A few days ago my friends and I were talking about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This is a surprisingly contentious issue in our group, because two of us LOVE superheroes, one is somewhat indifferent, and two think they’re a waste of time (with one being quite aggressively in this category). In hindsight, I’m really not sure why we were even talking about this, because it’s a topic we’ve agreed to disagree on. Anyway, this then led us onto other topics within what would be called ‘nerd culture’… many of which went over at least one person’s head at any given time, but all of which are safer topics than anything superhero related.
Of my friend group, I’m the only one who identifies myself as a nerd; actually, I’m the only one who outright identifies myself as anything. While none of the others really give a damn, for some reason this seems to really bother one of my friends. She has this issue with people “putting themselves in boxes” because she sees it as limiting yourself to a stereotype. To contextualise, she is very proudly Tamil and loves to talk about and share her culture and beautiful spirituality associated with it, and she enjoys cooking for people so everyone can sample traditional South Indian dishes, and she’s always eager to share her culture with people who show an interest. She hasn’t been forced to be Tamil; she chooses to identify herself this way and to her it’s a very important part of how she perceives herself and how she wants other people to perceive her. So naturally my question now is: How is my choice to identify myself as a nerd different from her choice to identify herself as Tamil? Why is mine a ‘box’ and hers an ‘identity’? Okay yes, maybe I over-think social situations, and I know I’m terrible at letting things go. At times I verge on obsessive over things people have said or done… but this particular case went round and round in the back of my mind for weeks.
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I think a lot of people aren’t given the luxury of being born into a strongly defined cultural or social identity, or maybe they don’t feel that the identity they are born into represents them properly. Yes of course, you can use religion/faith, economic status, town, province, etc. as identifiers, but I know in my case I don’t feel like those things would make me interesting at parties. For me, the identity I was ‘born into’ is so incredibly broad and vague that I’m almost crippled by the number of options I can choose from: Methodist mother, atheist father, middle class, private school (not proud of that), largely gender neutral upbringing, white, Irish and Scottish roots, exposure to just about every kind of media imaginable… it goes on. All of these things help me build my identity and shape me into the person I am today (blah blah blah), but at the end of the day, identity helps us build community, and I don’t feel that any of those things I just mentioned would help me walk into a room of strangers and filter through them to find people I would want to be friends with.
So the other option for people like me, who struggle to pin down an identity that accurately represents important aspects of themselves, is to build an identity from our interests. Our interests, after all, are a reflection of our values, beliefs, morals, desires — all the important things that people need to know about us. For example, one of my favourite superheroes is Captain America because, unlike other heroes who only adopt the role once they are given their powers, his power comes from his inherent desire to help people: Even when he was scrawny, sickly Steve Rogers, he thought like a hero and the Captain America juice was simply the thing that enabled him to fulfil his desire… and holy crap I would love to be a person like Steve Rogers! Bam! My love of Captain America is a reflection of my morals and desires and therefore gives me a real world illustration of an incredibly abstract part of my identity which can help me find other like-minded people who could be part of my community. The same could be said of any of my nerdy interests: Star Trek and Doctor Who feed into my optimistic view of human nature and its immense capacity for compassion, even though humans can be so very stupid at times, while Fringe and The X-Files reflect my belief in human innovation and my refusal to accept that what we know is all there is.
The concept of ‘putting people in boxes’ comes from society looking at people they don’t understand, like people who get passionate about fantasy and sci-fi, and giving them a label like ‘nerd’ to make it easier to work out where those people belong. Nerds themselves don’t consider themselves ‘boxed in’ to their interest… or maybe some do, but they all seem pretty happy to be there, so no big deal. I’ll even take a moment to defend hipsters, because from personal experience, actual hipsters don’t call themselves hipsters. They’ve been labelled that by people who don’t understand why you’d want to listen to weird underground not-famous bands, and wear second hand and vintage clothes, and enjoy silent movies and mumblecore. Then suddenly it became fashionable to be hipster and the world exploded in a fiery ball of people who just hate everything because other people like them. Meanwhile, the original hipsters were given the choice to join the haters or hide in a corner and wait until everyone stopped throwing the word ‘hipster’ around like a bra in a boys’ dormitory.
My issue with the idea of calling identity a box is that it suggests it’s static and unchanging, which is so far from the truth it’s scary. I could probably fit into about 50 boxes if I wanted to, but surely that would be impossible given the inherently rigid nature of boxes. Identifying yourself as something and giving that something a name, like ‘nerd’, doesn’t mean you’re limiting yourself to only being that thing for the rest of your life. In the same way that my friend chooses to identify herself as Tamil, but also listens to terrible 90s R&B and enjoys watching Masterchef, I can choose to identify myself as a nerd, while still being free to enjoy things like horseriding, classic rock and learning German swear words so I can swear in front of small children and not get in trouble.