ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 12/15/09
It was perhaps best announced by Reed Richards, a.k.a. “Mr. Fantastic” in last summer’s Fantastic Four sequel. A rough and rude army general tells the stretchable hero that there is only one quarterback. Then the man smirks and says, “But you didn’t play football in high school, did you Richards?” The super team leader responds,.
You’re right, I didn’t. I stayed in and studied like a good little nerd. And fifteen years later, I’m one of the greatest minds of the 21st century, I’m engaged to the hottest girl on the planet, and the big jock who played quarterback in high school—well he’s standing in front of me asking for my help.
But this is only one of many examples of a trend in television and movies in which nerds, geeks and dweebs are finally having their day. My question, as always, is what does it mean?
It is the millennium of the dork. The nerds are finally having their revenge. No less than half a dozen geeks are main characters in television shows with more appearing in primary or secondary roles in movies. TV favorites include Ugly Betty, which centers around a young woman who works in the highest ranks of the fashion industry. Only this girl wears thick glasses and a size 12 dress, has braces on her teeth big enough to pick up radio signals from space, and possesses no fashion sense whatsoever. Also taking center stage in the show Chuck is Chuck Bartowski, a computer-whiz member of the “Nerd Herd” at an electronics store where he works with numerous misfit friends. Chuck’s life takes a turn when he subconsciously absorbs the database information of several government intelligence agencies, and he enters a secret dual existence of geek on the one hand and super spy on the other. He is accompanied by a gorgeous blonde agent who falls in love with the likeable misfit. America’s most loved television nerd is the favorite in the ensemble cast of Heroes. He is Hiro Nakamura, a slightly chubby, nerd-glasses-wearing, Japanese office worker whose child-like enthusiasm, comic book idealism, and awkward social skills stand off wonderfully against the fact that he is a super human being who can freeze and travel through time.
Recent films featuring nerds as heroes or their sidekicks include Live Free or Die Hard in which Bruce Willis’s tough-cop character John McClean only succeeds because a computer-geek guides him through a world of internet terrorism. Reed Richards, as mentioned above, saves the day in Fantastic Four, and Shia LeBeouf is the central character in Transformers, where he plays a high school E-bay entrepreneur desperate to get a car and figure out how to talk to girls.
I could definitely name more in TV and movies both: Reaper, The IT Crowd, Miss/Guided, Aliens in America, Big Bang Theory, Harold and Kumar, Galaxy Quest, Dodge Ball, even the nerdy characters of The Office. But this is enough to prove the obvious: the trend is there. The geeks have inherited TV and movie screens. What does it mean?
The Truth of the Humble Package
On a cultural level the trend may be nothing more than the possibility that many nerdy people, so in love with comic books, computers, movies and TV shows, have gone to Hollywood and are now writing those movies and TV shows, though I tend to think it represents the coming together of two ideas: first the idea of the outcast—Americans love stories about individualistic people on the outside who find a way to triumph. Second is the idea of our increasing dependence on computers—our smart, cultural misfits have found their fit. They’ve entered the mainstream as the people we rely on to save us from the dangers of computer lock-ups, web based viruses, and identity thieves. We used to be a nation that mistrusted “smart” people. We are becoming a culture that realizes we can’t live without them.
That said, let me add a spiritual lesson we can learn from the humble form of the dweeb, and this may be another, unconscious, reason for rise of the nerd-hero. The lesson? Looks can be deceiving. Consider how Isaiah described Christ:
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance
that we should desire him. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was
despised, and we esteemed him not. (53:2b, 3b, NIV)
In life, the bigger, stronger and prettier certainly do seem to win out. But the Bible says that’s just the way things appear. Christ won the greatest of all victories ever won—he conquered death and hell.
But, as Paul tells us, he did so in a humble appearance:
taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men…
He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death
on a cross [the result being that God exalted Christ and bestowed on Him]
the name which is above every name, [and to which]
EVERY KNEE WILL BOW. (Phil 2:7-10, NASB)
I would never call Christ a nerd, but the lesson of geekdom for us is a truly biblical one: the humble Man of no appearance or esteem, was glorified in His humility. And we are to be like Christ. In that sense, perhaps the geek shall inherit the earth. As a believer with life long nerdish leanings, I take comfort in the possibility
(First appeared in The Lookout April, 2008