Most of us remember the character Steve Urkel from the hit 90’s television show Family Matters. Urkel was the epitome of a stereotypical “geek”, sporting thick-framed glasses and high-waisted skinny jeans held up by suspenders. Steve Urkel’s character provided comedic relief through his exaggerated antics while blatantly emphasizing a cultural notion that the geek is a highly undesirable person to be – unattractive and socially exempt. It is thus a strange irony that the geek aesthetic has recently become fashionable in mainstream popular culture. While the popularity of the “geek chic” look may initially seem to be indicative of a rising mainstream acceptance of classic “geeky” characteristics, a closer examination reveals this perceived embrace to be typically reserved for members of a socially and aesthetically privileged class. What driving forces are due credit for turning formerly stigmatized markers of social status into a popular fashion statement? We can begin by looking to the original trendsetters of geek cool, such as the iconic fashion statements of The Beatles and Buddy Holly; additionally, we may consider the “couple of nerds who started the computer revolution, grossing billions and changing what it means to be a nerd around the globe”.
A “geek” as defined by many is one who finds interest in many things that others find plain, such as a heavy and profound amount of knowledge and understanding of technology, mass media, and pop culture. Geek exercise the choice to love what they love so much that it opens doors to ridicule. Lynn Batholome of the Popular Culture Association defines a geek as “someone who is inquisitive, thinks on his or her own, who is a little bit off-center, who doesn’t follow the crowd” (Wloszczyna, and Oldenburg. 2003). The internet, with its abundance of specialized websites and chat forums, is the geek’s best friend. “It has promoted geekdom because people are expressing themselves more so than ever before” (Wloszczyna, and Oldenburg. 2003).
This idea of exemplifying a certain nerdiness are within limits of course. It seems the “geek chic” look is solely glamorized in fashion publications by the aesthetically privileged elite – young, thin, attractive, and typically Caucasian. The polished, artsy, swanky geek look seems to be trying to portray an image of depth and intellectualism at a superficial level, and no one has rebranded the “geek” look more than the mass media. Take the hipster look, add a dash of nerdy edge to one’s style, and you have created a meaningful cultural response to the geek identity.
Television shows such as Ugly Betty and The Big Bang Theory have capitalized on the nerd stereotype: overeducated, even unattractive characters that are enduring and adored for not only their sensitivity and book smarts, but for a daring sense of pairing odd colored clothes along with thick rimmed glasses. This alternative style is a source of inspiration for the herd of fashion followers. Another example that I personally recall on is the movie She’s All That, in which a nerdy girl becomes part of a bet between a popular high school boy and his pals; the “geek” heroine wins the earnest affection of the popular boy as a makeover “reveals” that which is apparently not immediately obvious in her personality. This film, in contrast to todays’ view on the geek chic fashion, showed that the protagonist didn’t become sexy or cool until the items of her clothing that labeled her were removed – remove the glasses, and a supermodel is born. Today, we seem to find the tables turned. But in reality how much have they really? Do we not secretly hope to find a stunning, sexy, drop dead gorgeous specimen under those thick rimmed glasses, and messy mop of hair? Or has the revenge of the nerds prevailed?
The massive uproar in adopting a geeky look and attitude is obviously a role of a character, and in my opinion far from the real deal. This image of the “cool geek” targets potential consumers to become and continue to keep up on an appearance of nonchalant individualism – finding and perhaps even pretending to have interests in comic books; collecting Star Wars posters; reading Harry Potter; or purchasing popular new electronics the moment they hit the shelves. Profits continue to overflow as manufacturers and large media companies stay satisfied. The idea of technology and computers driving the innovation of the economy or at least the perception adds to the status of the geek. Just look at the hoopla around Steve Jobs, a CEO and a geek. The geek, a stereotype that was once a virtual guarantee for a life of hiding out in the bathroom during gym class to avoid the inevitable wedgie, is now plastered on bill boards and proudly broadcast on primetime television. Being uncool has made its main debut and claimed its rightful place in our popular culture as the “Geek Chic”.