PERFORMING NERD: THE NERD STEREOTYPE IN AMERICAN POPULAR CULTURE
Boynton, Michael John
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The primary function of the nerd stereotype—like any other stereotype—is to reinforce and reify cultural hegemony, to delineate who has access to power and who does not. In this dissertation, I argue that the nerd stereotype performs this function in two essential ways: the heteronormative dynamic and the exclusionary dynamic. As a sort of social script, the stereotype reifies compulsory heteronormativity by denouncing those who, in a Butlerian sense, misperform their gender/sexuality with regard to prescribed masculine/feminine behaviors. This heteronormative dynamic is, then, at its core an anti-intellectual one, using prescriptive notions of masculinity and femininity to demonize intelligence and critical thinking. The nerd stereotype also simultaneously operates to ostracize a number of marginalized identities (women, blacks, Asians, Jews, etc.) from educational, scientific, and intellectual empowerment via the exclusionary dynamic, while allowing certain upper-class, straight white males access to that empowerment. Taken together, these two dynamics often seem in paradoxical conflict, simultaneously denouncing intelligence (mocking nerdy white males), yet problematically reserving that intelligence as the province of hegemonic white masculinity. In this contradictory fashion, these two complex dynamics are consistently reflected in the persistent performance of nerd representations as both comic sexual failures and predominantly (although not exclusively) white males. With this configuration of the stereotype in mind, this dissertation examines the ideological origins and popularization of the nerd stereotype in U.S. popular culture from 1945 to 1989, its most formative period. A genealogical survey (or cultural history) of various performance texts (film, television, magazines, etc.) that include stereotypical nerds—from early issues of Archie Comics to the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds—this study focuses on how the nerd stereotype reflects specific moments of identity politics and anti-intellectualism in particular cultural contexts. Using performance studies, cultural studies, and recent scholarship on white masculinity as a theoretical guide for analysis, this work arrives at the conclusion that the nerd stereotype is not only a vitally important facet of American popular culture in a general sense, but also that this stereotype reinforces a general anti-intellectual sentiment while simultaneously scripting intelligence as the province of hegemonic identities.