The Awkward Threesome (Geek, Nerd, and Dork)

Tuesday, 05 March 2013 12:41 By Liz Green , SpeakOut | Op-Ed
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My primary identity is nerd, but my moon is in geek and I have a dork ascendant. These days, everyone wants to be a geek.   They want the pseudo-geek chic lifestyle, complete with thick framed glasses, a passing familiarity with comic books and science fiction, and last but not least, more money in the tech industry.  Or maybe they want to spice up their OKCupid profile with Neil Gaiman references in the hopes of snagging someone in the tech industry.  But whatever way you look at it, geek is now mainstream.

The truth is, when people say “geek” they often mean “nerd,” and a nerd is something different.  But equally cool.  A nerd is someone who, for example, took the National Latin Exam for fun in ninth grade.  Or, I don’t know, played the French Horn for a dozen years.  Or knows that forensics is not about CSI: Miami.  No.  Forensics is the only sport a nerd can hope to letter in, besides band or orchestra.  As you might imagine, a nerd had to suffer for their passions in high school, and was branded an outsider. This is also the subject of the majority of geek literature: the experience of difference.  Almost every superhero story speaks to it: this fantasy that what makes you ridiculed can also make you powerful.

Social stigma leads to social awkwardness, which leads to a third kind: a dork.

A nerd knows that, most properly, there is a three way Venn diagram of nerd, geek, and dork; and while of course an actual three way between a nerd, a geek and a dork would be awesome, let’s face it, that’s not going to happen, at least not in this dimension.  Why won’t it happen?  Because the dork is too socially awkward to instigate, and while the nerd or the geek might have the chutzpah to get the party started, they are too busy topping each other with Dr. Who references to get on to the more serious business of topping each other.

So on to the finer point of what separates a nerd from a geek, and a geek from a dork:

A nerd’s idea of a great night in is reading the latest Pulitzer Prize winning novel. A geek’s idea of a great night in is a marathon viewing of the latest Joss Whedon enterprise, or, the latest voyage of the Starship Enterprise.  A dork’s idea of a great night in is…wait, there are other options than spending the night in?

But despite these differences, we are all fundamentally shut-in, obsessional kin.  So when Hollywood comes to court the former prom queens and homecoming kings masquerading as social misfits, who try to slum it with their vague interest in Iron Man, an alliance needs to be built between the nerds, the geeks, and the dorks. Those of us who qualify in more than one category are called upon to be diplomats between these worlds.  We must unite to resist the co-optation of our culture!  Comic-Con is not for Teams Edward or Jacob! Theoretical physics does not belong to Ashton Kutcher!

But part of me hesitates when I trash on Twilight fans, because let’s face it, most of them are women.   When I say I want to keep “the mainstream” out of geek culture, I realize that could easily be mistaken as keeping it “pure.”  Keeping out the “riffraff,” the “unintelligent,” the people who “just don’t get it.”  I know geektopia isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.   I know that if you’re not a straight white dude, this world can be less than inviting.   This shit runs deep. The currency of the geek, nerd, and dork worlds is intelligence. White supremacist heterosexist capitalist patriarchy insists that straight white dudes are smarter.  It’s an ugly, uncool bullshit reality of privilege and oppression. Of course, that idea of unequal intelligence is a lie and all too often these bullshit fantasies invade our reality and our comic books.  A central theme of such lies is that men act, and women are acted upon.  So in most comics, men are the heroes, women are, the vast majority of the time, the scantily clad villains.   Unless you’re Buffy.  Then you can make an art out of fighting evil in stylish, yet affordable boots.

Of course I want geek culture to expand.  Just not in the direction it’s going.  So to all the straight white dudes who were picked on for being too smart in high school, but now make six figures in the tech industry: your difference is not the only difference that matters.  

But Twilight sucks, and I’ll stand by that, in equal parts because of the horrible writing and its horrible sexism and racism.  Stalking your girlfriend and depicting indigenous people as werewolves and are both problems. Twilight fans need to rest assured that there are better, edgier, and sexier vampire stories out there.   Octavia Butler’s Fledgling is a brilliant reimagining of vampire mythos replete with race politics and situations that would make Humbert Humbert blush.   And personally, I swoon for the fangs in True Blood.

But be warned.  Being a geek is a commitment.   You have to worship at the altar of commodity fetishism for a while.  You have to waste a good bit of time and money on comic books and cult television.  You have to learn some passwords, like: “The Tardis: it’s bigger on the inside.”  Being a nerd is a commitment.   You have to worship at the altar of your academic or creative discipline for a while, whatever stripe of nerdly that might be.  You have to waste a good bit of time and money on books, and alienate at least a few friends and lovers with your snobbery.   You have to learn some passwords, like:  “string theory,” “indirect exposition” …or…“white supremacist heterosexist capitalist patriarchy.”

Ah, self-consciousness, old friend, there you are again.   You see, this is what we can all learn from the red headed stepchild of the Venn diagram, the one geeks and nerds are afraid to own: the dork. The dork is not afraid to be unpopular.  She’s embraced it.  The dork is not afraid to say things that will piss people off.  In high school that might mean Napoleon Dynamite level social awkwardness, but as an adult, that can mean calling out the sexism, racism and homophobia of the sacred geek texts and nerd culture alike by acknowledging that the sciences are still, sadly the bastion of the straight, the white, and the dude.  Or, as the dork would say: Seriously, Doctor Who can regenerate into any body he wants and he’s always been a white dude? Gosh!

For literature nerds, things are not much better.  The literary organization VIDA estimates that of all the books reviewed in mainstream publications in this country, ¾ of those book’s authors are men.   For those of you at writer workshops or in MFA programs it may seem strange to say we live in a less than idyllic gender-balanced writer’s utopia.  Looking around at your classmates and professors, sure, there may even be more women than men on campus.  But who’s being published, reviewed, and read?  While some argue times are changing fast, this arresting statistic demonstrates that even in the literary world, the scales are still tipped in the direction of men. As noted by Roxane Gay, 90% of books reviewed by The New York Times in 2011 were by white authors.  Calling this stuff out and discussing it is not comfortable.  Not “cool.”  And that’s better than cool.   That’s heroic.   Joseph Campbell may be for Hollywood script doctors, but we all would better served if we embarked on the dork’s journey.

So no, this isn’t revenge of the nerds.   It’s The Rise of the Geek Nerd Dork Trifecta.   Geeks, bring your exhaustive hard-drive like brains filled with DC and Marvel lore, and your furious devotion to stories and gadgets that can serve us all.  Nerds, bring your diligence, your faithful attention to detail, your spritely studious stubbornness.   And lastly, dorks, be shameless: remember that the awkwardness you were cursed with is really a blessing—of these three, you alone bear the gift of insufferable uppityness.  You dare to speak the truth, consequences be damned.   With our powers combined, we are a force. A self-conscious, slightly freakish, and overly bookish force, yes—but that may be just what this world needs.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Liz Green

Liz Green is a writer of many genres, a performer, and a community college professor in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a graduate of Vassar and Mills, and has been a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging Voices Fellow as well as a Tin House Workshop Resident and poetry slam champion.

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