Yesterday, Dan (who has requested to be referenced as my “partner in crime”) ushered me around the greater Boston area for an ethnographic adventure. First, we went to an open casting call for Beauty and the Geek near Boston Common. Later, in the evening, Genevieve joined us and we moved on to the Midway Cafe in Jamaica Plain for Nerd Nite. In the span of a single day, I feel like I visited two poles of the geek culture spectrum. Here is that story, adapted from my field notes.
Beauty and the Geek
I first learned about the Beauty and the Geek open casting call from the Comicopia weekly newsletter, which for some reason I still skim even though I don’t live near that store or buy many comics nowadays. Still, I am glad I did read it this time.
Dan and I showed up to The Estate—a trendy-looking club near the Common—maybe about an hour into the seven-hour-long casting call. On the way, my umbrella broke, we got soaked, and we needed to use his iPhone for directions, so I walked in feeling pretty ready to audition for the “geek” role. I didn’t expect to be considered for the show, but I figured that the best way to get a sense of how the geeks there viewed themselves, and how the people making the show viewed geeks, would be to just go through the casting process, telling myself that I was trying to get on this show just like anyone else. That said, I definitely approached it more casually than the other geeks I met there. When we first walked in to the lobby, I caught a glimpse of a guy dressed in full Ghostbuster regalia, proton pack and all, hunched over an application. Later, I found out that the other geeks I met had printed out their applications at home from materials found online; one had his mother help him write it out, as he has trouble typing and poor handwriting.
I was directed to walk upstairs and get an application and a Polaroid taken of me. The application available online is not exactly the same one I filled out, but it’s similar. Questions ask about academic achievements, current and recent occupations, hobbies, insecurities with women, problems with dating, your best and worst qualities, what you’re passionate about, what category you’d pick first on Jeopardy, and what you could teach another person. I tried to fill it out as honestly as possible, and filled out my dissertation in progress as my greatest academic achievement (because I don’t believe in jinxes). I wondered if already having a girlfriend would disqualify me from the show outright.
They sat the beauties separately from the geeks, each in their own semicircular booths. They would call up one booth of beauties or geeks at a time to sit at a table in the middle of the dance floor, where two casting people interviewed everyone at the table one by one as other people involved with the show observed and recorded at a slight distance. Shortly after I started a new geeks’ booth, a guy from the geek group being interviewed set up his own karaoke machine and laptop and rapped his own customized version of Weird Al’s “White and Nerdy” for all to hear. He was a white guy in a do-rag and faux-gold chains, including an oversized “MIT” necklace (where he’s a rocket scientist, he said). Everyone clapped and smiled, and yet I’m sure many there found it very surreal.
I ended up sharing my booth with three other geeks (not including Dan, who mostly stayed silent). Sitting there, chatting with them, I realized that there was something of a range of geekdom represented even at this booth. One guy, whom I’ll call Avi, was a thin fellow from Israel. He preferred the term “super nerd” to “geek” to describe himself. He has two dual degrees, each including some engineering, and he also does martial arts. He explained that he is a “cool” nerd, and asserted that he sometimes goes clubbing. Another guy, whom I’ll call Bob, had a thin mustache and was raised locally. He does “grunt work” at a water company, and described himself as an “overall geek,” I think; he chatted a lot about his preferences in video games, anime, operating systems, and portable music players, and when I asked whether he hung out with other geeks, he said no, and gave me a detailed breakdown of his former high school’s social hierarchy. We also eventually got a woman at our table, whom I’ll call Karen, and who had originally been seated with the other women until she asked whether she should really be seated by gender. She was tall and heavyset, wearing an XKCD t-shirt under a flannel shirt. She seemed at ease with us, making jokes and friendly conversation, and Dan and I found her the easiest to talk to of the table.
We were called up to the table to be interviewed as a group. At the table with us were a tall man with a beard, wearing a black hat that I could swear came from either H&M or Urban Outfitters, and a petite, attractive woman who looked like she could be on the show herself. She ran the interview, starting with Avi, asking him what made him a geek. He gave his pitch, and she asked what made him a geek and not a performer. He played up his academic achievements a bit more, but still seemed oblivious that they actually want sincerely awkward people. She asked if he had ever had a girlfriend, and he said, “Too many,” nervously laughing. She moved on to Bob shortly thereafter.
Bob talked for the longest, and was visibly shaking. He talked about his interests, his job, and a scar on his arm all at length, and also answered her question about why he keeps the mustache (“If I didn’t have it, I’d look like a preteen”). He stumbled over his words at one point, and admitted, “Sorry, I’m a little nervous.” The woman reassured him in a comforting voice that it’s okay to be nervous. The interviewer asked if he had ever had a girlfriend, but his response escapes me. Actually, I spaced out a bit at times—he talked for a very long time. When the woman in charge turned to me, Bob interrupted her and talked about himself some more. She flashed a sidelong smirk at me that seemed to suggest that this is what her job is like.
When it came to my turn, the woman running the interview saw my date of birth and exclaimed in surprise that I am younger than she. (I do not mind this. I figure I’ll keep the beard until I’m old enough to want to look younger.) She asked what my deal is, and I gave the answer I might have given at an academic job interview: I study new media and visual communication at Penn, dissertation is on geek culture, etc. Karen jumped in to say how cool that sounded, and that she was interested in finding out more about my research. Bob jumped in to suggest that I attend Anime Boston. The interviewer reined us back in, expressing surprise about me living in Philadelphia, so I explained that I was in town to do research and that I was staying with my girlfriend. She asked: “Are you here to do research or because you want to be on the show?” After a pause, I said, “Yes.” (She clearly figured out the order of my priorities, but I figured that the only way I could get a real taste of the casting experience was if I left myself open to the possibility of being on the show.) She jotted something on my application and said, “I might call you,” and then moved on after chatting with me for a fraction of everyone else’s interview.
Karen went on to explain how she is
a grad student and a literary geek, though computer culture is not unfamiliar to her as well. Also, though she has been in a relationship with another woman for some years now, she reassured the interviewers that things could potentially happen with other cast on the show; she, like many geeks, she said, is polyamorous. The interviewer explained that the next season won’t have any gender-swapped pairs, but future seasons might. Karen got somewhat flustered, as a friend of a friend is on the show now, and he heard from the executive producer that they’re removing all gender restrictions in the future. The interviewer reassured that they might be able to get back to her in the future, anyway.
Afterward, I dropped a business card with the interviewer in case it would be easier to keep track of than my application. I figured that it seemed like I was already disqualified from casting, so I might as well pursue other avenues, maybe get a better sense of how they perceive geek culture. I told her I’d like to hear more about the casting process, and she said she’d like to talk about where they can find more geeks. When I met up with Dan again afterward, he mentioned something Bob said on his way out, while I was chatting with the interviewer: “That was probably the bravest thing I’ve ever done. I’m basically an invalid.”
Dan and I caught a movie and got some dinner with Gen. Then we drove to the Midway Cafe in JP, which is right across the street from where they play (and I used to play, before moving) frisbee. Midway is a little, somewhat divey place with a stage, a pinball machine, and an award on the wall for being the best GLBT bar according to the readers of a local paper. A few folks who would be staying for Nerd Nite were already there—drinking, eating, chatting—but it was mostly empty at first.
Most people were hanging out in small groups, but I saw one person sitting alone, so I walked up to say hi. Turns out his friends were just a little later, and he was quite friendly, so I managed to not pick out the one really solitary fellow of the lot. I asked if he was there for Nerd Nite, and he was, and understandably wondered whether that meant I picked him out as a nerd by appearance alone. (I didn’t.) He’s not a student like many Nerd Nite attendees, he explained, but lives nearby and follows the web site to find out when Nerd Nite occurs. I explained to him what I was there for and what kind of research I do; he commented on how things have changed so much in the last few years, what with Urban Outfitters and stores of that kind selling “I love dorks” shirts and such. He asked me what the difference between ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ is, and I gave my standard answer about how it depends whom you ask. About Nerd Nite, he told me: “I think heckling is encouraged, but not everybody wants to do it.”
He got a call on his cell, so I took the opportunity to introduce myself to Jessica, the woman who was running Nerd Nite that evening. Jessica’s boyfriend, Chris, started the whole event with a friend some years back. When he invited her to a thing called “Nerd Nite” before they were dating, she was pretty skeptical; now, she’s a regular. Plenty of the attendees aren’t personally known to her and Chris. I asked, “There’s no money involved?” She said that sometimes Chris gets free drinks. She introduced me to the guy doing the first presentation of the night, a tall fellow with plastic plugs in his earlobes and a nice sweater (“We made him wear a tie,” I believe Jessica mentioned). Turns out he was an architecture grad student at Penn; we chatted a sec and then he was called away to start the evening. According to Chris’s email to the email list, this was supposed to be a non-science Nerd Nite by popular demand. In her intro at the mic, though, Jessica admitted that they kind of fell short of that goal, but it was at least a non-biology Nerd Nite (which got some shouts of approval—Chris and Jessica both work in the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology program at Harvard, so it sounds like they get a lot of that at Nerd Nite).
The first presentation was a talk on Robert Venturi and postmodern architecture. There was indeed a bit of heckling, but it came mostly from the bartenders: The shouts of “NERD!” from the back of the room sounded straight out of an ’80s movie. The second presenter got the most heckling: She introduced herself by saying, “Yes, I am a nerd, and a Midway regular.” She talked about software that was developed to reduce errors in administering medication—a dry subject, but it did inspire some spontaneous audience participation, like whenever the she mentioned COWs (computers on wheels) and the audience mooed. In the end, the bartenders heckled her so badly that she got a free drink. The third presentation was by a BC professor in the business school who admitted that he uses science for evil; the presentation was about how he runs experiments using eye-tracking software to see whether people are looking at ads in video games. He threw an image of Thanos in his slideshow at the beginning, too, with a note reading: “Thanos = shameless pandering for nerd cred.” At one point, the presenter asks who there plays video games; somewhat to my surprise, only a few hands (in addition to my own) go up in the crowd. It reminds me briefly of an interview I once did with someone who used to be active in a certain urban zine community; she noted that zine-making hipsters she hung out with might play Pac-man for ironic or nostalgic value, but they certainly weren’t (or weren’t admitting to) playing Halo.
People continued to pour in during the presentations, and the small bar was eventually quite crowded. The photos on the Nerd Nite site give a decent sense of this. I’m guessing that the crowd was half or more women, with a lot of people in hipster couture—thick glasses, track jackets, a couple cowboy shirts, etc. In between each presentation, I met and chatted with more people.
The friends of the first fellow I chatted with eventually showed up, and we ended up talking about Nerd Nite and the nerd image in American pop culture more generally. They mentioned in passing that this was something of an atypical Nerd Nite, as it generally gets more drunken heckling. We chatted about who was the first nerd in pop culture, and how Plato from Rebel Without a Cause may double as both that and the first gay character in movies as well. In particular, I ended up talking awhile with Ben, a grad student in math at BU. He mentioned that he had heard about the Beauty and the Geek casting call too (his old chess coach emailed all the alumni in the area), and said that he had wanted to write a book back in college along the lines of the dissertation I’m doing now. He first got interested in writing in a class on masculinity he took, for which he wrote a paper on the nerd image in John Hughes movies as exemplified by Anthony Michael Hall characters. I gave him my email address to ask for the paper, which he kindly sent, along with the presentation he did on it for Nerd Nite, and permission to use his name in this post.
Jessica concluded by inviting people to volunteer to talk next time, announcing that the next Nerd Nite would be the first weekend in January, and telling everyone to stay for the band, the Ressurectionists. Most of the crowd cleared out after the presentations, though a few small groups (just slightly more people than were there when I first arrived) stuck around. It was about 11:45, and my compatriots were patient but clearly beat, so we retired for the evening.
Reflecting on The Day
One of the hardest questions I get when trying to explain my research to people is what I mean by ‘geek culture.’ A lot of people have a very specific idea in their minds when they hear terms like ‘nerd’ and ‘geek,’ and it’s not a very positive idea. The notion that there’s anything trendy about this whatsoever is downright puzzling to them. What those people picture is something more like the picture at the casting call: Awkward people who were picked on as kids and may remain outsiders as adults, people who are deeply and narrowly into a handful of alternately juvenile and intellectual interests. Indeed, I’ve written about this, as it’s at the heart of what I’m studying. But that’s not all there is, and a big part of what got me into this dissertation was recognizing that there is something of a shift underway, as exemplified by Nerd Nite: Fashionable, sociable, attractive people who would rather drink a beer during a presentation on postmodernism than stick around for the rock band that follows. (Not that I think they were so nerdy as to dislike music; after all, there’s probably also an element of being too cool to stick around for the next act.) I have no idea how these people fit into their high school social hierarchies or what operating systems they use because they don’t volunteer these tidbits as part of casual conversation. This is the side of geek culture I have had a harder time finding, and which I imagine I ought to study more, up close and personal.
I describe this as a “polar” expedition and a “spectrum,” and not as “two sides,” because I suspect there is some room for overlap and middle ground between the crowds at such events. I wonder if Nerd Nite might be a little self-consciously hip for Karen’s tastes, but if the fellow rapping to “White and Nerdy” is willing to perform to a room like that and do regular karaoke, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him at the Midway in January. And who knows—I did hear a couple people chatting about Warcraft 2 after most of the room had cleared before the band came on, so maybe there were some folks floating about who might’ve been at home debating with Karen and Bob about gaming hardware.
These are, of course, completely different events. I don’t mean to suggest for a second that the actual happenings at each should be directly compared. I do think it’s important to note, though, that they both offered opportunities for casual conversation, they each suggested different expectations about geeky gender norms, and—good news for me—they both included people who are interested in figuring out where nerds and geeks fit into contemporary American culture.
In sum, these events attracted a range of people who give a sense of the spectrum of geekdom, including its more modern incarnations. Geeks can be sociable, shy, male, female black, white, straight, gay, and plenty else besides. Some wear their nerdiness like a favorite coat, happily and comfortably. Others bear it more like a cross. Even “Bob,” though, loosened up a bit when he got to sit down next to someone who was willing to chat about anime, Windows ME, and why the last Spider-man movie sucked (despite that he’s a Venom fan, himself). Even for those who remind us that ‘geek’ isn’t a term of endearment for everyone, the media, values, and people we associate with “geek culture” still hold some value.