Geeks on Film

This piece was originally titled “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Mirth” but a quick Google search revealed that my 3am self is not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. Still handsome in that Oliver Platt on a bender sort of matted hair way. Just not as crafty as those pun-fisted wunderkinds over at Entertainment Weekly.  

But that was also back when this piece was simply a review of Big Bang Theory, one of my dad’s favorite new shows of last season. I’ll share my impressions, but I think there’s a bigger story here. Let’s call it a trend. Now, watch as I attempt to boil down a major cultural transition into one terrible paragraph.

Something happened to pop culture and the mainstream, and it had to do with technology and social networking and the increased accessibility of creating, sharing, and promoting art. And that something altered the playing field, causing some paradigms to teeter a bit. But as we all know, paradigms may wobble, but they won’t fall down, necessarily. And because of that grand, enigmatic something, they started making shirts like this:


And that brings us to today’s topic. Geeks in the media. Geek culture is practically an industry, the bedrock of new media. We’ve been saying it for years, but the mainstream is no longer discernible. With the change of seasons, the usual path, the straight and narrow is obscured. We’re left with a carpet of leaves and wide open spaces. Choice isn’t forked anymore. You could look at it as an expanded mainstream. And the lacrosse player shall lie down with the Dungeon Master, so sayeth the Lord. Or, maybe there really is no mainstream. Everybody’s alt. We’ve all got some twinge of nerd, and it isn’t so much a social stigma or unconventional peculiarity as a point of interest.  

So, with the guard down, the belly exposed, the culture is flirting with those it might have spurned in the past. We heart geeks. We bag and board. We stroke the joystick. If anything, pop culture invented the geek. It creates archetypes with karate chop action and any number of accessories. This is particularly relevant to comic readers, because as fans of the medium, we are closely aligned to one of the strongest symbols of geekdom aside from taped up glasses and an asthmatic wheeze. The comic book. It’s part of the legacy. So even if you don’t identify yourself as a geek, you hold one of the tokens. It’s perhaps an aspect of the medium that will never truly go away. For even though the classic image of a comic reader is now in the limelight, now shares some pop cred, that attention is still scrutinizing. Is it really cool, or is it just a curiosity? It’s a complicated issue, muddled by the nature of archetypes. See, for every archetype there are positive and negatives. I don’t think culture’s negative view of the comic reader has anything to do with the comic book itself. It’s not about enthusiasm. It’s about… priority. It’s about enthusiasm at the detriment of composure. Because what it’s always come down to is a willingness to vulnerability. It’s dangerous to wear your heart on your sleeve. You can have a lot of fun when you’re open or honest, but hearts, for all their curves and corners, snag easy.

That’s potentially scary. Now, I’m always playing armchair psychologist. They say we fear zombies because of a very human fear of the degradation of flesh. Did the mainstream fear geeks because they represent a decaying of social convention? And does that prejudice still linger even now, when geekiness is gaining a majority? Even if the jibes are tongue in cheek. Don’t get me wrong, being able to laugh at your own eccentricity is important. It’s all part of being honest. But where does the laughter come from?

I did genuinely enjoy some of the quips and inside references in Big Bang Theory, but it was often a forlorn chuckle. The conceit of the show is a little archaic at this point. Or so I’d hoped. Two socially awkward geeks live across the hall from a beautiful and really sort of damaged young woman. Worlds and particles collide. As my dad mentioned to me as he handed me the DVDs, they do “have all the shirts.”Emotionally vacant theoretical physicist Sheldon wears various DC icon shirts, and there’s even a debate about the physics of Superman: The Movie. The knowledge is all there. It feel authentic. But is that geeky enthusiasm and rhetoric really as obscure as the studio audience laugh light might indicate? Scientists and comic book readers are often socially inept, sure, but this particular model is outdated, maybe this is a leap here, but might the viewers share more nods with the geeks than with Penny, the normal one? Both the geeks and Penny’s crowd are portrayed as flawed, either in terms of communication or poor judgment. But when the usually wise geeks are handicapped by some malfunction of social interaction, it doesn’t feel like a natural misstep. It feels like they’ve been Tonya Harding-ed by the writing staff in order to keep the premise going. And that’s frustrating. Because it’s a step backward.

Let’s go back to that shirt.

When I think about this concept, I think of Seth Cohen. The wise-cracking, self detrimental, sailing and comic book nerd from The O.C. Shut up, you judgmental gallery of peanuts! The first season was alright. Seth was a big hit with the ladies. Both on and off screen. He got me to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (undisputed best novel ever) and I even thought I liked Death Cab for three very strange days which I’d like to retcon once I get my hands on the Cosmic Cube. I like to think that Seth was a decent interpretation of geek on film. He shrugged off his social anxiety and used that wasted energy to strike it out as an indy comic creator. It wasn’t a sacrifice of interest for the sake of being cool or successful. He parlayed his geek cred into avenues for fame, fortune, and Rachel Bilson (maybe at the questionable expense of Samaire Armstrong, but that’s probably just a chat for me and Ron).

Another favorite is obviously Xander Harris, who continues to rock with his glock out in Buffy season 8. “The Zeppo,” his showcase episode early in the show’s run is one of the best in the canon. Xander is an everyman, a geek thrown into the fire.Whedon’s really cornered the market on empowered dweebs if you think about it. Take nebbish Willow Rosenberg’s astonishing yet completely organic arc from episode one to the witch she is today. And Firefly’s Wash is the kind of pilot unafraid to play with plastic dinosaurs on the dashboard. And to me, that’s really all this is. It’s unabashed courage to be enthusiastic, even playful. And especially to say, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.  I’m scared.” For me, a geek is just an average person with the gall to say, “Yeah, I like that.” Because we all know, it’s not always so easy to do that. Honesty is some scary shit.

Guy could lose an eye.

I’m intentionally leaving some fictional geeks out because I’d like to hear what you think. How do you feel about the portrayal of comic readers or even plain old nerds in the media? Do you like these terms? Does it hold any weight for you or is it outdated?


Where mah nerds at?


Paul Montgomery has tricks up his sleeves, but he wears his heart on the cuff.  Say what’s up at and enjoy the snack size musings on Twitter.    



  1. You’re right. I think everyone has a bit of geek in them. Everyone has an encyclopedic knowledge of one thing or another and it can make them the odd person out. Shows like the Big Bang Theory still boil everything down to their 1950s stereotypes, which I find a little insulting sometimes, though I still do chuckle at the guys’ jokes.

    The only thing I disagree with here is Kavalier and Clay, but I realize I’m probably alone for that.

  2. Yes, you are so very, very alone on that.

     For the record, I also enjoyed OC season 1. But any show where characters read/recommend Kavalier & Clay can’t be all bad. 

  3. The first 6 episodes of season 1 of the OC are as good as TV gets in my opinion.  but I completely agree, while I learned to love Bilson, Samaire Armstrong on the OC? *swoon* – Those episodes leading up to her departure were fantastic…

  4. I watched all 4 seasons of the OC, season 4 was my favourite because Marissa was long gone and Taylor is awesome.  It become goofy and silly fun in season 4.

  5. And I am most definitely in the Samaire camp.

  6. Nice article, sir. Good points, good points indeed, although I would never classify myself as brave.

    That said, this is getting e-mailed to all of my friends…

  7. The mainstream isn’t getting more accepting, so much as accepting of our hobbies.  When a geek is portrayed in the mainstream, it’s usually used for laughs.  If a starring character collects comics or toys or plays video games or what have you, it’s usually played as a quirk instead of a strength.  Geeks and nerds are always going to strive to be accepted.  That’s the way it always has been and always will be.  We’ve built up this idea that we’ve become the mainstream but as much as they’re laughing with us, they’re still laughing at us louder.

  8. I agree with you about Big Bang Theory. When I first saw it, the premise bothered me a lot. I eventually just sort of went with it for the amusing references, but by that point I had to consider the characters hyperbolic stereotypes of the highest order. They don’t seem to be real people so much as vehicles for their "jokes".

    As far as geeks in popular culture in general go, I agree that Seth from the OC was a good model. Another interesting non-archaic interpretation of geeks is in the film Free Enterprise; it includes sci-fi geekdom but comic book interest as well.

    On the whole though I feel media usually veers too far in one direction or another with their portrayal of geeks. With The Big Bang Theory we have the Revenge of the Nerds stereotypes dusted off for some contrived social marginalization. The other interpretation is the geek as super interesting mystery figure to society at large. The I <3 Geeks shirt being a prime example of this phenomenon. This social molding has taken hold a great deal with current teenagers and perhaps even a few early twenty-somethings. I have always been ahead of this trend of societal fascination and have discovered it doesn’t quite catch on with older individuals, my peers.   



  9. Don’t forget possibly the biggest geek around at the moment – Doctor Who! He’s nerdy, smart, likes gadgets, and gets impossibly excited about the littlest things. That show’s huge again right now, the Who comic-con panel was massive and he’s generally considered cool by kids. Granted though, he’s a genius with a time machine, so maybe not that relatable.

    On a more real note, I think it’s hard to beat Xander or Willow. Yes, extraordinary things happen to them, but the characters themselves are always portrayed in a realistic way. And personally, I’d never get tired of watching Haverchuck and pals talking about… well, anything!

    Great article as always, Paul! 🙂

  10. Count me in as another enjoyer of the OC (mainly series 1 and 4). Seth Cohen did do a lot of damage control for the image of the geek for a lot of people I know. Suddenly it was a little cool to have different tastes. Double edged sword though, now every time I get spotted carrying/reading comics I get a "You’re just like Seth Cohen!". Haven’t really seen any recent interpretations of geeks that have continued on the positive side, only the geek = sexless social outcast model from Big Bang Theory and Beauty and the Geek.

  11. @ KevinAB – I loved "Free Enterprise"! That’s probably the only representation of geeks actually getting laid.

    And come on. Michael Chabon writes like he’s getting paid by the word. I enjoyed the story, but it was so overwriten I really had to struggle to finish it. I think it needed a stronger editor. It’s like the literary equivalent of Jackson’s "King Kong."

  12. Can’t forget Hiro Nakamura here, people.

  13. A friend of mine has a shirt that says, "talk nerdy to me".

    But yeah, there has been a transition as you put it and now that transition is starting to include geeks. Something I ranted about in length at the forum discussion about comic sales.

  14. Xander is one of the best geeks in pop culture.  Its funny though, they made the actor stop working out during the beginning of season 2 because he was ripped!  Hell, he was in better shape than David Boreanz (sp?) the guy who plays Angel. Apparently, no nerd can be in good shape. 

  15. @BrianBaer  I think the word you’re looking for re: Chabon’s writing is "style."  By definition, a certain style’s not going to be to everybody’s taste, but I think it’s off-base to suggest he doesn’t know what he’s doing. 

  16. @ ohcaroline – You’re right; his style is not my taste. Sorry to sound like a dick.

  17. I think we fear zombies because they represent the terror of herd mentality in action within human society. The decomposition is a bonus.

  18. We fear zombies for many reasons.  Most recently, market saturation and lousy comics.  

  19. Also, @BrianBaer: You’re not alone there. I couldn’t stomach K & C either.

    Further, I don’t think its off-base to discuss Chabon’s work in terms of quality (and to not sequester ourselves to the purely subjective notions of style and personal preference), Pulitzer notwithstanding.

  20. Ron, have we figured out the code for the "ban" and "deport" buttons?  😉

  21. Oh god! It’s the WTP (Winking Taste Police) come to take me away!

    Well, as Catherine the Great was no doubt wont to say, ‘two (or more) can play at that game’:


  22. I didn’t mean to say I think subjective criticism is off limits.  I’m just not sure about ‘he uses too many words’ as a critical approach.  🙂

  23. You know, my comments on this thread have been on the snotty side.  I’m in a mood, and I apologize.

    To expand my comment in a way that gets closer to my meaning — there’s a popular, if not prevailing, school of thought in English-language writing that brevity is a virtue in itself.  Being concise and using fewer words to express an idea is seen by many as positive.  There are certainly places where that is true (you know, rambling message board comments that have already gone on too long, like this one).  But I don’t think it’s true across the board, I think Chabon is an example of somebody who shows that it isn’t true, and so I disagree with the premise that using big words and long sentences makes him a bad writer.  Your mileage my vary.  Though if it does, I can’t be held responsible for any actions taken by the winking taste police. 

  24. Geeks are only "cool" now because technology is actually cool, now.

    As for their portrayal in media…it’s all garbage. I don’t know anyone my age who doesn’t fall within at least three subcultures.


  25. I don’t know if many of you have seen spaced, but i think thats a fair portrayal of the "geek."

  26. All of this talk about Michael Chabon is well and good, but the best novel ever is undisputably not written by an American in this century . . . unless Philip Roth has been saving his best work for the last years of his life.  I guess I am a Philip Roth geek.

  27. @ohcaroline: I think we can partially blame E.B.White for the "brevity is the soul of EVERYTHING" school of literary criticism. It’s quite a shame when the fiction of the romantic period, for example, gets thrown out with this bathwater … to mangle a metaphor.

  28. @flaggthecat – I’m with you on this one, I’m a Portnoy’s Complaint man myself.


  29. Excellent article. I think its interesting to note that while society somewhat look down on geekdom, we geeks as a community look down on other aspects of fandom. For example high level sci-fi TV fans ie Lost and Galactica fans look down on video game fans. Those fans look down on medium level sci fi fans ie star trek and Stargate fans. Who in turn look down on manga then in turn look down on D&D players. Finally everyone looks down on Charmed fans.

    So were do comic book fans come in. 10 years ago I would have said near the bottom of the hierarchy but now I would like to think near the top somewhere. Largely due to the success and social acceptance of the movie spin off.

     This is obviously just a generalised observation and does not necessarily reflect my personal opinions.

  30. Reading Paul’s article, I was thinking about Comic Book Guy from ‘The Simpsons.’   Plenty of people identify all people who read comics with him.  But I’ve heard him referenced/quoted/imitated far far more often in comics fandom than by anyone else.  Because on one hand, we resent the stereotype, but on the other hand *we all know that guy.*   Just like the way my father, who is a dedicated churchgoer, thinks the funniest character on the show is Flanders — because he knows all Christians aren’t like that, but he can name half a dozen people who are. 

    Incidentally — being able to quote ‘Simpsons’ ad nauseum, watching it religiously, and owning all the DVD’s, apparently does not make one a geek.  It’s classic geek behavior, sure, but the nature of the show makes it oddball-mainstream or something else we need a name for. 

  31. Adult Swim had a geek-chic appeal to it as well if feels like.

  32. Hey, sometimes ComicBookGuy from The Simpsons is just flat-out right. 🙂

    Oh, and cornishcomicfan, for the record, the bottom of the barrel of geekdom is reserved for slash fiction writers. Just FYI. 🙂


  33. @LiamHoward – Oh definitely, how could I forget Spaced. Tim is again one of those more realistic portrayals you can feel empathy for. Also I totally would have read his comic book.

  34. @Diabhol  Not even close!

    Though this whole conversation reminds me of my favorite headline from the Onion, which was something like "Walking Sports Encyclopedia Looks Down on Walking Science Fiction Encyclopedia."  

    We geeks need to stop eating our young and own up to the nerdery ;). 

  35. i loved Seth on the OC and i loved The Big Bang Theory…thats good TV even though it kind of debases us

  36. man, this is late but what the hell?

    Clarence Worley from True Romance is without a doubt the greatest geek on film, he meets a girl in a Kung fu film festival, takes her to the comic shop he works at to impress her, beds her, finds out she’s a call girl, accidently kills her pimp and steals some cocaine…..

    i forgot where i was going

  37. Who wouldn’t want to be Seth?  It was like choosing between Cheesecake and Red Velvet Cake.  Both very delicious, but each very different.

     Samaire Armstrong and Rachel Bilson will always be in my top 5 girls of all time.