Earlier this week Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg made headlines for his response to commenter Darlene Hackemer Loretto who wrote that she encourages her granddaughters to “date the nerd in school [because] he may turn out to be Mark Zuckerberg.” The magnate — and new, first-time father of a daughter — deflected the supposed compliment, suggesting, “Even better would be to encourage them to *be* the nerd in school so they can be the next successful inventor.”
Vox’s Emily Crockett praised Zuckerberg’s response as “a fantastic affirmation for girls who grow up reading stories where the boys are the ones on hero’s quests and the girls are there to fall in love with them.” Bustle’s Marissa Higgins called it an “awesome feminist statement about women and tech.” Indeed Zuckerberg was right to gently chide Loretto; it’s arcane to suggest that girls aspire to mere proximity to “nerdiness,” which she and Zuckerberg seem to be defining as success in science, technology, engineering and math. But Loretto’s statement bugged me for other reasons: I’m just really sick of “nerds” still being set forth as idealized relationship partners.
“Date the nerd” isn’t novel advice but it’s certainly destructive advice. It presumes that “nerds,” by sheer virtue of their intellect — and the earning potential it intimates — are the best suitors for the lovelorn to pursue. Besides the way the advice masculinizes intellect, it also ignores that smart men aren’t necessarily kind men or that intellect and earning potential aren’t the only traits necessary for successful romantic partnerships.
Loretto isn’t unique in her reasoning. The “date the nerd” trope is about as as old as the existence of the term “nerd” in popular culture. Two of my all-time favorite films employ it. The first is 1944’s “Miracle at Morgan Creek,” in which a homely, dutiful young man, Norville (Eddie Bracken), keeps confessing undying love to his lifelong neighbor, a blonde bombshell named Trudy (Betty Hutton). Popular Trudy wants nothing to do with nerdy Norville until she finds herself “in the family way,” and Norville steps up to marry her and claim her unborn. Trudy is deeply contrite and grateful; Norville is portrayed as the noble, generous hero. The moral: Cool guys abandon you; marry the nerd.
In 1961’s “Splendor in the Grass,” Bud, the dashing wealthy hometown hero type, pressures his girlfriend Deanie (Natalie Wood) to have sex. When she doesn’t relent, he cheats, setting off a downward spiral for Deanie. Later, though, Bud (Warren Beatty) ends up living in relative squalor and Deanie sets off to marry a med student. The message: Once again, cute jocks are cads; marry the nerd.
1984’s “Revenge of the Nerds,” in which a group of brilliant but socially ostracized men set out to gain social acceptance — and dates — and achieve their goals, is, of course, the crowning achievement of “date the nerd” trope-pushers. But the film rightfully faced its share of backlash. In 2014, Arthur Chu pointed out in the Daily Beast that idealizing nerds has resulted in misogynistic entitlement. “We are not the lovable nerdy protagonist who’s lovable because he’s the protagonist,” Chu writes, asserting that media’s long fixation on telling nerds that their smarts and social awkwardness should be women’s preferred traits is deeply problematic.
For decades of film and television, handsomeness has suggested caddishness while homeliness and studiousness have connoted devotion and wealth. Those are really simplistic binaries, ones that will continue misguiding generations of love-seeking young people for as long as we perpetuate them. Zuckerberg has taken a great stride in encouraging a grandmother to re-envision her granddaughters as the stars of their own stories, the future “nerds” (or STEM luminaries) rather than the trophy wives of nerds.
But that still doesn’t quite drive home the point that nerds — regardless of gender — aren’t dateable by sheer virtue of their potential as inventors or scholars. The best romantic partners are the ones who know how to treat others with respect and to regard them as equals, even if they’ve earned fewer GPA or IQ points and even if they work in a field where they’ll never earn six figures. Dating a nerd isn’t necessarily “dating up,” and being a nerd isn’t necessarily the same as being a decent person. Both Loretto and Zuckerberg would do well to encourage the young women in their lives to simply be decent people. If they achieve that, dating should be relatively easy.