Geeks vs. Jocks

July 20th, 2008

One of my posts from April, “Sexism and Misogyny in Geek Culture,” saw some really long and detailed comments a few weeks back. (If it’s a topic that interests you, I encourage you to go check it out.) I had to step away from blogging for a while to focus my work efforts elsewhere—and I’ll probably have to step away for another few weeks as I prepare to move from Philadelphia to Boston—but for now, I wanted to pull out one particular tangent that developed in the course of that aforementioned discussion. Specifically, I had brought up the long-standing hostility and resentment toward male athletes among geeks, implying at the time that it might be comparable to the negative attitudes exhibited by some geeks toward women.

In that discussion, Jordan commented that he doesn’t see geeks harassing jocks online as much as he sees them harassing women, and Aenna noted that geeks’ harassment of jocks seems to be mostly in the form of weak, homophobic insults. I’ve actually noticed much more pervasive, vitriolic, and even creatively involved responses, though. I wanted to make note of a couple examples and invite others to chime in with their own thoughts on the matter as well. I sat on this post for several days as I worked on other things, but now, with the release of Joss Whedon’s geeky supervillain musical, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, it seemed like a particularly timely issue.

Let’s start, then, with the first example of resentment toward jocks I’d like to offer: the poster art for MC Chris’s “Revenge of the Nerd Tour.” It’s a particularly visceral visual example of how “jocks” are constructed as the natural enemy of “nerds.” I suppose this poster could have featured the nerd atop a pile of popular kids’ corpses, including cheerleaders, but I think that the disproportionately male, nerd audience it targets has more angry resentment stored up for athletic men. This image is fairly representative of the stage persona MC Chris projected when I saw him perform in 2005, where he called for nerds to rise up against the oppressive jocks.

The second example I’d like to offer comes from the “Pitch Your Game Idea” panel at PAX 2006. One of the most popular entries was for a “jock simulator,” marketed as the best sports game ever, but secretly designed to help high school athletes build their skills at bagging groceries for their future careers. The first four minutes of gameplay are a football game representing each year of high school, but then players begin the grocery-bagging game, and finally witness “the cute chicks they used to date go off to date those they made fun of.”

In this example, we get a glimpse at how gamers feel threatened by athletes and sports fans becoming a target demographic for the medium they considered their own (also touched upon in this Slashdot thread I stumbled upon after a moment of googling). I found this interesting because it moves the notion of sexual fitness away from hypermasculine/physical norms, emphasizing professional/financial success. Of course, women don’t make out any better in this deal, still treated as “chicks” and trophies to be won.

Granted, neither of these examples (or the insults in that linked Slashdot piece) is of interpersonal interaction between geeks and athletes or sports fans. Geek-on-jock interactions in the adult world are a bit harder to stumble upon than interactions between sexist geeks and beleaguered women, but I’d argue that has more to do with where people are likely to share real or virtual space than with the relative intensity or pervasiveness of the hostility toward either group. The best example of somewhat more direct geek-on-jock interaction that I could find offhand is in the interactions with “Rodney” in the comments following Tango‘s “geek chic” story from awhile back. Rodney wonders why “strange” geeks are getting all the love, while “normal” guys are left out in the cold. Another commenter replies:

Yo Rodney, that’s the point…you just don’t get it…while you are spending your time lifting weights, fixing your hair, and applying too much cologne, smarter people are trying to cure diseases and make the world a better place…if you are such a great guy why dont you help these geeks you work with, be more fashionable etc? maybe they will help you realize that when you are 70 years old and all you can talk about is your old sports stats and how buff you used to be, your wife will be looking for her ear plugs or worse a pistol to end her misery.

That’s pretty harsh stuff. You might infer that Rodney identified himself as a sports fan, athlete, or jock. But actually, according to Rodney’s follow-up, he’s not a sports fanatic at all. Rather, it was the other commenter who who assigned certain stereotypes to Rodney based on his default construction for the “enemy of the geek.”

Reflecting on these examples, however, I wonder whether it was worth introducing this topic in a direct comparison with misogynistic geeks’ treatment of women. I have imagined them as related phenomena—in both cases, a way for some geeks to construct a nemesis and bolster their own ego in the face of feelings of inadequacy. However, I expect that these sorts of resentment would manifest differently, given the fairly different ways in which these groups are constructed as enemies or outsiders. Sexist and misogynistic behavior online is part of a larger system of mistrust and hostility toward women throughout our culture; there’s a much broader precedent for it than for hostility toward hypermasculine males, a traditionally culturally dominant group.

Moreover, as I noted in recent comments, I haven’t seen any research indicating that young, male geeks are particularly picked on and excluded by girls more so than by boys; more likely the opposite, actually. Given this point, sexist geeks’ hostility toward women seems more a way of channeling feelings of bitterness and resentment toward a target that is already subject to widespread cultural denigration (and therefore perhaps easier to justify or claim dominance over in their imagination). There’s plenty of evidence, on the other hand, that boys training to be hypermasculine males specifically target geeks for physical and verbal harassment. Of course, having been the victim of harassment and oppression doesn’t make it okay to stereotype or discriminate against (those whom one imagines to represent) one’s former oppressors in adulthood. Nevertheless, we can point to persecution in childhood by dominant males as a component behind jock-hate—I get the sense it’s uncommon or non-existent among geeks who weren’t picked on—whereas I wouldn’t claim that it is rejection by women that fuels geek misogyny.

Reflecting on this distinction leads me to wonder how these forms of resentment might manifest themselves and be expressed differently. If geek fashion is any indication, for example, women might be constructed as the trophies of male geek power, whereas jocks are constructed as having too much power. I might not have used that first shirt (“Press and hold X to pick up”) as an example if only there had been a male or unisex size created for it. I wouldn’t argue that the design is inherently offensive—as some commenters point out, there are some contexts where it might be considered acceptable to wear, and others where it would not—but I think it represents a broader trend in how we construct women. Among geeks, and perhaps generally in our culture, outspoken misogyny seems somewhat rare and contained, but subtler forms of sexism and reinforcement of traditional gender roles remain exceptionally easy to find because they’re still considered widely inoffensive. Jock resentment, on the other hand, seems outrageous and overt when I see it.

This point finally brings us to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the aforementioned supervillain musical. Joss Whedon (of Buffy and Firefly fame) created this miniseries of web-video shorts during the writers’ strike. It is not an example of outrageous jock resentment, but a story about it. All three parts are available online for free until the end of the day today (and for a small price on iTunes thereafter), so go check it out before I start throwing out spoilers in the next couple paragraphs.

As some have pointed out already, Dr. Horrible presents a comedic (but ultimately tragic) allegory of the tension between geek and jock. The expected audience is pretty clear: The front page of the site even has an ad for related gear sold through J!NX, the same geek fashion retailer linked to above. In the series, Neil Patrick Harris plays the intelligent, idealistic, and generally gentle-natured supervillain, who hopes to rule the world in order to fix it, and refuses to do battle around children or to kill his foes. Nathan Fillion plays the dumb, cruel, and arrogant Captain Hammer, who promises to sleep with the woman Dr. Horrible has a crush on just to make him uncomfortable. This propels Dr. Horrible to plot to kill Captain Hammer. It doesn’t work as planned, but he does gain admittance to the Evil League of Evil, finding acceptance among a fringe group and even gaining a degree of mainstream popularity, while Captain Hammer ends up weeping on a psychiatrist’s couch—but all at the expense of the ideals and the person that meant the most to the Doctor.

I have to applaud Joss and company on this one. It’s hilarious, professionally daring, and a joy to listen to. Much to my own surprise, though, the moral of the story wasn’t just that the underdog beats the jerk in the end. In this age of “geek chic,” where a pitch for a “jock simulator” leads a room of nerds to erupt in applause, this message may be one the target audience desperately needs to hear.


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12 Responses to “Geeks vs. Jocks”

  1. Church Says:

    Well, I think the rejection by women that most geeks feel is more abstract. The jocks tend to be a bit more direct. The flipside is that it’s easier to suss out a girl than a jock online, so they tend to get more flak.

    There’s also the angle that online (or at least, on XBox Live) EVERYONE is a jock, so there’s a lot of weird roleplaying going on.

    I couldn’t agree more about Dr. H. Absolutely outstanding piece of work. (It’s also pretty amazing that Joss was able to do in half an hour what Lucas couldn’t really pull off with his entire miserable prequel trilogy.)

  2. AGeek Says:

    i’ve layed 5 girls and i spend 8 hours a day on the computer

    in highschool still

  3. Jason Tocci Says:

    Normally I would mark crass comments as spam, but this one seems to be a genuine attempt to assert that being a geek is not mutually exclusive with sexual activity, and I’m not in the business of censoring commenters (who aren’t secretly advertisers). That said, please keep your comments respectful.

  4. Mrss Says:

    Geeks typically have poor social skills all around. I feel that a good deal of their sexism comes from the fact that many of them end up in a state of arrested development – A lot of Geeks don’t have relationships – they have fantasies – and they’re emotionally immature enough to believe that somehow this perfect dream girl will one day appear and fall for them. Meanwhile, they express contempt for the real women whose existence challenges this idiotic delusion.

  5. icarus Says:

    I may be completely atypical, but when I think of “jock-hate,” the first reason that comes to mind is a lack of respect for their intelligence. Entry into geek culture is gained, if I may say so, through enjoyment of the cerebral aspects of life, be it games, math, science, language, etc. So when we come up to someone that puts in our face that not only did they choose to embrace the physical aspects, but are “living the life” because of it, it could cause resentment. Throw in a heaping handful of torment, and voila, hatred is born.

    In my case, the dislike of jocks is based entirely on stereotypes. Yes, i know that they are often wildly inaccurate, but when you’re a timid home schooler, all you really know about high school culture is what everybody knows. Geeks are smart, jocks are dumb, jocks are bullies, geeks hate jocks. And while cheerleaders are basically female jocks with less brains, they are hot, and thus okay to want.

    Looking back, it saddens me how much of that I hold with. Even what I disagree with is because of another stereotype. Drat.

  6. Jason Tocci Says:

    Thanks for the comment, icarus. I hadn’t thought before about how home schoolers might develop these notions, but it’s interesting to read your thoughts on it.

  7. anominous (spelling?) Says:

    Well, I’m not a geek, im a metalhead (pretty much a branch off an Emo for a jock), but I hate jocks. They make me so angry, you people have no idea. My mental heath is at stake because of these losers. I’m sick of it. I have enough problems as it is. The world would be a MUCH better place without them. But they wont go away no matter what happens. And the ‘Prepps” are definetly a problem as well. They ridicule people just as much as jocks do.
    Why? why do they have to treat people in such a terrible manner. It makes enemys toward them. Bullying is what caused the colombine shooting to happen. I dont understand why they have to be so inconsiderate. It makes me angry. Thats why I hate jocks and prepps, becdause they hate me. I’m just returning the favor.

    HATE JOCKS!

  8. Jason Tocci Says:

    Thanks for the comment. I wish we were in a classroom (I teach sometimes!) so we could have a whole discussion about this, but I’ll try my best to answer your question.

    Why do students treat each other in such a terrible manner? The short answer, I think, is that high school is a really messed up social atmosphere. The students don’t really have control over their environment, and so create a status system where at least some get to feel powerful. Being mean to some students can actually help some other students to maintain their popularity, and to avoid getting shut out socially themselves. The jocks and preps don’t even necessarily hate the people they pick on, either. It’s like they’re playing their own game with each other, with the other students as props, trying to avoid losing status.

    I think there was a lot going on at Columbine, not just revenge against the “cool kids”—but I also know that those guys acted out a fantasy that was shared by victims of peer harassment around the country. In the long run, though, I think the way victims develop a hatred for jocks isn’t really helping us. It’s bad enough that “the cool kids” use other students like props in some big game, but what does it do to us if we do the same, or worse? I’ve seen people who’ve become so bitter about the way they’ve been treated that they don’t trust men at all, and that they treat women like props or prizes themselves. (Notice that in the examples from the blog post above, a lot of times that geeks lash out at jocks, it’s actually the jocks’ girlfriends who end up getting described as beaten, killed, or won like trophies.) After a while, carrying around all that resentment can give us a messed up sense of what other people are like, and can sometimes make it hard to interact with anybody at all.

    I hope I can reassure you a little bit, at least, that things do get better afterward, and that the people who are being so hateful to you now are just people too. College and workplaces just aren’t like high school, and even the people who used to pick on me turned out to be decent folks when they finally got out into the world. One former jock who used to push my friends around and call us “faggots,” for instance, stopped me years later on my college campus just to check in, say hello, and compliment me on the comic I drew the for the school paper. (It was kind of nutty, but nice.) I’m glad he had a chance to turn out to be a pretty decent guy after all.

    Not every former jock turned out to be a nice guy, of course, but by the time we get out of school, it doesn’t matter anymore. In the meantime, we lean on our friends, find some fun hobbies, and try to meet people from outside our class.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    just stumbled upon this fascinating blog & post. i just feel compelled to mention that this reminded me of the transformers movie from ’07, when sam witwicky pokes fun at mikaela’s jock boyfriend’s lack of intelligence, leading her to say something along the lines of “i don’t know why i always get attracted by guys with big arms…” being a geek myself i remember enjoying that scene which i now see is blatant nerd gratification.

    unfortunately in transformers ’09 they just devoted half the action to megan fox running so all the teen guys could see her cleavage bounce up and down (although being female i didn’t notice this until a male friend pointed it out). plus, i hate movies where they write gibberish on the blackboard that supposedly solves some mystery of the universe

  10. Jason Tocci Says:

    Good catch, Anonymous. It’s interesting, I think, that over the last several years, movie heroes designed for “nerd gratification” have gotten even more overtly nerdy. In the late ’90s, the hero of The Matrix was a shut-in hacker, but still tall, dark, and handsome Keanu Reeves. Fast-forward a few years, and you start seeing more “underdog cutie” than “badass hottie” geeks—sort of “Peter Parker” style nerds, who get treated like genuine losers by the jock-type characters, as in Transformers and Wanted. It is, as I think you’re implying, probably a reflection of who Hollywood increasingly thinks it needs to pander to.

  11. Ddoodm Says:

    What cause jock to be the bully? Why does jocks pick on the smart? In the end if you are an geek or a nerd you end up being a winner

  12. Geek Studies » Sexism, Misogyny & Misandry in Geek Cultures Says:

    […] I’ll stand by the opinion that some male geeks bully women – and, I’ll add, each other – as a reaction to their own feelings of powerlessness and rejection. Much of the oppression geeks have felt is very real, in the form of cruel taunting, exclusion, and, sometimes, physical violence, with most harassment coming from members of their own gender. I think we see especially frequent and hateful geek misogyny online not because women cruelly refused to date male nerds, but because possessing women is the yardstick for dominance among men, and some geeks are still bitter about their treatment at the hands of jocks. […]