“Like Shooting Nerds in a Barrel”: Exploiting the Fanboy Niche

Curator's Note

A number of stereotypical characteristics that circulate in our culture about fanboys are foregrounded in this opening from a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory. From Howard’s realization that he will get his sheets replaced by his mother that night to the jokes about the loser status that accompanies being in a comic book store, the show reinforces the idea that these men are abnormal, pathetic, and to be laughed at. In these exchanges, the repeated use of words emphasizing their lameness and the references to the lack of sex fanboys experience highlight the characters’ recognition of the stereotypes as well as how closely they fit them.

Perhaps nothing encapsulates that status better than Stuart’s admission to Amy that the covers of many comic books feature large-breasted women because “Most of the guys that come in here like big boobs. A couple of them have big boobs.” While Stuart makes fun of fanboys, he is clearly one himself. Yet, because Stuart owns the comic book shop, it puts him in a unique position: he can profit from the obsessive natures of his fellow fanboys through the sale of items they do not need.

His closing line of this scene highlights that he knows that Leonard, Howard, and Raj have been hooked by his declaration that he would be “robbing you of the hours of fun you could have for the magical, rootin’-tootin’ low price of $24.95” if he provided a guess. While Stuart is a recurring but minor character, this exchange places him at a slightly different level than the other fanboys we watch regularly on the show. He is someone who exploits his intimate knowledge of and participation in this niche.

Stuart is an excellent example of the balance between exploiting fanboys for profit and making fun of the niche’s particularities for the larger culture, given the high ratings for The Big Bang Theory both in prime-time and in syndication. Once derided as men who lived with their mothers and who exhibited poor social skills, recently fanboys have become more of a niche that points to profits for the studios. As the growth and popularity of Comic-Con can attest, hooking the fanboy audience early for a new film, television, or video game property is an essential part of the marketing process. Exploiting this niche has become an easy target for the studios, “like shooting nerds in a barrel.”


I have a weird relationship to this show in that I don't hate it but I find it really hacky and easy. It is obsessed with making fun of these characters in the ways you described and the way Henry Jenkins describes in the beginning of Textual Poachers. Stuart may profit from his friends obsessions but he seems doomed to send his profits right back to Disney's Marvel and Warner's DC Comics. Whenever he shows up he seems to have a resigned sense of his station that says, "There is nothing I can do about my niche in life, so at least I can make some money." It is rare on this show for the guys to use their nerdiness to their advantage or to adapt pop culture for their own purposes, instead they seem to be dressing up and collecting action figures because they have to, either by some biological need in the case of Sheldon or habit in the case of Leonard.

Yes, this show makes fun of nerds a lot. It is worth noting, however, that in the first two seasons its approach to nerds, fandom, etc. was more thoughtful--the show seemed sometimes to be laughing AT nerds and sometimes WITH nerds. It seems to me that BBT understands that nerds are a niche that can be targeted, but that the mass market is worth more money, and, obviously, that is what CBS is looking for. There are many differences, of course, but I am reminded of JJ Abrams's approach to Star Trek--he understood that he needed to throw some bones to the fans (and there was even a dedication to Roddenberry and Barrett at the end, which I found completely ridiculous), but he insisted that the movie was not "just" for fans, that "everyone" would love it. And, indeed, it was a broadly targeted action movie, not a smart sci-fi movie. "Most illogical" from the perspective of devoted ST fans, but highly logical from a marketing perspective. Similarly, BBT is "about nerds" but for "everybody," hence lots of sex and pretty girls. Let us not forget that the series was brought to us by Chuck Lorre. In any case, BBT's mockery of nerds can help us think about how a show's positioning on TV--network or cable?--influences its content. Imagine BBT as an "original program" on the Sci Fi channel (note: I'm pretending that SyFy never happened). In that venue, a nerd demographic could be targeted with some sincerity. Given Lorre's track record, CBS is the right place for it, but in, say, an alternate universe, BBT could thrive on Sci Fi. (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles would also still be airing in that universe--its problem was that it was "too niche" for Fox, in my estimation.) Finally, getting back to Stuart, it is interesting how strongly "nerdom" is intertwined with the collection of STUFF, the wearing of certain clothes, etc. on BBT. Also, BBT points to how pitiful the nerds are for not being able to get girls...but Leonard actually has sex quite a bit, as does Howard. Sheldon aside, characters genuinely incapable of "hooking up" have little place in this world. In stark contrast, I would point to The IT Crowd, a wonderful British series in which the nerds are decidedly not defined by their action figures and are abject failures with the ladies.

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