Are nerds born or made? I guess the larger question is: Is anyone/thing born or made? But at the moment I’m wondering how the classic debate of nature vs. nurture applies to people who enjoy fringe interests. Nowadays, the definition of a fringe interest is getting more specific and things that were considered geeky in my childhood have since become fairly conventional. Back in the day, reading or watching fantasy stories was dorky but now Game of Thrones is a completely mainstream TV show. Same with science-fiction. I definitely felt like I was on the outside of what was “normal” back in the 80s and 90s for my devotion to Star Trek, but today it’s not really that big of a deal. There are plenty of sci-fi properties that have achieved mainstream success, such as Westworld. Some might argue that these once off-the-beaten-path interests have been sanitized for the masses and aren’t really what they once were. The reboot of Star Trek is really just a bunch of action movies, while the source material was much more cerebral but I digress.
I want to know if I became obsessed with sci-fi (and Star Trek more specifically), because I was an introverted, shy, awkward kid, or am I a bit of a weirdo because I took to Trek? Do the unathletic kids start playing Dungeons & Dragons because they get picked last for dodgeball or do they stay indoors and thus avoid exercise because they are so into role-playing games? Perhaps a bit of both.
I was a somewhat sickly child, and I’m naturally clumsy so I always preferred indoor activities… wait, no, this isn’t true. Now that I’m really thinking about it, I did a lot of playing outside when I was young. I always disliked disgusting things, like climbing trees, or difficult things, like climbing trees but I did plenty of swimming and bike riding and running around and building snow forts, like any regular kid. I also did a lot of drawing and playing other indoor games, but it’s only when I became a teenager and started to retreat from the world that my activities became predominantly sedentary.
And yet my interest in sci-fi and fantasy came about way before that. Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987 when I was eleven years old and I was instantly hooked. But I was already very fond of my Princess Leia action figures and was wild about movies like the Dark Crystal. Then again, what kid didn’t like The Dark Crystal and Star Wars? Now that I think about it, Star Trek debuted at pretty much the same time my best friend moved away. I had a couple of other friends but none I felt a strong connection with. As an introvert with social anxiety, it’s always been very difficult for me to interact with others. When the friend I’d known since we were toddlers left, this might have pushed me further into my own world. TNG came along at the exact right time to fill the void left by my friend. Would I have become equally enamored of Data and Deanna if my best friend hadn’t disappeared?
I’d like to think so. After all, my friend didn’t completely disappear. Though she’d changed schools, I could still see her on weekends, as she’d only moved to the next suburb over. So surely I was born a little on the geeky side and her presence in my life was irrelevant. And yet… I’m trying to remember what appealed to me as a child, and how much of it was innate, and how much was influenced by external factors, such as my mother. I remember once in kindergarten, my teacher making some sort of comment about the way I dressed. I didn’t understand the comment and asked my mother about it when I got home. She explained that my teacher was teasing me for always wearing very elaborate, girly dresses. I remained confused because I wasn’t dressing myself, my mother was dressing me, so surely it was invalid to mock me for these sartorial choices. I liked those dresses just fine, but I wasn’t choosing them. But what would I have worn if I could have chosen for myself? The same things perhaps. Maybe I’m wrong to blame those dresses on my mother. My wardrobe has changed much over the years, and I was quite dedicated to grunge in the ’90s, but today my closet looks like the Zooey Deschanel starter pack.
But is my interest in pretty dresses authentic, or a result of my mother’s programming? I don’t know. What’s more certain is that she influenced my literary tastes. As a kid I read things like Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, and Judy Blume’s oeuvre because those books were in the house. I never read fantasy or sci-fi as a kid, and still don’t, even though that’s my go-to when it comes to television. Is this because I associate books with my mother the librarian and therefore veer towards more classic choices, while I associate TV with no one other than myself, thereby making those choices more authentically?
I can’t be sure. I can’t even be sure that I really am a “nerd”. There is a meme currently going around that perfectly encapsulates this issue. People who aren’t geeky think of me as a geek. I distinctly remember a coworker once lamenting her own lackluster geekiness and wishing she could be as truly nerdy as me. I was struck by how odd that was as a comment, not only because it seemed strange to admire someone else’s inability to be normal, but also because I’m not really that nerdy. The truly hardcore nerds would likely deem me a poser. Really, other than watching shows set in alternate universes, what do I do that is truly unusual? In this day and age of the unconventional becoming conventional, do I even have the right to think of myself as out of the mainstream? Of course, no one should have to prove how “nerdy” they are. And it shouldn’t be a contest. Who cares how much someone likes a particular thing? It’s as though the hardcore nerds have absorbed mainstream society’s programming about how they are losers, and therefore, in order to win at something, anything, they shame others who aren’t as hardcore as them. If they can’t win at football, they’ll win at nerdiness.
I guess I suffer from this programming as well. I often criticize people or fiction for being pretentious and too try-hard but aren’t I myself, a try-hard when it comes to being “different”? Much of my self-identity, and self-worth, is built on the idea that I am not mainstream, that I am not plugged-in to social norms. That I am not that most dreaded of traits: Basic! But aren’t I? I do plenty of things that conform to modern society’s standards; I have a 9 to 5 job, I pay my taxes, I own property, I watch reality television, I shave my legs, I am in a stable, heterosexual, cisgendered relationship. And yet I don’t have kids and I’m not married. I tell myself I reject marriage because it is an institution built on the enslavement of women. But do I truly object to it this strongly, or am I just overcompensating to seem cool, if not to others, at least to myself?
I am forced to ask, what truly makes me different? And of those differences, which ones are charming quirks and which ones actually cause strife in my life? This is a topic worthy of further discussion, and I shall muse more at a future date. In the meantime, what do you think about my initial question, before I spiraled into my patented navel-gazing? Are nerds born or made?