Happy Star Wars Day, feminerds. May the fourth be with you!
In my last post I talked about how we think of nerds as people who are intellectually focused and slightly obsessive. But I’d also argue that a lot of us attach a gender (male) and race (white, South Asian, or East Asian) to the stereotype of a nerd. When I asked for suggestions of who pops into mind when you think of the idea of nerdiness, white guys accounted for most of the answers I received. And just do a quick Google image search for “geek”—most of the results you’ll get back will be pictures of skinny, white men in bottle-bottom glasses.
In addition to race and gender, because much of the way we define nerdiness has to do with intellect vs. emotion, the nerd stereotype also interacts with our ideas of mental health and mental illness.
Purely going by textbook descriptions, the traits associated with Asperger’s Syndrome do seem to mesh with an extreme idea of what it means to be a nerd, such as above average intelligence, rigid behavioral patterns, and literal interpretations of others’ communication. For example, some have speculated the character of Sheldon (an archetypal nerd character) on the Big Bang Theory is based on someone with Asperger’s.
(I’d like to note that many autism advocates and researchers argue that the only reason we see Asperger’s Syndrome as a disease at all is only because some people with Asperger’s have a harder time conforming to traditional and arbitrary social behaviour.)
Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen (Cambridge Psychopathology Professor and cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen) has devoted much of his career to studying autism, including Asperger’s Syndrome. Baron-Cohen describes Asperger’s as “the extreme male brain,” which is problematic in that it implies there’s a gender continuum of brains from male (logical, unemotional) to female (emotional, irrational).
Unfortunately it’s not just Baron-Cohen sending that message, but an age-old stereotype that women are naturally emotional (therefore not as represented among the “machinelike” nerds), while The Onion has (jokingly) commented on the lack of black nerd characters in pop culture.
Feminist scientists like biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling have looked at how male-and-European-focused school curricula and social expectations have played into historical gaps in academic achievement, and there’s been no convincing scientific evidence to back up the idea that reason is naturally the realm of men or people of a particular race.
Benjamin Nugent acknowledges that “nerds” as we currently describe them didn’t really come into existence as a recognized social group until the 1930s. Given that, it certainly seems like the reason we see the nerd stereotype as male and white or Asian is because of the mistaken idea that logical pursuits are more natural for these groups.
Luckily there are growing efforts to broaden what it means to be a geek or nerd. My local coffee shop in New Westminster plays host to a group of sci-fi loving, feminist knitters every Sunday afternoon who gather to knit and talk about all things nerdy. Geek Girl Con and WisCon are making the convention scene more inclusive for women. And more and more people like the guys at Black Nerd Comedy are using funny YouTube videos to show that nerds aren’t all white. Then there’s all of us Bitch readers. Let’s spread the word that anyone can be a nerd, and be proud of it.