Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Wil Wheaton on Nerdism: Is It Really a Social Movement?

A friend of mine just tagged me in a Facebook post in which he shared a video of the actor Wil Wheaton speaking at the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo on April 27. A mother in the audience made an unusual request. She asked Wheaton to send a message to her newborn daughter explaining why it's great to be a nerd.

While watching the video, two thoughts entered my head: 1) Is being a nerd hereditary? I would assume that the new mom is one, or she probably would have had "cooler" things to do last weekend, but does she just assume that like mother like daughter? Will she allow nerdism to blossom naturally in her little girl if it was meant to be, or will she make it a part of her manifest destiny? 2) That Wil Wheaton sure gives great off-the-cuff speech! The words just roll off his tongue, and he doesn't stumble over them. Was he fed that question beforehand and given time to perfect his response?

Interestingly, I probably wouldn't have known who Wil Wheaton is if I didn't spend way too many half hours watching the same 20 or so episodes of The Big Bang Theory. (Stand By Me was a lifetime ago!) Now I'm dying to see more of this smart, engaging guy. I love his positive spin on nerdism. The way he sees it, being a nerd is mostly about passion, though generally for things that the general population might consider too arcane or too unhip to obsess over.

In that regard, I plead guilty. I've been a card-carrying nerd all of my life. I was never really into comic books (though I did read the X-Men and Fantastic Four series to feel closer to my big brother Jeff, who loved them but couldn't be further from a nerd) or science fiction, always preferring tonier literary fare (biographies! classics! Oscar Wilde!) and cinema as character study (see, nerdy right there!). I was the kind of kid who learned all the names of the then-39 U.S. Presidents at age 7 and, when I wasn't reciting them to my classmates, spent the next several years devouring as much information as I could about them. To this day, I'd rather spend New Year's Eve watching a documentary on YouTube about Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. President, than dance the night of December 31 away at DJ Station in Bangkok. (Yes, a true story. Oh, what a night -- late December, 2012!)

I've never seen an episode of Game of Thrones (though I do have one in the to-watch queue on my laptop), and I couldn't care less about Star Wars, Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica, but I'm still hopelessly devoted to daytime soaps, Greek mythology, the Oscars (even more so now than as a kid), trivia, lists, and the underdog. (Not to mention, Underdog, a youthful obsession whom I rediscovered in 2011 while watching the Cartoon Network in Bangkok.) As Wheaton said, though, it's not what you love, it's how you love it, and how I love my "stories," my fun facts and my history documentaries.

I may no longer dress the part (after finding me on Facebook a few years ago, a friend I've known since grade school marveled at my physical transformation because, she sheepishly said, "you always dressed a little nerdy"), and I hope I don't look it (at the time, I hated being compared to the gay black kid in the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds, though in hindsight, I get where everyone was coming from), but on the inside, I remain 100 percent pure geek.

The part of Wheaton's monologue that I'm not so sure about is the social aspect of being a nerd. Does one really have to travel thousands of miles and seek out like-minded people in order to be truly nerdy? I may spend way too many hours perusing the message boards on the soap blog Daytime Confidential, but I wouldn't necessarily want to meet most of the people who post there in person, especially if they are as bitchy in person as some of them are are in writing. (There's a fine line between snarky, a hallmark of being a nerd, and bitchy, which used to be the specialty of people who harassed nerds.)

The furthest I've ever gone out of my way to be in the company of other "story" addicts was when I traveled from Manhattan to Long Island to attend a benefit featuring the stars of All My Children and One Life to Live. I had a great time, but I couldn't wait to go home and dive into the latest issue of Soap Opera Digest, my subscription to which was one of the hardest things for me to give up when I moved from New York City to Buenos Aires.

I've always been more of a loner nerd, preferring to do my obsessing in the comfort and privacy of my own home, as a party of one. In some ways, that makes me even more of a nerd, as it implies a certain misfit isolation, which I always thought was at the core of nerdism. For me, it's not an alternative form of conformity and group think, but the ultimate manifestation of individuality.

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