. My only cultural reference point for New England was Red Lobster, but I started fantasizing about running away to the Shangri La, starting my life over, becoming someone else. Miraculously, I got in, and I left town never to be seen or heard from again, or so I thought. When I arrived at Hampshire, everyone was studying gender theory, and the field's rock stars played to standing room only crowds. There were fanzines, trading cards, even collectible action figures – not to mention groupies. Seeing this I thought I found my second calling, and I immediately traded my fender for a Foucault. I played my first conference while I was still an undergrad, scored my first hit single in the top journal while I was still in grad school. Nothing could have prepared me for the impending collapse of the job market, or the fact that my doctoral program was so cutting-edge, it was cut. I ended up at Yale of all places, where I was hired to teach a glorified version of freshman comp. I thought I'd stay on a year or two, but I ended up staying 10 years. I got promoted, got to teach more advanced writing courses, but at 40, I was not a gender theorist or a rock star. I was just a nerd. One afternoon, I was riding Metro north and I saw a poster for a reality show starring Tony Danza as a newly minted English teacher who'd come to a struggling urban high school to save the children. As soon as I realized Danza was at Northeast, my memories came rushing back. I thought about Lisa, and wondered what became of her, and all the stuff one thinks about when one is barely hiding one's midlife crisis. Hoping to leverage a reunion with Lisa, I called the principal and got myself invited back to Northeast. I found Lisa's number on the Internet and left a message asking her to call. But Lisa didn't call, and it felt crazy to be back in Philly. The old neighborhood had gone down the tubes, and so had the school. There were airport screening machines by the front door, students were forced to wear uniforms, have their movements tracked by electronic ID cards. There was even a suspension trailer in the parking lot. At the end of my tour, the principal deposited me in a classroom to inspire the quote-unquote college-bound students with my success story. But I looked out the window, past the patchy dead grass and rusted chainlink fences, and off in the distance I could see Lisa's old apartment. That's when I knew I'd have to find another way to bridge the distance between who I was, and who I had become.
SARAH MIRK: The top movie in America this month is a nerd spectacular: the newest iteration of the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek: Into Darkness. Here to discuss the sci-fi series is Zack, a semi-anonymous zinester, whose zine "A field guide to the aliens of Star Trek: Next Generation", is pure gold.
SARAH MIRK: We're gonna talk about feminism in the show, and actually there's a lot that's been written about this already. And people who are into Star Trek are always really into telling me that Star Trek is all about equality. And that it's really one of the most progressive shows ever written and ever created. And you can really see that from a racial standpoint, that this is one of the first shows that had characters of color right in the spotlight.
ZACK: Kind of, yeah.
SARAH MIRK: What's your take on feminism in the show? Do people talk as much about Star Trek being a feminist show as they do about it promoting equality in general?
ZACK: Well, it definitely got better after awhile. Original Star Trek really just had Uhura. Star Trek: Next Generation had two main female cast members, but they were both in nurturing roles, you had the doctor and the counselor. And the counselor ran around in a little jumpsuit, and it was ridiculous. And then you had Deep Space 9 where you had a science officer who was a woman, and the first officer who was also a former terrorist. And I thought that was awesome, Deep Space 9 did a great job. Voyager you had a female captain, which was in theory great even though she was basically Margaret Thatcher as captain of a Starfleet vessel, and you had a female engineering officer, and you had a female nurse, who was basically the manic-pixie dream girl of Star Trek. And so they got rid of her, and replaced her with sort of this weird Aryan dominatrix in Seven-of-Nine.
SARAH MIRK: So it went from having only one female character, Uhura, to nurturing female characters – and this is over the course of what, three decades?
ZACK: Um… longer than that, because '67 until… four decades? Many years.
SARAH MIRK: What changed about the show? Why do you think that Star Trek's writers and directors started changing the roles of female characters in the show?
ZACK: A fair amount of it had to do with Gene Roddenberry dying. Roddenberry, for the good things about him, was kind of a sexist, philandering jerk. As progressive as Star Trek was, Star Trek is kind of like, your friend who says, "I don't – I don't see race, I don't see color, I just see people. You wanna give them points for that, for not being super racist, but at the same time, there are a lot of ways that Star Trek is still pretty racist, and still has a long way to go.
SARAH MIRK: So, is Gene Roddenberry that jerky friend, or is all of Star Trek that jerky friend?
ZACK: All of Star Trek is that jerky friend. Gene Roddenberry was the early jerky friend, and then the other jerky friends took over for him.
SARAH MIRK: When you were watching the show growing up, did you think about gender? Did you think about the role of female characters on the show?
ZACK: I did, yeah. Especially when they added in the Aryan dominatrix woman. I was like, "All right, I'm done with this show, I can't." That was what made me stop watching Star Trek, as a kid.
SARAH MIRK: So it was plausible up until that point of the Aryan dominatrix?
ZACK: It wasn't an issue of plausibility, it was an issue of tolerability. As revolutionary as it was to have Uhura, especially as a woman of color, being on the bridge, and not being a maid on TV, she was still just a communications officer. Which at the time was amazing. But on Next Generation, there were many times when Crusher basically had to read Picard the riot act. When Polaski took over for her in season two, she's presented as somebody who's not gonna take any shit from Picard. And while most of, especially Troi's episodes had to do with romantic dalliances or being violated by aliens, Crusher's episodes generally were pretty good, it gave female characters a lot more agency on the show.
SARAH MIRK: But it sounds like what you were saying comparing Star Trek to that person who claims to 'not notice gender,' is that Star Trek maybe gets too much credit for being progressive. In what ways do you find Star Trek to be still retro?
ZACK: If we're looking at current Star Trek, if we're looking the last movie, it's a very sexist movie. The whole male gaze on Uhura, in the new movie, it's like, "how quickly can we get her into her underpants?"
SARAH MIRK: I think her very first scene is her – if you haven't seen the film –
ZACK: I think it's her second scene, but yeah.
SARAH MIRK: The first scene is her kicking some ass, and the second scene is her taking off her clothes, in her bed, not realizing that somebody's watching her.
ZACK: Kirk's underneath the bed watching her. And then the trailer for the new movie, depending on what trailer you watch, there's one of the trailers where it's just like – a still photo of a blonde woman in her underpants. Just for a second, that's all, it's just her standing there, arms up in the air. And that's it, it's like, action, action, action, action, underpants woman, action.
SARAH MIRK: Thank you so much Zack.
ZACK: Thank you.
SARAH MIRK: People can't find your zines online, but if they're ever lucky enough to come to Portland, they can find them at Floating World Comics, and Reading Frenzy. Again, the name is "A field guide to the aliens of Star Trek: Next Generation."
SARAH MIRK: And now for a second opinion I'm talking with filmmaker Liz Lewis. On the night of the Star Trek premiere, we're actually sitting in the Star Trek book section at Powell's books.
LIZ LEWIS: Star Trek was a family tradition. I grew up with my Mom telling me about when she watched Star Trek: The Original Series with her brother, with TV trays. We grew up every Saturday night having pizza and watching Star Trek: Next Generation.
SARAH MIRK: When you were watching the show, did you think about gender, did you think about feminism and sexuality? Or was it not even on your radar when you were a kid?
LEWIS: Well, when I was a kid I was pretty naïve, so I don't think I was thinking about it directly, but I was fascinated by the female characters on Star Trek. Deanna Troi was so amazing to me, I loved her so much. I don't know whether it was because I wanted to be her, or just because I was in love with her, but she was amazing to me.
SARAH MIRK: Looking back on the show now when you watch it, are you sort of mortified that you thought that, or do you still think she's pretty awesome?
LEWIS: I actually spent last year re-watching all of Next Generation, and was thinking about these issues again as I was watching it. And at some points I was totally embarrassed and just ashamed of that character, and how they wrote her. But that was more rare than the times that I was really happy with her, and that I saw her be a strong woman. And I saw her feminine traits celebrated, instead of disparaged. She was sensitive and she was emotional, but that's how she contributed to the crew, that's how she was a strong member of the crew. I think that was a good message for me as a kid, that I wasn't aware of but that was there for me.
SARAH MIRK: She was doing these traditionally female roles, she was a nurturer, she was a caretaker, but you saw it as a good thing, that she's celebrating that sort of femininity.
LEWIS: Absolutely. She saved the crew, over and over again, by being sensitive to whatever alien race they encountered. She was the one that told them "Oh wait, wait, they're not trying to kill us!" or "Oh wait, wait, they are trying to kill us!" And that saved their ass so many times! And I think that does teach young women and did teach me that it's okay to have these traits, it's okay to be sensitive. It can definitely be a strength, and I think it is a strength that I grew up perfecting and having.
SARAH MIRK: Let's talk about Uhura. Did you like Uhura, growing up? What did you think of her role in the original series versus in the current film?
LEWIS: So I didn't really encounter Uhura until I was older, I didn't watch the original series as a kid. So of course when I went back and watched it, probably in my teens or early twenties, I was kind of surprised by her itty-bitty tiny skirt. But I was also impressed because she was an integral part of the crew and she did get to be important, and she wasn't just a pretty thing, she actually contributed. Although not nearly as much as she would have if she was in the Next Generation series. But she was still there.
SARAH MIRK: How do you think watching Star Trek, and being a Star Trek nerd growing up, influenced your thinking about gender and your thinking about feminism?
LEWIS: I feel like Star Trek: Next Generation taught me what the grain of salt is in our society. The women in Star Trek, they're strong, they're in roles of leadership, they take charge, they're all those great positive qualities, but they're also the nurturers, they're the doctor, they're the counselor, they're the bartender that you listen to and kind of mothers you through difficult situations. They aren't necessarily the strong go-get-'em adventurers, they're usually pretty cautious and nervous and maybe question themselves a lot, and I feel like that's a grain of salt that I expect, and I think that is because of Star Trek: Next Generation and the other media I watched growing up. And so I think Star Trek can be good because it has these women in strong roles, but it also teaches women that they still need to fit into the sexy-caregiver role. Because don't get me wrong, the Star Trek female characters, they're sexy, and their outfits are sexier than the men's outfits, come on. Let's not kid ourselves.
SARAH MIRK: Do you consider yourself a Star Trek nerd? Or do you try to sort of play it cool when you're talking about Star Trek?
LEWIS: I have no qualms. I am not playing it cool at all, I am a Trekkie – actually technically the term would be Trekker, because I joined at Next Generation level, rather the Original Series.
SARAH MIRK: It's a very important distinction.
LEWIS: Incredibly important. So absolutely, total nerd about it.