The true revenge of the nerds

How a once derogatory word has become empowering

Photo Caption: People like Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook and the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, are changing the way our culture views nerds.

Nigel Sumerlin

Even with your busy life, you have probably watched or at least heard of the CBS hit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” The show centers on the lives of four scientists and their former Nebraskan neighbor, Penny. Unlike many popular sitcoms that build storylines out of normal lifestyles to which the average American can relate, “The Big Bang Theory” brings the academic lifestyle to a demographic that finds it mostly foreign. The main characters frequently discuss scientific theories, spend their free time playing video games, reading comic books and interacting with other scientists.

Decades ago, the main characters in “The Big Bang Theory” would have been treated as outcasts and labeled with derogatory terms such as “nerd” and “geek,” but the show’s enormous success in the last eight years indicates that the perception of these terms are changing.

Just 30 years ago, thick glasses, pocket protectors and a scrawny frame were just a few descriptors that would apply to the common definition of a nerd. Nerds were known for being socially awkward and often became the target of harsh bullying.

“You think about bullying, and people were mean,” said Nancy Petta, director of the health and human performance division at Union College. “People like that would really be made fun of. I was in sports, so I really avoided a lot of that. But I was aware.”

With the dawn of the information age, though, the perception of the nerd in American culture began to change. People like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs stepped into the spotlight and showed the world that nerds are not necessarily losers but have the potential to become millionaires.

Changes have not only come to the arena of technology but also to popular culture. Comic books and graphic novels have picked up a larger following in recent decades, and film adaptations of Marvel and DC comic book characters have stormed the big screen. Video games have become a multi-billion dollar industry reaching into the lives of nearly all Americans.

Jessica Nigri is a model who has made a successful career through cosplay (costume play), dressing up as various video game and comic book characters. She has been hired as as spokesperson by several different video game companies, including Microsoft, Warner Brothers Games and Ubisoft. American culture has only recently given people with a passion for videogames and comic books like Nigri a canvas for their work.

We live in a dynamic, changing culture. As our culture changes, so does our language. But just as culture influences language, language also has the immense power to influence culture. The ways we use labels such as nerd and geek have the ability to impact peoples lives in profound ways. The rapid change of our culture’s perception of nerds holds a lesson for us. Stigmas are malleable and respond to the way we choose to view people, and that gives us more potential to achieve both negative and positive changes than we often think.

Nigel is a freshman pursuing a double major in history and psychology.