There’s No Such Thing As the Nerd–Bro War

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This is a fiction.Photo: Alan Bailey/Shutterstock

There is a debate brewing in some corners of the blogosphere about the bro and the nerd — two supposedly polar-opposed groups that have had wildly disparate fates as of late. Bros, it is generally assumed, are falling on hard times — thanks to the troubles of the financial sector, the declining utility of relational skills in business settings, and the stigmatization of certain types of performative masculinity. And nerds, the story goes, are our new American heroes — wealthy, #disruptive, culturally ascendant thanks to the tech boom.

But easy binaries often fail us in moments like these. The truth is that there is no war between nerds and bros, because neither category truly exists. Just as light is both a particle and a wave, a person can be both a nerd and a bro — a nerdbro. Or, alternately, a person can move fluidly between nerd and bro. Nerds and bros are Heisenbergian phenomena, not absolute identities — a lot depends on who’s doing the looking.

The current nerd-bro debate arguably started with a Marc Andreessen tweet calling “nerd culture” “the bro’s natural enemy.” Pete Warden then explored the dualism in Quartz, pointing out that, although bros had a long reign atop the social pecking order, the world seems to have gone the nerds’ way. Noah Smith thinks we’re approaching some sort of nerd-bro singularity, noting that the tech-oriented economy “is forcing bros to nerd out, and elevating nerds to management and trading roles where they get a crash course in bro-ing.

Part of what’s confusing about the current nerd-bro discussions is that they conflate wealth and power. Wall Street bros might lord over their fiefs in Manhattan, but they’re impotent on Capitol Hill, where the laws governing their behavior are made and shaped. (To have influence there, they need outside help. Lobbyist culture is many things, but it’s not bro.) Likewise, a successful nerd might have more money than God but still get laughed off the invitation list for an Oscars party or a State dinner. The nerd-bro binary also jumbles together aesthetic factors — such as appearance, countenance, and lingo — with elements of bro and nerd identity performance, such as preferring video games to sports or being able to code.

But pick apart these categories and the whole ball of yarn unravels. I know plenty of bros who hate sports, and plenty of nerds who can’t write Python scripts to save their lives. Not all bros pound beers, and not all nerds shun dancing. In fact, many of the totemic nerds and bros of our era aren’t really good examples at all.

Let’s look at some case studies:

Peter Thiel: Invests in tech companies, names his ventures after J.R.R. Tolkien novels, wants to hack death. Total nerd, right? Except that he traded derivatives at Credit Suisse, drives sports cars, and defended a law-school buddy who was accused of shouting anti-gay slurs at a professor. Doesn’t get more bro than that!

Lloyd Blankfein: Bro, right? CEO of Goldman Sachs, Wall Street alpha male, sockless wearer of Nike Frees. But! Also has an encyclopedic knowledge of TV jingles and Lady Gaga songs. “I would have liked to be a nerd,” he told Jessica Pressler in 2011. Is that something a bro would say?

Bill Gates: Look at him through one eye, and he’s the Nerd King — a BASIC-coding geek whose love of computers made him a billionaire. Look through the other, and he’s a polo-wearing equestrian dad who loves tennis and fast food, doesn’t play video games, and built a monopolistic business empire by elbowing rivals out of the way.

Vin Diesel: Hollywood’s walking embodiment of bro culture grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons in an artist colony.

Vince Vaughn: Hollywood’s other Über-bro was bad at sports and did musical theater in high school instead.

Albert Einstein: Had six mistresses. Total bro.

Smith writes that the internet age is “bringing about a merger of the nerd and the bro.” And he’s right that the category confusion is more prominent these days — what with tech CEOs dating celebrities and athletes investing in start-ups. But the nerdbro has always existed. We contain multitudes and perform different parts of our identities at different times, depending upon the audience and incentives. The border between nerd and bro has never held up under scrutiny.

More to the point, what we really mean when we say “nerd” and “bro” is “cliquish, elitist man.” I agree with Smith that the primary problem with both nerd and bro culture is that both are inherently exclusionary and hostile to women. But pitting them against each other doesn’t solve anything. To fix the gender gap and open the halls of power to everyone, we need to admit that both categories — nerds and bros — are toxic at their cores and in need of dissolution. Self-deprecating by calling yourself a nerd, or labeling misogynistic behavior as “bro-y” is harmless enough, but when we obsess over the war between nerds and bros, we’re reifying a dangerous dualism. It’s time to tear down the wall and build new, more inclusive stereotypes to mock.