Nerds and Mormons Have Both Become More Popular. Coincidence?

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 19 2012 1:16 PM

Geek Chic and the Mormon Moment

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Jared Hess, creator of Napoleon Dynamite

Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images

Among the various figures and phenomena contributing to the so-called “Mormon moment”—Big Love, Mitt Romney, Glenn Beck, the Book of Mormon musical, Stephenie Meyer—one plausible factor has, so far as I can tell, not previously been noticed: the triumph of geek culture.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

That geekiness has, in some sense, triumphed, does not seem to be in dispute. The term “geek chic” became common in the 1990s; USA Today, not generally on the forefront of such things, used the term as a headline for a piece about how geeks have “pulled ahead of the rest of us” in 2003. In December 2010, Patton Oswalt published a much discussed piece in Wired (covering all things nerdy since 1993) arguing that geek culture had succeeded so totally as to become worthless.

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I got to thinking about this over the weekend after noticing that Napoleon Dynamite had become a cartoon and Orson Scott Card was publishing a new installment in the Ender saga. What’s the connection? Well, whether either of these things has to do with geekiness may depend on how semantically rigid you are; more on that in a second. But both items, in any case, are indisputably products of Mormon culture.

Card has written at length about the extensive influence of Mormon scripture on his fiction; his “Homecoming” trilogy is explicitly based on the Book of Mormon. And he’s not alone: There are a number of successful Mormon authors of science fiction, some of them working in film and TV (after Card, the most famous Mormon SFer may be Glen Larson, who produced the original Battlestar Galactica series—and included various bits of Mormon theology in the show).

What explains the Mormon affinity for speculative fiction? Even some who believe the Mormon gospel acknowledge that its worldview shares something with the genre: “We have no qualms,” Card has written, speaking of his fellow Mormons, “about the idea of life on other planets, faster-than light travel, ancient ‘lost’ civilizations, supernatural events with natural explanations.” (Mormons tend to be more pro-science than, for instance, some evangelical communities.)

As it happens, the last film by Jared Hess, the Mormon writer-director behind Napoleon Dynamite, also concerns science fiction: Gentlemen Broncos is “the story of a teenager who writes unpublished Dune-like sci-fi novels called Yeast Wars in which the hero has his gonads stolen and faces off in a rocky desert against laser-blasting mammaries.” The character of Dynamite, meanwhile, is sometimes referred to as an icon of “geek chic,” though others (here comes the terminology debate) insist that he is a dork, not a geek (or a nerd: here’s a handy Venn diagram distinguishing the three categories—as well as “dweeb,” though that label seems pretty passé).

I tend to think that these categories are fluid; Oswalt, in his piece, uses the term “nerd” and “geek” interchangeably. Dork, perhaps, remains largely pejorative (although the cloying adjective “adorkable” suggests otherwise), but the same things that tend to cause Mormon dorkiness—the prohibitions on alcohol and cigarettes, the (largely informal) strictures on dating, and the relative insularity of Mormon culture more generally—may also contribute to an interest in “geeky” things. (Even Mitt Romney seems to have an “inner geek.”)

And I don’t mean only sci-fi, of course: Take knitting, for instance, an utterly wholesome pastime that has been popular among Mormons for years, and which also became trendy in the last decade or so. Or consider the playing of Connect Four and other board games in Brooklyn bars: Take away the alcohol, and it might as well be Family Home Evening.

Is it a coincidence that the rise of geek culture has been followed by a Mormon moment? In part, certainly. But I think the two may not be entirely unrelated. In October, reflecting the general interest lately in all things LDS, The New York Times ran a piece on fashion among young Mormons. What does that fashion consist of? For women, there’s “very much a Zooey Deschanel look,” says Elna Baker, referring, of course, to the adorkable Geek goddess. And in a list of “fashion-forward” items supposedly adopted by “a young generation of Mormons,” “geek-chic glasses” tops the list.

While the general thrust of the article was that young Mormons were making an effort to be cool, what it drove home for me was that, for a group as demographically geeky as Mormons—and I speak as someone who was once a Mormon nerd myself—the changes in American popular culture over the last decade had made doing so a whole lot easier.