Geek Chic: Popular Culture Celebrates Smarts

As a kid, Jaime Paglia hung around his father’s lab at UCLA. Then he’d see how smart people—like the ones he’d met on campus—were portrayed by popular culture.

“I grew up with Revenge of the Nerds, which was a huge caricature,” he says.

Paglia didn’t become an engineer or scientist, but he did go on to have a big impact on changing the way they’re depicted.

He’s co-creator and executive producer of the SyFy series Eureka, about a town populated by geniuses, and will next executive-produce a show called Bob From Corporate, about a secret organization that solves technological mysteries.

They’re among a new crop of television programs that are making it hip to be smart, even portraying engineers and scientists as heroes. Geniuses or people with unusual mental skills or educations are main characters of Fringe, The Mentalist, Alphas, Bones, Touch, Breaking Bad, The Big-Bang Theory, and other shows.

“Intelligence in general has become something to be proud of,” Paglia says. “We have these amazing icons in popular culture who are really, really cool and smart and creative, who identify as geeks and embrace it, and who give you someone to root for.”

This is happening at a time when IT guys including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg have become über celebrities—not to mention, billionaires—and when everyone seems to secretly wish they worked at Apple or Google.

“The iPhone, the iPad, these technological things that everyone desires, aren’t made by regular people. They’re made by engineers,” says Brent Harger, who teaches sociology at Albright College in Pennsylvania and studies popular culture. “Maybe that plays into it, that we see the people who fulfill the roles of giving that to us in a more positive light. That makes it easier to see someone like Steve Jobs as cool.”

It’s a dramatic departure from convention.

From Steve Urkel to Cindy “Mac” Mackenzie, engineers and other smart people have historically been shown as awkward, socially and sexually inept, math-savvy nerds who had to be rescued by the popular kids, or the Marines.

“Heck, even the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, arguably the most eligible and attractive of the male castaways, couldn’t get laid,” says Kevin Howley, who teaches media studies at DePauw University.

That’s suddenly changing.

“I haven’t been seeing very many shows that feel like they’re going to the, ‘Let’s make fun of the nerd’ wall very much any more,” says Paglia.

In the third episode of the first season of Eureka, for example, smart kids in high school are shown picking on the jocks.

“We wanted to have a place where there would be no judgment, where intelligence and creativity would be the things that were valued most,” Paglia says. “It wasn’t about who has the biggest biceps. It was about being smarter than the other kids.”

The effect of this was evident, Paglia says, when he appeared with counterparts from Breaking Bad and House at a national convention of chemists.

“What was great was seeing those guys treated as kind of like rock stars,” he says. “These are such different shows, but they were all based on characters first, who were unique and charismatic and intelligent, and we connect with them as an audience.”

Prominent and largely positive though they may be, characters who are engineers and scientists are also complicated.

“House is brilliant. But he’s a misanthrope,” Howley says. “He’s miserable, tortured physically by his ailment, addled by addiction, and spiritually bereft by his inability to make meaningful connections with other human beings. Both Mulder and Scully on The X-Files were brilliant, but loners. And this may be one of the common character traits for all of these smart people. It is curious how such intelligent people are depicted as alienated, even tortured souls.”

Shows like The Big Bang Theory, about two physicists and an engineer who live together, still plays into stereotypes about smart people being socially awkward—although more affectionately than used to be the case.

“It makes being smart part of the popular culture while also gently mocking it,” Harger says.

The biggest nerd in Eureka, computer engineer Douglas Fargo, was once known for habitually pressing the wrong buttons. But he’s become head of the secretive company, Global Dynamics, the town’s only industry, and even ends up romantically involved.

“What we’ve tried to do with that character, even though he is definitely there for some comic relief, is grow him into the role of a leader on the show, who seems like he’s always going to make mistakes, but we get to see him mature through the course of the series and develop self-confidence and rise above people’s expectations of him.”

And, Paglia adds, “He gets the girl.”

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