The changing face of “nerds” (and autism) in popular culture

The changing face of “nerds” (and autism) in popular culture

Comedian Andy Kindler used to do a bit in his act about hack comics who can’t be bothered to consider whether the premise of their jokes might be wrong. The example he gave was of a comic saying, “I see they have sugar-free candy now. Who’s that for?” To which Kindler responded, “It’s for diabetics, you idiot.” That’s the way I feel now whenever a video goes viral of some awkward, geeky young person behaving strangely at a spelling bee, or in line for a sci-fi/fantasy movie, or at a comics or gaming convention. Inevitably, late-night comedians and cable shows like The Soup replay the clip and make the same tired jokes, about nasal-voiced virgins who wear pocket-protectors and live in their mom’s basement. The tone of the jokes is always the same: “What’s with these nerds?” And I want to answer, “They’re autistic, you idiot.”

Two important points of clarification:

  1. Not every socially awkward and/or geeky person is on the autistic spectrum. I know some folks feel that autism is over-diagnosed these days, in cases where what’s really going on is just garden-variety awkwardness and/or eccentricity. Nevertheless, as we’ve come to understand more about autistic spectrum disorders, it has become clearer that people who 20 or 30 years ago would’ve been classified as “odd” in fact have a neurological condition.
  2. It’s okay to find the autistic funny. Trust me: I have an autistic son, and he’s frequently hilarious, without meaning to be. Besides, it’s the job of comedians to test boundaries, even if they end up offending people. I don’t consider jokes about the autistic to be out-of-bounds, by any means.

No, what bothers me is the hoariness of jokes about bespectacled weirdoes who know the details of every Doctor Who episode but will never know the touch of a woman. First of all, they’re about as cutting-edge as jokes about airline food. Second of all: Did you know that many autists find it uncomfortable to look other people in the eye, or to be hugged? So what’s the joke here exactly? That two recognized traits of people with autistic spectrum disorders—obsessive interests and difficulties with social interactions—are a thing that exists?

I’ve been wondering lately what’s behind the ongoing mockery of certain gawky types, and the unwillingness to extend them any empathy. Maybe it’s an overreaction to the way that “nerd culture” has been thriving over the past decade, as geek-friendly movies, TV shows, and videogames have become dominant, and as people with a facility for computer programming and statistics have become major players in arenas like sports and politics. Perhaps one explanation for the persistent contempt for the “nerdy” is that they’re becoming less of a marginalized subculture and more mainstream. Lately we’ve seen a pushback from old-guard political hacks who feel threatened by the rise in numbers-based election analysis over “what my gut tells me,” and a pushback from old-guard baseball writers against members of the Society For American Baseball Research, who prefer actual data to “trusting my eyes.” (Inevitably, sabermetricians get tagged with the “some nerd on a computer in his mom’s basement” insult from those veteran reporters, but then no one ever accused sportswriters of being witty.)

But it’s not just the stalwarts of crumbling institutions that are so pissy. On Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show, he frequently makes fun of people obsessed with sci-fi and superheroes, punctuating the jokes with his impression of a nerd from an ’80s movie. Never mind that some of the funniest comics working today, such as Patton Oswalt and Chris Hardwick, are avowed geeks who don’t fit the old models of what it means to love fantasy arcana. To a certain generation of wags, nerds will always be reducible to Urkel.

To be fair, O’Brien’s nerd impressions have always been in quotation marks. One of The Simpsons episodes O’Brien wrote in the ’90s, “Homer Goes To College,” brilliantly plays off the clichéd version of jocks and nerds from campus comedies, subverting (some) of Homer Simpson’s media-fed expectations of college cliques. Still, whenever I see this Revenge Of The Nerds version of geekery replicated, I’m reminded of Harvey Pekar’s comic-book story about his VA hospital co-worker Toby Radloff, and Radloff’s obsession with Revenge Of The Nerds. When Pekar finally sees the movie, he gets aggravated that a guy like Radloff, who lives with his mom and has Asperger’s Syndrome, believes that he has anything in common with rich, handsome college kids who just happen to be wearing dowdy clothes and glasses on their way to becoming millionaires. Pekar had a point. Radloff is who he is, but for decades, “nerds” in the mass media have been artificial, self-reflecting constructions, with only a tangential relation to reality. 

There’s been more nuance to the depiction of nerds in movies and on television in recent years, but it remains a complicated issue, as comedy writers try to reference the familiar. The Big Bang Theory is one of the most popular shows on TV, but it’s also one of the most divisive, because of its mix of the broad and the particular. The quartet of nerd buddies at the show’s center are differentiated from each other by their quirks—they’re not generic—and a few of them even have girlfriends. But in last week’s episode “The Bakersfield Expedition,” those girlfriends visited a comic-book store, in a scene that represented The Big Bang Theory at its best and worst. The worst: The proprietor had to explain to his dumbstruck customers that these were just women, and thus “nothing you haven’t seen in movies or in drawings.” The best: The proprietor suggested to the women that they might enjoy the comic book Fables, which is a specific and appropriate recommendation. The Big Bang Theory has been criticized as the nerd equivalent of minstrelsy by some, but its writers do know their subject, and do try to flesh out the stereotypes, even if they still lean on those stereotypes way too heavily.

Ultimately, I can’t be too annoyed by The Big Bang Theory, because it’s responsible for the character of Sheldon Cooper, the Aspie-esque astrophysicist played masterfully by Jim Parsons. Parsons and the show’s writers have very carefully avoided labeling Sheldon as having an ASD, because they’ve said they don’t want to be limited by what an autistic person would or wouldn’t do. But by not defining Sheldon, they’ve inadvertently captured an important aspect of autism, which is that the disorder has common tendencies, but flexible boundaries. Sheldon is an exaggerated version of a person with Asperger’s, but his fussiness is very familiar to those of us with family members on the spectrum. His rare moments of joy are just as familiar—and welcome, after so many years of autists being depicted as emotionless. In “The Bakersfield Expedition,” Sheldon reprograms his roommate’s GPS to deliver facts and quizzes about the interstate highway system, and during the scene where the Sheldon-voiced GPS explains the interstate numbering system, my wife and I shook our heads, because we’ve heard our own son deliver that same monologue from the backseat multiple times during long car trips.

Five years ago, when my son turned 6, I wrote an essay for this site called “Rain Man Revisited,” in which I lamented that movies and TV episodes about autism tend to treat the autistic as aliens in our midst, defined only by their family members, who spend their lives waiting for their autists to say “I love you.” The situation has vastly improved since then, even beyond Sheldon Cooper. The HBO movie Temple Grandin did justice to an icon in the autism community, showing Grandin as a complicated person with accomplishments and pleasures as well as limitations. Community, The Middle, and Parenthood have created distinctive ASD characters in the pop-culture-consumed Abed Nadir, the obsessive-compulsive bookworm Brick Heck, and the inadvertently insensitive Max Braverman. And Ryan Cartwright’s performance as the autistic superhero Gary Bell on Alphas has been one of the truest I’ve yet seen, accurate in the autist’s at-times-frustrating inability to control his own quirks while also allowing Gary to be amused and amusing on his own terms.

The key to the success of all of these characters is that the people who’ve brought them to life haven’t stopped at a costume or a funny voice. They’ve looked for the humanity, and haven’t treated these characters as unknowable, mockable weirdoes. And don’t think it hasn’t made a difference in the way real people understand and appreciate what it means to be autistic. My son is 11 years old now, in sixth grade, and thus far in his school career, his classmates have treated him with a combination of awed respect and genuine affection, rather than as a figure of fun or a victim of bullying. Maybe we’ve just been lucky in that regard—or maybe we owe a debt of thanks to Gary Bell, Max Braverman, Brick Heck, Abed Nadir, and Sheldon Cooper.