A lot has changed for nerds in the last 20 years. Of course, nerds consume and obsess about different things now than in the 1990s, but what’s really transformed is the meaning of “nerd” itself. In the 90s, “nerd” and “geek” were usually terms of ridicule. The most visible representations of nerds on TV — characters like Screech and Steve Urkel — were little more than caricatures, playing into stereotypes of nerds as science and sci-fi obsessed, socially awkward, squeaky-voiced outsiders who wear thick glasses and ridiculous clothes. It was fairly rare to see female nerds in TV or movies at all — not because they didn’t exist, of course, but because the stereotype simply didn’t allow for deviation.
But now, nerds are definitely having a moment. Comic book movies, video games, and shows like Game of Thrones are incredibly popular in the mainstream, Neil deGrasse Tyson is beloved, cosplay is cool, everyone and their dog is trying to get into San Diego ComicCon, and thick plastic glasses have gone from “super nerd” to “hipster chic.” For many, “nerd” is now more a badge of pride than an insult, and the term no longer carries the same connotations of being an outsider than it once did.
Nerdom in the 90s and still today tends to be associated with people who love science, sci-fi and fantasy, video games, and so on, and, as an avid sci-fi nerd myself, those are the types of things I’ve focused on here. But, for the record, I think that the word “nerd” now has less to do with what you love than with how you love something. You don’t have to be into computers and sci-fi to be a nerd — you just have to love something so passionately (read: obsessively) that you just can’t be “cool” about it. You're compelled to celebrate it, talk about it, read about it, analyze it, and remake it, with no sense of detachment in sight — and that’s why we also have book nerds, theatre nerds, history nerds, music nerds, and pretty much any other type of nerd you can imagine.
So how has being a nerd changed since way back in the 1990s? Read on:
90s: The 90s were chock-full of sci-fi and fantasy shows on the small screen — including The X-Files, Sliders, Babylon 5, Xena: Warrior Princess, and The Outer Limits — but (from my biased perspective, at least) the decade really belonged to Star Trek. The Next Generation aired from 1987 to 1994, Deep Space Nine from 1993 to 1999, and Voyager from 1995 to 2001, meaning that essentially all of my formative years included at least one night a week of watching Picard, Sisko, or Janeway being awesome.
Today: I miss the golden age of Star Trek on TV, but these days we’ve got a lot of addictive sci-fi, fantasy, and comic-based shows to make up for it, like Daredevil, Orphan Black, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, The Walking Dead, and Agents of Shield, to name only a few. (And Star Trek is coming back to TV in 2017?!)
What happened when a nerd missed an episode of whatever he or she was obsessed with.
90s: HOW WILL I EVER GET TO SEE IT NOW???
TODAY: NO SPOILERS!!! If you ruin this for me, YOU WILL REGRET IT FOR THE REST OF YOUR MISERABLE LIFE.
Method of obsessively watching favorite movies and TV shows over and over.
90s: Usually being a nerd means that you watch your favorite movies or shows, whatever they may be, a lot (How else can you learn vital minutia, like “What is the actual layout of the personal quarters on Deep Space Nine?”). In the 90s, that meant that you actually had to purchase movies ON TAPE. And television was even more of a headache: Collecting even a single full season of a show meant either painstakingly taping the show from TV (commercials included!) or actually buying individual episodes on tape — which, considering that most shows had over 20 episodes, was an expensive proposition. I remember splurging and spending $18 as a teen to buy a single episode of Star Trek: TNG that I hadn’t been able to catch on TV. Which just seems… crazy, now. (ICYI, it was “Data’s Day.” ILU 4ever, Data!).
Today: Now we just binge watch our favorite shows through the magic of instant streaming. Yay, technology!
The movies that were making us question the nature of space, time, and REALITY ITSELF.
90s: Total Recall, eXistenZ, The Matrix
Today: Inception, Snowpiercer, Ex Machina
The Star Wars thing that pissed fans off the most.
90s: In the 1997 Special Edition rerelease of Star Wars: A New Hope, George Lucas altered an introductory scene in which Han Solo is cornered by bounty hunter Greedo. In the original version, Han shoots and kills Greedo after Greedo threatens to kill him; in the new one, Greedo shoots and misses Han, and Han retaliates by killing him. Angry fans argued that the scene changed Hans’ character, making him less morally ambiguous than in the first version. The controversy led to the popular slogan “Han shot first.”
Today: We’re still really mad about that. #neverforget
Lady cosplay inspirations
90s: Sarah Connor (Terminator 2), Seven of Nine (Star Trek: Voyager), Leeloo (The Fifth Element), Lara Croft (Tomb Raider), Death (the Sandman comics), Agent Dana Scully (The X-Files), Xena (Warrior Princess), Trinity (The Matrix).
Now: The field of dress-up-worthy, badass female characters is awesomely crowded these days. We’ve got Daenerys Targaryen (and Cersei Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, and pretty much anyone else from GOT), Agent Peggy Carter, Black Widow, Katniss Everdeen, and Imperator Furiosa, to name just a few. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a lot of Jessica Joneses and Captain Phasmas at the cons this year.
How nerds access obscure movies/comics/games/anything.
90s: Back in the day, getting media that was outside of the mainstream took effort, money, and sometimes a bit of ingenuity. Like-minded nerds might pass along bootlegged versions of hard-to-find content, or head to specialty shops (if their hometowns were lucky enough to have such things). All that work seems bizarre now — I remember when I wanted to see Ghost In the Shell, I had to find a specialty store that sold anime in another city and BUY it because my local video stores didn’t rent that kind of stuff. Life was INSANE, y’all.
Today: Now you can get anything your heart desires simply by pressing “play” on Netflix, downloading from iTunes, or — at worst — buying from Amazon and having to wait a couple of days.
The height of technology.
90s: Floppy disks, giant desktop computers, Sega Genesis, SNES, Gameboy ( or Game Gear, depending on your Nintendo vs Sega devotion), zip drives, and (eventually) fancy flip-phone technology. Nineties nerds also tended to be early adopters of that new-fangled platform, the Internet Superhighway. They were IM-ing and chat room-ing and fanfic-posting long before many people had even bothered to get email addresses.
Today: Super fancy gaming consoles, tablets, watches that can make phone calls and measure your heart rate at the same time, glasses that turn your arm into a keyboard… nerds are basically slowly evolving into robots. Resistance is futile, my friends.
Communicating with other nerds
90s: In the 90s, talking to like-minded nerds usually meant that you had to either luck out and have friends who were into that stuff, go to cons (which were much smaller affairs back then), or brave the wilds of early Internet chat rooms. I’m sure that there were many active, awesome fan communities all over the interwebs back in the day, but I just remember trying my hand at a couple of Star Wars chat rooms and having random dudes try to get 15-year-old me to participate in sci-fi-themed cybersex. It was… not cool.
Today: The world is your oyster! Never before has it been so easy for nerds to find their tribes. Fan sites, Tumblr, social media, and everything else on the great, wide plains of the Internet make it possible.
What we’re camping out to see.
90s: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
Today: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (LIFE IS A GLORIOUS CIRCLE).