Nerds of Steel

032508 conan cover Nerds of Steel“Ben looks like Beaker from the Muppets on the outside, but then inexplicably like a guy from Prison Break under his clothes,” said Mindy Kaling, the 28-year-old actress who plays Kelly Kapoor on The Office. “I think if I’m going to have a boyfriend who works out, he better be sort of embarrassed about it, like Ben is. Sheepish fitness is the only tolerable kind.”

Ms. Kaling’s boyfriend, the 30-year-old writer Benjamin Nugent, is the author of American Nerd: The Story of My People, which will be published by Scribner in May. He works out every morning at Crunch in Fort Greene, and the timing of his book seems impeccable; the bespectacled Urkel-esque weakling of yore has, of late, become more concerned with free weights than pocket protectors. Daniel Radcliffe, who can seamlessly switch from playing the nerdy Harry Potter to being naked onstage in Equus, vies with cheesecakey High School Musical star Zac Efron as the object of teenage girls’ affection. Steve Carell shocked audiences (and Catherine Keener) in The 40-Year-Old Virgin with his tight abs. New York actor Justin Theroux, currently starring as John Hancock in the ultra-nerdy HBO miniseries John Adams, has flashed his surprisingly ripped torso on Sex and the City and in the Charlie’s Angels sequel, Full Throttle. Clark Kent, Peter Parker and Bruce Banner are all buff nerds of our imaginations. Slightly closer to reality, there’s Conan O’Brien and, some might say, our former governor, who was famous for his 5 a.m. runs through Central Park.

But today’s nerdy beefcake poster boy would have to be Jason from this season of Beauty and the Geek, the CW sleeper hit that attempts to bring this brain-meets-brawn fantasy to fruition by making the aforementioned geeks more self-aware, if not super-pumped. “My face, hair and personality all scream to the world that I’m a geeky guy who sits behind a desk all day long,” Jason wrote in an e-mail. “However, my body screams that I’m a huge gym rat who only thinks about going to clubs and beaches. This usually leads people to believe my head has been ‘superimposed’ on my body.”

It’s not rocket science to understand that it’s paradoxical for someone to be both nerdy and buff. Perhaps no film has captured this tension better than Revenge of the Nerds, which laid bare the scary aggressiveness of the jocks as they tried to assert their dominance over the nerds—who eventually outwit them thanks to their intellectual skills, not their muscle. In his book, Mr. Nugent argues that this film, among others, highlights the ways in which nerds are seen as embodying technology, whereas jocks embody physical strength; nerds govern through reason, jocks through intuition, and so on.

“The pathos of being a nerd is to feel that because you are comfortable with rational thought, you are cut off from the experience of spontaneous feelings, of romance, of nonrational connection to other people,” Mr. Nugent writes in American Nerd. “A nerd is so often self-loathing because he accepts the thinking/feeling rift, and he knows and cares that other people accept it, too.” So in our popular culture, the male nerd has historically been not only an object of scorn and ridicule from other men, but has been unable to love. That’s why a show like Beauty and the Geek works; it’s unexpected not only for a beautiful woman to be attracted to a nerd, but also for the nerd to be attracted to the beautiful woman.

The buff nerd, however, is a kind of double agent, existing as he (and it is always he; female nerds can be “buff,” but that makes for a sexy librarian/Tina Fey kind of paradigm) does with his geeky exterior and chiseled interior, as Ms. Kaling noted, approvingly, about Mr. Nugent. Indeed, women often see these men as the best of both worlds. Jessica, a 26-year-old writer in Boerum Hill, recalled one college-era ex-boyfriend as a “skinny-jeans-wearing, seemingly emaciated art-school dude.” But he was not, in fact, emaciated. “I was shocked when his shirt came off to reveal washboard abs. I think it was sort of a response to being a total fucking geek in high school and getting picked on a lot.”

Hipster or Ripster?

Meanwhile, editorial assistants, aspiring literary agents and freelance writers crowd the streets of Williamsburg and Carroll Gardens, galley of All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen (who also happens to be a buff nerd) tucked under their arms, Black Lips on their iPods, each one a more underfed mash-up of Elvis Costello, Chuck Klosterman and Stephen Malkmus than the next and trying, ever so valiantly, to appropriate the nerd aesthetic so that they may be Taken Seriously, and not be caught sneaking into the Cobble Hill New York Sports Club or the Greenpoint Y or Absolute Power on Grand Street in Williamsburg.

These are what Gary Shteyngart, in his 2003 novel The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, disparagingly called “glamorous nerds”: “They were a savvy-looking bunch, clothed in the new Glamorous Nerd look that was fast becoming a part of the downtown lexicon. One specimen in a tight, square, wide-collared polka-dotted shirt was shouting above the rest: ‘Did you hear? Safi got a European Community grant to study leeks in Prava.’ … Vladimir looked on sadly. Not only had he spent his entire life without winning a single European Community grant, but every pathetic piece of clothing he had been trying to shed since emigrating was now prêt-à-porter bonanza!”

These aren’t the gym rats of that 1977 Arnold Schwarzenegger documentary Pumping Iron, though today, some of them are secretly taking their cues from Men’s Fitness instead of n+1. In an e-mail to The Observer, Mr. Shteyngart noted that the “glam nerds” have “appropriated everything we real nerds ever had, but they look good too. Classic imperialism.”