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The 1980s: When Nerds Became Cool

By: Lazlo

The 1980's: When Nerds Became Cool

The 1980s was the era when nerds emerged from being perceived as unpopular losers to being heroes with their own unique popularity. As noted in the online Slate magazine article,"Nerd v. Nebbish":

"But the popular understanding of nerdiness--that a nerd is an uncool person--doesn't stand the test of time. In particular, it doesn't survive the 1980s, an era the New York Times deemed was characterized by "nerd chic." By the middle of the go-go decade, fashion magazines touted the popularity of nerd couture--plaid plants, horn rims, and oxford shirts buttoned all the way to the top. Further, witness the proliferation of '80s teen movies valorizing nerds: Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, and Real Genius, to name a few. Underlying this transformation of the nerd's image was a transformation of the nerd's economic status. With their entry into new high-tech industries, many nerds suddenly became millionerds."

("Nerd vs. Nebbish," Franklin Foer, Slate, July 12, 1998.)

During that decade, and perhaps coinciding with the advent of "teen movies," there seemed to be a great many nerd-oriented images on the movie screens. Some were not so flattering, but many others were actually quite sympathetic and even empowering. Here are a few examples:

Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

Revenge of the Nerds is an entertaining, albeit goofy, story of nerds triumphing over their enemies in a college setting. This film is very much an '80s teen flick, with all the positives and negatives of that genre.

The movie begins with two nerds, recently graduated from high school, heading off to college together. They expect college to be a different place from where they had come, a place that presented better opportunities for a brainy person. When they got there, they found out that it wasn't going to be so easy. Having just moved into their dorm room, they end up getting kicked out (along with all the rest of the dorm) to make room for the college's big jocks and preps, who had previously succeeded in burning down their own frat house.

After unsuccessfully trying to fit in to the college's greek system, the two nerds find themselves among a group of several other nerds who have also met the same fate. Having been through the same experience of rejection, this small group bonds together to find a place where they can all fit in. With their combined effort, they find an old run down house, which they renovate and call their own.

Things seem to be looking up, when they soon find themselves harassed by the same people who had previously rejected them, the popular jocks and preps of the college's greek system. In response, they decide to start their own nerd fraternity, and joining together with a sorority of nerds, they take on the establishment. Needless to say, after many twists and turns, they win in the end. Brains outwit brawn.

The end sequence of Revenge of the Nerds, culminating in an inspiring speech, is a classic. Its really about misfits and oddballs and people who just don't fit in finding their place in society and standing up for who they are. Its a message which should resonate with anyone who has ever felt different, regardless of whether one considers oneself a "nerd" or "geek" or "freak" or any other category.

Real Genius (1985)

Real Genius is definitely one of my favorite nerd-oriented movies. Its got both humor, and a triumphant ending, as well as some occasional moments of reflection on the nerd experience.

The movie deals with group of nerds at a college who are involved in scientific research. In particular, the movie focuses on the relationship between Mitch, the recent arrival to the group, and Chris Knight, who has been here a while. I, personally, have always enjoyed the interaction between Mitch, who is still tense and troubled by his past as a High School misfit, with Chris, who helps him to relax and feel comfortable with his precocious mind and creativity. Along the story's plot, we meet such characters as Jordan, the hyperkinetic female nerd, and Kent, who shows us all that there are nerds who are absolute jerks.

Throughout most of this movie, the action focuses on the interaction between the different nerds, who are working away at a project for their mentor Dr. Hathaway. But, later, when they find out the true nature of the project's evil purpose, they must work to correct the wrong that has been done. That's when he fun really starts. Rent the movie and see. I like this film for all the quirky little scenes it has which show that nerds can have fun with the very things which set them apart from others. It acknowledges that being a nerd can have its downsides, but then manages to talk you into seeing the brighter side as well.

Weird Science (1986)

Weird Science has its positives and negatives. On the one hand, it can be seen as a fun movie that glorifies what a bunch of brainy misfits can do. On the other hand, it has some of the downsides of certain '80s teen flicks, in particular the treating of females as objects. I guess both sides should be recognized.

The plot is pretty simple: two teenage nerds conduct an experiment where they bring to life, frankenstein-style (well, sort-of), the female creation of their dreams. The funnest part, as far as I'm concerned, is when they achieve revenge against one of the nerd's macho older brother when he gets turned into . . . well, see the flick to find out.

Wargames (1983) and The Effect of Computers

The emergence of the nerd went hand in hand with the emergence of computers.With the advent of the first personal computers during the late '70s and early '80s, there dawned a new era of coolness for computers and those who used them. Suddenly, those quirky, savvy "computer geeks" were the epitome of chic. There was even a certain shadowy sense of power that was perceived to derive from being hip to all the secrets and esoteric knowledge of computers.

One of the best examples of this was the sci-fi flick Wargames (1983). Wargames was the story of a young computer hacker, played by Matthew Broderick, who succeeded in hacking into a powerful defense department computer which was enabled with the ability to launch nuclear missiles. 

Although the character played by Broderick originally thought that his interaction with the defense computer (dubbed the "WOPR") was just a game, things quickly escalated to the point of nearly causing a nuclear war. The movie's portrayal of the race to prevent nuclear catastrophe, and the climactic ending, served as a moral lesson in the midst of the Cold War.

A less easily remembered TV show that came along around the same time was Whiz Kids. Whiz Kids aired on CBS during 1983-84, a featured a story line about a group of computer savvy young teens who use their computer skills to fight crime.

The increased sense of power of computer geeks was felt outside of just the movies. On May 8, 1984, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled "Knowing a Computer Can Be Fastest Way To a Woman's Heart: The New Big Men on Campus Find Technical Wizardry Is Quicker Than Liquor." The article's suggestion that computer geeks were the new “big men on campus” was a clear sign of the newly empowered '80s nerds.

Here's an excerpt:

Knowing a Computer Can Be Fastest Way To a Woman's Heart: The New Big Men on Campus Find Technical Wizardry Is Quicker Than Liquor (The Wall Street Journal, Friday, May 8, 1984)

As a gangly high­ school student, Michael Sattler had just five dates in four years. Then he discovered computers. Now girls have discovered him.

It is exam time at Boston University, and glass-y­eyed students work all night in a stuffy basement finishing up their computer projects. But in one corner, Mr. Sattler, now a 20­year­old junior, is having the time of his life.

He helps one young woman dressed in shorts and a t-shirt figure out a computer program. He flirts electronically with a second woman hundreds of miles away. A third female, who has shrugged off the attentions of other men in the computer center, solicits Mr. Sattler's opinion of her résumé. "It's idol worship," Mr. Sattler allows.

It is also a sign of the times. Formerly disdained computer nerds are now big men on campus. Their mastery of inscrutable machines seems to be winning them the hearts of hitherto unapproachable young ladies. "There are even a few recorded instances of girls going after hackers instead of football players, says Mr. Sattler. To turn the odds in his favor, he says, he spends 65 hours a week in the computer room and not just doing his homework.

It didn't quite turn out as the article predicts, but it shows what an emerging force computers were back then. Now they're everywhere, and everyone is at least a little bit computer geek.

This article by the writer of Retro-Awesomeness (An 80s Blog).

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Lazlo Posted on May 06, 2017 at 08:45 PM

echidna64- Now everybody is at least part nerd, because everybody (or just about) is into computers. Some because they enjoy using computers. And some because computers are everywhere and have no choice! LOL

echidna64 Posted on May 06, 2017 at 02:41 AM

I remember even in the early 90's people would say that only nerds played video games, joke's on them now!

Lazlo Posted on May 04, 2017 at 02:32 AM

I think it was an important moment, if you were like me growing up (and as an adult). I was the bookworm who spent a lot of time at the library, with an interest in nerdy stuff like history. I think these '80s nerd flicks, as campy and comical as they are on the surface, actually had a deeper message. It was about appreciating being nerdy and being into knowledge, and not being ashamed of it . . . and having fun with it too. Real Genius is still one of my fave flicks.

Vaporman87 Posted on May 02, 2017 at 11:52 PM

It's fun to see how far the evolution of Nerd acceptance has come from the '80s to now. But it certainly does have it's roots in '80s cinema and the effects of that on our culture.

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