Gymnasiums and Jockstraps
The neverending game of nerd vs jock
The young monk had been raised on the twin beliefs of mercy and justice, to help the weak and defend the innocent. The way of the open hand and the closed fist. When he burst through the dungeon door and saw the goblin bent over the rack, torturing the elf warrior, he didn’t think twice. He crossed the room in a blur of motion and, with one expert punch, killed the goblin stone dead.
If you played sports at school, and particularly if you were good at it, I imagine you remember glorious moments: a conversion kicked, a wicket taken, a goal saved. The goblin in the passage above is my equivalent.
I don’t have any memories of glorious or enjoyable sporting moments at school (or indeed at any other time). I have asthma, terrible hand–eye coordination (I can’t tie shoelaces), and an overabundance of allergies that coincide neatly with most sporting calendars. I am also utterly inept, a physical coward and entirely lacking in competitive spirit. My only regret about being picked last for school sports teams was that I had to be picked at all.
I hated sports with a white hot passion. I hated them because I could not succeed at them, I hated them because I was forced to shame myself daily playing them, and I hated them because they made everyone else hate me. I took to hiding in the school library, safe in the knowledge that none of the jocks would look there. Their feelings about the library were the same as my feelings about the changing rooms. They were hearty, healthy, hateful types and I… I was a nerd.
I was a massive nerd. I obsessed over Tolkien, adored Star Wars and read comics. I also played Dungeons and Dragons; hence the incident with the monk and the goblin, which occurred one of the first times I ever played it. This was during its first flush of popularity in the UK, some time in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. The monk was my ‘player character’, my role in this role-playing game. I had picked it simply because it was described in The Player's Handbook as ‘the most unusual of all characters’: a weirdo after my own heart.
I was an inexperienced player blessed, I realise now, with a brilliant Dungeon Master (the player who runs the game, creating the world in which the other players improvise their epic adventure). He made sure that I had a properly heroic adventure: an utterly silly, utterly engrossing, utterly delightful experience. He was my Eddie Munson.
The character Eddie Munson is introduced in the fourth series of Stranger Things, a show which began with a tight focus on a group of D&D-playing tweens who dress like dweebs and geek out over their weird little craft projects. In other words, entirely my kind of people. Eddie Munson is an older kid who has been held back at school due to his academic failings, but who succeeds mightily at being a Dungeon Master. His game is thrilling, and all the main characters of the core Stranger Things party are anxious to join. Apart from one kid, Lucas, who - in the gap between seasons - has become a jock.
The nerd/jock divide was taken very seriously in the ‘80s, and Stranger Things is as knowing about this as it is about other core experiences of ‘80s kids. Lucas’s friends are supportive about his role in the high school basketball team, but they’re horrified when they realise he is trying to shed his ‘weirdo’ identity. (How it made my withered and ancient heart leap to hear that word again. The jocks at school used to constantly ask: ‘why are you such a weirdo?’, not realising the ignominy, the awful cringe, of being normal.)
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Season 4 of Stranger Things hinges on acts of violence. It starts with Eleven, the psychic secret-laboratory girl, hitting a bully in the face with a roller-skate, and throughout the season we’re shown the organised violence of a gang of jocks - led by basketball captain Jason Carver - who are, for complicated and mistaken reasons, hunting Dungeon Master Eddie with murderous intent. The show is at pains to show Eleven’s horror at her own actions and to exonerate her from blame. Indeed, the adults around her act immediately to ensure that the incident is covered up. Jason Carver’s rampage, though, is explicitly depicted as both unrepentant and therefore evil, and he is eventually punished with an ignominious death.
Jason and Angela - the bully making Eleven’s life a misery - are both ‘normal’, and they feel entitled (or perhaps even obliged) to insist that others put on a decent show of normal, mainstream behaviour, a task they undertake with all the power conferred by their cultural cache and status. And this is where the knowingness comes in, because ‘80s jocks really were the foot soldiers of normality; the militant arm of the mundane, enforcing conformity with bullying and violence.
The thing is, though, that in the ‘80s jocks really were normal, in the sense of being more representative of normal attitudes and behaviours than kids like me. Liking sport, for instance, was very normal, which made my family abnormal, because we generally didn’t. None of my relatives played sport apart from my grandmother, who was a demon bowler, a skill that won her a pig in a village fete (thus rendering this anecdote hopelessly not normal). I don’t remember anyone in my extended family even talking about football, let alone supporting a team. But there it was anyway: World of Sport with the saturnine Dickie Davies, Grandstand with the sinisterly taupe Frank Bough, racing from Aintree and horse dancing from Olympia and the tedious, impenetrable poetry of the football scores (look away now). The whole of Saturday afternoon was a cavalcade of pointless pastimes, a bunch of running, throwing, kicking and jumping that you had to sit through before you could watch Doctor Who.
Even the Hollywood teen movies in which bullying jocks were the villains were insistent that nerds were deserving victims. At the end of The Goonies (1985), Sean Astin’s character Mikey finally finds the ‘courage’ to throw away the asthma inhaler he has been relying on throughout the film AND THAT IS NOT HOW INCURABLE LUNG CONDITIONS WORK. (Now I’ve shouted that I’m going to need to find my blue inhaler.) And don’t get me started on the appalling makeover given to Ally Sheedy’s character Allison in The Breakfast Club (1985).
All these films were fundamentally about asserting a consensus normality. And then, some time around the turn of the millennium, as internet culture started leaking out of the screens into the real world, something weird happened to mass culture. They adapted Lord of the Rings into a series of massively popular movies. Star Wars became one of the cornerstones of the Disney empire, which also undertook a massive series of movies based on Marvel comics. Doctor Who, of all things, that shonky, niche British sci-fi show, apparently killed off by all those glossy ‘80s American genre films that Stranger Things references, regenerated and became a Saturday evening TV cornerstone all over again.
All the weirdo obsessions that defined me as a nerd in the ‘80s, are now mass culture, as illustrated in a meta sort of way by Stranger Things - an enormous smash of a show - glorifying the very ‘80s weirdos that mainstream culture once despised. It does this not only by making a bunch of ‘80s nerds its heroes, but by building a palimpsest of ‘80s nerd references; not just the obvious ones (ET (1982), The Goonies (1985) and IT (1990)), but at every level of the show. There are references in the casting, with Sean Astin of The Goonies (and Lord of the Rings) appearing in season two. And there are some complex riffs with the casting of Paul Reiser as a scientist in the same series. In Aliens (1986) Reiser played a terrible man who gets everyone else killed, so the show playfully puts him into scenes referencing Aliens, all the while reassuring us that this time he’s a good guy.
The nerd references even get into the set dressing. At one point Eleven is taken in by a group of punks whose hideaway is covered with graffiti referencing classic British comics of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Comics fans will notice nods to Grant Morrison’s series The Invisibles (about an underground group fighting an evil from a parallel dimension); We3, another Morrison comic about a gang of laboratory animals who have been modified into weapons; and at least one reference to Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, which is about a laboratory-created mutant who hunts down and kills the scientists who made him.
These aren’t just any old nerd references; they’re carefully considered and chosen for their relevance to the plot. And they’re not even referencing mainstream comics; these are obscure little side-projects and indie publications, nerd references for only the most nerdy of referees.
That specialist knowledge is pretty much the definition of a nerd, after all, but the lack of that knowledge also defines those who aren’t. That identity can also be exclusive, and the Duffer Brothers aren’t afraid to depict this. Season 4 of Stranger Things opens with the core characters trying to find someone to take Lucas’s place in Eddie Munson’s Dungeons and Dragons game. They want Lucas’s younger sister Erica, but Munson doesn’t want to play with an 11 year old girl. Just like a jock would do, he uses his cultural cache to enforce the status quo. Season 4 also features Henry Creel (also known as One), the first psychic weapon produced by the lab that created Eleven. Creel believes himself to be both uniquely gifted and uniquely hard done by. He looks down on the ‘ordinary’ people around him as disposable hindrances - ‘non-player characters’, in Dungeons and Dragons terminology. He is, in other words, an incel, hiding out in The Upside Down (or, as we know it, the internet) and tormenting his enemies in the real world.
Nerds, it turns out, have some things in common with jocks. In fact, Stranger Things is nudging us towards the recognition that they are reflections of each other. There appears to be some truth to the idea that there are two separate kinds of people: one paper suggests that ‘low-need-for-cognition individuals were more physically active’, which is to say that people who enjoyed mental effort were less likely to enjoy physical activity. But not all swots are nerds, and not all sports players are jocks. What distinguishes and therefore connects jocks and nerds is obsession, and the expression of identity in the obsession, a fundamental social discomfort and unease of self that clings to these off-the-peg identities.
This kind of obsessiveness can lead to cruelty and gatekeeping, or just plain dumb unfriendliness, and it’s this - rather than sporting prowess or ‘normality’ - that Stranger Things explicitly rejects. What concerns Stranger Things is how people treat each other, and what it valorises is kindness. After initially rejecting Erica for stupid reasons, Eddie Munson quickly caves and allows her to join the game. Jason Carver, despite being given multiple opportunities, never grasps the hand of friendship, and it’s that - not being a jock - that makes him the bad guy.
The thing that ultimately unites most of these kids, whether they are jock-inclined or nerd-inclined, is that they’re accustomed to acting in a team and pursuing a common goal. Like the core ‘party’ in Stranger Things, the best, most successful D&D party is not just weirdo monks; it is well balanced, each player using their specific skills to benefit the whole: warriors and wizards, brawn and brains, Steve Harrington and Dustin Henderson, jocks and nerds.
You can read more of our essays inspired by Stranger Things here: