On Nerd Culture and Misogyny

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Brianna Suslovic

I'm an awkwardly tall girl. Reproductive justice, desserts, and intersectionality are keys to my heart.

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It’s time to reframe the conversation that’s been happening in response to Scott Aaronson’s blog comment, where he stated that as a male nerd, the concept of male privilege wasn’t a model that worked for him. In response to those who challenge his male privilege, Aaronson writes, “I suspect the thought that being a nerdy male might not make me “privileged”—that it might even have put me into one of society’s least privileged classes—is completely alien to your way of seeing things.” He continues on to describe his own psychological suffering as an adolescent, suffering which he attributes to feminist texts that ascribe a “propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment” in all males. Having spent years living in fear of this propensity, of his own sexuality, Aaronson argues that his male existence was far from privilege.

Scott_Aaronson_retouchedPause. Instead of getting caught up in the competitive semantics of privilege, it’s possibly more worthwhile to apply a different mindset to Aaronson’s experiences. Instead of worrying about who is the least privileged, let’s talk about how patriarchal ideals and norms harm us all – regardless of the male privilege that we may or may not possess.

In clarifying edits to his original commentary, Aaronson describes how he is upset by the culture that creates guilt and fear in male nerds, framing himself as a feminist who somehow emerged from his trying youth as a shy male nerd with these liberal beliefs intact. “I reminded myself, every day, that no, there’s no conspiracy to make the world a hell for shy male nerds.”

Really? But what if that conspiracy also made the world a hell for everyone who doesn’t conform to idealized American masculinity? Perhaps conspiracy isn’t the right word, but maybe patriarchy is. I wonder if male nerds feel scorned and bullied because they don’t espouse the aggression, belligerence, and lack of emotional vulnerability that is valued and expected of males in the U.S.These patriarchal values can clearly be detrimental, but perhaps their detriments reach beyond the male nerd experience.

Jeopardy champion Arthur Chu raises this point in his article for The Daily Beast. Nerdy nice guys are suffering, unable to gain social acceptance and riddled with shame. But what’s at the root of their suffering? Hint: it’s not their popular female objects of lust, but rather, the system that we’re all operating within. As Chu points out, “Fixating on a woman from afar and then refusing to give up when she acts like she’s not interested is, generally, something that ends badly for everyone involved. But it’s a narrative that nerds and nerd media kept repeating.”

Why this narrative, over and over again? Clearly, being a shy male nerd in lust with an attractive female object is a popularized fantasy narrative. It’s also a narrative that promotes harassment and stalking. Is there a way to zoom out on this narrative and understand what’s at stake for the other players? In other words, I wonder – are shy male nerds the only ones who suffer when falling outside of gendered societal expectations?

What happens when women decide to espouse the aggression and confidence that define masculinity? They get labeled “bossy,” “whiny,” or “bitch.” Clearly, gender matters when we think about social behaviors and their consequences.

What about trans* and gender non-conforming communities? When individuals transgress the incredibly limiting societal expectations for the binary “male-female” genders, the consequences can be dire. Not only do trans* and gender non-conforming individuals attempt suicide at a higher rate than cisgender individuals, but they are also more likely to experience physical violence. Recognizing the physical and emotional suffering of this community is just as important as recognizing the emotional suffering of male nerds.

These are just a few examples of the restrictive nature of patriarchal gender roles, roles that have created rigid behavioral boundaries for all of us. As we’re expected to fit cleanly within these boundaries, so many of us realize that parts of us spill over or can’t be neatly contained.

It’s alarming to me that male nerds can recognize this as a culture problem without understanding how feminist thinking can help us all. When we ask you to check your male privilege, we aren’t denying your life’s struggles or suffering. Rather, we’re asking you to listen to the ways in which we’ve been structurally disadvantaged instead of talking over us. All of our struggles are valid, but recognizing our differences is what allows us to fight oppressive systems comprehensively, for everyone’s benefit. Male nerds have the potential to act as allies in the fight against the patriarchy, as soon as they understand that we’re fighting the same fight.