Television Without Pity posted a photo list of the top 10 best "Nerd Loves Hottie" movies, inspired by the upcoming movie with the annoying title: She's Out of My League.
But the movie Out of My League features adults (judging by age, anyway). So did the movie Knocked Up (to which it's being compared). So does one of my was-a-favorite, now love/hate television shows, The Big Bang Theory—which also presents a nerd-loves-hottie romance.
And this? This concerns me.
Not that wacky pairings can make for great comedy. But that this particular wacky pairing is, more and more often, given a credence it does not deserve.
Nerds Are No Longer a Minority
Well... not as much a minority, anyway. We're well into the techno-revolution, and the geeks and nerds already led the charge.
Spending time on one's computer is now the norm, even if knowing how to fix them isn't yet. Playing video games, especially Wii, is common. Kids who came of age with Harry Potter and, now, Twilight see nothing especially strange about "geeking out" over one's favorite fandom. Yes, I know many of us may have emotional scars from feeling like outcasts, but guess what I figured out? Everyone feels like outcasts at some point!
I can't speak for high school, but in college, nerds rule. In corporate offices, techno nerds and bean-counter nerds rule. In money, nerds absolutely rule! People know the names Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for a reason. Nerds gave us Google, and Amazon.com.
In entertainment, Jason Mraz wrote the empowering "Geek in the Pink." Not only do we have four nerd protagonists in The Big Bang Theory, but we have two more (Chuck and Morgan) on Chuck and three more (Charlie, Larry, and Amita) on Numb3rs. That's not counting all the CSIs on all the CSIs, and the "Squints" on Bones, and Hiro on Heroes.
Point being? There's nothing unsexy about geeks. People who play the victim or martyr card, though? Who whine that "she won't look twice at me, I'm just a geek?" Not attractive!
Do you want to know why Sheldon Cooper is the most popular geek on The Big Bang Theory? It's largely because, of the four nerds, he's the one who most likes himself. So do many of the other characters whom I listed. Hodgins, on Bones, doesn't try to hide the fact that he's a conspiracy theorist. Larry, on Numb3rs, is one of the flakier characters you'll meet, but he's proudly so.
A huge problem with the Nerd-Loves-Hottie movies is, they aren't necessarily about nerds at all. They can more truthfully be called Unpopular-Guy-Loves-Popular-Girl romances. And caring about whether you're "popular?"
That's so high-school. Luckily, a growing majority of nerds don't give a flying flip about "popularity." We're too busy learning about different histories and cultures and interests--because we do have broad interests—and sharing what we've learned to care what other people think about us.
And we look askance on nerd-characters who make popularity—either their own, or that of a romantic candidate—their main priority.
Hotties Are People Too (or they Should Be)
Let's look at the second half of this nerd/hottie opposites-attract concept. Who are these hotties?
Seriously. Who are they? Because in the majority of the stories listed by TWOP, the nerdy nice-guy heroes are madly in love with a cheerleader who they barely know!
This means they aren't in love with a girl at all. They're in love with a hot body and a pretty smile. Nothing wrong with that, if that hotness only complemented the real person, but in these shows, it so often doesn't. They're doing the same thing they complain about others doing—judging someone on appearance only.
Leonard Hoffstadter, on The Big Bang Theory, represents this. As soon as he sees the new neighbor, current waitress and aspiring actress Penny, he believes himself in love with her. At the end of the first episode he claims, "Our children will be smart and beautiful."
"And imaginary," responds his more realistic roommate. Not because Penny is out of Leonard's "league" (and Leonard himself has spoken those words, more than once), but because they just met! He doesn't know her, only that she's hot.
It's not love-at-first-sight if only one person falls immediately in love… the imbalance leans it much closer to stalking. First-season Leonard sulks when Penny dates "other" guys. He steals her mail so he'll have an excuse to talk to her. This is not healthy behavior. This is something Gavin de Becker would list as a warning sign in his definitive and highly recommended Gift of Fear.
The second season of The Big Bang Theory, the season that won me over, has Leonard and Penny "move on" after a bungled date. She got to be more of a real character (a topic excellently covered by Linda Holmes in the "Monkey See" column of NPR.org).
In Season 2, Penny tries starting a home business ("The Work Song Nanocluster"). She gets addicted to videogames ("The Barbarian Sublimation"). She has a hilarious "war" with neighbor Sheldon (which she wins, in "Panty Pinata Polarization") and faces off against another sexy neighbor ("The Dead Hooker Juxtaposition") whom she believes is taking advantage of her guys. But the powers that be seem to believe people want to see Penny and Leonard together, because they went there again for Season 3, to everyone's detriment.
Why, detriment? Not because Penny's hot. Because there's no reason beyond "she's hot" and "he's 'nice'" (he's not, especially) to justify their pairing. They have no shared interests, and are generally shown together either eating with the group or in bed. And that, for most of Season 3, has been the extent of Penny's characterization. As a friend of mine put it, Penny currently exists to bring them food and give Leonard sex.
Need more proof that Penny is more of a thing than a person?
Unlike almost every other character in the show (and this includes secondary and tertiary characters), she has no last name.
Penny deserves better than this. All the "hotties" do.
In contrast, one of the movies on the TWOP list, John Hughes' Some Kind of Wonderful, explores the issue of identity more realistically. Keith (Eric Stoltz) believes himself deeply in love with "popular" girl Amanda (Lea Thompson). But once he "gets" her, he realizes he was attracted to what she represented, not to her reality, and they part as friends. This has a far better message.
One more problem with any relationship based solely on "Wow, she's hot." (And again, being hot isn't the problem--only being hot is).
She's not going to stay hot! Nobody is. Some women age better than others (Helen Mirren, for example). But "rosy lips and cheeks / within [Time's] bending sickle's compass come." ** Smart women want a man who will love us when we're 87 years old and puffy and/or sagging from a life well-lived.
Not merely because we're "hot."
The idea of describing a sexy woman as a "10" may have originated before the 1979 Dudley Moore movie of the same name. But it's
Mind you, 10 was not a Nerd-Loves-Hottie romance. One needs a nerd for that (as well as a romance). But it sure gave under-achievers an excuse for why they can't get the girls they lust over. "She's a 10, and I'm just a…."
And this number always reflects appearance, popularity, and nothing else.
Of course people tend to date others who share their interests or backgrounds or, hopefully, their values. But those matter! Appearance, while often quite lovely, is fleeting. Someone on the perceived bottom half of that obnoxious appearance scale can, if they care to, get new clothes, eat healthier, visit a hair stylist. Problem solved.
Except, the guys (and why is it so often guys) who get a kick out of this particular fantasy story don't want to give themselves a makeover. Leonard on The Big Bang Theory breaks up with a girlfriend because she buys him slacks that are itchy and a sweater that's ugly (breaking up apparently proves less confrontational than saying, "Thank you for the slacks, but they're itchy"). No, he wants to win the girl because he's "a nice guy." He seems to define "nice" as "doesn't cheat"—despite that he had sex with a girl while taking her home from a date with one of his friends—as if that alone makes someone worthy of a sexual relationship. (Leonard also defines "relationships" as sexual). That should be the bare minimum.
Because the only part of this fantasy that is about the nerd himself is validation. Actually, that's the only part that's about the hottie, too. In the end, this is merely a competition--hence the term "league." If the nerd bags a "10," then he's more important than the other guys. It means he may only be a 5 (by his own rating system), but with her they're a couple who rate a 7! It's social currency.
Am I really the only one who feels like throwing up at this concept?
Some readers may be protesting—it's just TV, movies, books. It's comedy! Don't take it so seriously! My answer is: One? Never tell me anything is "just" TV, movies, or books. Especially if you ever plan to work in any of those industries, have some respect for your craft. And Two? If the stories themselves show some recognition of the foolishness of this trope, and recognize that a guy's not just a "nice" guy because he's passive and that a woman is worth more than her appearance, then more power to them. Let the hot woman be more than her hotness. Let the nerd do more than be passive. I'll be thrilled.
But if the story takes the nerd-deserves-hottie-just-because idea seriously, I damn well will, too.
I also have no problem with movies, shows, and real life in nerds and hotties hook up, no matter which gender each happens to represent. I enjoy the Chuck/Sarah relationship on Chuck in part because, if Chuck ever found Sarah to be "out of his league," it was because she was a kick-butt superspy who was risking her life and saving the world on a regular basis, not just because she's "hot." Sarah Walker has a past, a passion, strengths, weaknesses, and a freakin' last name.
Penny, from The Big Bang Theory, deserves the same. I look forward to seeing that happen.
After all, this is 2010. Women as trophies—whether made of gold, silver, bronze, or copper—is an idea whose time has passed.
* Say Anything is set during the summer before college.
* * Shakespeare, Sonnet 116