Yesterday on Twitter, pal “Calamity” Jon Morris asked if the steampunk aesthetic showed “more than a hint of nostalgia for imperialism, class structure and a teentch of racism”. I replied that, “I think an argument can be made that most nerd things are classist, as nerd dom is classist in and of itself” but didn’t really have the time or space to elaborate on that. I still don’t really have the time, but hey, here we are.
An important thing to note, of course, is that nearly everything in America is classist. We’re a classist society, no matter how much we pretend not to be. There’s a quote I can’t find the exact wording of or an attribution for (let’s just say it was Kurt Vonnegut or Albert Einstein) that says, “America is a country divided by class that thinks it’s a country divided by race.” The truth of that quote explains both Thomas Sowell and “People of Wal-Mart”. So saying that an American subculture is classist really isn’t any huge insight.
So the question is not “is the nerd subculture classist?”, it’s “is the nerd subculture any more classist than we would expect it to be?” Without a doubt I think that the answer is yes. By its very nature, by the rules of its adherents, it is designed to not only exclude those of a lower socioeconomic class, but to look down on them.
As I’ve argued before, there are two requirements to be a nerd: money and time. People who are worried about where their next meal will come from or who are working three jobs and terrified of getting sick don’t have the luxury of wondering about the new companion on Doctor Who. Nerd hobbies are expensive: comic books, movies, toys, computers, and games require a certain level of income to own, and an amount of free time to enjoy. (Plus an amount of living space to contain.) In addition, as I’ve said in my countless rants about “collections”, there is a pride in mere ownership — usually geared more towards quantity than quality. A nerd is more likely to boast that he has every book in a certain series than to wonder if the series is worth owning even one book. Never offer to help move a nerd, because you’ll be toting box after box of things he himself hasn’t touched in years, but nevertheless must have with him at all times. When I finally sold my Star Wars figures it was only after doing nothing but buying them and putting them in a storage bin, moving those storage bins to Massachusetts, and not even unpacking them until I decided to sell them.
There was a time when nerds could be poor. You could get hold of science fiction books in the library, watch nerdy TV shows on the public channels, or get comics off the newsstand at the supermarket. For some of that, it’s no longer the case. Watching nerdy TV requires an imposing array of specialized, often non-basic, cable channels. Comics, in addition to having skyrocketed in price (or so it seems to me; I haven’t done the actual math) are available mostly only at specialized shops. As for books, we’ll get to that in a moment. So on top of the already-mentioned money, time, and space, let’s add “reliable transportation” to the mix.
Already I know that some folks are going to complain that I’m speaking of a particular type of nerd, the active, plugged-in (let’s add regular Internet access to the list of requirements), flag-flying, full-immersion nerd. There are plenty of folks out there, it could be argued, who are “traditional” nerds, who quietly sit back, read sci-fi or fantasy books, watch the occasional TV show, and don’t have a wardrobe of t-shirts with edgy sayings or trademarked properties on them. I’m sure there are. I also believe that, under any circumstance other than trying to prove that nerds aren’t classist, most nerds wouldn’t count these people as “true nerds”. In the nerd subculture, visibility is an asset. What’s the point of liking something if it doesn’t give you a tchotchke to put on your desk at work? (We assume you have a job.) How can you freak the norms if you don’t have something obvious to freak them with? And on a much more subtle level, that fantasy book is just fine, but really, it’s the movies or premium-cable TV series based on it that the discussion will revolve around. You can’t post screencaps of books on Tumblr.
(I will say that there is a large group of nerds who just enjoy reading science fiction — usually of the “hard” variety — that don’t really go outside of this realm. They qualify under the definition of “nerd”, to be sure, but they exist largely in isolation from Greater Nerd-dom, possibly by mutual agreement.)
Nerd culture celebrates acquisition and retention. Once again, quoting myself, it’s not so much being into a thing as it is being into being into a thing, being a fan of fandom itself, and fandom is graded by dedication, which is graded by time and money spent on it. A fan who hasn’t spent enough of either on something is not a true fan, and god help that person if she’s a she, because then she’s a dreaded, vilified, “fake nerd girl” (apparently the “in” thing among young women is pretending to be nerds so they can score them some hot hot homebrew-Firefly-RPG-playing menfolk.) Nerds are nuts for statistics and rankings, and they want to be able to set themselves up as a bigger fan than that guy.
Does this make nerds inherently classist? Maybe not. Although the differences are largely based on access to resources, that’ could still be a side effect from the general class stratification of American culture. Obviously conspicuous consumption isn’t limited strictly to nerds. What I think pushes nerds over the line into classism (and this is without even mentioning the simple fact that nerds seem to largely be a right-wing, authoritarian, intolerant bunch) is the assumption that everyone has access to the money and time and other resources that they do. A nerd, given no other information about another person except that they’re into the same thing, will automatically assume that the other person has the same awareness of how the thing is represented on the Internet, in merchandise, in spin-off media, and so forth. It’s given as axiomatic that a fellow fan of something will have an opinion on the flame war currently blowing up on Twitter between two “names” in the scene over an interview in a foreign magazine. This is partly because a lot of nerds can’t get out of their own heads, partly because they assume that the level of engagement they have is shared by all fans, but also partly because they see this level of engagement as necessary to truly being a fan. And they don’t see the number of assumptions with regard to access to resources that are entangled in that.
In a social group in which your dedication is demonstrated by the amount of time, money, and space you can and will devote to a subject, I don’t see how classism can’t be a factor, implicitly and explicitly. This is a subculture in which, if you’re too poor to buy stuff, you’re not going to be as welcome. A certain level of dedication is expected, and that dedication requires the green stuff.
ADDENDUM: While discussing this with Andy Kunka, he deftly summed up the above mess with this: “So, nerdism is classist in that it reproduces rather than transcends class hierarchies, and the hierarchy is still relatively based in economic status.” This helped me to condense my thesis into this statement: “What I am trying to say is that nerdism is classist becase the fact that it’s so class-based is not seen as a detriment to the scene but an asset.”