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Nerds on parade

Last week, Mayim Bialik of The Big Bang Theory visited The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  The forty-something star is what is referred to in the entertainment industry as “a triple threat”:  she’s an actor, singer, and neuroscientist.

Okay, perhaps not the traditional definition.  But Bialik, with her Ph. D in neuroscience, couldn’t be more suited to the CBS comedy about a group of eggheads.  So given her personal, scholastic and professional resume, she and Colbert had a delightfully insightful discussion on the difference between nerds and geeks.

A proudly self-professed oddball since childhood, Bialik defines “nerds” as people who are overly enthusiastic about an academic topic and tend to be by themselves a lot.  “Geeks” are less intellectually-focused in their pursuits – think computer gamers – and are often found by themselves with other people who are also by themselves – think Comic-con attendees.

Now, at one time, this discussion would have been considered rude and cruel.  In school, such labels were social kryptonite.  But ironically, in our current hyper-socially-sensitive society, “nerd” and “geek” have become a badge of honour, and even endearment, in the right context.

Apparently, we’re too busy body-shaming celebrities and calling people racist to expel any negative energy toward the neighbourhood social misfit.

Instead, nerds have gained celebrity status in television’s mainstream.  The Big Bang Theory is the most lauded celebration of Nerd-dom with the sweetly-offensive Sheldon Cooper reigning as King.  But if you don’t sway that way, he’s got five equally odd cohorts following in his wake.

In fact, comedies are breeding grounds for outcasts.  New Girl’s Jess has been referred to as “totally adorkable” by critics.  NBC’s Chuck, who was a secret superspy AND got the hot girl, was a cult favourite with a certain viewing population.  And Community and 30 Rock were filled with loveable nerds and geeks of every possible flavour.

But even dramas love characters who don’t completely fit the mold.  CBS’s Scorpion is about the smartest team of problem-solvers in the U.S.  However, one character is delightfully obsessed with a superhero and dresses up as a fantasy character on a regular basis.  Meanwhile, the rest of the team have isolated themselves to focus on their intellectual pursuits so much so that they don’t function well in polite society.

The NCIS franchise has always had an oddly brilliant member of the unit that everyone loves – be it Abby in Washington, Nell in Los Angeles, or Sebastian in New Orleans.  And for twelve seasons, Bones’ team of gifted Squints at the Jeffersonian were rude, awkward, and often espoused conspiracy theories.  But they were the heroes in every case.

So will everyone aspire to be a nerd or geek one day?  Hardly.  Ask any teenager; the outcast’s popularity remains primarily on television.  The real world still prefers to view them like zoo animals: safely behind glass, at a distance.

But with real-life specimens like Bialik running free as an ambassador for the species, true acceptance may be right around the corner.