Wil Wheaton’s Changing Definition of “Nerd”

This video of Wil Wheaton responding to a little girl asking about how to deal with being called a “nerd” at the Denver Comic Con has gone viral, but one part of the response is a little strange.

The gist of Wheaton’s response is that when people try to make you feel bad, it’s generally because they feel bad about themselves. All that is pretty standard stuff.

But the weird part is when he speaks as if nerdiness is somehow an innate trait:

It’s never OK when a person makes fun of you for something that you didn’t choose. You know, we don’t choose to be nerds. We can’t help it that we like these things, and we shouldn’t apologize for liking these things.

Wheaton has two different ideas going here. The first is one that Wheaton has expressed before — that being a nerd (and he uses the words “nerd” and “geek” interchangeably) is about what you like, your preferences. The second idea, that this is somehow an innate trait, appears to be a departure from earlier statements. Take, for example, this response, aimed at a newborn, last year:

Not surprisingly, addressing a newborn, Wheaton doesn’t really push this idea that being a nerd is something you don’t choose, because if being a nerd is innate (and presumably not something readily apparent in infants), then there is no reason to assume that the child will be a nerd. Instead, he presents being a nerd as a choice:

It’s not about what you love; it’s about how you love it. So there’s going to be a thing in your life that you love, and I don’t know what it’s going to be. It might be sports, it might be science […] it doesn’t matter what it is. The way you love that, and the way you find other people who love that the way that you do is what makes being a nerd awesome.

Last year’s response is really different than this year’s response. In 2013, Wheaton presents nerdiness as being about a choice to unashamedly embrace the things one loves, and fellowship with others who love those same things. In 2014, however, Wheaton presents it as an innate love of particular things that are generally defined as nerdy. This is

Of course, in both of these responses, Wheaton is addressing children, and is simplifying an issue he has no doubt thought about a great deal. You can hear in his gentle tone and slow cadence his attempt to connect with the children, so it would be wrong to declare this some sort of geek manifesto as some have done. Wheaton is ultimately trying give these children (and the present audience) the freedom to be nerds … and given the response of the interwebs, he seems to have been pretty successful.

But the apparent inconsistencies is not, I think about addressing children, nor is it because Wheaton hasn’t thought clearly about these issues. Instead, I suspect it’s because the role of geeks and nerds is rapidly changing in our culture, to the degree that it’s becoming more difficult to distinguish between nerd culture and popular culture.

Wheaton and I are about the same age, and when we were children, to be interested in things like computers was definitely a nerdy interest.  You could play the occasional game of Pac Man or Donkey Kong, but excessive interest in video games created a social stigma. Reading pre-Harry Potter was bad; when adults used the word “bookish” to describe you, it wasn’t a compliment.

Today, bullying is more likely to come from NOT reading the coolest books, from NOT playing the latest video games. My own teenage son (who, very unlike his father, has twice been the top phys. ed. student at his school) spends most of his free time shouting into a headset to his friends about the various tactics they are using in their MMORPGs. When other kids are physically present at our house, he either recruits them to play basketball or Munchkin. He doesn’t get beat up because he has a cane with a d20 handle — his friends think it’s cool.

It’s harder to tell geek culture from other parts of the culture, so if I had to choose one of Wheaton’s approaches when talking to children, I’d choose his earlier position. We do choose to be nerdy, to cultivate our interests, and to associate with similar nerds, whether we’re baseball stat geeks or steampunk cosplayers.  Gleefully celebrating those choices is a more sustainable position as nerd culture becomes more and more mainstream.

Adventure Time and Geek Culture

The darkest, most complex and nuanced science fiction universe on television today isn’t Doctor Who, Walking Dead, or Helix – it’s an unassuming children’s cartoon about a boy and his dog (or perhaps a dog and his boy), Adventure Time. Set in our post-apocalyptic future, the world of Adventure Time is a childlike mix of Dungeons & Dragons with Candy Land. Just looking at still images for the show, you might think it is intended for very young children, but Adventure Time has attracted an obsessive adult fan following. Although it uses many of the common strategies cartoons use for appealing to adult viewers (such as sly adult humor references and large doses of nostalgia), Adventure Time’s main appeal is that it lovingly depicts contemporary geek culture in a complicated, meta-narrative way, without sacrificing the childlike innocence of the show.

Nostolgia about the gender roles of geek culture is an important part of the mix. To call Adventure Time non-gendered or post-gendered would be wrong – in fact, gender roles are very firmly delineated in the way that they are for middle school age children. Instead, it gleefully plays with those roles. Finn and Jake, the main adventurers, are both adolescent males, while almost every primary female character is a princess of some sort. When not approaching adventure like it is play, Finn and Jake spend much of their time playing video games with their anthropomorphized computer BMO, who looks more like a Mac Classic than a more recent computer. When they watch videos, they use VCRs rather than DVD players. The various princesses spend much of their time building their empires, but generally leave the adventuring to the boys. They are damsels, but they are rarely damsels-in-distress — they are damsels-in-charge. With the exception of the much more adult relationship of Jake and Lady Rainicorn, the drama of their romantic relationships is of the puppy love variety. Life in Adventure Time is a nostalgic view of the proto-geek world that anyone over 30 recognizes from their own childhood.

But Adventure Time doesn’t just dwell in the past; it also embraces contemporary geek culture. The series opened with a zombie-apocalypse episode, and it has had episodes focused on everything from a Magic: The Gathering style card game, to differing views of time travel, to debates about science vs. magic (read: religion). Indeed, there seems to be no type of geekiness that Adventure Time won’t happily celebrate: Music geeks, film geeks, car geeks, food geeks, Shakespeare geeks … each depiction seems to be undergirded by one underlying ethic: It doesn’t matter what kind of geek you are, as long as you unabashedly geek out. Fan fiction geekery creates a meta-narrative, as the Ice King writes gender-swapped Mary Sue fan fiction within Adventure Time, about Adventure Time. Rather than disparaging and mocking fan fic, it creates an alternate storyline that adds richness and complexity to the main story.

And that richness and nuance may be the biggest draw of all, because the show rewards fans who dig with geeky obsession. Alternate storylines, alternate universes, past lives, and complexly interwoven plots mean that everything yields to deeper examination. Indeed, I’ve literally spent hours discussing tiny details from screen captures, allusions to contemporary politics, and the sequences of subplots in relation to one another. The closing episodes of Season 5 were particularly complex, with interwoven time-travel episodes, an episode shot as if the audience were trapped inside a magical orb, and an exploration of Randian Objectivism (seriously). All that tied to gags about “Billy’s legendary crack.”

Adventure Time isn’t simply about geek culture, it is for geek culture. Indeed, Adventure Time fans will probably read this article and argue that I’ve misrepresented some things: “If it’s not post-gendered, what about the gender-swapping episodes? Or BMO sometimes being presented as male, sometimes as female? Or Finn’s past life as a girl?” And they won’t be wrong to raise those objections, because the show invites us to critique it, to dissect it, and to produce our own fan art and fan fiction. In the end, Adventure Time is more than an object of geek culture – it is an active participant in it.