The Cool, the Nerdy and the Geeky: A Look at Personalities

This post is part of the series Anthropology in Outerspace which examines representations of anthropology in science-fiction. To read previous installments in this series, consult the related contents section at the end of this post or select the series in the ”Our Series” menu in the right sidebar. 

Having examined a few examples of characters who are anthropologists and archaeologists in science-fiction, we can now pay attention to the depiction their personalities and how it may translate popular perception of our discipline.

Dr. Daniel Jackson, a Stargate SG-1 character frequently mentioned in this series and in previous TGA pieces, is depicted as a highly intelligent, highly knowledgeable person. He seems to know everything about human history, can apparently speak and read any language ever to have existed on Earth, and is the one who can figure out the way the Stargate system works in the Stargate movie. He seems empathic and willing to put himself in harm’s way to help others. He also speaks at a dangerous speed, often has his nose in a book, and suffers from intense allergies.

In other words, he’s a bit of a nerd, like most of the other very smart characters in the Stargate franchise, such as colonel Samantha Carter, Dr. Rodney MacKay and Dr. Radek Zelenka. Dr. Bill Lee, a scientist in the series, even plays World of Warcraft. The only exemption in the series I can think of is Colonel Shepard, who is apparently eligible to be a member of Mensa society, but is mocked by Daniel Jackson and Rodney MacKay who do not believe that he successfully took the I.Q. test. He is not depicted as a nerd despite his high level of intelligence.

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Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing bad about being nerdy or geeky (or an intellectual badass). And let’s not forget that while these smart characters are depicted as ”nerdy” in Stargate, they are also frequently presented as strong, brave, and not strictly as socially inept and cerebral.

The example of Jackson, and of his other smart colleagues, however, indicates that in popular culture, intelligence and knowledge is still closely associated with characteristics that are considered negative: being unfashionable, unsociable, untactful, obsessive, etc.

This is perhaps why Jackson and his smart counterparts, just like Dr. Norm Spellman and Dr. Grace Augustine (Avatar), discussed in my response to Rayna’s piece, are presented as sorts of sidekicks for a main character who is the official hero. In the case of both Stargate and Avatar, that hero is a white male with military training.

The example of Dr. Barron, lead anthropologist in the Star Trek: The Next Generation ”Who Watchers the Watchers (S3E4)” episode, is harder to figure out. He is seen through a large part of the episode as urging Captain Picard for assistance, first with technical problems and then with finding and helping he and his colleagues. Then, he suggests to Picard that since the Mintakans already mistake him for a supernatural being, he should provide them with guidelines by which their religion might develop. This goes against the Prime Directive, which we have discussed briefly in this series and previously on TGA. In essence, he seems comfortable with the prospect of playing God. Because his colleagues are injured or killed, little can be ascertained about their personalities.

Another Star Trek character provides a clearer personality to examine: Vash, a female archaeologist, travels across the galaxy pillaging ruins and selling artifacts to the highest bidder. She is very much a female Indiana Jones–adventurous, strong-minded and even more eager to make a profit. She is also a good liar and does not have strong morals. She and Q have a relationship that is oddly similar to that of the Doctor and a companion (Doctor Who), but that is a discussion for another time. While we are on the topic of Doctor Who, however, it should be noted that River Song, archaeologist, is a very similar character.

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What, then, do these examples and others examined in this series reveal about popular conceptions about anthropologists? First, I would state that in my opinion, archaeologists are perceived and presented as a distinct category of people. The examples we provided fit the Indiana Jones category: heroic, brave, adventurous (and as my colleague Emma points out, perhaps morally ambiguous). The work they accomplish, pillaging ruins for a profit or academic glory, is distinct from that of the anthropologists we mentioned. The latter are depicted as smart and knowledgeable, and as cultural experts. They are intellectuals, and in several cases empathic towards others. But they are not necessarily the main characters of the stories in which they appear, and are not heroic leaders. They have less control over their own lives than their archaeologists counterparts. Indeed, they do not travel where they wish freely, but execute their work under someone else’s authority.

Yet, perhaps this representation of anthropologists in science-fiction is not so revealing of popular conceptions of our discipline and the people who practice it as it is of intellectuals in general. Perhaps anthropologists, like other scientists, are thought of as nerds.

Except archaeologists, who are apparently considered, just like bow ties, as being cool.


About Marie-Pierre Renaud

I am an anthropologist living in Quebec city, Canada. I specialize in native studies and anthropology of health. I am a geek. I founded and now co-manage The Geek Anthropologist blog. I am working on transforming my memoir into a book and journal articles. I like to knit while watching Star Trek. Reach out to me for collaborations!

There are 6 comments

  1. davidspartanwriting

    If I may be so bold as to add a point or two here.
    I think suggesting that the characters of Daniel Jackson and his colleagues are portrayed negatively is a little unfair. The scientists in SG-1 have a huge range of personalities, Samantha Carter is sexy, smart, badass in the extreme; Rodney is a genius neurotic, a pain in the but but lonely; Zalenka lacks confidence but is arguably just as smart as Rodney; Jackson evolves by the end of the series into the ultimate badass; Dr. Fraiser is just amazing.
    Lots of these characteristics are hugely positive, and the two lead scientist characters are the most positive of the lot. Even in the first episode of SG-1 ‘Children of the God’s’ O’Neill’s team are jealous of Daniel (who happens to be the only one in a stable relationship.)
    Also, I think that there are far more scientists portrayed in SG-1 than any other type of person, so they are bound to have more negative personalities.
    Now, if you move on from SG-1 to say Start Trek we have a whole different ball game, all of the scientists are awesome with only a few notable exceptions.
    Wesley Crusher is a pain and Reginald Barclay is stupidly shy. But other than that we have, Data, Beverly Crusher, Seven of Nine, Scotty, Miles O’Brien, Geordi, Bones… and the list goes on.
    Let move on again to… Fire Fly. The two scientists are Kayley (mechanic) and Simon (doctor) they are both really balanced people. Excellent at what they do, with the odd problem but hey, they actually seem to be real people instead of the standard archetype.
    I would contest the idea that scientists are negatively portrayed in Sci-Fi, they are in-fact usually some of the best thought out characters and show a wide range of awesome personality traits.

    However, I agree completely that they are almost always sidekick (apart from maybe Doctor Who) and this kind of annoys me. Cause surely we are talking about Science Fiction, surely the science guys should be the main guys. I would however suggest that if we look back a few decades we did have sci-fi shows that had scientists are the main characters, notably Sliders, the X-Files, and most recently Farscape and Star-Gate Universe.

    As to your point about archaeologists being portrayed as a distinct type of person I would agree, Vash and Indiana Jones are great examples, you also have The woman from Relic Hunter, Lara Croft, Chakotay from Star Trek Voyager is in fact an archaeologist and anthropologist as well

    Having disagreed with parts of your post quite bluntly however, I must say I did enjoy reading it though. Thought provoking, as you can see from my brain dump above.


    1. Marie-Pierre Renaud

      Thanks for such a well formulated and extensive comment!! It allows me to clarify my ideas and hopefully when I’ll review my piece to turn it into an article, I’ll be able to improve it thanks to your feedback. So no worries about disagreeing with me!

      I completely agree with you on the fact that scientists in scifi are generally entirely amazing characters, with a broad range of personnalities. I even like their traits which could be qualified as ”nerdy” or ”geeky”, partly because I can relate to them in many ways, but also because I think there is actually nothing wrong with being ”geeky”, ”nerdy” or outside of the norm.

      What I was trying to highlight here was rather that the characters I discuss in the piece, except for the archaeologists, are all presented as having some character traits which are commonly considered as ”nerdy” and ”geeky”, and that in mainstream society, these are generally considered as being negative traits: being obsessive compulsive, having poor eyesight and wearing glasses, having poor social skills, speaking at impossible speeds, etc. It’s not so much that scientists in the Stargate universe are represented in a negative way then, but rather that writers seem to associate ”nerdy” and ”geeky” traits to all of them. Even Samantha Carter, who is, as you say, a badass, is often represented as a nerd. In otherwords, there seems to be a mold that scientists in Stargate all fit into.

      I discussed scientists who are not anthropologists in Stargate only to compare Daniel Jackson to other scientists on the show. My piece was written with representations of anthropology in mind. There are few examples of anthropologists in Star Trek, so while I agree with you on the fact that scientists in Star Trek have very different personnalities and are all very balanced, amazing people, this show provides few examples I can use in this discussion.

      Again, thank you for providing this comment!


      1. davidspartanwriting

        Oh… my bad. I see, to have withered on about everything that your post was not about. Sorry.
        However, after posting my response I have thought on this a little more. It occurred to me that I could not think of any Sci-Fi things that had anthropologists as the protagonists; Daniel Jackson probably being the only exception and if I remember he is technically an Egyptology and a linguist (I may be wrong about that though.) They are often part of the assembled cast, Chakotay from Star Trek; or they might well be a main character for an episode or two, Vash springs to mind. But the point is they are rarely the main character and here in might lie the problem, the role of the side kick or the assembled others in these shows.

        First off, I would suggest that the role of the supporting cast is to do the behind the scene stuff such that the show or book has an element of realism to it. ‘Of course we put time into finding out this thing that is vital for the plot twist… these people (the supporting cast who may include an anthropologist) did all the work’. In this case the anthropologists might not even be named characters and if they do they will have minor roles. The issue here is that these minor roles are great for a little bit of comic relief. Stargate for one LOVES doing this, the scientific explanation always manages to wind up with some kind of a laugh.
        Secondly, the supporting cast are often there to make the main characters look good. This happens in all kinds of ways. To mention one, how the cast deal with Rodney in stargate – he is a pain but he makes SG-1 look good because of the way they treat him (notably I think Jack O’Neill is often rude – but here again he is often rude of Rodney’s expense and here we go we have a comedic moment instead.)
        Thirdly, and finally, I think supporting cast are often plot points. Used to further the plot and then often discarded. In this type of character little development is put into them and thus if they turned out to be anthropologists they would get a bad name as being a ‘flat’ character.
        In short, it may well be that anthropologists are not portrayed greatly in sci-fi because they do not really feature much as main characters.

        On a more positive note, I’m pretty sure i can spell anthropologist correctly now. 🙂


        1. Marie-Pierre Renaud

          On the contrary, your comment was entirely relevant!

          I did mention other scientists in regards to Stargate, and while my colleagues and I were writing the series, we often compared representations of anthropology to representations of other sciences. It would be entirely relevant to pay closer attention to this element, but our focus with this series was of course anthropology. We also asked ourselves about representations of sociology, because while we could think of few representations of anthropology in scifi, we could think of even fewer of sociology.

          It’s always a pleasure receiving contructive feedback!


  2. Hal

    Before drawing too many conclusions about the portrayal of anthropologists in SF, it might be informative to add some of the books and stories to the mix. I mentioned Chad Oliver earlier; the anthology Apeman Spaceman may have examples. The subject heading “Anthropology” in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database contains 62 listings of articles about SF that relate to anthropology in some way. ( Some may be of interest.


    1. Marie-Pierre Renaud

      Thank you for providing this information, we’ll gladly check it out!

      We are indeed looking to expand our research to additionnal examples, especially from scifi litterature.

      However, as I stated in the beginning of the piece, I focused on the depictions of the personalities of the characters discussed in our series. We wrote the series as a dialogue based on our initial exploration of representations of anthropology in scifi, so we had to limit our analysis to a select list of works. As is the case with any research, then, our conclusions should be considered in regards to the data that was analysed. And as is the case with any research, any conclusion demands further examination, and additionnal questions arise.

      For these reasons, during the last month, we have asked our readers to provide additionnal examples we might analyse. Thanks to the recommendations that were made on the Anthropology in Outerspace page, we will be able to pursue our research. Perhaps our conclusions will be more nuanced in the end: I am convinced that if we consider more scifi books and short stories in our analysis, our results will be different than what we have obtained by focusing closely on TV series and movies. Yet I am curious to see if the portrayal of anthropologist is drastically different in scifi books and short stories. We will see!

      Feedback and comments are very helpful to help us improve our work, so thanks for stopping by and commenting!


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