Recently, I found myself reflecting on the 1980s (the era in which I grew up). Many recent books and shows seem to focus on the more geeky aspects of the 80s. Take Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, for example. The book zooms in on eighties video gaming culture. Or Netflix’s Stranger Things, which reveres the young, nerdy protagonists.
Hold on a second, though. The 1980s I remember didn’t appreciate nerd culture. In fact, quite the opposite—nerds were despised. As it began to dawn on me that being a nerd in the 80s was completely opposite from being a nerd in today’s world, I started to ponder what it means to be a nerd.
Yes, nerds from both eras are looked upon as highly intelligent, but there are many major differences. I’ve brainstormed a bullet-pointed list below. Let me know if you can think of anything I’ve missed.
The number of nerds. Back in the day, there weren’t a whole lot of nerds. Today, it seems like every other person I meet claims to be one.
Nerds were shunned back in the eighties. If there was anyone you did not want to be associated with, it was a nerd. (Which actually might explain the first bullet-point…) Today, nerds seem to have tons of friends, which leads me to…
The fact that nerds from yesteryear were pretty shy for the most part. Not only shy, but completely socially inept. No knowledge of etiquette. No comprehension of what to say when. Now, contemporary nerds seem to have no problem talking to people.
Maybe the lack of social graces made the standard 80s nerd more of a target for bullies. I don’t know, but whatever the reason, bullies used to pick on nerds. … A lot! Growing up, I witnessed poor, bullied nerds receive wedgies and swirlies from the meanies. Today, pop culture depicts nerds talking their way out of potentially dangerous situations with bullies rather than ending with the bully beating them up.
No one ever wanted to actually be a nerd—it’s just what some people were. … And if you were one, no way you’d admit to it. Nowadays, many proudly proclaim their nerd status.
The bar level to entry was higher (or should I say lower since nerds were considered the lowest of the low?). You actually had to be more knowledgeable than almost everyone else—not just achieve a certain level on a fixed scale.
To sum up, the word itself—nerd—used to be derogatory. Now, “nerd” is considered a compliment.
As I look back over my list, something else occurs to me. The fact that back in the eighties, while nerds were not popular or well-liked, the athletes were well-loved. It dawned on me that today, many sporty types are considered to be unintelligent, dimwitted, imbecilic, or ignorant. That is it! These are all undesirable qualities. These uncomplimentary terms come closer to describing the feel for what the nerd of the 1980s was—someone with similarly undesirable qualities.
So who were the popular kids in the 80s? Ah, now that might possibly be a topic for another post!