What Was the Nerd?

The myth of the bullied white outcast loner is helping fuel a fascist resurgence

Fascism is back. Nazi propaganda is appearing on college campuses and in city centers, a Mussolini-quoting paramilitary group briefly formed to “protect” Trump rallies, the KKK is reforming, and all the while, the media glibly participates in a fascist rebrand, popularizing figures like Milo Yiannoupolis and the “alt-right.” With the appointment of Stephen Bannon to the Trump administration, this rebranded alt-right now sits with the head of state.

Of course, the fascists never really left: They’ve just tended to wear blue instead of brown the past 40 odd years. But an openly agitating and theorizing hard-right movement, growing slowly over the past few years, has blossomed in 2016 into a recognizable phenomenon in the U.S. Today’s American fascist youth is neither the strapping Aryan jock-patriot nor the skinheaded, jackbooted punk: The fascist millennial is a pasty nerd watching shitty meme videos on YouTube, listening to EDM, and harassing black women on Twitter. Self-styled “nerds” are the core youth vanguard of crypto-populist fascist movements. And they are the ones most likely to seize the opportunities presented by the Trump presidency.

Before their emergence as goose-stepping shit-posting scum, however, nerds — those “losers” into video games and comics and coding — had already been increasingly attached to a stereotypical set of political and philosophical beliefs. The nerd probably read Ayn Rand or, at the very least, bought into pseudo-meritocracy and libertarianist “freedom.” From his vantage, social problems are technical ones, merely one “disruption” away from being solved. The sea-steading, millennial-blood-drinking, corporate-sovereignty-advocating tech magnates are their heroes — the quintessential nerd overlords.

When it was reported in September that Oculus Rift founder Palmer Luckey was spending some of his fortune on racist, misogynist “meme magic” and shit-posting in support of Donald Trump, it sent nervous ripples through the video-game community. Many developers, to their credit, distanced themselves from the Oculus, pulling games and ceasing development. But many in the games-journalism world were more cowardly, either not covering the story at all or focusing their condemnation on the fact that Luckey made denials and seemed to have lied to try to cover his ass, rather than the spreading of racism and misogyny.

The myth of nerd oppression let every slightly socially awkward white boy who likes sci-fi lay his ressentiment at the feet of the nearest women and people of color

These were the same sorts of gaming journalists who rolled over in the face of Gamergate, the first online fascist movement to achieve mainstream attention in 21st century America. The Gamergate movement, which pretended it was concerned about “ethics in games journalism,” saw self-identifying gamers engage in widespread coordinated harassment of women and queer people in the gaming world in a direct attempt to purge non-white-male and non-right-wing voices, all the while claiming they were the actual victims of corruption. The majority of professional games journalists, themselves mostly white men, in effect feebly mumbled “you gotta hear both sides” while internet trolls drove some of the most interesting voices in game writing and creation out of the field. The movement was a success for the fuckboys of 4Chan and the Reddit fascists, exhausting minority and feminist gaming communities while reinforcing the idea that the prototypical gamer is an aggrieved white-boy nerd. It has meant that — despite the queer, female, and nonwhite contingent that makes up the majority of gamers — gaming’s most vocal segment is fashoid white boys who look and think a lot like Luckey.

Surely, those communities of marginalized gamers have just as much claim to the subject position of the “nerd,” as do queer shippers and comic-book geeks, to say nothing of people who identify as a nerd to indicate their enthusiasm for an esoteric subject (e.g. “policy nerds”). But the reason a tech-enabled swarm of fascists have emerged in the nerd’s image today and claimed it as territory necessary to defend is because of the archetype’s specific cultural origin in the late 20th century, and the political purpose for which it was consolidated.

The nerd appeared in pop culture in the form of a smart but awkward, always well-meaning white boy irrationally persecuted by his implacable jock antagonists in order to subsume and mystify true social conflict — the ones around race, gender, class, and sexuality that shook the country in the 1960s and ’70s — into a spectacle of white male suffering. This was an effective strategy to sell tickets to white-flight middle-class suburbanites, as it described and mirrored their mostly white communities. With the hollowing out of urban centers, and the drastic poverty in nonwhite communities of the ’80s and ’90s, these suburban whites were virtually the only consumers with enough consistent spending money to garner Hollywood attention.

In the 1980s and ’90s, an obsession with comics, games, and anime might have made this suburban “nerd” a bit of a weirdo. But today, with comic-book franchises keeping Hollywood afloat and video games a $100 billion global industry whose major launches are cultural events, nerd culture is culture. But the nerd myth — outcast, bullied, oppressed and lonely — persists, nowhere more insistently than in the embittered hearts of the little Mussolinis defending nerd-dom.

Of course, there are outcasts who really are intimidated, silenced, and oppressed. They tend to be nonwhite, queer, fat, or disabled — the four groups that are the most consistently and widely bullied in American schools. In other words, the “nerds” who are bullied are being bullied for other things than being a nerd. Straight, able-bodied white boys may also have been bullied for their perceived nerdiness — although the epithets thrown often reveal a perceived lack of masculinity or heterosexuality — but the statistics on bullying do not report “nerdiness” as a common factor in bullying incidents. Nevertheless, the myth of nerd oppression and its associated jock/nerd dichotomy let every slightly socially awkward white boy who likes sci-fi explain away his privilege and lay his ressentiment at the feet of the nearest women and people of color.

The myth of the bullied nerd begins, perhaps, with college fraternities. Fraternities began in America in the mid-19th century, as exclusive social clubs designed to proffer status and provide activity to certain members of the student body. In practice these clubs worked primarily to reproduce masculinity and rape culture and to keep the ruling class tight and friendly. But by the ’60s, fraternities were dying: membership and interest were collapsing nationwide. Campus agitation for peace, Black Power, and feminism had radicalized student populations and diminished the popularity and image of these rich boys’ clubs. Frats sometimes even did battle with campus strikers and protesters, and by 1970, though absolute numbers were up, per capita frat participation was at an all-time low.

Across the ’70s, right-wing graduates and former brothers began a concerted campaign to fund and strengthen fraternities at their alma maters to push back against campus radicalism and growing sexual and racial liberation. Decrepit frat houses were rebuilt, their images rebranded, and frat membership began growing again. As the wave of social upheaval receded in the late ’70s, these well-funded frats were left as a dominant social force on campus, and the hard-partying frat boy became a central object of culture.

In Stranger Things, the nerdy interests of the protagonists prove crucial to their ability to understand the monster from another dimension. The nerds are heroes

This manifested in movies like the 1978 mega-hit National Lampoon’s Animal House, where scrappy, slightly less attractive white freshmen aren’t let into their college’s most prestigious frat, and so join the rowdy, less rich one. Steering clear of frats altogether is not presented as plausible, and the movie stages campus conflict not as a question of social movements or broader societal tensions but as a battle between uptight social climbers and cool pranksters. The massive success of Animal House immediately inspired a number of network sitcoms and a dozen or so b-movie and Hollywood rip-offs.

The threatened, slightly less attractive white male oppressed and opposed by a more mainstream, uptight, wealthy white man became a constant theme in the canonical youth films of ’80s Hollywood. This quickly evolved into the nerd-jock dichotomy, which is central to all of John Hughes’s films, from Sixteen Candles’ geeky uncool Ted who gets in trouble with the jocks at the senior party to The Breakfast Club’s rapey “rebel” John and gun-toting “nerd” Brian, to Weird Science, whose nerd protagonists use their computer skills to build a female sex slave. Both Sixteen Candles and Weird Science are also shockingly racist, with the former’s horrifically stereotyped exchange student Long Duk Dong and the latter’s protagonist winning over the black denizens of a blues club by talking in pseudo-ebonic patois — a blackface accent he keeps up for an unbearable length of screen time. In these films the sympathetic nerd is simultaneously aligned with these racialized subjects while performing a comic racism that reproduces the real social exclusions structuring American society. This move attempts to racialize the nerd, by introducing his position as a new point on the racial hierarchy, one below confident white masculinity but still well above nonwhite people.

The picked-on nerds are central in films across the decade, from Meatballs to The Goonies to Stand by Me to the perennially bullied Marty McFly in the Back to the Future series. The outcast bullied white boy is The Karate Kid and his is The Christmas Story. This uncool kid, whose putative uncoolness never puts into question the audience’s sympathy, is the diegetic object of derision and disgust until, of course, he proves himself to be smarter/funnier/kinder/scrappier etc., at which point he gets the girl — to whom, of course, he was always entitled.

New Hollywood, the “American new wave” movement of the ’60s and 1970s, remains to many film historians the last golden age of serious Hollywood filmmaking. Though often reactionary and appropriative, the films of the period were frequently dealing with real social problems: race, class, gender violence. Though our memories tend to collapse all of the social unrest and revolutionary fervor of “the ’60s” into the actual decade ending in 1969, the films of the ’70s remained exciting and socially conscious partly because social movements were still tearing shit up well into the ’70s. The Stonewall riots kicked off the gay rights movement in the last months of 1969, Kent State and the associated massive student strike was in 1970, while the Weather Underground, Black Liberation Army, George Jackson Brigade and other assorted guerrilla groups were at their height of activity in the first half of the ’70s. At the same time, the financial crises of 1972–73 led to deep recession and poverty across the country: The future was uncertain, mired in conflict and internal strife.

This turmoil, as much as anything else, produced the innovative Hollywood cinema of the period, and films like A Woman Under the Influence, Serpico, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Network attempted to address that social conflict. People often lament how these sorts of films gave way to the miserable schlock output of the 1980s. This transformation tends to be traced in film-history, not unreasonably, to the rise of the blockbuster — the historic profitability of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) pivoted studio attention toward big-budget spectacles with lowest-common-denominator subject matter.

The films celebrated as 1980s camp colluded in the Reaganite project: Hollywood worked hard to project a stable white suburban America whose travails were largely due to bureaucratic interference

Now, of course, these films are subjects of much high-profile nostalgia. Netflix’s retro miniseries Stranger Things, for instance, looks back wistfully to the ’80s, re-enchanting the image of nerds as winning underdogs (rather than tyrannical bigots). Stranger Things does so in the face of reinvigorated political movements that advocate for actually oppressed people, including Black Lives Matter, the migrant justice movement, and growing trans and queer advocacy communities. So in Stranger Things, the nerdy interests of the protagonists prove crucial to their ability to recognize the sinister happenings of their world. Their openness to magic and their gee-whiz attitude toward scientific possibility allow them to understand the monster from another dimension and the psychic supergirl more readily than the adults around them. The boys play Dungeons & Dragons in the series’s opening scene and get crucial advice from a beloved A/V club adviser. They are mercilessly bullied for their nerdiness, but the bullies are barely even discussed: They are so naturalized that they are merely a minor plot point among others. What comes across more directly is that the nerds are heroes. This is then mirrored by the faux nerdiness of viewers, who can relate to these boys by tallying up all the nostalgic references.

The films celebrated in Stranger Things as fun 1980s camp at the time were functioning as reactionary cultural retrenchment: They reflected Hollywood’s collusion in the Reaganite project of rationalizing and justifying a host of initiatives: privatization, deregulation, the offloading risk to individuals by cutting safety nets and smashing labor unions. These were explained as “decreasing the tax burden,” and “increasing individual responsibility,” while the nuclear family and “culture” were re-centered as the solution to and/or cause of all social problems. As Hollywood attention swung toward the white suburbs, its ideology followed in lockstep.

Reagan’s main political move was to sweep social conflict under the rug and “unify” the population in a new “Morning in America” through an appeal to a coalition of whites concerned about “crime” and taxation. This was matched by a cultural move to replace Hollywood representation of social struggle (as idiosyncratic, individualistic, and bourgeois as these filmic depictions were) with narratives of intra-race, intra-gender interpersonal oppression. Hollywood in the 1980s worked hard to render social tensions invisible and project a safe and stable white suburban America (as opposed to urban hellscapes) whose travails were largely due to bureaucratic interference, whether through meddling high school principals like in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or the tyrannical EPA agents in Ghostbusters.

Meanwhile, social movements had largely lost their fight against state repression and internal exhaustion, with most militant activists in prison, in graves, or in hiding. Local and federal governments rolled back the victories made over decades of struggle, the Cold War was stoked to enforce ideological allegiance, AIDS decimated the queer movement and black communities faced intensified police persecution tied to drugs, which were suddenly flowing at greater and greater rates into the ghetto.

Central to this program of making social conflict disappear, oddly enough, is the nerd. And, as Christopher T. Fan writes, no film shows this as clearly as the fraternity comedy that inaugurated the nerd as hero: Revenge of the Nerds. The plot of this 1984 film follows two computer-science freshman at fictional Adams College. After they are kicked out of their dorms and forced to live in the gym by a group of displaced frat boys, they assemble a gang of assorted oddballs and rent a big house off-campus, living in a happy imitation of campus frat life. The frat guys hate this, so they prank and bully the nerds relentlessly. The nerds discover that the only way they can have the frat boys disciplined by an official university body is to be in a frat themselves and appeal to a fraternal council.

The jock is forever cool, the nerd perennially oppressed. The nerd exists to deny the significance (if not the existence) of race, class, and gender oppression

Looking around for a national frat that doesn’t yet have a chapter at Adams, they find Lamda Lamda Lamda, an all-black fraternity. When they visit the president of the fraternity, he refuses to give them accreditation. Surveying the room of (mostly) white boys, he says, “I must tell you gentlemen, you have very little chance of becoming Tri-Lambs. I’m in a difficult situation here. I mean after all, you’re nerds.” The joke is that he didn’t say “white.”

In the imaginary of the film, being a nerd replaces race as the key deciding factor for social inclusion, while black fraternities are situated as the purveyors of exclusion and bias — despite the fact that black fraternities (though often participating in the same patriarchal gender politics as white frats) have historically been a force of solidarity and safety at otherwise hostile universities.

Nonetheless, one of the nerds looks over the bylaws and sees that Lamda Lamda Lamda has to accept all new chapters on a trial basis. So the nerds now have a frat. On Adams’s campus, this sparks a prank war between the nerd frat and the prestigious frat that includes a panty raid on a sorority, the distribution of nude photos of a woman (made fair game by her association with one of the jock frat brothers), and a straight-up rape (played as comic), in which one of the nerds uses a costume to impersonate a sorority sister’s boyfriend and sleeps with her while wearing it. All these horrific acts toward women are “justified” by the bullying the nerds have ostensibly received for being nerds, and by the fact that the women aren’t interested in them — or at least, at first. Eventually the nerds’ rapey insouciance and smarts win their hearts, and they steal the jocks’ girlfriends.

In the film’s final climactic scene, at a college-wide pep rally, the main nerd tries to speak about the bullying he faces but gets beaten down by the jocks. Just as all looks lost, black Tri-Lamb brothers from other colleges march in and line up in formation, arms crossed in front of the speaker platform in a clear echo of images of Black Panther rallies. The white college jocks thus held back, the national president of Lamda Lamda Lamda hands the nerd back the microphone, who in what amounts to an awful parody of Black Power speeches, announces, “I just wanted to say that I’m a nerd. And I’m here tonight to stand up for the rights of other nerds. All our lives we’ve been laughed at and made to feel inferior … Why? Because we’re smart? Because we look different. Well, we’re not. I’m a nerd, and I’m pretty proud of it.”

Then, with the black fraternity president over his shoulder and the militant black frat brothers bordering the frame, the other nerd protagonist declares, “We have news for the beautiful people: There’s a lot more of us than there are of you.” It is the film’s emotional climax. And thus these rapists appropriate the accouterments of black power in the name of nerd liberation.

This epitomizes the key ideological gesture in all the films named here: the replacement of actual categories of social struggle and oppression with the concept of the jock-nerd struggle. The jock is forever cool, the nerd perennially oppressed. And revenge is always on the table and always justified. In the nerd’s very DNA is a mystification of black, queer, and feminist struggle: As a social character, the nerd exists to deny the significance (if not the existence) of race, class, and gender oppression.

The rise of the internet economy and the rise of nerdy cultural obsessiveness, collecting, and comics —not to mention the rise to power of the kids raised on Revenge of the Nerds and its 1980s ilk — means that the nerd is now fully ascendant. But perpetually aggrieved, these “nerds” believe other oppressed people should shut the fuck up and stop complaining, because they themselves didn’t complain! They got jobs! They got engineering degrees! They earned what they have and deserve what they take.

As liberals sneer at the “ignorant” middle American white Trump voters, Trump’s most vocal young advocates — and the youthful base of American fascist movements going forward — are not the anti-intellectual culture warriors or megachurch moralists of the flyover states. Though the old cultural right still makes up much of Trump’s voting base, the intelligence-fetishizing “rationalists” of the new far right, keyboard warriors who love pedantic argument and rhetorical fallacies are the shock troops of the new fascism. These disgruntled nerds feel victimized by a thwarted meritocracy that has supposedly been torn down by SJWs and affirmative action. Rather than shoot-from-the-hip Christians oppressed by book-loving coastal elites, these nerds see themselves silenced by anti-intellectual politically correct censors, cool kids, and hipsters who fear true rational debate.

Though sports culture continues to be a domain of intense patriarchal production and violence — rape jokes are just locker room talk, after all — these days jocks in the news are just as likely to be taking a knee against American racism in the image of Colin Kaepernick. The nerds, on the other hand, are shit-posting for a new American Reich. The nerd/jock distinction has always been a myth designed to hide social conflict and culturally re-center white male subjectivity. Now that the nerds have fully arrived, their revenge looks uglier than anything the jocks ever dreamed.

Vicky Osterweil is a writer, editor, and agitator based in Philadelphia. She is the co-host of the podcast Cerise and Vicky Rank the Movies, where they are ranking every movie ever made, and the author of In Defense of Looting.