Could it Be? It’s Becoming Chic to be Geek
Mary Vanderlinden / Averett University


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The Chic Geeks of The Big Bang Theory

Alternative personifications appear on television with each new season, but few portrayals have had the kind of staying power as what we would define as the geek image. During the past few years, shows have emerged celebrating numerous characters who are do-gooders embodied by their own sense of self-confidence, desire for true knowledge, and a pivotal notion of what is best at that particular moment in time. Characters such as Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, Betty Suarez in Ugly Betty, and Dwight Shrute of The Office have aided in making this monumental step forward.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udPs4DbBJgM[/youtube]

Sheldon Cooper Explains Being Treed by a Chicken

For those of us who are self-proclaimed geeks these images are meaningful and have left us with a sense of justification: it is okay to embrace our quirky, socially inept side.

Television is a Socializing Mechanism
So why are such images so important? Simply, television plays a role in shaping our world and the inclusion of alternative personifications relates meaningful information to society. For years researchers have proven that television is a pervasive medium that affects the lives of individuals by developing their behaviors and decisions. Seminal research on this subject was performed in 1964 by DeFleur1 then followed by the likes of Christiansen (1979),2 Dates (1980),3 Abelman (1989),4 Elasmar, Hasegawa, and Brain (1999),5 and Chory and Corozza (2008)6 to name a few. Their findings align, showing that television provides us with ideas about the world and the people we meet. Elasmar et al. (1999) expressed this notion and wrote:

Television may teach general expectations of self and others and whether behaviors for self and others are appropriate. For example, for a young female teenager, the actress she admires can serve as a multipurpose model: a source of occupational aspiration, clothing style, hair design, and more.7

Such relational occurrences described do happen in real life and they are neither rare nor unique. Take for example Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor who told a similar story about her decision to study law.

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Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor was Influenced by Perry Mason

Proclaiming herself “a true media child,” Sotomayor said she was influenced and motivated by the fictional television attorney Perry Mason. Sotomayor explained, “I noticed that Perry Mason was involved in a lot of the same kinds of investigative work that I had been fascinated with … so I decided to become a lawyer”.8 Sotomayor’s admission lends credence to the notion that television is a powerful tool for informing a person’s decisions and behavior.

Too School for Cool
What research indubitably shows us is that the more characters appearing on television that are book smart, technology savvy, too school for cool, and accepted by their vicarious group of peers, the more society will acknowledge and be tolerant of our being: truly this is good news for any geek. Two such character portrayals that are blazing the trail are Dr. Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory who at one time was bested by an ornery chicken, and Dr. Spencer Reid, appearing on Criminal Minds and who attempted to share his knowledge of Dr. Who to impress an attractive young detective.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dTU4OF-pHE[/youtube]

Dr. Spencer Reid Attempting to Impress by Referencing Dr. Who

Room to Grow
Perhaps one of the most interesting developments of the geek genre is the fact that many shows are allowing these characters room to grow. Years ago geeks like Steve Urkel on Family Matters, a sitcom that aired from 1989 to 1997, never really got the girl and was relegated to a life of loneliness played out on 30-minute weekly television show.

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Geeks Like Steve Urkel Did Not Have Girlfriends

Though geek characters today are depicted as maintaining their frequent trips to the comic book store or annual pilgrimage to Comic-Con, they are now shown as engaging in a more rounded life. For example, in The Big Bang Theory the character Leonard Hofstadter dates his attractive neighbor and budding actress Penny. Further, the other characters on the show are matched with girl friends that complement their unique personalities and physical traits. To further make this point, Betty Suarez in Ugly Betty blossoms into a beautiful and talented woman who has found her way in the overly competitive and often hateful world of fashion magazine publishing. Here is a clip from a season finale illustrating this point:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gtRumB3HXQ[/youtube]

Betty blossoms while tackling the world of fashion magazine publishing

Television shows are indicative of the period in which they appear. For example the 1960s were marked by westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke, the decade of the ‘70s was known for social awareness in programming such as All in the Family and Maude as well as fantasy crime shows like Charlie’s Angels, sitcoms like The Cosby Show became the norm in the 1980s and so on. The question remains, will future writers refer to the new millennium as the decided era of the geek?

Image Credits:
1. ShareTV
2. The New Republic
3. wikia

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  1. DeFleur, L. M. (1964). Occupational roles as portrayed on television. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 28(1), 57-74. Retrieved from http://www.poq.oxfordjournals.org []
  2. Christiansen, J. B. (1979). Television role model influence and adolescent occupational goals. Human Communication Research, 5, 335-337. Retrieved from http://www.icahdq.org/publications/humancomm.asp []
  3. Dates, J. (1980). Race, racial attitudes and adolescent perceptions of Black television characters. Journal of Broadcasting, 24(4), 549-560. []
  4. Abelman, R. (1989). A comparison of Black and white families as portrayed on religious and secular television programs. Journal of Black Studies, 20(1), 60-79. []
  5. Elasmar, M., Hasegawa, K., & Brain, M. (1999). The portrayal of women in U.S. prime-time television. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 43(1), 20. []
  6. Chory, R. M., & Carozza, B. L. (2008, November). Television exposure and wishful identification as predictors of occupational self-efficacy, interests, and desires: The case of television doctors. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the NCA 94th Annual Convention, San Diego, CA. []
  7. Elasmar, M., Hasegawa, K., & Brain, M. (1999). The portrayal of women in U.S. prime-time television. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 43(1), 20.
    []
  8. American Bar Association (2000). Sonia Sotomayor: Raising the bar, pioneers in the legal profession, para. 5. Retrieved September 12, 2009, from http://www.abanet.org/publiced/hispanics.html American Bar Association, 2000 []

3 comments

  • The characters in today’s shows that are represented as geeks are making it easier to relate to and accept these geeks in general as a social norm. Stemming off your example with The Big Bang Theory, we are shown a whole group of geeks interacting and engaging with others that are not necessarily equal in social acceptance. What I think is to be appreciated the most, is how Sheldon and Penny, who are on opposite sides of a spectrum, are both learning to compromise, adapt, and eventually understand and from time to time, enjoy each other’s company. The show demonstrates that not all geeks are so extremely caught up in whatever it is they’re doing, that they lack the desire for social and sexual interaction as well as just good old fashioned fun. Each character has their own little quirks that even they have to tolerate or withstand that certain group member’s level of geekiness.

    I appreciate and enjoy this show for these reasons. These individuals aren’t shoved to the side or ignored merely because of their status. They are definitely still bullied, but the bullying is shown as coming from both outside and within the group. The bullying done by their colleagues is on a mental level, something they can take head on (bad pun), versus physical bullying done by the outsiders. It is shown that if you try to interact, respect, and get to know them, they really are people just like the rest of us. Not some alien species that only speaks in their native tongue (with the exception of a round of Klingon Boggle).

    The big point being, I don’t necessarily think that because of The Big Bang Theory, geeks are going to jump up and shout, “I’m proud to be a geek!” However, it also isn’t so detached from real life that others can’t relate to the characters. Even in such a way that they can pick out members of their own social group and match them up with those in the show. Will writers refer to the new millennium as the era of the geek? It’s a possibility. However, based on all the other shows out there, I’d call it the “Era of the Strange”. The overly excessive amount of reality shows to vampires and zombies, to meth making chemistry teachers, to forensic experts doubling as serial killers, to geeks getting lucky. There is definitely a big market of strangeness happening in the industry.

  • Your post really gets me to ask two things. First: How useful is a Geek, or any character’s “Geekiness”, in creating interesting/entertaining scenes for an audience? Second: If we like to identify with the characters we love most, are we all just becoming more collectively geeky?

    Considering the first question, a Geek has a lot to offer a developing plot. Geeks are able to accurately recall specific events (historical AND fictional), they have a vast assortment of hobbies and interests (which are extremely handy for writers to fall back on for inspiration), and because of their devotion to truth, Geeks are usually handy in suggesting the appropriate solution to any occurring conflict. We see plenty of examples of all of these in The Big Bang Theory; Sheldon often will cite an incredibly specific fact or study to turn the tables of conversation and change the direction of the show. One could argue his geeky characteristics keeps things fresh. All of the characters share a common interest in things like Star Wars, Star Trek and comic books, and many episodes revolve around the characters pursuing those interests. When you boil it down, Geeks are simply just valuable tools in building a well-conceived, interesting and quirky television show. The inherent creative license they come with is luxurious for writers.

    As for the second question I asked myself, I think we want to see more Geeks in TV because we are seeing more of the Geek in ourselves. As our technology has rapidly increased over the last century, our definition of what makes a person effective has changed. Back in the old days, a man that was good with his hands, stubborn and simple would go far because his culture called for it. Nowadays, with advancements in nearly every aspect of life (especially with the Internet), all knowledge has pretty much become accessible and the ones who know how to access it easiest are the most effective. As our own collective intrigue in technology increasing every day as a society, characters that explore and master these new technologies become heroes to us in some small way.

    Basically, I think you make an excellent observation in your post. While I’m not entirely sure if we are entering the Era of the Geek, we certainly are becoming geekier!

  • Sam Christopher

    The use of The Big Bang Theory as an example of geek-friendly television is interesting in this case because I’ve read a lot of backlash against The Big Bang Theory in geek communities. I’m both a geek and fan of the show myself, but I also don’t think it’s necessarily a show that serves the purpose of making geeks “cool”–while Sheldon and Leonard are the protagonists we sympathize with at every turn, it is true that many of the jokes are based on us laughing at them as geeks, rather than with them. I think it’s why Community has a struggling cult following while The Big Bang Theory is one of the most popular shows on television–while The Big Bang Theory invites non-geeks to laugh at the geeks, Community assumes a certain geek literacy and you’re more laughing with them. Take for instance that one of the central plots of the show is the comedy of a nerd trying to date a hot girl–that’s a relationship the show points to as being “odd” at every turn. Of course, I don’t want to diminish the role of introducing more geek vernacular and even a certain mainstream visibility to the geek subculture that the show has had–certainly by presenting these characters as three-dimensional, we sympathize with them and learn more about them as we laugh at them, but at the same time it can’t be ignored that The Big Bang Theory often seems to be more for an outside audience than an internal geek one. I don’t think the show is so much arguing that “Geek is chic” so much as “geek is funny.”

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