Why the Nerd is So Hot Right Now

The characters on Silicon Valley may be on a network that’s known for sexuality, but they’re anything but sexy. They’re far from Samantha on Sex and the City, who douses her male prey in whip cream (that scene with Smith Jared is unforgettable) or the characters on Game of Thrones who prove fornication is not mutually exclusive with death. But within Richard, who is the leader of the techie clan on Silicon Valley, is a charm that perhaps surpasses sellable sex. He’s endearing, intelligent, hilarious and most importantly relatable. His eccentricity makes us feel more comfortable about our own.

More and more today audiences are demanding accessible characters. Glee is full of quirky kids, The Big Bang Theory has won over ratings with its geeks and Silicon Valley is doing the same. Their journeys aren’t exaggerated. They’re dealing with real life problems that most anyone can find common ground with. When Richard has a panic attack after turning down $10 million for his algorithm, we relate. Hey, we would too that’s $10 million! But watching The Mountain on Game of Thrones crush a man’s head? That’s a different form of entertainment that has no intention of relating to its audience…unless you’re a Spartan. Then this conversation is moot.

It’s clear there’s a demand for the “nerd”. Well, what’s a nerd? Looking up the  definition on Merriam-Webster actually made me chuckle aloud.

1)   A person who behaves awkwardly around other people and usually has unstylish clothes, hair, etc.

2)   A person who is very interested in technical subjects, computers, etc.

Wait, I’m confused. This sounds more like a definition of “people” rather than “nerd.”  Even people with confidence behave awkwardly around people. I’m sure Pharrell has been in uncomfortable social situations (he’s my go-to for confident person but you could insert Charlize Theron here too). Don’t we all have unstylish moments (normally days after consuming mass amounts of alcohol)? Aren’t we all sort of obsessed with technical subjects, dying to have latest “version” of the latest “device"? So….aren’t we all nerds? Well, sure we have our moments. When we watch nerdy characters on TV or in film we feel a little more normal. We accept these awkward, uncomfortable moments that make us human.

But like there are many shades of human, there are many shades of nerd.  Let’s break it down into three main categories: the brogrammer, the chic-geek and the Jennifer Lawrence.

The characters on Silicon Valley would fall under the “brogrammer” category. The term arose around the same time that culture became obsessed with tech power and money. As Kate Losse writes in her blog post “The Speculum of the Other Brogrammer,” this new type of bro “attended to their physiques, created ‘lounges’ in the office that simulated Vegas clubs, and listened to Pitbull.” TJ Miller portrays this hyper-masculine, hyper-obnoxious persona with his character Elrich on Silicon Valley. And yet, it’s clear his actions are grounded in insecurity. With the show’s renewal for season 2 comes the opportunity for Mike Judge, the showrunner, to delve more into this myth of the brogrammer and provide audiences with evidence of their vulnerability.  

This is where the intrigue lies. Fincher’s The Social Network was focused on the king of brogrammers, Mark Zuckerberg, and found box office success. Some may say he’s a dick, but he’s still undeniably intelligent. His knowledge and his quirk have enraptured American culture and the more we discover his vulnerability, the more interesting he seems. The brogrammer nerd may have a technological vocabulary over our heads, but their ambition and struggle to function within society is more than comprehensible.  

Speaking of Facebook, I decided to do a poll.  I compiled a list of actors and actresses who I found articles, people and media referred to as “nerds.” I asked people to vote on who were the hottest. Some of the choices were Anna Kendrick, Olivia Munn, Alison Brie, Tina Fey, Zooey Deschanel and Allison Hannigan. For the male prototype there was Jim Parsons, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Andrew Garfield, Seth Rogen, Michael Cera and Topher Grace. Anna Kendrick and Joseph Gordon Levitt won by a landslide. Okay, so they’re not brogrammers, that’s for sure. Then what are they and why are they so hot right now?

This is a whole other world: the chic-geek. They’re physically attractive like any leading man or woman, but possess an element of goofiness like that of a classic geek. The term “geek” falls into the “nerd” category just like the brogrammer, but Merriam Webster defines it slightly differently.

1)   A person who is socially awkward and unpopular; a usually intelligent person who does not fit in with other people

2)   A person who is very interested in and knows a lot about a particular field or activity

Ah! There we are. Isn’t Anna Kendrick’s character in the hit Pitch Perfect a specialist with music? In 500 Days of Summer, Joseph Gordon Levitt is a skilled greeting card writer. Like the brogrammer, their expertise makes them more attractive. When did these geeks begin to take over the leading man and woman roles, surpassing the jocks and the Queen Bs? Let’s travel in our DeLorean back to the beginning… and I mean the 1980's.

IMDB states that the second most popular film of the 80s was The Breakfast Club. The John Hughes movement made high school outsiders, math wizzes and rejects believe they too could get the girl (or guy). Molly Wingwald in Sixteen Candles is not your typical leading lady. And yet, she gets the most popular dude in school. In Vacation, Clark Griswold is beyond bizarre, but still remains the hero. They may be basket cases, but they’re approachable and inspiring. In the blockbuster films of the 1970s, men and women were sort of terrifying and intimidating. If you laughed at any of the characters in The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange or Taxi Driver, you’re seriously demented. It makes complete sense that a new decade would usher in the need to laugh and let loose.

Now, nearly 30 years later, Hollywood is again capitalizing on these approachable characters, these geeks. Audiences need the idiosyncrasies of our geeky leading actors and actresses to confront and then embrace the ones we have. We need to feel we can win the heart of our red Porsche driving costar (If you’ve never seen Sixteen Candles please get on that).  When Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) can lock down Criss (James Marsden), we all have hope! When I watched Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne bone in Neighbors and bought into it without question (she’s smokin’, he’s hairy), I knew the geek had truly cemented itself as hot!

Honestly, I think it’s great. No one could ever live up to being as sexy as Marilyn Monroe or as composed as Clark Gable. Because technology allows us to be more connected with Hollywood than ever, a celebrity can longer hide behind a composed persona. The paparazzi make it nearly impossible. We’re worshipping acting icons for more than just their performance; we need to connect to their personal lives.

This brings me to the third category of nerd: Jennifer Lawrence. She is the nerd poster girl. I have to hand it to her; she’s really utilized her ability to connect with her fans through her weirdness. We don’t need the HBO static or the leading lady status to buy into her quirk. She’s pretty, silly, intelligent and also quite sensual.

James Franco has done the same. Whether you think he’s a creepster or not, he’s gained fame by being a nerd. He’s awkward on social media, on screen, got an MFA from Columbia, acted on a Soap Opera and is a PhD candidate at Yale. To be honest, he baffles me. Amongst all his strange behavior, he’s still considered a sex symbol.

Both Franco and Lawrence have bridged the gap between reality and fantasy. We get to see them as real life flawed people and are welcomed into their mistakes. This is the magic of the nerd. The nerd, as a character or real life person, makes us accept our blemished nature. Most importantly, the nerd makes us idolize intelligence, humor and the courage to be different.

When series like Silicon Valley are on HBO, beyond quirky actors are becoming bankable and Jennifer Lawrence is America’s Sweetheart, we must acknowledge the cultural cry for acceptance. The nerd makes us believe our power truly lies in our eccentricities. That’s why they’re so hot right now.