Laurie Penny is not a nerd, and never will be

This caught my attention yesterday:

For those who might not know, Laurie Penny is a feminist journalist and author who studied English at Oxford and has appeared on the BBC, Channel 4, and in the New Statesmen, Guardian, and Morning Star almost always to express her political views. She is extremely outspoken and loves both stirring up trouble and getting attention, including writing about her polyamorous lifestyle in a national newspaper. The Daily Telegraph called her “”without doubt the loudest and most controversial female voice on the radical left.”

Does this sound like a nerd to you? No, me neither.

There was a time when to be a nerd you had to be good at science, technology, engineering, or maths (STEM) to the detriment of everything else. Or at least you had to be more interested in these subjects than most other people were, which made you socially inept as a teenager. Given that I studied maths, physics, and chemisty for A-level, did a Mechanical Engineering degree, and have (sort of) worked as an engineer for most of my career, believe me when I say I know what nerds are.

Nerds can be women. My first girlfriend back in university was a nerd, one of those one-in-million geniuses who could understand calculus without being taught, was blind as a bat, and if she spilled a glass of water the next thing she’d do was step in it by mistake. I knew another female nerd here in Paris, some maths whizz who worked for one of the international finance groups and numbers excited her. Wander around the geoscience department of a major oil company and you’ll see plenty of female nerds, although they are outnumbered by the men. The geologists are the most weird of all. They wear cargo pants and lumberjack shirts and take two-week holidays to go and visit an outcrop somewhere.

Being a nerd is about personality, which drives what you study. Nerds pay obsessive attention to detail, which suits STEM subjects where accuracy is more important than creativity. This is why nerds never really grow out of it. The engineers I work with are no longer the awkward teenagers they once were, but they still engage in the same hobbies. A colleague and friend of mine is from Malaysia, has a PhD, and wears glasses. His hobby is building amplifiers the old fashioned way using valves. Sometimes the stereotypes write themselves. Another colleague, a Venezuelan, heard about this and the two of them built one together. Both of them are around forty. Other engineer friends of mine are obsessed with whatever kit and equipment is associated to their hobby: biking, skiing, sailing, music. For them fiddling with the kit is three-quarters of the fun. Me? I have been known to build Airfix models as an adult and if I had the time and space I’d build a model railway. And I play the banjo. Enough said? I think so.

So why would an obvious non-nerd like Laurie claim to be one? Simple: in the modern world nerds are successful (once they grow up) and nerds are one of the few female groups who genuinely don’t need looks to gain attention, recognition, and progress in their careers. By claiming to be a nerd, Laurie is implying that she is highly intelligent and is respected in a field which requires a lot of hard work and dedication to enter. She says this in order to offset the physical disparity between her and the models, something nerds of both sexes do. Laurie is intelligent, but nobody would call a polemical feminist writer with such a craving for attention a nerd. Except herself, when asked to stand alongside a bunch of models.

It cannot be ignored that nerds tend to get well-paying jobs in stark contrast to those who study sociology or gender studies. Whatever it is nerds have, employers like it. Also, TV shows like Mythbusters and The Big Bang Theory repainted the nerd as an eccentric with a certain charm. The combination is to make the adult nerd somewhat endearing in terms of character and overall station in life (with the caveat that there are limits to the nerdiness). By calling herself a nerd, Laurie is attempting to portray herself as a loveable eccentric whose idiosyncrasies and quirks will be overlooked in light of her superior intellect and high-standing among like-minded peers.

Naturally, there are men falling over themselves to validate Laurie’s claims in the replies to her Tweet, probably thinking it will get them laid, but she’s not a nerd and never will be. That title is bestowed upon you by others, not awarded to yourself whenever you need a cutesy persona.


18 thoughts on “Laurie Penny is not a nerd, and never will be

  1. Grrrrrrr, total airhead, that one. Her greatest skill is getting it wrong on any issue.

  2. I was having a chat with Chris Mounsey of Devil’s Kitchen fame a couple of weekends back, and we’re both in agreement that she doesn’t believe half of what she writes: we suspect she’s growing out of it but has painted herself into a corner now and is stuck. Plus, it’s what pays the bills. It wouldn’t surprise me if she marries some divorcee in the next ten years and settles down into the middle-class existence she denigrates now.

  3. I won’t forget one of the first pictures I saw of her. She was sat in a kitchen, stove behind her complete with pan and on the wall above it one of those V for Vendetta ‘Guy Fawkes’ masks. Like you would hang in a kitchen above a cooker.

    Looky here, a working class gal who is dedicated to bringing down evil capitalism. Except of course it was all so contrived I doubt if even she believed it.

  4. Looky here, a working class gal who is dedicated to bringing down evil capitalism. Except of course it was all so contrived I doubt if even she believed it.

    One of the first times I’d heard of her was when she appeared in an article in The Guardian detailing her living arrangements with some middle-aged guy who was “oh-so different from her but don’t they get along well”? They were trying so desperately to be Withnail & I it was painful.

  5. This seems apropos.

    Indeed, that’s spot on. It seems I’m not the only one who’s noticed it.

  6. Just to add, the joke being that I’m not joking, that’s exactly what she is doing….

  7. There’s a comic strip explaining the difference between nerd and geek but I forget which one. Anyway, she’s neither. I favour wonk, as in policy wonk.

  8. Laurie is a favourite on David Thompson’s site.

    Indeed. If I keep this up, people are going to think he’s outsourcing.

  9. Can one not be a nerd in the humanities? Not a few philosophers I know seem to have many of the characteristics of nerds: difficulties in socialising, obsession with minutiae (I speak of analytic philosophers,) childish humour, poor dress sense, etc. The same is true of linguists. I once had a girlfriend who would regularly break off a conversation to pursue in-depth analysis of anaphoric structures in some sentence I had just produced. This did not strike me as odd, but friends did pass comment. At school we had a little group that, inspired by Tolkien and the Icelandic Sagas, would spend lunchbreaks or weekends reliving the glories of the Vikings. Are these not nerds?

  10. SteveGW,
    I would say yes, absolutely.

    Some of the most obvious “art nerds” will be found in the more analytical and or techy end of the arts – e.g. obsessed with the techniques or biographies of artists and/or endlessly fascinated by the technology of film-making/photography/printing etc – sometimes to the detriment of the end result.

    Also take a look at the work of genuinely photo-realist painters. Most sane people are hugely impressed by the end results but slightly baffled why the artist didn’t just take a photo rather than take years duplicating one with pigment.

    A fair amount of the most formal abstract art is also very nerdish and a great deal of the most hard-core conceptual art even more so.
    Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word is very good on how the arcane ideas behind an artwork became far more important to the art world during the 20th Century than what was actually hung on a wall.
    The artists who produce this kind of work are a very long way temperamentally from a Gaugin, Bacon or Michaelangelo.

  11. SteveGW,

    Yes, you will get arts and humanities nerds but they’d find it easier to fake it (as so many so-called “artists” do: see here). But Laurie isn’t one whichever way you cut it.

  12. Just to add, this reminds me of the Anita Sarkeesian thing, a girl clicking onto the idea there is some coin to be made as a SJW ‘gamer’ and reinventing herself for profit under the guise of activism.

  13. she’s not a nerd and never will be. That title is bestowed upon you by others, not awarded to yourself whenever you need a cutesy persona.

    I’m reminded of that line from Red Dwarf about how the other kids would never call Rimmer ‘Ace’ no matter how much he let them beat him up.

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