The Spectacular Now and the Problem With Geek Girls on Film

Shailene Woodley's character loves math and manga—until her storyline is brushed aside to make room for the movie's all-to-familiar male lead.
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Geeks are guys. Or so many geeks would have you believe. A girl at a comics convention dressed as Batgirl isn't really a geek, according to one popular line of thinking; she's just a fake geek girl, "poaching attention" (in the words of outraged geek Joe Peacock) by pretending she knows the names of all the Doctor's companions in chronological order or by quoting great swathes of Harry Potter. Geeks, the logic seems to go, are awkward social outcasts; pretty girls are not. Therefore, the two can't go together, and it's only natural, for example, to tell someone condescendingly at a con that she knows a lot about the Legion of Superheroes for a girl.

But The Spectacular Now includes that thing that some folks are loathe to credit —a real, honest-to-goodness pretty geek girl. Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) playing the female lead, knows her geometry and is in French club and is generally smart the way geeks are smart. She's also socially awkward the way geeks are awkward—she doesn't drink, has never had a boyfriend, giggles painfully whenever she talks, and performs bizarre conversational segues at family dinners. And if those clues aren't enough, she's into manga. Case closed.

Geek guys like Lloyd Dobbler in Say Anything or the nameless Geek in 16 Candles typically get a chance at romance with a glamorous non-geek. Despite the gender switch, The Spectacular Now follows through on the trope for Aimee, pairing her up with Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a popular, charismatic party boy. Aimee gets him into reading that manga and tutors him in math; he teaches her to drink whisky and takes her to prom. Soon they're head over heels—or rather, soon he's head over heels. Aimee, for her part, seems to have had a crush on him for a long time.

I say "seems to" because the film doesn't tell us exactly what is going on in Aimee's head. It's Sutter's film—and this is where the female geek/male geek parallels start to break down. Geek in guys is often a whole narrative and character in itself, not to mention, as in the Big Bang Theory, a whole clique and a whole milieu. It's something that's fun to watch, and laugh at, and root for. Aimee's geekishness, though, isn't seen as narratively interesting enough to hold the screen. It's not her quirks and insecurities and crappy family life that dominate (her controlling mother spends the entire movie off-screen.) Instead, the film concentrates on Sutter's woundedness, on his relationship with his crappy father, and on his struggle to stop being a loser and be a man.

You could say then, in multiple senses, that because of Sutter, Aimee stops being a geek. This is true because she loosens up—in terms of drinking, in terms of sex, and in terms of her self-confidence and ease with herself. Much of this is done extremely well. The sex, in particular, couldn't be much sweeter or more respectful; their halting embarrassed eagerness, including careful stumbling reassurances of consent, is funny and sweet and sexy without being at all exploitative.

There isn't necessarily any reason why having sex should make you less of an oddball; there are plenty of women at comics conventions with their spouses. Unfortunately, in The Spectacular Now, as Sutter becomes more central, the smaller narrative space left for Aimee includes less and less room for her geekishness. The manga is basically dropped; for a second when Sutter offers Aimee a prom gift, I thought perhaps he'd bought her a comic or some such, but instead he gets her an inside joke that is all about him, reflecting the fact, presumably, that it's his insides we care about.

By the last third of the film, Aimee is just doing the standard supportive girlfriend thing, largely untouched by any distracting idiosyncrasy. She tells him he's awesome; she tells him he's all she cares about; she is entirely focused on his well-being after he almost crashes the car, never even stopping for a moment to register mild irritation or even fear on her own behalf. This last thing is such a ridiculous exercise in self-abnegation that even Sutter gets angry about it. The movie instantly punishes him for questioning the goodness of her all-consuming nurturing impulse. But I, at least, felt his frustration. Didn't she used to be a person back there at the beginning of the film, and not just an appendage of his psychodrama? What happened?

Well, it's obvious enough what happened. The movie wasn't smart enough to deal with the interesting protagonists it started with, and so it reverted to trope -- wounded guy in the spotlight, and a supportive, forgiving woman off to the side. It's not a particularly surprising outcome, though it's disappointing after the movie made such an effort early on to treat the characters as people rather than memes in its rom-com delivery system.

What is a little startling, though, is the way that geekishness has to be pared away, or at least downplayed, in order to get the usual tropes to work. It's as if "geek" is too active an identity—too interesting, too central, too prone to generate humor, or conflict, or character development. "Geek" as applied to guys is a stereotype, and often an invidious one—but it's a stereotype that does stuff. It's somebody who a story is about. Even Duckie, off to the side there in Pretty In Pink, gets gratuitous narrative closure that's all about him—in the form, of course, of a deus ex hot girl.

Perhaps that explains in part why the fake geek girl meme has such tenacity. Geeks, according to one way of thinking, have stories; women don't. The identities seem to cancel out. To acknowledge that a girl is a geek, then, is to acknowledge that she's the star of her own narrative, not the prize at the end for the guy who has overcome whatever it is guys are always overcoming. To fit into her secondary role in the conventional plot, Aimee has to become a more conventional girl. They call that a happy ending.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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