Keeping the world safe for nerd culture

Surprisingly normal-looking, aren’t they? Folks waiting for the doors to open at the Anaheim Comic Con, 4/30/2011

The physical-therapy practice I went to following my shoulder surgery, like many others in that business, also has a lot of sports-medicine patients, and there’s a definite athletic vibe about the place, particularly from the folks who work there. Most of them are young, male, and keep the TV constantly tuned to SportsCenter or one game or another.

Making small talk during one of my Monday appointments, a couple of the guys asked me what I’d done that weekend. Among other things – none terribly interesting to the young, male, and sporty, probably – my husband and I had gone to see the movie Paul, so I mentioned that. They wanted to know if it was funny, and I assured them it was. “But if you’re not pretty well-versed in nerd-culture references, don’t even bother,” I said.

Maybe that wasn’t fair. Maybe I was stereotyping these guys as jocks. And maybe it’s true that a lot of stereotypically nerdy touchstones are more mainstream now that the geeks have inherited the earth and all – but still, I felt a little protective.

The only thing that would have kept us from seeing Paul was uniformly terrible reviews, which it – perhaps surprisingly – didn’t receive. How could we miss a comedy about two British guys – one a science-fiction writer, the other an illustrator – who encounter an alien while on a road trip to Area 51 after San Diego Comic-Con…and that shares a name with my husband? It’s not the most tasteful film ever made, but it is a very funny one – and if you’ve seen enough other movies (particularly science-fiction ones) and have a high enough level of pop-culture literacy to catch most of its film, literary, and comic-book references, it’s even funnier.

I like getting those references. And I like the fact that not everyone does – it’s like a secret language. It may not be as big a secret as it once was, but it still doesn’t belong to everyone – and I really don’t think I want it to. It’s a form of snobbery, perhaps…but not one that more conventional snobs would recognize as snobbery. They’d just think it was weirdness. For too much of my life, I admit that I did too, but I’m happier now that I’ve moved past that and embraced my nerd nature.

There are some people who can bridge the subcultures – my sports-blogging, video-gaming, swing-dancing engineer son happens to be one of them, and perhaps some of those sporty-seeming folks at my PT practice are too. And some might argue that nerd culture isn’t really even a subculture in a world where everyone’s tethered to technology and over 100,000 people annually attend what was once a comic-book fan gathering, but I’m not sure I want that to be true.

On the one hand, I have to admit that I like the fact that people who read and game and are serious about popular culture aren’t the laughed-at fringe-dwellers they (we) once were. But after all those years on the fringes, I’m not sure I want the whole world out there with us. If we leave the major sports events and the reality-TV stars to them, can we keep the science fiction? Or work out something along those lines. I think the nerds should be allowed to keep some of our culture for ourselves, otherwise nerdiness has no real meaning.

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