Geeks have become recurring characters in films and TV series.
By gaining popularity overnight they have infiltrated consumer society becoming the widely acceptable ‘nerd’ stereotype. The ‘nerd’ stereotype has been adopted by everyone from the trendy college kids to the major fashion brands and screen actors. The meaning of the words ‘geek’ has distanced itself from the association with sci-fi universes, film franchises and computer games becoming yet another slogan plastered over T-shirts and hats. The once-demeaning label ‘geek’ aimed at Star Trek fans has nothing to do with the actual meaning of the word. It has been marketed to consumer audiences as the latest hip look. Out of the blue, being a nerd has become cool.
Unfortunately, films and media have had a major part in the creation of the ‘nerd’ phenomenon. Instead of nerdy, geek characters have become cute, even hot, with their obsessions over comic books and computer games (not that they weren’t cute before, just no one paid attention). Increasingly more nerd characters are being portrayed on screen because of the stereotype’s popularity and they are usually played by someone like Michael Cera (Arrested Development, Juno, Scott Pilgrim vs The World), Jay Baruchel (popular for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, She’s Out of My League and nerdy even when animated in How to Train Your Dragon) or Justin Long (He’s Just Not That Into You). These are all cute geeks, who have somehow made their way to people’s (especially girls’) hearts. Something similar happened when TV series The Big Bang Theory started in 2007, turning its four awkward characters into instant stars reaffirming that geeks can get the pretty blond girl next door (Kaley Cuoco as Penny).
One would think that nerds’ popularity is a follow-up to society’s realisation that a number of real-life nerds have become immensely successful. Some of their stories have made their way to the big screen. The one who instantly comes to mind would be Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network. Despite his fast-talking-too-smart-for-his-own-good attitude, it isn’t hard to love the bad boy/ nerdy computer genius, who Zuckerberg has become in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay. Zuckerberg’s portrayal, however, also suggests that writers and filmmakers are stepping away from cute nerds in search for different character dimensions, which would appeal to audiences.
In good consumer tradition, the new ‘geek’ stereotype needs to include all audiences in its fan base, including male viewers. Nerdy girls usually adhere to something that vaguely reminds the Cinderella fairytale: no one notices them initially because of their massive glasses/teeth/tufts of hair but eventually they turn drop-dead gorgeous. Long time ago Sandra Bullock seemed to be the actress to play klutzy and lovable nerdy girls, who either worked in the FBI or were someone’s lawyer in several romantic comedies (Miss Congeniality, Two Weeks Notice). Also, remember Allyson Hannigan before How I Met Your Mother? Look back to Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where she was shy Willow who later turned to darkness. Similarly, everybody remembers Anne Hathaway’s transition to the stylish Princess of Genovia in The Princess Diaries. Other popular geeky girls are Zooey Deschanel (New Girls on TV, 500 Days of Summer), Mayim Bialik (she actually does have a PhD apart from her fictional one on The Big Bang Theory) or Tina Fey (who always seems to be wearing some kind of glasses).
As with any trend, the signature geek details have been taken away from real-life nerds, portrayed by media and then marketed back to audiences. Through its desire to add to its collection of exaggerated and stereotyped characters, media has made nerds the latest cool look but hasn’t made actual nerds popular with people. They are still the outsiders but they look like everybody else now.