Another year, another shooting- not to trivialize this heartbreaking matter, of course, but to highlight that the best laid plans have yet to stop the phenomenon. News is continuing to trickle out of UCSB as the school, state, and country return to a place of mourning, and the op-ed sections continue to suggest solutions related to guns or mental health. Churches are returning to their prayers as well with the words “Lord have Mercy” fresh on their minds and hearts.
The dynamics of this most recent shooting are somewhat unique in that they’ve started an online conversation about nerd culture and misogyny. This shooter left behind explicit documentation blaming sexual frustration and the nerd vs. babe dichotomy as his motivation for his actions. That’s what most news sites say anyway, I’m trying to shy away from reading the material in question. And I’m also not convinced we should take the shooter’s word as to his own motivation for a spree killing. Regardless, the public persona of the shooter is one of a tormented nerdy soul perpetually teased with the allure of an attractive woman that refuses to acknowledge his existence. Again, whether that’s a true persona or one filtered through the news desk of a media outlet, I’m not sure.
Without commenting any more on the shooting, I would like to share this doozy of a confession prompted by the event. 11 time Jeopardy champion and Daily Beast contributor Arthur Chu shares his thoughts on the shooting and how it relates to the nerd community in the aptly titled: “Your Princess is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds.” Chu helpfully deconstructs the quintessential fairytale close to awkward men of all ages: nerds can be with attractive women if they work hard at being nice.
With apologies to Big Bang Theory fans, this is all I want to say about The Big Bang Theory: When the pilot aired, it was 2007 and “nerd culture” and “geek chic” were on everyone’s lips, and yet still the basic premise of “the sitcom for nerds” was, once again, awkward but lovable nerd has huge unreciprocated crush on hot non-nerdy popular girl (and also has an annoying roommate).
This annoys me. This is a problem.
Because, let’s be honest, this device is old. We have seen it over and over again. Steve Urkel. Screech. Skippy on Family Ties. Niles on Frasier.
We (male) nerds grow up force-fed this script. Lusting after women “out of our league” was what we did. And those unattainable hot girls would always inevitably reject us because they didn’t understand our intellectual interest in science fiction and comic books and would instead date [arrogant] jocks. This was inevitable, and our only hope was to be unyieldingly persistent until we “earned” a chance with these women by “being there” for them until they saw the error of their ways.
To interject for a moment: as a male who dressed up as a Jedi to attend the Star Wars prequel premieres in the early 2000’s, this was my default strategy when interacting with the opposite sex as a teen and young adult. I’m sure others relate as well. But I digress.
But the overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end… Life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.
So what happens to nerdy guys who keep finding out that the princess they were promised is always in another castle? When they “do everything right,” they get good grades, they get a decent job, and that wife they were promised in the package deal doesn’t arrive? When the persistent passive-aggressive Nice Guy act fails, do they step it up to elaborate Steve-Urkel-esque stalking and stunts? Do they try elaborate Revenge of the Nerds-style ruses?…
We are not the lovable nerdy protagonist who’s lovable because he’s the protagonist. We’re not guaranteed to get [romanced] by the hot chick of our dreams as long as we work hard enough at it. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by “getting the girl” in the end. And when our clever ruses and schemes to “get girls” fail, it’s not because the girls are too stupid… or too shallow to play by those unwritten rules we’ve absorbed.
It’s because other people’s bodies and other people’s love are not something that can be taken nor even something that can be earned—they can be given freely, by choice, or not.
While the whole article by Chu is a thing of some thoughtfulness and honest confession, the overtones of works-righteousness he alludes to are low hanging fruit. Perhaps the uniquely American spin on misogyny is the element of “deserving” that Chu alludes to – the inability to see the other gender as a real people instead of an end or reward. Being a good, kind, supportive friend for the chance to win a pretty girl’s romance is a strategy, not a virtue. Even if they are less arrogant than the jocks, nerds also need a bit of help from Louis CK.
This is one of the pits of works righteousness – the work comes with the expectation of a reward, and on this side of paradise that causality can very much be a fiction. It’s especially a fiction when the reward comes in the form of other human beings and it’s not uniquely linked to the world of nerds either. Parents follow proper child-rearing techniques hoping to produce somewhat-stable adults. Teens abstain from sex until marriage expecting a glorious sex life with their spouse. The weight from that difficult first year of marriage or the child’s rocky road to adulthood is compounded ad infinitum when the economics of works righteousness are added to the mix. Chu nails it on the head with his summary about other people’s bodies and other people’s love – neither can be earned, because by definition, these things are given freely by choice. Grace is the operator here, and grace is the thing that can bring two fundamentally different and intuitively hostile people into union. As long as economics or works enters the relationship equation, then, as Will alluded to last week, the measure will become the target, and other people can only become means instead of ends.
Perhaps it’s time to let the term “friendzone” rest for a while.