Geeks and Players: ying and yang of popular culture

Chuck I just finished watching Chuck on NBC (Monday, 8:00).  It’s about a guy who runs a "Geek Squad" type service at the charmingly named "Buy More."  The Big Bang Theory (Monday, 8:30, CBS) is a Beauty and the Geek proposition, two guys living across the hall from a woman who is, as the phrase has it, totally out of their league. 

These shows join Heroes, Numb3rs, and Mythbusters, all of which features nerdy people.  I think we could even say that Tina Fay’s character Liz Lemon on 30 Rock is a nerd.  She really just wants to stay home and watch Starwars.  (30 Rock character Kenneth Parcell might also qualify.) 

Geeks and nerds are surprisingly popular when you think that they are, officially, objects of scorn.  They colonized a good bit of the Fall schedule. 

If we had to choose another big trend in cultural programming recently, it would have to be Vegas.  Viva Laughlin appeared on CBS (it has since been cancelled).  This joins the NBC series Las Vegas and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and a slew of Hollywood movies including, Swingers (1992), Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Casino (1995), Very Bad Things (1998), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), MTV Real World: Las Vegas (1992), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), The Cooler (2003), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), Smokin’ Aces (2006), and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007). 

Generalizing perhaps too generously, we’ve got two very different species of social life: geeks and, if we take the Vegas trend to its core, players (aka, playas).  My assumption here is that the social type most favored by Vegas is the male who is a self aggrandizing, risk taking, high roller.  The kind of guy who appears in the HBO TV show, Entourage, or Ocean’s X.

This leaves us with a nice little contrast.  Geeks are timid creatures.  Players are swash buckling and vain glorious.  Geeks calculate the odds.  Players just jump.  Geeks are world renouncing. Players are overweening.  How odd that these two creatures should  have come out of corn or obscurity to high profile positions in contemporary culture.

What’s up?   I think this strange duality might tell us something about Millenials.  Geeks and Players might be their ying and yang, the two poles between which they have set up shop.  Or maybe not.  I haven’t done the ethnography, so I’m guessing.  And asking.  Thoughts, anyone?

23 thoughts on “Geeks and Players: ying and yang of popular culture

  1. fredrik sarnblad

    Great observation! I love the ying and yang analogy, which I think is absolutely accurate.

    I haven’t watched Chuck or Heroes, but at least on the other shows, I think that the geeks and nerds there aren’t popular because they’re geeks and nerds, but because they’re geeks and nerds who [ironically often through their geekiness] have specific roles in which they get to shine and triumph over adversity, which is something most of us love to empathize with. These geeks are genuine and true to themselves – they have values [often in sharp contrast to the players]. And by virtue of their geekiness, they are able to achieve things by doing all the right things for all the right reasons. So I think there is also a ‘fake’ and ‘genuineness’ dichotomy in this as well.

  2. Peter

    I think you are onto something about our millenial society which is very profound, Grant. Faced with the massive uncertainty of modern life (uncertainty which has of course increased since 9/11, but was indeed overwhelming before that), we feel we can either:

    – Play a very long game, sitting and calculating all the possibilities, patient evil-genius style, to decide the best way forward, and then work, inch-by-incremental-inch, towards our vision. This is the approach which Bill Gates SEEMS to have adopted, when he dropped out of Harvard to found Micro Soft. (I am sure the truth is less machiavellian, and that his vision came after his initial success.)


    – Throw up one’s hands, forget calculating the odds of every possible outcome and the payoffs of every possible strategy, and just dive in the water. This is the approach which the founders of Google and Facebook SEEM to have adopted: Fast in, fast out, and devil take the hindmost. When Google started, after all, search was already a mature industry, and no sane, utility-maximizing person would have started a company in that space.

  3. Kristi

    Speaking strictly of media, this ‘geeks and greeks’ dichotomy is ages old. Look at ‘Revenge of the Nerds.’ Or, though it might be a stretch, even movies like ‘Spartacus.’

  4. Andrew

    The interesting thing about CSI; it’s both – geeks (Grissom, Sara Sidle, Greg Sanders…) in Vegas. No wonder it’s so huge.

  5. john

    Possibly this could be the perpetual cycle of fashion seeking out the counterculture – don’t we just reply familiar character roles time and time again? To me geeks are the opposite of the “famous, rich and beautiful”. Playas were tacky a short time ago – i.e. overexposed Godfather, Wise Guys and prison flicks. Every time any fashion wave hits a peak the past or counterculture gets a make-over and is reintroduced.

    Cobain’s brown and green sweater in Smells Like Teen Spirit video – I had it when I was 11, bought at a cheap discount store in nowhere Ontario.
    Reunion bands – even the Sex Pistols are doing it.
    80s fashions – I see Spicoli’s black and white checked sneakers of Fast Times at Ridgemount High.
    New Punk – Same shit, but with producers.

    OK, back to the Pat Benatar song on iTunes.

  6. jkh

    geeks and gamblers (players) is great. poet and pornstars is good too but geeks and gamblers is better.
    hey, we could look for the name of the fields in a proper four-field matrix here! anybody with suggestions?

    geeks and gamblers (i stick to the alliteration) is marvelous because there are all kinds of shades and variations of that to be found in the fabulous wes anderson movies. gene hackman as royal tenenbaum … and all the other parts … each of them some kind of mixture between g&g.

    and – hey – hugh laurie as house m.d. – the sex-symbol that every man of my generation aspires to be: all geek and gambler! – works!

    write a piece for the vanfair or the newyorker about that, grant.

  7. jkh

    for those not familiar with building typology scenarios: a scenario constructed through various types – like in this case through the two poles ‘geek’ and ‘gambler’ – very often tends to valid, when you can locate the ueber-heroes as a mixture of both.
    — the original james bond for example: clearly a mixture between geek and gambler. – casion royal 2006 instead….???? – very sad story.
    maybe bourne even qualifies as g&g … as a karate geek maybe…
    o.k. – i’ll stop now.

  8. Tom Asacker

    Interesting observation, Grant. Last week, my 16 year old daughter stopped by the house with four of her male “marching band” friends. They appeared to be a combination of geeks and nerds (gerds? neeks?).

    They were all dressed like typical high schoolers — blue jeans, t-shirts, etc. — except one of them was wearing a blue cape (and an endearing smile). I asked him what was up with the cape, and one of his friends turned to me and remarked, matter-of-factly, “He likes to wear it.” The others all nodded in agreement.

    I asked if anyone at school gave him a hard time (e.g. the football players), and they all looked around and then shook their heads. “Nawww.” one answered. “Everyone knows him.”

    After the boys left, I asked my daughter if she liked the football players. “They’re alright,” she answered. “Are they a little rough; a little crude?” I asked. “Well, they do use their heads to crash into each other,” she replied.

    I really don’t have a point, other than I absolutely love the acceptance today’s youth seem to have for each others differences. At least in my neck of the woods.

  9. Todd Kalhar

    As usual, Grant, a thought provoking post. I think Tom Asacker caught a glimpse of the reason for the “geeks and playas” fascination on televison and in movies of late when he noted the acceptance “today’s youth” have for each other.

    I have a sibling who is an early Milennial and a child who’s a late Milennial, and they share a number of things in common:

    * an open embrace of diversity (cultural, physical, geographical, intellectual, spiritual)
    * a total dependence on technology and “being connected” constantly
    * a need to be free of stereotypes — or better said, part geek, part jock, part sophisticate

    Their willingness to embrace diversity, I think, results in a generational drive NOT to be categorized so blatantly. So programs that show characters out of their stereotypical context functioning well, albeit humorously, seem to reinforce the need to operate “outside the box.”

  10. srp

    Two of the basic stories are “fish out of water” and “boy meets girl.” Another is the “secret prince rises from obscurity to claim his true heritage.” Chuck has all three going.

    I think the non-geek audience also appreciates the self-consciousness and awkwardness of the geek hero–they suppress that part of themselves as much as possible, so for many of them it’s easy to sympathize (or at least empathize) with somebody like Chuck. It allows for a little vicarious self-pity, an emotion as easy to enjoy as it is hard to justify.

  11. jkh

    tom, a beautiful story. with a story like that you do not need to have a point.

    steve, i would love to be proved wrong on this one but i think the “fish out of water” ( also in the variation of: “secret prince rises from obscurity to claim his true heritage”) topic may be an old theme, but i cannot remember it being extremely present in pop culture until just recently.
    today it is omnipresent – hatty potter, spiderman, everybody in all wes anderson movies, and so on and so on and so on… even classics that might have touched this genre like “the graduate” or the one with the young guy falling in love with the granny (forgot the name), or the peter falk “columbo” series had much more linear characters as protagonists. even the infamous “forrest gumb” was more about a fool than about anything else.

    maybe it is an older theme, but i for one, did grow up with “boy meets girl” and “good meets bad” stories more than with anything else.

  12. srp

    jkh: “Fish out of water” is a classic for comedy that’s been used as far back as I can remember. Zany anarchists plopped into polite society–the Marx Bros. Hicks living among the sophisticates–the Beverly Hillbillies. Sophisticates among the hicks–Green Acres. Celebrity among the civilians–Notting Hill. Outside of comedy, Eric Ambler’s spy novels were usually about amateurs getting sucked into the spook world, and Hitchcock’s movies often had a similar flavor. It’s been so pervasive for so long that we almost don’t notice it.

    BTW, I left out “A stranger comes to town” as a repeated template. At an episode level, each Chuck story has involved this device.

  13. jkh

    thanks for stretching my perspective, steve.
    don’t we all just love the “a stranger comes to town” one…

  14. Scott

    Knocked Up featured Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd, ostensibly two nerds, making an ill-fated Las Vegas trip mid movie in an attempt to reclaim their male independence. It’s clear that, after eating mushrooms, then flipping out during a Cirque du Soleil performance, then winding up back in their hotel room basically huddling together, that they do not belong in Las Vegas at all.

  15. Mary W

    Actually I don’t think these characterizations are ying-yang…they’re two sides of the same coin/personality.

    Geeks are the new heroes. Geeks are cool. There’s a fine line between being ostracized for uncoolness and being admired for one’s unique self-expression.

    That independence, refusal to follow the mainstream norms of popularity, insistence on being true to yourself, even if it looks dumb or risky — that’s the essence of hero geekdom. Geeks with a heart of gold, geeks with a hero streak, geeks who are action heroes and sex gods in disguise. That’s the new geekdom, and it’s all over TV/movies/pop culture.

    The new “players” (ie Vegas types) are just one flavor of geek, IMO. Take the Ocean franchise. Each of the Ocean characters is a geek — each has an abnormal talent (for tech, for acrobatics, for plotting etc) and each has their own quirky personality. Gambling, card-counting, the statistics that drive gambling success — it’s just another geeky mathmatical skill. After all, Silicon Valley and tech IPOs are really just one big gambling game — it takes both tech smarts and luck to hit that jackpot. (there’ve been several recent articles in NYT that mentioned the psychological issues from the incredible wealth that’s the result of a highly random/unpredictable process.)

    Money is part of geek hero-dom. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are the icons of wealthy ubergeekdom. And Bill Gates is now trying to changing the world through his philanthropy: that’s the modern ubergeek for you. The driving psychology of Silicon Valley and modern geeks everywhere is to become an ubergeek, and if you’re lucky and smart, turn that into riches and respect. Yesterday’s grad student geek eating cheap burritos is today’s multimillionaire ubergeek eating cheap burritos with his hot geek girlfriend.

    The hero geek has been a trend in popular culture for awhile, but I agree that it’s everywhere now. Examples:

    – Rubert Giles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Going back to the late 90s: bespectacled middle-aged British librarian, knows upteen dead languages, adorably stuttery when flustered. Also knows weaponry/swordsmanship, kicks evil vampire butt as required, self-effacing, self-sacrificing. And sexy: millions of fangirls can’t be wrong.

    – the new Nancy Drew (of the recent movie). How do you redo classic Nancy Drew? By making her into a geek: a brilliant, kind, modest, plucky (and pretty) girl who wears 1950s style clothes, overachieves in school and sports, and is oblivious to the trendy rich kids who mock her (but eventually come to respect her).

    – Hiro, Heroes. Japanese geekboy, son of one of the richest families in Japan. Truly believes in the superhero code: the responsibility to serve humankind. Carries samurai sword and tries to protect world from evildoers. Makes mistakes but his naive sincerity and smarts will triumph. The Japanese Peter Parker (see below).

    – Peter Parker, Spiderman. It’s no accident that PP is one of the two most popular superheros of our age (Batman being the other, for obvious reasons). Peter’s a science and photography geek who secretly saves the world on a regular basis. He does dumb doofus things but is always redeemed when he recommits himself to the memory of his dead uncle (“with great gifts comes great responsibility”).

    – Hermione Granger, the Harry Potter books. Brilliant and (perceived as) dowdy — then shows up at the Yule Ball looking stunning. (It’s part of the modern geek stereotype that they’re homely at first glance, but really sexy when seen in the right circumstances.) The “brightest witch of her generation,” she can also sling fighting spells like nobody’s business and give a bad guy a roundhouse punch.

    Ok I’m all in fangirl mode now…must run off and catch up on the Dr Who and Torchwood gossip.

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