I was going to write about The Big Bang Theory—why, as a nerdy viewer, I sometimes like it and sometimes have a problem with it, why I think there’s a backlash against it. Then some maniac shot up a sorority house in Santa Barbara and posted a manifesto proclaiming he did it for revenge against women for denying him sex. And the weekend just generally went to hell.
So now my plans have changed. With apologies to Big Bang Theory fans, this is all I want to say about The Big Bang Theory: When the pilot aired, it was 2007 and “nerd culture” and “geek chic” were on everyone’s lips, and yet still the basic premise of “the sitcom for nerds” was, once again, awkward but lovable nerd has huge unreciprocated crush on hot non-nerdy popular girl (and also has an annoying roommate).
This annoys me. This is a problem.
Because, let’s be honest, this device is old. We have seen it over and over again. Steve Urkel. Screech. Skippy on Family Ties. Niles on Frasier.
We (male) nerds grow up force-fed this script. Lusting after women “out of our league” was what we did. And those unattainable hot girls would always inevitably reject us because they didn’t understand our intellectual interest in science fiction and comic books and would instead date asshole jocks. This was inevitable, and our only hope was to be unyieldingly persistent until we “earned” a chance with these women by “being there” for them until they saw the error of their ways. (The thought of just looking for women who shared our interests was a foreign one, since it took a while for the media to decide female geeks existed. The Big Bang Theory didn’t add Amy and Bernadette to its main cast until Season 4, in 2010.)
This is, to put it mildly, a problematic attitude to grow up with. Fixating on a woman from afar and then refusing to give up when she acts like she’s not interested is, generally, something that ends badly for everyone involved. But it’s a narrative that nerds and nerd media kept repeating.
And I’m not condemning guys who get frustrated, or who have unrequited crushes. And I’m not condemning any of these shows or movies.
Before I went on Jeopardy!, I had auditioned for TBS’s King of the Nerds, a reality show commissioned in 2012 after TBS got syndication rights to, yes, The Big Bang Theory. I like the show and I still wish I’d been on it. (Both “kings” they’ve crowned, by the way, have so far been women, so maybe they should retitle it “Monarch of the Nerds” or, since the final win comes down to a vote, “President of the Nerds.” Just a nerdy thought.)
But a lot of things about the show did give me pause. One of them was that it was hosted by Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong—Lewis and Booger from Revenge of the Nerds. I don’t have anything against those guys personally. Nor am I going to issue a blanket condemnation of Revenge of the Nerds, a film I’m still, basically, a fan of.
But look. One of the major plot points of Revenge of the Nerds is Lewis putting on a Darth Vader mask, pretending to be his jock nemesis Stan, and then having sex with Stan’s girlfriend. Initially shocked when she finds out his true identity, she’s so taken by his sexual prowess—“All jocks think about is sports. All nerds think about is sex.”—that the two of them become an item.
Classic nerd fantasy, right? Immensely attractive to the young male audience who saw it. And a stock trope, the “bed trick,” that many of the nerds watching probably knew dates back to the legend of King Arthur.
It’s also, you know, rape.
I’ve had this argument about whether it was “technically” rape with fans of the movie in the past, but leaving aside the legal technicalities, why don’t you ask the women you know who are in committed relationships how they’d feel about guys concocting elaborate ruses to have sex with them without their knowledge to “earn a chance” with them? Or how it feels to be chased by a real-life Steve Urkel, being harassed, accosted, ambushed in public places, have your boyfriend “challenged” and having all rejection met with a cheerful “I’m wearing you down!”?
I know people who’ve been through that. And because life is not, in fact, a sitcom, it’s not the kind of thing that elicits a bemused eye roll followed by raucous laughter from the studio audience. It’s the kind of thing that induces pain, and fear.
And that’s still mild compared to some of the disturbing shit I consumed in my adolescence. Jake handing off his falling-down-drunk date to Anthony Michael Hall’s Geek in Sixteen Candles, saying, “Be my guest” (which is, yes, more offensive to me than Long Duk Dong). The nerd-libertarian gospels of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and how their Übermensch protagonists prove their masculinity by having sex with their love interests without asking first—and win their hearts in the process. Comics…just, comics. (too much to go into there but the fact that Red Sonja was once thought a “feminist icon” speaks volumes. Oh, and there’s that whole drama with Ms. Marvel for those of you who really want to get freaked out today.)
But the overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.
So what happens to nerdy guys who keep finding out that the princess they were promised is always in another castle? When they “do everything right,” they get good grades, they get a decent job, and that wife they were promised in the package deal doesn’t arrive? When the persistent passive-aggressive Nice Guy act fails, do they step it up to elaborate Steve-Urkel-esque stalking and stunts? Do they try elaborate Revenge of the Nerds-style ruses? Do they tap into their inner John Galt and try blatant, violent rape?
Do they buy into the “pickup artist” snake oil—started by nerdy guys, for nerdy guys—filled with techniques to manipulate, pressure and in some cases outright assault women to get what they want? Or when that doesn’t work, and they spend hours a day on sites bitching about how it doesn’t work, like Elliot Rodger’s hangout “PUAHate.com,” sometimes, do they buy some handguns, leave a manifesto on the Internet and then drive off to a sorority house to murder as many women as they can?
No, I’m not saying most frustrated nerdy guys are rapists or potential rapists. I’m certainly not saying they’re all potential mass murderers. I’m not saying that most lonely men who put women up on pedestals will turn on them with hostility and rage once they get frustrated enough.
But I have known nerdy male stalkers, and, yes, nerdy male rapists. I’ve known situations where I knew something was going on but didn’t say anything—because I didn’t want to stick my neck out, because some vile part of me thought that this kind of thing was “normal,” because, in other words, I was a coward and I had the privilege of ignoring the problem.
I’ve heard and seen the stories that those of you who followed the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter have seen—women getting groped at cons, women getting vicious insults flung at them online, women getting stalked by creeps in college and told they should be “flattered.” I’ve heard Elliot Rodger’s voice before. I was expecting his manifesto to be incomprehensible madness—hoping for it to be—but it wasn’t. It’s a standard frustrated angry geeky guy manifesto, except for the part about mass murder.
I’ve heard it from acquaintances, I’ve heard it from friends. I’ve heard it come out of my own mouth, in moments of anger and weakness.
It’s the same motivation that makes a guy in college stalk a girl, leave her unsolicited gifts and finally when she tells him to quit it makes him leave an angry post about her “shallowness” and “cruelty” on Facebook. It’s the same motivation that makes guys rant about “fake cosplay girls” at cons and how much he hates them for their vain, “teasing” ways. The one that makes a guy suffering career or personal problems turn on his wife because it’s her job to “support” him by patching up all the holes in his life. The one that makes a wealthy entrepreneur hit his girlfriend 117 times, on camera, for her infidelity, and then after getting off with a misdemeanor charge still put up a blog post casting himself as the victim.
And now that motivation has led to six people dead and 13 more injured, in broad daylight, with the killer leaving a 140-page rant and several YouTube videos describing exactly why he did it. No he-said-she-said, no muffled sounds through the dorm ceiling, no “Maybe he has other issues.” The fruits of our culture’s ingrained misogyny laid bare for all to see.
And yet. When this story broke, the initial mainstream coverage only talked about “mental illness,” not misogyny, a line that people are now fervently exhorting us to stick to even after the manifesto’s contents were revealed. Yet another high-profile tech resignation ensued when the co-founder of Rap Genius decided Rodger’s manifesto was a hilarious joke.
People found one of the girls Rodger was obsessed with and began questioning if her “bullying” may have somehow triggered his rage. And, worst of all, he has fan pages on Facebook that still haven’t been taken down, filled with angry frustrated men singing his praises and seriously suggesting that the onus is on women to offer sex to men to keep them from going on rampages.
So, a question, to my fellow male nerds:
What the fuck is wrong with us?
How much longer are we going to be in denial that there’s a thing called “rape culture” and we ought to do something about it?
No, not the straw man that all men are constantly plotting rape, but that we live in an entitlement culture where guys think they need to be having sex with girls in order to be happy and fulfilled. That in a culture that constantly celebrates the narrative of guys trying hard, overcoming challenges, concocting clever ruses and automatically getting a woman thrown at them as a prize as a result, there will always be some guy who crosses the line into committing a violent crime to get what he “deserves,” or get vengeance for being denied it.
To paraphrase the great John Oliver, listen up, fellow self-pitying nerd boys—we are not the victims here. We are not the underdogs. We are not the ones who have our ownership over our bodies and our emotions stepped on constantly by other people’s entitlement. We’re not the ones where one out of six of us will have someone violently attempt to take control of our bodies in our lifetimes.
We are not Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds, we are not Steve Urkel from Family Matters, we are not Preston Myers from Can’t Hardly Wait, we are not Seth Rogen in every movie Seth Rogen has ever been in, we are not fucking Mario racing to the castle to beat Bowser because we know there’s a princess in there waiting for us.
We are not the lovable nerdy protagonist who’s lovable because he’s the protagonist. We’re not guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick of our dreams as long as we work hard enough at it. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by “getting the girl” in the end. And when our clever ruses and schemes to “get girls” fail, it’s not because the girls are too stupid or too bitchy or too shallow to play by those unwritten rules we’ve absorbed.
It’s because other people’s bodies and other people’s love are not something that can be taken nor even something that can be earned—they can be given freely, by choice, or not.
We need to get that. Really, really grok that, if our half of the species is ever going to be worth a damn. Not getting that means that there will always be some percent of us who will be rapists, and abusers, and killers. And it means that the rest of us will always, on some fundamental level, be stupid and wrong when it comes to trying to understand the women we claim to love.
What did Elliot Rodger need? He didn’t need to get laid. None of us nerdy frustrated guys need to get laid. When I was an asshole with rants full of self-pity and entitlement, getting laid would not have helped me.
He needed to grow up.
We all do.