Smart Jocks and Buff Nerds

Today we have another link from Church which was destined for a link post, but kind of blossomed into its own entity. You see, Doree Shafrir writes an article for the New York Observer that introduces me to a phenomenon that’s news to me: The body-toning of the American nerd.

I hadn’t realized this was a wide enough phenomenon to warrant a whole article, but I suppose Doree’s not necessarily the only one covering this angle. Over at Bootleg (in another article from Church!), Trevor Seigler writes of the “Revenge of the Jocks,” suggesting that nerds actually have a lot in common with athletes. I think there’s some conflation here between athletes and sports fans (including the fantasy footballers and statistics junkies Trevor seems to allude to), so not everyone might agree with the opening claim that “every nerd is just a frustrated athlete.”

Nevertheless, the idea is floating around that geeks have moved on to the final frontier of cultural dominance, the one realm once thought denied to us. I suppose that when you’ve got a fit nerd writing books about nerddom (as with Ben Nugent, author of the upcoming American Nerd: The Story of My People, quoted in the Observer article), that may popularize the notion that the nerd of the 21st century can be just as ripped as the jocks.

When I first read that article, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. To some extent, I’m still not. I wonder how much of it is a manufactured phenomenon to make a story (but I mean this with no personal offense to the author—as a kind of reflex, I wonder about that for most “lifestyle” or “culture” magazine articles I read). Still, there’s enough going on between the lines of those people quoted here that it actually reminds me somewhat of my own interviews and research. At the heart of it, it’s really about how the recent mainstream acceptability of geekiness puts some nerds in a position where they feel self-conscious about conforming to certain mainstream standards. They want to fit in, but they don’t want to give up what made them geeky.

This can present conflicts. One woman quoted in the article recalls of a guy she dated: “I was shocked when his shirt came off to reveal washboard abs. I think it was sort of a response to being a total fucking geek in high school and getting picked on a lot.” By the same token, a novelist was quoted as commenting over email that “glam nerds” have “appropriated everything we real nerds ever had, but they look good too. Classic imperialism.” I suppose this implies that to be a real nerd, according to some, you can’t just give up what got you picked on in high school.

The author of the article similarly notes:

The only way for the buff nerd to participate publicly in physical fitness is in some sort of vaguely ironic organized sports effort, like the weekly football game in Prospect Park played by an assortment of Brooklyn literary types. Also acceptable: kickball, dodgeball (particularly at free McCarren Pool indie rock concerts), croquet, pétanque, bocce, ping-pong, four-square or potato sack races. But to take any of these games too seriously is to reveal one’s latent competitiveness, which is seemingly at odds with the values of this cohort; those are jock values!

In the end, this isn’t really flying with some of the commenters. Some just offer terse words of disapproval about the article overall, though one takes the time to elaborate:

So, in summation: Status concious douchebags judge others to be status concious douchebags, want to look like those they judge to be status concious douchebags, but don’t want to look like that type of douchebag, so they create lame meta-justifications for engaging in said douchtivity. As a book-reading,225 bencher(thats right-open pride!), I strap on my +12 armor of hypocrisy, climb one of the tallest towrs in the city, cry, “DOUUCHHEE!!!”,and fling my body from the heights. Great C’thulhu rises from the ocean, the stars go out, and all chant Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn…

This response seems sincere enough to me, but somehow I suspect that the unabashed bodybuilder/Lovecraftian behind it may be uncommon in his open embrace of both of these worlds.

I think the long and the short of this is that people—geeks and non-geeks alike—are still struggling with the question of whether we’re talking about a culture that is to be admired or derided. Anything that we can apply to this culture that makes it fit with our existing notions of acceptability helps make this inner struggle feel easier to manage. So, okay, geeks are getting buff—maybe it’s cool to be a geek after all. Of course, that’s still probably the exception rather than the rule. But the newsworthiness of a headline like “Americans question their right to judge others” remains dubious.

2 thoughts on “Smart Jocks and Buff Nerds

  1. You know, it could be a combination that right now society is on a trend of dichotomously branching towards the stereotypes of fit and obese. Perhaps it is that pressure and knowing it is easier to attract members of the opposite (or same) sex by working out. I know a decent cross section of women and a lot of them are looking for “hot” men who also have a lot of brains, and there are more and more nerds that fit into that category.

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