The Problem With the Portlandia Nerd Sketch

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 22 2013 9:40 AM

The Problem With the Portlandia Nerd Sketch

On Friday, I discussed the latest episode of Portlandia with Chris Wade. At the end of our conversation we touched on the opening sketch, “Nerd PSA,” above. It’s a nicely done, heartfelt bit, with a man named Brian who describes himself as “an actual nerd” (and who does not appear to be an actor) insisting that the once purely derogatory term does not describe, for instance, “a sexy girl who went to a second week screening of The Avengers.”

What about a sexy guy, you might ask? To which Brian would probably say that the same goes for men. But then, the sketch opens with a sexy girl in the part of the fake nerd, and, at the end, when Brian is joined by other real nerds, they are all men.

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The idea that women are not real nerds—and that some of them are, for whatever reason, faking it—is a fairly common and pernicious notion. So even if this bit of exclusion was accidental—which seems more than likely, given the obvious feminist sympathies and political awareness of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, who created Portlandia—it plays into a sexist trope that is all too prevalent online. It’s easy to imagine a version of this sketch that doesn’t make nerd the exclusive province of men. It’s too bad that version didn’t air on Friday night.

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

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