The very first issue of Playboy hit newsstands in December 1953, and right away Hugh Hefner left no ambiguities about the purpose of his premiere publication—the cover of the inaugural issue advertised a nude centerfold of superstar Marilyn Monroe, printed without her foreknowledge, consent, or the legal requirement for either. Several pages before that centerfold was Hefner’s first editorial, in which he sought to define the magazine’s namesake.
The Men’s Shop
What was a playboy? He jokes that “if you’re somebody’s sister, wife, or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Lady’s Home Companion” in order to make sure that what follows, the Playboy mission and values, isn’t read by womanly eyes:
“Most of today’s magazines for men’ spend all their time out-of-doors—thrashing through thorny thickets or splashing about in fast flowing streams. We’ll be out there too, occasionally, but we don’t mind telling you in advance—we plan on spending most of our time inside. We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”
In Hefner’s own words, a playboy was a new type of man: romantic, intellectual, and most importantly, introverted. Critically, the playboy existed in contrast to a more traditional American male figure, that of the rugged and outdoorsy grizzly-man that was usually seen fighting off swarms of small critters on the covers of pulpier men’s magazines. If Hefner’s new man was defined by his interiority in more ways than one—his intellect and cultural capital as well as his indoor apartment—all that one would need to become a playboy, or at least feel like one, was to acquire the right signifiers.
Fortunately, Hefner was there to help. In addition to his shortlist of decidedly sexy interests, The page opposite of his editorial was an ad for “The Men’s Shop” where one could purchase a portable bar, an iron and brass hat rack, or a fancy plastic attachment for beer cans that’s “just like drinking from a glass” (sorry, no C.O.D.s.). Hefner would go on to hawk the playboy lifestyle, and the things a man should do or buy in order to live it, from not just the pages of his magazine but also through televised demonstrations of snazzy new home goods on his Playboy’s Penthouse television show.
So, from the very beginning, the suave and sophisticated lifestyle of the single male playboy was concerned with conspicuous consumption. For every Playboy-approved domestic device purchased or trendy philosopher read, the stud-to-be would grow evermore irresistible!
For both Hefner as a publisher and the advertisers who patronized his magazine, it was a business model predicated on a playboy’s determination to get laid and their determination to do so through softer and more neo-masculine means—if you couldn’t survive being chewed to bits by giant turtles then maybe you could impress the ladies by spinning Dave Brubeck instead. The deliberate nature of this subversion of traditional masculinity was well-noticed: in their March 1965 issue, hunky survival mag Wildcat Adventures mocked these horny layabouts as “rich playboys who spend fortunes to make themselves appear to be virile sex symbols, yet who are really anxiety-ridden, sexually inadequate caricatures of men!”
If this clash of constitutions sounds a lot like the cultural rivalry between jocks and nerds, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark—this schism between the interests and values of “old” and “new” masculinity is the root of animosity between meatheads and mega-dweebs, and a core trope of pop culture since the mid-twentieth century.
If this sounds like an extreme generalization and you think it’s unfair to say that an outdoorsman or athlete isn’t any more likely to be a jerk than someone who likes Doctor Who or comic books, you’d of course also be right, especially since “nerd” culture has become exponentially more mainstream in the last ten years than it’s ever been before. Furthermore, nerds are not exclusively cisgender men, though the toxic side of nerd culture has historically done its damndest to make it seem that way.
Nerdiness is diverse, but ultimately, I’m not here to talk about women or people who are well-adjusted. When I say “nerd” from here on out, I’m talking about the single men who aren’t the rugged, traditionally masculine men of Wildcat Adventures but who also couldn’t be playboys if they tried—perhaps for lack of money, charisma, or interest in Picasso or Nietzsche, but also perhaps because their identity begins and ends with their collection of hentai figurines and/or swords.
This particular subset of male nerd is closer in kind to the playboy than one might think. Archetypical imaginings of obsessive male nerds bring to mind the same “anxiety-ridden, sexually inadequate caricatures of men” that Wildcat Adventures alleged read Playboy. Sexual inadequacy is certainly at play here—playboys are categorically single and the type of nerd we’re discussing here is the bitterly lonely, m’lady-ing friendzone type—but what makes the two similar is how their sexual inadequacy is so closely tied to their interests, and consequently, their consumer choices.
The Carefully Cultivated Canon of Nerd Shit
If playboys liked Picasso, Nietzsche, and jazz, then what do nerds like? Neil Feineman’s Geek Chic is a thoroughly researched but predictable compendium of nerdy hobbies and interests that are still familiar despite the book being published in 2005—Star Wars and Star Trek, Marvel and DC, Birkenstocks and glasses, Doritos and Mountain Dew—and the endless references in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One pontificate the modern canon of nerdiness with exhaustive detail.
Adjacent to these interests is the association of being a nerd with being single and sexually frustrated. Geek Chic includes the world wide web in its array of interests but “porn sites” is the only subcategory with its own distinct—and lecherously written—entry. In addition to extremely bad romantic wish-fulfillment for nerds in Ready Player One, Cline bemoaned pornography “targeted at beer-swilling sports bar dwelling alpha-males” in his now-infamous poem “Nerd Porn Auteur.” To be clear, sex workers have nothing to be ashamed of. Nerds who hold such a flippantly lascivious and entitled attitude towards sex work, on the other hand, are not nearly ashamed enough.
From Pokemon to pornography, no nerdy interest exists in a vacuum. Similar to how Hefner’s playboy lifestyle became a vehicle for selling a variety of womanizing wares, nerd culture is immensely commoditized. There’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying collectibles—I’ve glanced at my shelf full of Frankenstein bric-a-brac at least four times while writing this—but there’s a rote slavishness with which nerds spend money on objects that signal their nerdiness.
Consider the hollow absurdity of nerd-catered shirts that are literally just two things. These shirts bear images like Pickle Rick on Deadpool’s shoulder, and as unequivocally awful as that sounds you probably know at least one person who would wear it. The fact that these shirts are often algorithmically generated for Facebook flash-sales speaks volumes about the ease with which one can profit off nerdom.
Consumerist nerd pandering was lampooned with aplomb by RedLetterMedia—itself probably a nerd-approved property—on the fourth episode of their satirical podcast “Nerd Crew,” sponsored by Nerd Coffin™. During the plug, co-host Rich Evans remarks that this character-plastered pine box is not for “those fake nerds out there, you fucking cultural appropriators. You white jocks, you fucking used to push me around in school, and knock me down!” The bit is such great satire, and Evans’ outburst is so revealing, because it’s a pinpoint encapsulation of the link between the nerd’s dearth of traditional masculinity, including sexual prowess, and consumerism—traits that he shares with the playboy.
The playboy purchases Hefner’s kitchenless kitchen and consumes playboy-approved media because these decisions compensate for his lack of he-man masculinity. A nerd’s devotion to their nerdiness is a method of masculine compensation, too, but here is the critical point in which they differ: the playboy bought what they bought in order to impress women and get laid. The nerd bought what they bought in order to flex on other male nerds—are you a big enough nerd to be buried in a Nerd Coffin™? When all other avenues of masculine performance are inaccessible to them, such as the sexual avenue still attempted by the playboy, the measure of a nerd is the measure of their zealotry for the media and commodities of the nerd canon. Forget those jocks: these nerds want push each other down.
Nerdier Than Thou
I want to reiterate that plenty of well-adjusted people are nerdy and collect nerdy commodities. In the age of the internet, anyone can indulge in nerdiness and most people do. Enormous fan wiki sites exist for every franchise that you can think of, and social media has evolved to the point where it’s easier than ever to connect with others over both niche and mainstream media. There was a time before this, though, where the only way to accumulate an incredible wealth of nerd-knowledge was to ravenously consume the media in question. Back then, the gatekeepers of this media held a lot more power than they do today.
If granted access into the community at all, becoming a nerd of note necessitated the ritualistic purchasing of comic books, immersing yourself completely in as much sci-fi and fantasy that you could find, and being one of the relatively few people to both purchase a computer and know how to use it. These were the roots of modern nerd culture. While information could be passed along in conversation or correction, or friends could loan their media amongst each other, a solitary nerd forging their own way forward would ostensibly need to spend a lot of money accruing their nerd cred. Each tidbit of their subcultural capital would be locked inside a piece of media or behind the closed doors of a convention—remember when Comic-Con was niche?
Advancements in nerdom required an investment of money, time, or both. Supplementary material such as comic book price guides and game magazines like Nintendo Power were a nerd’s best method of keeping up with their fandoms during this time, but even these materials were just additional commodities that they had to spend money on—in fact, they were commodities that primarily existed just to advertise other commodities.
Today, everyone carries a search engine in their pocket, so anyone with a wi-fi connection has encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek at their fingertips. As nerd culture became pop culture and the internet became ubiquitous, that subcultural capital lost most of its value and the nerdy proving ground of trivia mastery wasn’t as relevant. Nerds needed new ways to flex and the market would deliver in the form of tangible goods.
National Entertainment Collectibles Association and Funko were both founded in the late nineties, and while the former remains a comparatively niche purveyor of high-quality figures and props, the latter has soared to juggernaut prominence: their iconically homogenous and prolific line of Funko Pops are what Brock Wilbur called “a joke made at the expense of nerd fandom” that collects “the idea of collecting.” Beyond these socially acceptable collectibles are the ones that would make us normies wince: bloody busts (“a striking conversation piece”), well-studied blades (“the sword is the weapon of nerds”), and shrines to one’s beloved waifu. The diversity and depth of tacky nerd shit has exploded since 2000 in order to meet this demand and shows little signs of slowing down. The real-world loot box industry, helmed by Loot Crate and others, is almost a caricature of this business model in that it promises a functionally random box of generally nerdy merchandise every month.
The “successful” counterpart to the pastoral playboy might be those in the insufferably gaudy “seduction community” whose emphasis on personal image and behavioral strategy seem like the natural evolution of Hefner’s model. These men concentrate their purchasing power towards getting laid, though their methods are still quite nerd-like. The nerds I’ve been speaking of, though, have “failed” or “given up” because they may be too anxious, awkward, entitled, or resentful to put any more stock in either romance or becoming better people and have therefore retreated to their sanctum of schlock.
On a post-Google internet, the intangible knowledge of old isn’t as impressive as the commitment evidenced by a massive, museum-like library of media and merchandise, and a nerd can take solace in the compensatory status that their tomb of tacky nerd shit affords them—at least over other nerds. It’s the shadow of the playboy’s bachelor pad, bereft of intent to “play.”