It’s not hip to be square

I see shows like Star Trek as emblematic of a transitional period in American masculinity — at least on TV. The 50’s would have been pure Kirk, with a woman on every planet and an ability to knock out foes with a one-two punch. After the 70’s we got numerous examples of Spock, with his faith in science and confusion around emotions (not to mention women). There is a direct line from Spock to Seinfeld, and it goes through Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, and Huey Lewis And The News. The overwhelming message of my childhood was that it was “hip to be square.”

There is something to be said for this change. The confusion over emotions and social norms allowed men to be emotional and sensitive. Alien women may have objectified, but race (supposedly) no longer mattered. But the figure of the clueless scientist who just doesn’t understand women is not harmless. An obvious example is someone like nerd-hero Richard Feynman who was confused as to why women wouldn’t trade sex for sandwiches. The sexist culture that seems to exist within companies like Uber and Google makes it difficult for women in those industries, and arguably affects the kind of products and services offered by tech companies. Twitter’s foot dragging on the issue of online harassment is a good example of this.

There is a debate within linguistic anthropology which helps explain just what is wrong with our society’s continued celebration of the clueless naiveté of nerd culture. In 1991 Senta Troemel-Ploetz wrote a review essay of Deborah Tannen’s bestselling book: You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation in which she took Tannen to task for letting men off the hook to easily.1 She accuses Tannen of treating male-female communication as a matter of cultural misunderstanding, not unlike the confusion Spock faces when faced with Kirk’s emotions, but says that in doing so all the burden of addressing such misunderstandings falls squarely on the shoulders of women. As Deborah Cameron wrote in a 2007 Guardian column:2

Perhaps men have realised that a reputation for incompetence can sometimes work to your advantage. Like the idea that they are no good at housework, the idea that men are no good at talking serves to exempt them from doing something that many would rather leave to women anyway.

It is time to stop celebrating and coddling the naiveté of male nerds3 and geeks and start holding them to a higher standard.

UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me that I’m being unfair to Kirk. I’d actually read this article about how our memory of Kirk isn’t the same as the one on the show back in April, but somehow it slipped my mind when writing this.

  1. Tannen’s reply can be found here
  2. Previously mentioned on this blog when it came out. 
  3. Of course there are female geeks as well, see Mary Bucholtz’s work on this.