The Not-So Phantom Menace: Hidden Misogyny in Nerd Culture

By Elizabeth Salmon.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.

Content warning: This article discusses media representations of rape and harassment that may distress some readers.

Nerds have felt ostracized from regular society for as long as there has been a term to describe them. And since there has been a term, there have been stereotypes to go with it: “Ugly, ridiculous, pathetic, no life, terrible at sports, weak, can’t get girls”. Society has evolved past these stereotypes, and nerd culture with it, with many women like myself proudly calling ourselves nerds. But ever since there have been those stereotypes, male nerds have felt somehow owed.

It is commonly accepted that ‘jocks’ and other traditionally masculine men can be terrible people, that they’re strong and have the innate ability to be violent, and to hate women, to objectify them and abuse them. Because of their position on the outer fringes of society, male nerds have been excluded from this stereotype. They’re weak and can’t attract girls, ergo, they supposedly don’t have the same capacity to be violently misogynistic as more typically masculine men. Instead, when they cat call women, or act just as creepily as any other guy, it’s often seen as kind of embarrassing, or even cute. They can’t actually ‘get’ girls, so obviously they can’t hurt them.

The thing is, nerd culture isn’t fringe anymore. Superhero and sci-fi movies make up many of the largest, most profitable franchises in the world. The top two franchises are the Marvel Cinematic Universe (highest grossing franchise of all time, and contains 3 of the top 10 highest grossing films of all time) and Star Wars (the sequel trilogy alone grossed $4.5 billion since The Force Awakens was released in 2015, which is also the highest grossing movie in the United States ever, and 4th highest grossing worldwide). Even The Lord of the Rings is up there on the list, which won 17 of its 37 Academy Award nominations. Everyone sees these movies, everyone knows them. Nerd culture is becoming mainstream.

In the 1980s with Revenge of the Nerds, and since the 2000s with the rise of The Big Bang Theory, nerds themselves, as well as their culture, have been brought into the mainstream. But the old stereotypes still apply – that nerds can’t get girls and when they try, it’s played off for laughs, despite their behaviour often being misogynistic and damaging.

To go back to an early media example, Revenge of the Nerds (1984) featured a scene where one of the nerds  raped a girl, pretending to be her boyfriend, but she is portrayed as fine with it after learning the truth, as she says he was “wonderful”. This sets a dangerous precedent for any put-upon nerd guy who feels he is owed something from women, as the nerds in that movie did. Seeing themselves, albeit an exaggerated stereotype, represented as ‘victors’ in that movie gives these men license to do as the characters did. This representation essentially gives them license to abuse and manipulate women, telling them that they will be rewarded for it, as the girl in the movie, Betty, ends up in love with the very guy who raped her.

Recently, the director and the writer of Revenge of the Nerds have both expressed their regret at including that scene in the movie. However, their comments, made in an interview last year, are 35 years too late. It has been a whole three and a half decades that nerds have been watching that movie and absorbing the message that “you are allowed to abuse women to get what you want. This is okay,” when it so truly and utterly isn’t.

The Big Bang Theory is a much more recent and mainstream representation of nerds and nerd culture. There is much too much in The Big Bang Theory to unpack here, but we can’t throw away the suitcase entirely. While much less exaggerated and ridiculous than Revenge of the Nerds, the stereotypes remain – the main characters are awkward, socially inept, struggle to “get the girl”, and even when they do, their girlfriends regularly dismiss or make fun of their nerdy interests. Meanwhile, their behaviour towards the female characters varies from dismissive and disdainful, to literal harassment and abuse.

The four main characters – Sheldon, Leonard, Raj and Howard – regularly display misogynistic attitudes towards the female characters. Sheldon hates just about every woman on the show at first meeting and usually for much longer, deeming them unimportant, uninteresting, or plain useless. Leonard regularly feels entitled to Penny’s affections when she explicitly tells him she isn’t ready or simply isn’t interested. Raj lies to and manipulates women to get them to sleep with him. And Howard – oh Howard – his intensely and incessantly seedy behaviour, particularly in the first few seasons before he gets a steady girlfriend, quite literally makes me full-body shudder when I think about it. (That time he ties a video camera to a remote-control car and tries to drive it between Penny’s legs to see up her skirt and chases her into the hall with it, anyone?)

All of this behaviour on the show is played off, either as humorous gimmicks, funny quirks of personality, or just a bit pathetic. But this attitude, pressed on the audience with laugh tracks and other character interactions, disguises the reality of their behaviour – behaviour which would, coming from stereotypically masculine men, be seen for the truth of what it is: creepy, entitled, at times violently misogynistic, and entirely unacceptable.

These people and their behaviours are not restricted to the big or small screen either. I went into a comic book store in Perth a while back, like I do every few weeks, very like those scenes from The Big Bang Theory. There were also two very typically nerdy guys standing by the shelf I wanted to browse. Now, I’m generally a confident person, if someone is standing near something I want to look at in a shop, I’ll stand nearby and look too. But that day, no. Even as a nerd girl, perhaps even more because of that, I felt unsafe to go stand near them. Because I didn’t want to deal with the comments I know would come, that my friends have dealt with in the past. I didn’t want to deal with their creepy looks, verbal harassment, or, at the other end of the scale, the disdain at my very presence in ‘their domain’ – that I shouldn’t be there and that I don’t belong.

Maybe these particular guys would have been fine. But I cannot deny that nerd guys scare me. Because they have grown up with this idea that they can’t be misogynists, that the way they treat women is just awkward and harmless, even cute. Society has told them that their objectification of and disdain for women is acceptable, and they have been allowed to get away with treating women just as poorly as any other guy, and in some cases even worse.

Many people who like “nerdy” things don’t fit those old stereotypes anymore.  As more and more men adopt these nerdy interests, a whole new danger emerges – more men are able to hide behind nerdy stereotypes, and can victimise women with increased freedom from condemnation. The ones that do fit the stereotypes (or who play into it for their own benefit) cannot claim to be ostracised from society anymore when the things they claim to be ostracised for liking are making millions on opening weekends, and playing in every cinema in every city in every corner of the English-speaking (and many parts of the non-English-speaking) world. Nerds are just as capable of committing violent acts against women as any other guy – and they always have been. They have benefited from stereotypes that make their behaviour appear harmless when it is anything but.

This “awkward and harmless” representation has got to stop. Misogyny is never cute, no matter who it is coming from. Society has always given nerd guys too much slack, and this nerd, for one, has had enough.

About the Author:

Elizabeth Salmon is a mechanical engineer from Perth, Australia. She is a self-proclaimed nerd, loves space, and in her free time can be found reading, writing or doing some kind of craft. She is passionate about equality, LGBT+ issues, and the importance of intersectionality in all aspects of women’s rights.

Photo by Joe Ciciarelli on Unsplash

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