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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Character Study: Geeks, Nerds, Slackers and Hipsters

First there was the nerd. Clean cut, intelligent, earnest and, well, totally uncool. They were social outcasts, mocked in high school and mildly ostracized in college, remaining virgins for unnatural periods of time. But they grew up and into themselves, got good jobs and had the last laugh at high school reunions. Still, nerds like George McFly just never had, well, nads.

Coolness is totally beyond the reach of the nerd. But - nerds, in the movies anyway, do have heart. They are the underdog, the one you sort of root for in the end. Why? Because oddly, many of us identify with the nerd. The nerd is the foundational visage of insecurity. No matter how cool you thought you were in high school, part of you felt outcast no matter what. The nerd just wore it on his or her sleeve.

The personal computer saw the rise of the geek - a nerd with mad computer skills. They spend hours alone, they play interactive online games and speak a sort of weird, yawn-inducing language nobody understands. Like the nerd, they are prone to sweaty palms and bad hair. But they had one thing their forefather the nerd did not - a skill set (computers) that is highly in demand. A geek is not such a, well, geek when you need your computer fixed, are they?

Then we have the slackers and the hipsters. I don't know about other urban areas but Los Angeles is awash with hipsters. They are literally everywhere, with their pork pie hats, tats, and man bags. Variations include chunky glasses, Doc Martens, soul patches, and either very coiffed or not-shampooed-lately hair. Is the hipster an outgrowth or expression of the nerd or the geek? Or are they in another category altogether? Is the slacker a slightly less cool, unemployed hipster? What about the metrosexual?

Connect the dots, Wavers - what is the evolution or provenance of the hipster? Do old-school nerds still exist? Are geeks really geeks anymore, or just people you pay a lot of money to to fix your computer? Are geeks sexy? How about hipsters? Cool? Or pretentious and annoying? Recently I had lunch with an unabashed nerd but I remember thinking to myself - man, this kid is one pork pie hat and tat away from being a hipster. He could go from social reject to trendy Angeleno in one afternoon. Are hipsters just nerds with more fashion sense? Or are they, as I suspect, inauthentic types, mining nerdom for irony and cool?

Do you fall into any of these categories? Do these categories apply to women as well? How many female geeks do you know? What category would Tracy Flick (Election) fall into? Do hipsters annoy you or do you aspire to be one? What makes a person hip, anyway? Is there an age cut off after which you're not a're The Dude in The Big Lebowski?

Social labels are fascinating. Subtle shadings imply social strata, ambition and acceptance. Nerd, geek, slacker, there a straight line of evolution? What's next? Who are your favorite movie nerds, geeks, slackers and hipsters?

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Luzid said...

As a member of the geek community, I have to point out that you have the labels exactly backward -- nerds are the ones with mad computer skills, while we geeks are those who are passionate about and devoted to less-mainstream things (e.g. speculative fiction, though geekery is becoming more mainstream as we geeks grow up).

The joke in geek circles is that we're not nerds, because nerds are smart. (Of course, geeks are smart, but nerds are smarter about highly technical things like comps and math).

There is, of course, quite a lot of crossover.

Christian M. Howell said...

Hard to say which I am since I'm the definition of contradicting personality traits.

I'm nerdy at work and wild at play. On the one hand I have a pretty "angry" rap album but on the other hand I write very poignant poetry.

I'm a dry theorist but I tell great jokes.

Since I try to manicure and do complex skin treatments in the morning, I'll go with metrosexual.

Tavis Sarmento said...

The problem is you can't label yourself -- once you do, you're nothing more than a poseur. ;)

In a way the more conscious effort you put into being yourself, the less likely you are to actually be who you are. Some people seem to only exist through other people's perceptions. I know we all do it to a point, but to only live that way would seem tiring.

But I know what you mean by bringing up all these can certainly be helpful in attributing character traits for a script. ;)

So who am I? Well, I try not to be ironic -- so I'm not a hipster. I am not particularly good at left-brained thinking, so I'm not a nerd. I'm willfully employed, so no slacker. I'm not geeky enough to be thrown into that category. So...I guess I'm just a freak. (Ha! High school labels never die.)

Anonymous said...

I'm in Australia, and I'm not quite sure what a hipster is. If you said hipsters here people would think you meant jeans or underpants. Would a hipster or a slacker be a bill and ted kinda character.

I think that there were some great slackers and needs around the turn of the '90s in movies. Encino Man, pretty in pink, any kinda teen underdog movie before American Pie came along and ruined of for everyone.

One of the best nerdy geeky character creators may be Christopher Guest. Sure, the nerds may have grown up and got real jobs, but they are still very enthusiastic about saggy things: ie dogs, folk music, or theater.

When I was growing up in high school, we had bogans, chiggers, spoks, lattes, I was labled a spok for a while until the bogans found out I could play nirvarna and metallica on guitar better than they could. That day I became the guy who hangs out with all the spoks.


Anonymous said...

I'm shocked, shocked that you made no mention of my tribe and the tribal lands where all of us who were former geeks, nerds, slackers and hipsters are banished to, as soon as our kids begin to rage against their genetic heritage: Dorkville, Dorkdom, Dorkenshire...

Why no love for us who celebrate our dorkiness?

Trina0623 said...

Thanks so much for this Julie. My current script is a teenage underdog story with geeks. Or is it nerds? I will pay attention to that.
In college, my husband called me a "literary freak," which is a label I wear proudly. It's true -- I was an English major and was in a club called "The Literary Society" where I could gather with other well-read freaks and discuss all the finer points of writing and literature. HaHa, I know.
Now I think I would be labeled as a hipster, just because I have an artistic sensibility, tats, and a certain sometimes-unique-sometimes-trendy-sometimes-weird fashion sense.
Maybe I'm just a geek in hipster clothing. LOL.
I'm not smart enough to be a nerd and too lazy to be passionate about anything but writing.
@ jcarends - Good point. Please define the Dork for us. I'm very interested to know how they are different. Maybe I am one. :)

Trina0623 said...

oh... one more thing...
Is anyone else annoyed by the hipster habit of using the word "sans?" i.e. "He was wearing a suit sans jacket." Well then, it's not a suit is it? It's a shirt and pants!
Am I alone in finding this pretentious and annoying?

Ursa Bonkers said...

There's loads of girl geeks! It's absolutely maddening to always hear successful self-described boy geeks talk about how girls don't play video games or like 'Star Wars' like we all hide out in a big Caboodles kit. I was almost put off 'Knocked Up' because of the conversation revealing neither of the girls had seen 'Back to the Future'. I've been attending anime and comic conventions for over a decade (sometimes in costume), I fervently believe Han shot first even though I'm part of the generation that scene was censored for, and my first crush was a Power Ranger. All my girl friends are nerds or geeks in some way, whether it's baseball, history, movies, WoW or anything. The categories absolutely apply to girls too. We do exist! We are out there!

As far as Tracy goes, I don't think these categories fit because to be a nerd or geek means you have passion for the subject you're nerding/geeking about. Tracy is passionate about winning. She's doing everything she can at school out of ambition, and not really love for the subject. She's ambitious, she knows what she wants, and she's a success. I think she's a Slytherin.

Trina - You're not alone. I wouldn't even put hipsters in the same category as geeks and nerds. I used to work in a hipster heavy environment and it was so much more about showing off your street cred or being fashionably unfashionable.