Man-Child: Derogatory term used to describe an adult male who is mentally and emotionally immature.
Nerd: A highly-intelligent individual devoted to intellectual or esoteric pursuits, usually at the cost of social acceptance.
Being a man who was raised in both the ’80s and the ’90s, I’ve experienced and witnessed the evolution of the term “nerd” first-hand. Films such as 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds established the stereotypical appearance of the nerd: Bespectacled, socially inept, genius intellect and a near-obsessive interest in anything that wasn’t considered “cool” or popular (like computers, books, cult-classic TV/movies or video games). Oh yeah, they also didn’t leave home without their pocket-protectors.
The 1990’s high school television series Saved by the Bell didn’t do much to help this demographic. If anything, it magnified and perpetuated the nerd’s stereotypical image as male (irrespective of race) geniuses who were fair game for the socially dominant. I say “fair game” because most nerds were depicted as wimps or passive-aggressive in the face of unprovoked confrontation, almost always lacking in the forceful violence or defensiveness that would most likely put their tormentors on their prissy little intellectually-devoid asses.
Currently, the TV series The Big Bang Theory holds court as the paradigm of nerd culture, with the character of Dr. Sheldon Cooper being who mainstream culture quickly associates with my demographic. Because comic books are a huge proponent of that series, I’ve had several people ask me, from my father to my co-workers, if all comic-book fans are like Sheldon Cooper. The answer is no, though I’ve met some who come close. That character lacks empathy and seems to be stricken with Asperger’s syndrome. Beyond that, he’s a fictional character and therefore, shouldn’t be the face of nerd culture.
Because they deviate from what’s considered ‘normal’, nerds are essentially the odd-men-out, the outsiders. Having that kind of status makes people turn quickly into bullies when they need a scapegoat, seizing on nerds like witch-hunters because of their differences. Sex was always a drawback for the nerd. Like the man-child, they share a level of social ineptitude with the opposite sex (read: “Game”). As a result, both groups found it easier to access and masturbate to easily-accessible pornography rather than work up the courage to talk to a female that they like. In recent years, the term “nerd” has become less of a pejorative and much more accepted with aspects of nerd culture now having widespread approval. The box-office success of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and several comic-book adaptations have now rendered the nerd as ‘cool’ to an extent. This freed the nerd to be more expressive without having to don a Steve Urkel-esque uniform as well as allowing men with closeted nerd tendencies to finally embrace their inner freak. It’s also interesting to note that the same adults who would bully and assault nerds now want to be part of the demographic while still slightly denigrating it at the same time. You can spot these pretentious individuals by looking at their style of dress (an X-Men shirt with skinny jeans and a $200 pair of Jordan’s? C’mon, give me a fuckin’ break) and their penchant for claiming to enjoy obscure pop-culture. I think of these people as infiltration units (like Arnold Scharzenegger’s T-800 character from the Terminator series): They may look like us to a point, but they don’t know anything to truly be one of us.
So too with the appearance of attractive women at annual Comic-Con events. I look at them doing the cosplay and can’t help but to wonder if they’re present because they’re actually fans, because someone paid them to be there or because they want to mock and tease the fanboy crowd. A further testament to this is when these kind of women act all self-deprecating because they were engaging in activities that are typically associated with nerds (“Oh my God, I am like *such* a nerd! I watched The Goonies last night instead of bar-hopping with my girlfriends!”). You think that makes you a nerd? It doesn’t, it just means that you chose to be alone and watch a film that you consider to be a guilty pleasure in front of your friends. The term “guilty pleasure” implies insecurity and that you actually give more than 1/5th of a damn about what people think of your tastes. You shouldn’t.
So how do I classify myself? A nerd. I have an interest in comic books that my peers were quick to deride as “obsessive” when I was a child; I’m an avid reader, I watch and collect a plethora of movies and TV shows, I still buy CDs, and have a penchant for novelty shirts. But here’s the thing: I’m also an adult who understands the value of self-reliance. I own my own house, pay my bills, I take care of myself and cultivate interests that are just as practical as they are useful (like cooking). But despite my self-classification, I share similarities with the prototypical man-child.
Like what, you ask? Well, for one, I have never been in a serious relationship with the opposite sex. Not for lack of trying, but because I’ve been Mark Zuckerberg-ed so many times in the past, I kind of gave up and no longer view not having a girlfriend as something that makes me defective. If anything, it’s a blessing: My heart and, more importantly, the contents of my wallet and bank accounts are safe and secure. Plus, it’s allowed me to develop my intellect without the hindrance of emotionally-driven irrationality. Yes, I know how misogynistic I sound, but consider this: When women bitch about how stupid and horrible they think we men are, no one calls it for what it is: Sexism. Instead, they get encouragement to continue doing so. Which brings me to another characteristic that nerds and man-children share: While nerds and man-children sometimes intersect, they’re not one and the same. They do, however, fall under the fanboy umbrella. The operative word in that sentence is “fanboy”. Our world is like a tree-house club with an invisible sign out front that reads “No Girls Allowed”. I think that the defensiveness and exclusion of women is a reaction to them not accepting us for who and how we are. It’s like a childish amalgamation of Fight Club and a group of elementary school boys sharing Playboy magazines with each other.
We often retreat into our male-oriented interests (be it comic books, mass media, video games, comic conventions, hip-hop, Maxim magazine, late-night Cinemax softcore porn, pro-wrestling, etc.) because they’re safe havens from having to interact with the opposie gender. Don’t get it twisted, though: Despite never having had a girlfriend, I’ve had sex sporadically since I was 18-years-old. But I understand first-hand how all that sexual tension gets projected and displaced in said interests. In many ways, we navigate through those interests seeking the woman of our dreams since fantasy is more easier to deal with than reality. It’s like that Richard Matheson quote: “…imagination is the only truth. Because it cannot be contradicted except by other imaginations.”
I have friends and relatives who fall under the definition of a man-child. What they all have in common is an appalling lack of motivation, no job, a pot-addiction, a child-like enthusiasm for video games, and complacent parents who spoil/enable them and don’t encourage them to do anything that even remotely resembles leaving the nest. Some of them even have children of their own. Unlike some nerds, all man-children suffer from arrested development. They’re pathologically enthralled with reliving their childhoods over and over again. For them, time truly is a flat circle. Also, they tend to maintain the same style of dress they’ve had since high school. When I was 26-years-old, a psychologist told me that my urban style of casual dress (Chuck Taylor sneakers, loose-fitting jeans with a wallet chain, and a Ghostbusters hoodie) is that of my teenage self. I still dress the same now, but that’s not how I dressed in high school. That’s how I wish I dressed in high school. Considering how most men my age dress these days (I may have skinny genes, but I’ll never wear skinny jeans), I choose to dress in what makes me look presentable and feel comfortable. It’s also a reaction to the acceptable male fashion trends that demote individuality down to the level of conformity that I harbor the utmost disdain for.
However, the image of nerd-chic is exemplified by Robert Downey, Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark in the Ironman/Avengers films. A self-described genius/playboy/billionaire/philanthropist, Stark is possessed of the wit and physicality to back up his gumption. He’s what male nerds and fanboys alike wish themselves to be. But again, Tony Stark exists only in the world of fiction. A world that reshapes itself in accordance to fantasy.
In closing, this article was more of a compare-and-contrast than an actual battle of superiority. Being a nerd, my natural inclination is to give the benefit of the doubt to my own. I will say that what separates my group from this:
…is a sense of responsibility and improvement. Most male nerds can evolve, but all man-children remain stagnant until something impactful forces them out of their second childhoods. And with the societal acceptance of the former group comes three words from me: MUTANT AND PROUD. Winner: NERDS!