Meet Idiot Nerd Girl.
Occasionally, Idiot Nerd Girl makes a stupid beginner’s error, or gets caught in a lie about the extent of her involvement in geek (I’m using the terms “nerd” and “geek” interchangeably here – we can fight this one out later) culture. More often, she makes the mistake of professing enthusiasm for something without being intimately familiar with or expertly skilled at it, or while approaching it from a nonstandard angle, or just flat-out liking the wrong thing. Her defenders will tell you that she is a response to “popular kids” who adopt nerd semiotics and styles in an attempt to ride along the geek chic trend without the thumb calluses to back up their Mega Man t-shirts. They’ll insist that the “girl” part is incidental, even when the characteristics and media they’re mocking are blatantly gendered, even when someone inevitably mentions the looming Fake Geek Girl menace.
There is no Idiot Nerd Boy meme.
I hate the Idiot Nerd Girl meme. I hate it for much the same reason Feminspire writer Jessica Bagnall hates it: the entrenched geek misogyny that informs its pretty pink face. I hate it because it’s a convenient distillation of everything I hate about the “fake geek girl” strawman. I hate it because it vilifies enthusiasm. I hate it because, as a member of the geek community and a geek-industry professional, and especially as a feminist geek, I nurture a deep and abiding dislike for gatekeepers.
I hate the Idiot Nerd Girl meme because it’s not just a meme in the diluted ‘net-slang sense. It reflects and recycles and reinforces a bundle of more traditionally defined memes: the sticky and tenacious subtexts and cultural dogmas that justify and normalize misogyny and harassment and make the geek community so seethingly toxic to female members–and especially female newcomers–that it doesn’t even need a formal gate to keep them out. Idiot Nerd Girl is the throwaway byproduct of a culture that regularly responds to criticism from women with flurries of rape threats.
This is what it means to live your life and pursue your passions under the perpetual spectre of backlash: to gauge your professional trajectory against Jade Raymond or Anita Sarkeesian and weigh every word against the possibility that it might focus the roving eye of the mob on you. This is what I see when I look at the Idiot Nerd Girl meme: the colleague who sat on a panel with three men, a subsequent write up of which listed each of the guys by their professional qualifications and her as just “a good-looking gal”; the friend who was cornered by a group of guys in her comics shop who would not and could not believe she really liked comics even when she nailed every question of an impromptu quiz on superhero continuity; visible, vocal, and statistically significant demographics dismissed as nonexistent or irrelevant; geek after geek who’s been ostracized and humiliated for being the wrong gender or the wrong color or the wrong sexual orientation or too pretty or not pretty enough or otherwise failing to meet a narrow rubric designed to justify the insularity of a community that prides itself on being forward-thinking.
I hate the Idiot Nerd Girl meme, but I don’t hate Idiot Nerd Girl. She’s okay by me. I like her weary, wry smile, like she knows what the backlash is going to look like and has decided to say her piece all the same (Yes, I am totally projecting. But what do you think the original meme was doing? The only difference is the angle.). I like the idea of her getting so frustrated with dudes writing her off without listening that she literally self-labeled. I want to invite this kid to D&D night and lend her my dog-eared copy of Game Over. I want to ask her what comics she likes and why she likes them, hook her up with a progressive hackerhive, and generally do my part to build an inclusive community where she can be whatever the hell she wants to be. And if she wants to write “nerd” on her hand without backing it up with action, you know what? That’s okay, too.
I know that a lot of self-identified–and more externally-identified–geeks and nerds are distrustful of outsiders, and that that mistrust is often grounded in an early personal history of harassment and marginalization. I know this because they’re my friends and lovers and colleagues, and because it’s my history, too. Like many of my peers, I looked to the geek community as a safe haven, and by hook, crook, and happy accident, I was lucky enough to land in a corner of it that truly was. I was also lucky enough to come into the social end of the Internet very late; by the time I encountered the million microaggressions of being publicly female in geek culture, I could respond to them from a privileged position, confident in my identity and able to back it up with business cards–a luxury largely unavailable to anyone coming of age in the heyday of social media.
So I decided to take back Idiot Nerd Girl. First, I made a couple memes. Then I asked Twitter to pitch in. Within a few hours, we’d filled about a dozen pages of quickmeme.com. And then I posted some of the new memes and a brief explanation of the project on Tumblr, turned off my computer, and went out to dinner.
When I came back, the post had over a thousand notes. A week later, as I write this, it’s topped 4,000 notes, and there are over 60 pages of mostly new memes.
The new Nerd Girl memes are celebratory. They’re funny, and angry, obscure and prosaic. Some poke fun at recurring themes in the old meme; others speak from personal experience or rehash specific incidents. They’re snarky and sincere, frustrated and frank. But they all come back to a single persistent point:
Written by Rachel Edidin
Rachel is an editor, writer, and chronic Twitter abuser. Follow her there!