A quick warning up front: This is an editorial about subcultural semantics. This is the kind of thing I’ve been interested in forever, and while I understand that there are going to be people who think this sort of hair splitting is a waste of time, yapping on about this kind of junk is sort of my job. So save all the ‘Who cares what the difference between a nerd and a fanboy is?’ comments.
There is an epithet that is hurled at me with some regularity, one that
has made me look deep into the cavernous depths of my own soul: ‘self
loathing nerd,’ or some variation on the phrase. Could it be true?
Could I just be so full of self hate that I hate those who remind me of
Sort of. But mostly not. Yes, there is a part of me that understands Steve Buscemi’s line in Ghost World: ‘I hate my interests.’ But the truth is that more often than not, I really love my interests. My bedroom has a Shaun of the Dead UK quad poster, a poster for the Alamo’s Rolling Roadshow of The Warriors and the banned poster for Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. There’s a vintage Dr. Zaius bank on my TV next to the UK Phantasm ball DVD set; to the left of the desk where I’m writing this, on a book shelf, is a playset from The Thing. I have a poster for The Fountain in the dining nook, next to a Planet of the Apes Caesar
head DVD case. I have shelves loaded down with film books, and my Rock
Band drum set and my three fake guitars take up way too much space in
the corner of my room. My Wii
is in the living room, glowing eerie blue. Next to that is a shelf
loaded with lots of DVDs, but only the really good ones I want to
display; the rest are in a closet, in storage. I love watching movies
and I love genre movies. I have I Spit On Your Grave and Cannibal Ferox on that shelf alongside The Searchers and my Marx Brothers box set, next to my Buffy and Angel DVD sets.
a nerd. I’m a movie nerd. I’m proud of that, and I like meeting fellow
movie nerds, people who share my passion for these things, whether or
not the specific movies they’re passionate about are the same as mine.
I’m not a big sci-fi movie nerd (unhealthy Planet of the Apes obsession
aside), but I get the people who are. I get the people who collect
movie memorabilia, who want to learn and know as much about their
favorite movies as they can. I get the people who are more excited to
meet a B-movie star like Bruce Campbell than any ‘major’ star. I’ve
still never had the courage to really chat up Jeffrey Combs the many
times I’ve met him. I get all of that. And I get the feeling of
community that you can find with like-minded people; in the days before
the internet I had an almost religious experience at a Fangoria convention. There were other people who liked what I liked. And many of them knew way more about it than I did. It was cool.
So I embrace my nerdiness.
But there’s a line I will not cross, and I think this is where people
start thinking I’m a self-loathing nerd. I will not be a fanboy.
A fanboy is different from a nerd in many important ways. Fanboys
are indiscriminate in their tastes. I understand that there was a time
when if you loved science fiction you settled for what science fiction
you could find. Before Star Wars almost nobody made big budget sci-fi
films, and you’d wade through a lot of pulp crap to find a Philip K
Dick. I’ve sat through more terrible horror movies than anybody should
ever have to see, just because I wanted to find the gem. But what I am
seeing around me now, more and more often, are people who embrace
movies/books/comics just because they’re nerds and the movie/book/comic
is in their genre. Obviously some aspects of quality are in the eye of
the beholder, but just because something has a spaceship doesn’t mean
you should give it a pass.
What really sets a fanboy apart, though, is that he will not let go of his childhood. These are the people who are online bitching about how Transformers ruined the mythos of the toys. The ones who are freaking out about whether the GI Joe movie will be true to the cartoon. The ones who fantasy cast a new Masters of the Universe film.
I’m not a self-loathing nerd, it’s that I hate being lumped in with
these people. This isn’t being a nerd, this is being emotionally
stunted. I’m not saying you can’t enjoy these things and be a
grown-up; I enjoyed Transformers quite a bit for what it
was. I am not a big fan of movies as pure spectacle, but there’s no
denying that Michael Bay is the master of that, and Transformers was
a master working his magic. I do become very worried about you when
you’re so heavily invested in a cheap cartoon that was made to sell
toys to kids, though.
will flock to movie web sites, but I don’t think they really like
movies all that much. They have a very small number of films that
they’re interested in every year, and they’re mostly released between
May and August. The fanboy may find a prestige picture at the end of the year worth getting excited about, but it’s always because of a connection to a fanboy favorite, whether it be an actor who has been in a fanboy
movie or a director who has gone on the record liking comic books.
These films will also always be the violent prestige pictures, the No Country for Old Mens, and never the prestige pictures about a woman or about human interaction that doesn’t involve killing.
The odd thing about fanboys
is that while they don’t really like movies all that much and they only
care about their own particular films, they get really up in arms about
those films being taken seriously. Fanboys are vexed that Batman Begins wasn’t nominated for a number of Oscars; the possible posthumous nomination for Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight will
be seen by them as a major victory. By the way, this isn’t to say that
nerds don’t take their nerdy interests very seriously; there’s been a
bunch of cool academic work done on everything from horror movies to
the sociopolitical meaning of the Planet of the Apes cycle, but the nerd approaches the subject from a very different direction. While the fanboy
demands legitimacy for his geeky loves, the nerd is willing to take the
time to explain why there’s something deeper about the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis*.
Which brings me to another major difference between a fanboy and a nerd. Ask a nerd why he loves something that’s marginal or dweeby or odd and he’ll likely be able to tell you. Nerds, it turns out, are not just self-aware, they think about their interests. Fanboys,
when asked the same thing, will say that it’s ‘cool.’ Or they’ll rattle
off the same Joseph Campbell bullshit despite the fact that they
wouldn’t know The Hero With A Thousand Faces if it was shoved up their ass. The fanboy
seems to be willfully ignorant, getting mad at anyone who dares to try
to examine something in any depth beyond the surface. A nerd will get
excited to talk about a favorite movie with you – they’ll probably be
able to tell you about the film’s place in the history of the genre,
the director’s filmography, it’s relation to the world in which it was released and maybe even the political subtexts at play – but the fanboy, desperate to cling to his 11 year old’s vision of the world, will lash out at any deeper discussion (except for humorous gay subtext. They’ll go nuts for that). Fanboys
have zero understanding of the form they’re professing to love, whether
it be movies or comics or books**. I’m often astounded to see comic fanboys
have zero knowledge of books published before their introduction to the
medium, and to know absolutely nothing about the creators. Film fanboys are the worst, since they have some belief that they know film history due to being able to name drop The Hidden Fortress and Lawrence of Arabia,
films they only know because George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have
themselves name dropped the shit out of them. But ask a film fanboy what his other favorite David Lean movies are and you’ll be shit out of luck.
What’s funny is that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are fanboy
gods, but they themselves are just nerds. Both men have been heavily
influenced by the films and TV shows that they grew up on, but they
took those influences and did new things***. They didn’t make beat for
beat homages of serials or old sci fi
movies, and they didn’t just remake favorite old properties. They took
these things and did what great artists do, which is to digest them and
make them their own. The problem is that the fanboy can’t digest things, he can only internalize them. It’s why the fanboy
gets so pissed off when you change an element in a favorite property,
because he has internalized these giant robots or this caped crusader
and made it a part of his identity. He isn’t just someone who likes
these things, he is defined by them. In a lot of ways the fanboy reminds me of Biblical literalists – do not change a word of the text and woe unto you if you challenge what I believe.
And like Biblical literalists, fanboys
have a set of beliefs that are set in stone and that cannot be changed.
It’s this aspect that allows both crazy religious people and fanboys
to be excruciatingly judgmental, even against things they don’t
understand. Religious morons don’t understand evolution, so they rail
against it. Fanboys
don’t understand movie making so they get all up in arms when an
adaptation dares to deviate from the holy text of the comic or cartoon.
This is probably the aspect of fanboys
that most frustrates me, even more than their unwillingness to look at
films beyond the dozen blockbusters that are slavishly marketed to
them. Years ago I had a similar belief system – the original is great,
so why change it? – but as I’ve learned about the business of movie
making and the mechanics of script writing I’ve come to understand that
what works in one medium will just not work in another. Of course there
are cases where bottom line oriented studio execs throw out the baby
with the bath water, but if you’re the kind of person who got
legitimately upset that Starbuck in the new Battlestar Galactica was a woman, you’re a psychotic fanboy who finds change threatening because it might mean you will one day have to grow up and be responsible.
I wonder if there are more fanboys now than there were twenty years ago. I suspect that’s the case. I think that the internet has made it easier for fanboys
to have their hermetic societies where they have constant positive
feedback on their stunted interests and beliefs. What’s really
disturbing about that is that an informal survey of fanboy rants and writings on the internet betrays one other negative thing about them: they’re often racist, sexist and virulently homophobic. A quick look at the Aint It Cool News talkbacks, which is like a fanboy wildlife preserve, will show you that. Part of the childhood these fanboys
don’t want to give up seems to be a 70s or 80s era white suburban life,
a segregated world that still had elements of 1950s traditionalism
intact. The fanboy has two modes: overexcitement and hate, and that hate is often showered upon anyone who is different from them, ie not a white middle or upper class male. When I was a little nerd, aware that my interests were not mainstream and without an internet echo chamber to back me up, I was very aware of concepts of social marginalization – to me this is why having the nerd frat in Revenge of the Nerds be
Lambda Lambda Lambda was so perfect beyond the cheap joke. I’m not
saying that the nerd experience is even remotely like the black or gay
experience, but if you grow up socially marginalized it seems weird to
me that you would end up hating people who are more seriously socially
marginalized. Or maybe it makes sense – for the fanboy
making fag jokes is their way of working off the anger from the fat
jokes the jocks made at their expense. Shit, as they say, travels
So consider this where I take my stand. I’m a nerd, and proud of it. I am happy to proclaim my love of zombie movies and Scott Pilgrim. I like Battlestar Galactica so much the original theme is my phone’s ring tone. I’d be happy to have a beer and talk about the history of Spider-Man. But I won’t be a fanboy.
I like being an adult, and I don’t want my room to look like it was
decorated by a 9 year old with a big allowance. I want to enjoy things
on as many levels as possible, and I would love to hear your
deconstruction of Rambo as much as I loved just watching
the movie. I’m not going to limit myself to a small number of movies
that are engineered to appeal to teenage boys, but I’m also not going
to just dismiss them if they don’t conform to the specific vision I had
in my head. I won’t be a fanboy.
*Well, actually there probably isn’t.
** Fanboys may insist they read a lot. Sadly, having made your way through the collected works of RA Salvatore does not make one a big reader.
*** Note: I don’t really think Lucas is a great artist, but that sentence would have been tortured with too many qualifiers. You get what I mean there, though.