The Nerd Archetype

CC image by Andrew

Up to this point, we’ve discussed archetypes that date back as far as anyone can remember, but today, I’d like to look at a more modern archetype, the nerd. Nerds arose with modern technology and modern schooling. This is not to say that there were not highly intelligent, socially awkward individuals in the past, but they were more likely to be called intellectuals, professors, or inventors than what we know as nerds today.

CC image by Andrew

CC image by Andrew

Common characteristics of a nerd include a high intelligence, struggle for acceptance, obsessive and quirky behavior, and an often shy disposition. They are frequently portrayed as the best friend of the main character rather than the main character themselves. Nerds focus on non-mainstream activities, usually things that are highly technical or a fiction/fantasy realm. The very stereotypical nerd appearance includes glasses, braces, acne, and really high pants, like Urkel in Family Matters.

The depiction of nerds is more common in teen movies than adult movies and one of the most popular themes is transformation where a nerdy girl or guy transforms and becomes popular. Examples include She’s Out of Control, She’s All That, The Nutty Professor, and Mean Girls. Sometimes they return to their previous state. Often they keep aspects of their transformation, like physical appearance, but also retain parts of their nerdiness, like intelligence. They want the best of both worlds, to be brilliant and to be well-liked by everyone.

Another type of nerd is Sherlock Holmes, specifically in the BBC TV show Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. He is brilliant, obsessive, quirky, and not well accepted by society. The difference between Sherlock and the previous examples is that he doesn’t care about being accepted by the general public.

CC image by Gerry Lauzon

CC image by Gerry Lauzon

Another great example is the TV show The Big Bang Theory. The show follows a group of friends, mostly coworkers at a university, and looks at how they interact with the world around them. Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj, with the later additions of Bernadette and Amy, are all highly intelligent, brilliant even, but all socially awkward. The four show different aspects of being a nerd. Sheldon and Sherlock are similar in that they are both brilliant, quirky, obsessive, not shy at all, and don’t care what most people think of them. Howard is not shy either, but he does care what people think of him. Leonard is shy, as is Raj, and both want to be accepted by other people. Leonard wants a normal relationship with Penny and Raj wants to be able to talk to women without drinking.

Paul Graham, a programmer and writer, wrote an article called, “Why Nerds Are Unpopular.” He makes the argument that the main cause is our modern schooling system. In the past, teenagers became apprentices and worked in the adult world at a supervised level. Now however, teenagers are forced together into schools, isolated from the real world, and left to their own devices, essentially a Lord of the Flies scenario. Schools divide into a hierarchy, with the jocks at the top and the nerds at the bottom. He also makes the argument that since nerds are of higher than average intelligence, why don’t they figure out how to become popular and make it happen? His answer is that nerds don’t have time for “popular” activities. Being popular takes a lot of time and energy, and nerds would rather spend that time elsewhere. It’s an interesting argument, and it gives one possible explanation for where this modern archetype came from.

CC image by William Stern

CC image by William Stern

There is a quote that’s been attributed to both Bill Gates and Charles J. Sykes that says, “Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.” This is often true, especially with the rise of Silicon Valley and the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. But sometimes it’s not true, explaining why there are so many transformation stories.

This archetype is a particularly difficult one to use in writing because of its modernity. There is not as much history to draw from, and it’s much easier to fall into stereotypes, the high pants and braces stereotype or the transformation stereotype. Breaking out of these can be challenging, but I would imagine the development of this archetype is not nearly complete.

By Melissa Blakely