As its most basic, we generally think of a ‘nerd’ as someone who likes something that is not considered cool. Maybe it’s Doctor Who before the reboot, or the Fionna and Cake genderswap or painting minifigs or using proper grammar, or Harry Potter even though you’re in your 30s/40s/60s, or the way that Battlestar Galactica depicts the debate around abortion and reproductive rights in a post-cataclysm society. Nerds are the people who like things that don’t quite fit into the proper hegemonic narrative of popular culture, which has specific and highly delimited values, goals, and demographic categories.
This has, of course, gotten complicated in recent years; nerds can be cool, cool people can like nerdy things, our categories are getting messy. Nerds value the old but also love the new, their passions are not straightforward or simple and they don’t follow the social rules that keep being stuffed down our throats. This is, in part, why The Big Bang Theory is such a problem; sure, it’s nice to see nerd characters on TV, but these are representations of nerddom made according to the rules of the Cool People, these are recognisable nerds whose behaviours don’t ever challenge the cool>nerd hierarchy. However, despite all of the complications (are nerds cool? does being cool stop you from being a nerd? can a jock be a nerd? can a brony be a nerd? if not, why not?) I still think there’s an interesting discussion to be had about nerdiness as defined by passion, by taking a distinctly uncool joy in whatever it happens to be that you love the most.
To be cool means liking all the right things, but more than that, it means liking things dispassionately, liking things but pretending they’re not a big deal, pretending that liking something (or, indeed, someone) doesn’t always involve some little spark of passion, some small burst of hotblushing madanxious love. To be cool means to enjoy things coolly, or at least to act like you do, and passion–getting hot and bothered about something–has been the antithesis of laidback Fonzarelli coolness for decades.
Nerds, then, are those who love the things they love passionately and irrationally. It is one of the great pleasures of nerddom that we are defined both by our intellectualism and by our anti-intellectual, irrational, obsessional, flailing fanaticism. We are clever, oh-so-clever, but we also love things to the extreme, beyond rational argument and reasonable emotional investment. For me, embracing my uncoolness has involved being loud and proud about the things I like, regardless of what Other People might think of me, and it’s worth noting that actual other people, rather than the abstract mass of Other People, are generally pretty appreciative. It’s also meant being excited about other people’s passions in return, and being supportive and positive when people are exploring their own little niches in this big world of nerddom.
It’s this joy and passion that lays the foundation for the best parts of nerd culture: fan fiction, headcanons, cosplay, #SixSeasonsAndAMovie, and, most significantly, the sense of community and media literacy that allow us to build relationships both in virtual and ‘real’ worlds. There is also, notably, a lot more variety in nerddom than in coolness; as noted above, there is a discourse around coolness that sets up very strict rules, whereas nerdiness, almost by definition, operates against this assumption that society can sanction the proper modes of cultural engagement and that other people can tell you what you should and shouldn’t enjoy.
Comedian Ben McKenzie played on his uncoolness for his recent stand-up show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. This show, ‘Ben McKenzie Is Uncool‘, does what it says on the box. McKenzie outlines his ethos of uncoolness, with the help of ordered lists, science facts, an inflatable stegosaurus, and an interactive Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style audience activity where members of the crowd determine which nerdy anecdotes he tells. The show ends with McKenzie encouraging everyone to embrace being uncool for themselves–to love things the way nerds do, proudly, passionately, and without the Cool Person tendency to exclude other people from the things in which you take the most pleasure.
From this perspective, to be cool is to be lonely, the typical hipster who likes everything before it’s cool and only shares their knowledge in order to gain some kind of social status. Uncoolness, in contrast, is inclusive, warm, and open. Cool people hoard their coolness, and, by being dispassionate, they at least give the impression that the things they’re engaged with are not important; in contrast, nerds share their knowledge and passion, and they value this knowledge as well as the people with whom they share it. This, in part, is why nerds gravitate towards media culture; film, television, and computer games all provide exceptional spaces for fan engagement and what Henry Jenkins calls ‘participatory culture’, and passionate participation is ultimately the great virtue of uncoolness. In light of this, I am unbelievably proud to be uncool and to know so many amazing uncool people.
Unfortunately, when I met Lucy Lawless at this year’s Melbourne Supanova, I was unable to deliver the uncool speech that I had planned. Lawless was running late for her Saturday appearances, as were many other guests–actor Tom Lenk was tweeting from the traffic jams surrounding the convention venue. I had spent two and a half hours in three different queues and had seen little of the convention beyond the tightly-packed snake of fellow Lawless-lovers waiting patiently and sweatily around me. In the photo booth, she said ‘hi gorgeous’, I said ‘Hi Lucy, it’s amazing to meet you’, we smiled for the camera, and in less than ten seconds I was ushered back out into the Lucy-Lawless-less light of day. I was limited, by circumstance and time constraints, to one brief, dispassionate, and non-distinctive phrase.
Despite being very uncool in the lead-up to the whole thing, I was, in the end, super-cool in Lucy Lawless’ presence. I was much more uncool about the tattooed woman in the exceptional Xena cosplay stuck, as I was, in the sardine-like photo queue, whom I asked to photograph not once but twice without even asking her name (a terrible breach in nerd etiquette, really–I believe if you have the time you should at least exchange names with your fellow fans if you expect to take a photo of them). I was also distinctly uncool for the rest of the day, where I would, at 20-minute intervals, remember how I’d met Lucy Lawless, and turn to my companion for the day and squeal ‘Lucy freaking Lawless!‘, ‘she’s so tall!‘, ‘she’s so gorgeous!‘, and so on. Lucy Lawless, if she thinks back on the encounter at all–which is exceedingly unlikely, unless she has a particular soft spot for BSG cosplay–would probably think I was very cool, calm, and in control, which is an easy illusion to maintain for ten seconds and much, much harder for the whole of one’s life.
So what would I have said, if I’d had the chance to be properly, passionately uncool in Lucy Lawless’ company?
My usual Lucy Lawless story, the story I tell when people ask me why I’m so obsessed with Lucy Lawless, is that she, as Xena, is the woman who made me realise I am attracted to women. I’m bisexual, though I’m closer to the heterosexual parts of the big ball of wibbly wobbly sexy wexy stuff. I probably still would be bisexual if I hadn’t watched Xena: Warrior Princess during my teens (and, yes, again in my early 20s), though I doubt I would have understood my sexuality in anywhere near the same way. Xena taught me a lot of the important stuff about what it might mean to have a non-heterosexual romantic relationship as a woman, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. But more than that, Xena: Warrior Princess gave me a model for female friendship, for loyalty, and for the power of redemption and not letting the past limit one’s future. Lucy Lawless, as Xena, was a crucial part of how I understood self-respect and spirituality, sexuality and morality, female solidarity, and how to be a banging hot non-blonde.
And that’s the big story that was wrapped up in ‘hi Lucy, it’s amazing to meet you’, and the story that the uncool part of me wants to share with the world.