The Circle of Masculinity
Geeky guys who pride themselves on fighting stereotypical masculinity with their intelligence are actually just reconfigurations of their jock predecessors.
By Tylah Silva, Emerson College
Everyone knows that guy in class.
You know, the one who sits in the back row and isolates himself from the rest of the group. He’s scrawny and unassuming, but then, when the professor begins the discussion, he doesn’t shut the hell up. He’s always got some obscure fact to bring up, and his speech is so conflated with masturbatory buzzwords that you wonder if they’re necessary at all (hint: they’re not). He’s practically leaning forward in his desk, hanging off everyone’s words, ready to strike in order to offer a countering point. He’s the reason why the word mansplaining exists.
It’s not necessarily his fault that he turned out this way. All roads in life inevitably either lead back to the patriarchy of high school, and this example isn’t that different. All that intellectual bolstering can be pinpointed to the classic nerd vs. jock rivalry.
It’s obvious how jocks relate to the patriarchy; the stereotype is that they’re large, muscular men who play manly sports, drink and have sex with as many women as they can. It’s textbook masculinity, and as a result, the jock rides out on top of the high school hierarchy at the detriment of women and nerds. Nerds, on the other hand, usually don’t adhere to the masculine norm, or so it seems. Nerds are diminutive, virgins and often the butt of the joke.
However, there’s a whole genre of cinema that works to subvert this stereotype, one so prevalent in fact that the storyline has become cliché. It’s called the “give geeks a chance” trope, and happens when the geek in the story is ostracized by his peers until he proves himself worthy, often by intellectual pursuits, and wins the girl in the end. The trope plays out to prove that not only is the geek better than the jock in multiple ways, but that he’s also virile enough to have just as much sex with women as the jock can. And the way the geek achieves all this is through the mental prowess that he already possesses. Therefore, in order for nerds to compensate for their emasculation at the hands of the jocks, they use their intelligence as a way to assert their masculinity.
Examples of this exact storyline are played out over and over again in movies like “Weird Science,” “Revenge of the Nerds,” “American Pie” and “She’s Out of My League.” The genre of teenage dramedy includes the trope in every single film.
Arguably, “give geeks a chance” is just a fantasy to make up for the years in high school in which these nerds were bullied. However, this argument would have held more water in the past, before geek chic became a thing and nerd culture became socially acceptable. Take San Diego Comic Con, for example; in the ’80s, no one would be caught dead at Comic Con for fear of being considered a nerd. Today, Comic Con is not just the mecca for geeks who were bullied in high school, but also the yearly go-to for everyone to see their favorite actors embracing geek culture.
After this cultural shift, being an intelligent geek is no emasculating. Instead, expansive knowledge of “Game of Thrones” and a deep analysis of Hendry David Thoreau is seen as sexy and powerful. Jocks, on the other hand, only have the masculine shelf life of those few years in high school and maybe college if they’re good enough at sports. After that, there are few opportunities to act like muscular peacocks. The nerds, however, reach their peak after high school. The college classroom acts as a way to show off their know-how, and then, in the work-world, their ingenuity skyrockets them to fame and fortune, just like legendary nerds like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
The cruelest part of intellectual masculinity and success, however, is that it’s only accessible to men. Women are often excluded from this boy’s club, just like they are from geek culture in general. There are very few movies out there giving the same redemption arc to women as they do to men; and, if a movie does show geeky girls’ worth, it’s only through making-over her appearance and fundamentally changing who she is, like in “The DUFF.”
In “The DUFF,” audiences are supposed to believe that Mae Whitman could ever be considered the ugly girl that no one wants to date. Later, only after a physical transformation where she puts on makeup and changes how she dresses, does the high school world find her socially acceptable. While the geek guy only needs to show that he’s been acceptable all along and that everyone else was wrong, the geek girl must change something about herself.
The double standard of intellectual power shows that the masculine validity men feel from being smart is toxic in the same way physical masculinity is for jocks. They’re both exclusive, they both objectify women and they both rely on old ideas of heteronormativity and social acceptance. They both also suck.
But if you’re a guy coming to grips with your toxic intellectual masculinity, and you feel personally attacked by this whole idea, don’t be. There’s nothing wrong with being smart or geeky. Just remember to be a Chandler, not a Ross.
On “Friends,” Ross is the smart, geeky guy who doesn’t miss a chance to show everyone how much he knows about everything and often puts down his love interest, Rachel, by making her feel stupid. Chandler, on the other hand, also shows interest in geeky things like “Star Trek,” and though he comments very little about his career, Chandler initially works in statistical analysis and data reconfiguration for a multinational corporation.
Chandler, however, doesn’t feel the need to always shout the fact that he’s smarter than everyone else. In fact, he later takes a job as a junior copywriter at an ad agency because it makes him happy. The lower status would make any other macho man feel lesser, but not Chandler. In his relationship with Monica, he even treats her as his equal, if not someone greater than himself. Chandler is humble and confident in his career and relationship, whereas Ross is constantly reasserting his intelligence and takes ten seasons and ten years to find a working relationship with the very same girl he demeans and asks to put her career on hold for them to be together.
So, be humble, be smart and be kind. These things aren’t mutually exclusive to the other, and men don’t have to go around overcompensating for the masculinity high school jocks “took” from them. Because in the end, intellectuals only wind up becoming the very same bullies they are trying to get back at.