Last night I watched 21 Jump Street. It was quite fun. As a kid I thought the original Johnny Depp starring show was just about the coolest thing in the world, and I was skeptical about a crassed-up comedy re-make. But, well done.
What really stuck in my mindgrapes after the movie was the notion about how much high school identities and what it means to be a nerd had changed from 2005 to 2013 (ps that sentence makes me feel quite old). Our heroes in 21 Jump Street are a former science nerd, and former high school hero who graduated in 2005. They return to high school 8 years later, and the roles are reversed. A proficiency in science isn’t lame. Trying and learning and being gay all pair up just fine with popularity, partying and drug use. Such lines are largely irrelevant. It’s cool to be smart and care about the earth; it’s not cool to be a shallow tough guy.
As Schmitt (Jonah Hill) says, shortly after they re-enroll as the oldest high school-ers ever: “Liking comic books is popular, environmental awareness, being tolerant. If I was born 10 years later I’d have been the coolest person ever.”
This isn’t a great surprise. Comics and nerdery and geek culture have been cool for a while now. Popular culture has long since appropriated nerdiness and made it desireable; hipster culture even more so. But I was still left last night thinking about Steve Urkel.
Do you remember Steve Urkel? He was the epitome of nerd-dom on television back in the 1990s. He was nasal-voiced, proficient in science and math, wore suspenders on high-waisted pants and over-sized glasses. He klutzed around breaking things and wreaking havoc, only to quip, “Did I do that?”
I’m sure you remember. He was the nerd. But not just a nerd, he was also kind and compassionate and respectable. I suppose then I might have said he was soft, or a sissy, or pansy, because in the 90s I also wanted to be cool and such things were said then about decent people. I would not say so now. Now, I’d say he’s good kid; an admirable young man clearly full of love for his friends and a desire for knowledge.
Twenty years later, I would posit that today’s Urkel TV equivalent is Sheldon Cooper, the OCD (autistic?) theoretical physicist and nerd culture connoisseur of The Big Bang Theory. Outwardly Sheldon is just as much a bone fide nerd as Urkel, though now and adult instead of a kid. Like Urkel he is identifiable as a nerd by his dress and behavior and voice and laugh. His friends are forced to put up with the trying personality that accompanies him, though they also clearly like him, and choose his friendship over and over.
So, how are these characters different and how has the time changed?
In an early episode of Family Matters, Steve Urkel, who is a gifted science student and desperate to win over the girl next door, produces a chemical compound that turns the nerdy Steve Urkel into a suave, handsome, well-dressed Stefan Urquelle. The classic make-over comic routine, geek-to-god, right? The longing for acceptance in the broader cool kid culture. Urkel eventually creates a clone of himself, and the clone somehow is Stefan, and he returns occasionally in the series, always reminding audiences, and Steve’s friends, what he could have been, even if the suave Stefan ultimately is rejected. (It’s amazing what you can pull from long forgotten TV memory).
Fast forward to Sheldon Cooper. Scienctist, rpg-enthusiast, text-based-gamer, and Wil Wheaton Nemesis. Sheldon is happy and content in his ultra-nerd identity; he treasures his superior intellect and demands others do the same. Any failure to recognize the value and merit of Sheldon Cooper is the direct responsibility of that individual. Sheldon’s social awkwardness and inability to read the cues of his peers and colleagues does not for an instant create a desire for him to change. Perhaps the Sheldon Cooper in a Texas high school would have been different, but it’s hard to imagine it so. Either way, Dr. Sheldon Cooper makes no attempt to alter his person in order to win over anyone, including a woman; eventually, he finds someone similarly imbued with brilliance and confidence and they go forth in their rule-based but delightful relationship.
This is the real shift in how our nerds are portrayed in popular culture. Urkel always felt the need to alter his persona, to find a way into that which he was outside of, even if he removed what made him special. It is true that the real Steve Urkel always won out over the creation Stefan Urquelle. But the expectation of make-over was always present. That impulse seems largely gone. In The Big Bang Theory, what separates Sheldon from the norms of society is what makes him special. Sheldon is left to be that which he is: at times funny, at times obnoxious, always Sheldon.
This is, I assume, the lesson 21 Jump Street meant to convey when the perp is attempting to use his mouth to pick his dick up off the street?
*Note: I konw there’s a whole nerds v. geeks thing about what these terms mean. I’m using nerd, if you think that’s the wrong word, well, okay.