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Geek Fraternities: Nerds 'R Us?

January 25, 2007 By:
Zorik Pesochinsky, JE Feature
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Anyone who owns (and actually wears) a "Geeks Are Hot" T-shirt can tell you that the dictionary definition of a geek -- "a stupid or inept person" -- is passé.

Call them geeks, dorks or nerds, those once-uncool people ostracized for loving comics, obscure card games and computer code have loads of allure these days. Socially awkward Seth Cohen on the now-canceled TV show "The O.C.," for example, has become a huge hit.

Twenty-year-old Beatrice Filenger of Brooklyn, N.Y., has dated lots of jocks, preppies and bad boys. Now Filenger -- who is tanned and gorgeous, the type of girl geeks hang posters of in their rooms -- says that she likes the idea of dating nerds.

She prefers someone who is "intelligent and interesting, and quirky, in a cute and funny way," as she puts it.

Per the longtime stereotype, those who get the label are interested in things most other people their age deem weird: Japanese-animated comics; Dungeons & Dragons games, and fantasy card games like "Magic: The Gathering." The Converse sneaker -- old-fashioned lace-ups in a world of sleeker sports shoes -- is part of the uniform.

But Filenger cares less about those trappings, and more about other things nerds are often into, like school.

"Girls have to realize they want guys, like dorks, that are not into themselves," she said. "They want guys that are into things that matter -- guys that have goals."

Think Google creators Sergey Brin and Larry Page. While being interviewed by The New York Times, they reportedly played with Legos.

More Status in College
Nerds were first thrown into the limelight during the first dot-com era in the 1990s, when some became multimillionaires. Intelligence and hard work were suddenly popular on campus.

Also, tastes change between high school and college. High school senior Alina Mikhaylova, 17, an ex-cheerleader from Long Island, N.Y., who is striving to be homecoming queen, said that she could "never" date a dork.

"They are not into the same things as me," she mentioned.

Mikhaylova, who says her priorities include partying and drinking, noted that geeks "don't wear name brands." And, she said, "their clothing is worn out."

Nerds attain more status in college, when students start accepting the idea that people who enjoy different things can be worth knowing, according to sociologists.

Good Times, Bad Times
Lori Kendall, a professor at the University of Illinois and the author of Nerd Nation: Images of Nerds in U.S. Popular Culture, noted that societal perceptions of nerdism wax and wane.

"In the 1980s and early '90s, computer use was becoming more ubiquitous, and people were marveling over the success of computer entrepreneurs," explained Kendall.

That brought phrases like "revenge of the nerds" and "triumph of the nerds" into article and movie titles.

"It was a bit more okay to be knowledgeable about and care about computers," she added.

That faded for a while.

But now, nerds are again in -- sort of.

"New uses of the nerd stereotype are playful and ironic," said Kendall, citing Best Buy's "Geek Squad" ads as an example. "But they are clearly relying on a lingering stigma."

So, she continued, "on the one hand, nerds are now held up as useful (Geek Squad will come fix your computer), but still different and perhaps awkward, asocial and sartorially challenged. The same set of stereotypical nerdy characteristics is still familiar, and held up as something not to aspire to, even if some elements are admirable."

Weird Al Yankovic's music video "White and Nerdy" was Kendall's example for that argument. But that's a persona -- and people see through it.

"You can't pretend to like video games," said Neil Shah, 20, a student at New York University, who likewise calls himself a nerd.

"A guy is who he is. There are things that he loves."

To punctuate the point, Shah stormed into a bar one recent evening with his hair messy and untamed. He looked as though he'd dressed in the dark. He wore his signature Converse sneakers (he owns only Converse), a pair of tight dark jeans, a simple ribbon belt and an olive-green thermal under a wrinkled polo the color of a "screamin' green" Crayola.

He walked up to his friends, and nervously asked two of them:

"How do I look?"

"Like a dork," one of them answered.

"But hot!" yelled the other.

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