A couple weeks ago, I was talking with a friend about my sister’s love for Star Wars and my brother’s passion for Marvel comics. My friend turned to me and said, “So you’re the only non-nerd in your family.” I grappled with that for a second before I understood what she meant. As a perennial academic overachiever who spent much of her childhood singing classical music and reading dystopian young adult novels, “nerd” seemed like an obvious way to label me. Yet, what my friend seemed to imply was that nerd culture encompasses a much narrower set of interests than I had wanted to believe. Without realizing it, many of us link nerd culture with media and interests geared toward boys and men. The absence of female-oriented entertainment media and overall feminine interests from common conceptions of nerd culture excludes women who want to exercise curiosity and be perceived as intelligent.
Wanting to avoid being cliche, I hesitate to start any sentence with “Merriam-Webster defines X as…,” but this time – I promise – such a sentence is warranted. Merriam-Webster defines “nerd” as “a person devoted to intellectual, academic or technical pursuits or interests.” This broad definition could encompass any number of different interests. Yet, popular culture usually portrays nerds as men interested in science fiction, fantasy and STEM. Nerds are also typically stereotyped as very intelligent. TV shows like “The Big Bang Theory” depict nerd circles as consisting predominantly of white men who are isolated and lack the social skills to talk to women. The show’s nerds regularly reference media like Star Wars, superhero comics and Dungeons and Dragons. Though none of these media are or should be exclusively for men, they are particularly appealing to male audiences and certainly signal that even groups of social outcasts can end up being boys’ clubs.
A multitude of online communities exist related to media made for women, yet these communities are rarely labeled “nerds.” Fervent fans of fashion, CW teen dramas like “Gossip Girl,” Taylor Swift and even true crime are just some examples of internet communities that are more easily denigrated than their sci-fi counterparts. The exclusion of such interests from the nerd category seems to imply that a fixation with “Gilmore Girls” over “Battlestar Galactica” conveys vapidity rather than curiosity. Such a distinction has created an internalized misogyny in many women, which has led to the “not like other girls” or “cool girl” phenomena wherein women attempt to maintain stereotypically male interests in order to receive male approval and attention.
It may seem like a compliment to exclude these large swaths of women from a label that began pejoratively. However, as time has gone on, the term “nerd” has at times been trendy and even positive, a term that primarily connotes intelligence rather than social awkwardness. Excluding feminine interests from the nerd canon therefore divorces the characteristic intelligence and intense curiosity of nerdiness from women and femininity. Women should not have to conform to stereotypically masculine interests in order to be perceived as smart, curious and, well, nerdy. Finally, by not labeling interest communities surrounding media targeted at women as “nerd lore,” we erase those communities and the fact that many people fixate on stereotypically feminine media in much the same way that they do on “Star Trek” and “Lord of the Rings.”
Just as women should feel free to pursue interests stereotypically associated with boys and men, women should also feel free to pursue interests associated with their own gender without fear of being stereotyped as vapid or unintelligent. Expanding the term “nerd” to include people with feminine interests is a step toward leveling the playing field for all of your favorite smart, socially awkward and deeply curious people.
Yasmeen Gaber ’23 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.