Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen
mrissa

"Him? Oh, that's just my geeky little brother."

(Right up front: I have only watched two seasons of Numb3rs and thirteen episodes of season one of Criminal Minds--though by the end of the day it'll probably be fifteen--but I do not care about spoilers. I do not request that people avoid them in comments, so if you do care about spoilers for these shows, be careful about reading the comments section.)

Among the results of the vertigo is that I can't read while riding the stationary bike any more. I have to hang on so I don't fall on my head. So I've been watching DVDs while I exercise. For my birthday I got the first two seasons of Numb3rs and the first season of Criminal Minds, just for me to use as workout videos. They're trying to do very different things, and I'm glad, because mostly that means I can just appreciate them both rather than seeing one as a worse version of the other. But there are some commonalities. They're both about FBI agents, of course. And then there's the matter of Dr. Spencer Reid and Dr. Charles Eppes.

Sometimes when I'm watching a movie or a TV show, the minute a character comes on, I know: watch carefully. This is what the people who make this think of people like me. Egon was my favorite Ghostbuster, but more to the point, even at that age, I knew that Egon was the Ghostbuster who was supposed to be like me. I didn't watch The Breakfast Club and say, "Anthony Michael Hall's character is my favorite!", I watched it and said, "That's what they think we're like." And from the first glimpse of Matthew Gray Gubler as Spencer Reid--he didn't even have to open his mouth. He was just that guy, and you just know. (I suspect that for some of you who watch Criminal Minds, there is another character who provokes that reaction: Kirsten Vangsness as Penelope Garcia. My reaction to Garcia is more like, "This is what they think some of my friends are like.") matociquala's tags for her Criminal Minds posts are "geeks with guns," but geeks and smart people are not the same thing, and it is very hard for me to read, say, Thomas Gibson's Aaron Hotchner as a geek. Smart, knowledgeable, professional, yes--but none of his co-workers think to tease him that he spends his weekends at home watching Star Trek reruns. Even if he very well might.

(I see Hotch as a ST:NG man, at this point in my watching of the series, particularly the episodes with Tasha Yar. I can see Hotch trying not to get annoyed with a really stupid Q episode because he has the baby asleep on his chest at 2 a.m. and his wife is getting the first sleep she's had in weeks. I just don't think he could get into even the better parts of DS9. And I can easily imagine Elle and Morgan gaping as he talks about it with Reid. But I digress: point is, he hasn't actually done that stuff onscreen.)

(Further digression, and then I'll stop: nobody told me it was Inigo Montoya and Greg Montgomery Fight Crime (With Some Other Folks). That...took a bit to get used to, and I'm still not completely there. "When you're in the middle of the episode, do you start thinking, 'Who's gonna kill him? Is it Inigo? Who?'" asked timprov, using his best Fred Savage voice. And it's like he knows me or something, because yah, that's exactly what I think in the middle of episodes.)

The people who created Spencer Reid decided to hit all of the geek kid brother buttons so hard they were practically jumping up and down on them. They dropped an anvil on the buttons. I suspect that a 7-year-old who watched this show would (probably have nightmares and) be able to read Spencer Reid as a kid brother figure. He is not incompetent, or weak, or a whiner. But he is spindly, with floppy hair and ill-chosen sweaters and fairly high tenor voice. He is not romantically successful, and it's in the traditional "geek doesn't go out on any dates" way. He struggles with his firearm qualification. So far it looks like they're pressing all those buttons really hard so they can mess with people's preconceptions, and I approve of the messing-with. But even his physical competencies have so far been well within geek norms (sleight of hand, for heaven's sake!). Not only do I know which old-school D&D character classes he'd be suited for, I know that he knows that too. In fact, I suspect it's only a matter of time before a role-playing reference comes out of this character's mouth.

And so far, what the creators and writers of this show think of people like me is pretty darn good, actually. He's brave--he is, in fact, the kind of brave that's easily mistaken for fearless if you underestimate how fast this person is thinking, because the processing of the fear and the decision-making about what needs doing actually goes faster than average. He does not dither. When something needs doing, he will do it if it is even second cousins of the next door neighbor of something he knows how to do. Also, while Hotch is married and Gideon appears to have been around someone romantically for long enough to have a kid with her (information about these characters' personal lives comes out in a very slow trickle), Reid's lack of romantic success is by no means unique. So far we have seen people flirting with Morgan and making eyes at J.J. and Elle, but none of them are in stable relationships, either--and they're older than Reid. And he has already been clear about his interest in women, so they are not playing up the sexless geek thing. (Thank you not at all, Breakfast Club.)

It's interesting to me that Numb3rs has such a different take when it does have the little brother geek explicitly at the center of the show. The show's emotional core is the Eppes family, and Don the FBI agent is the elder brother and Charlie the mathematician is the younger brother. There is no coding about it, no way to read it differently with a different critical view: Charlie is literally the geeky little brother, and anybody who said, "Oh, I didn't see it that way," would be, well, not watching the same show. This is not what we call subtext, people. Also, the premise of the show is essentially, "People like you are very useful for solving problems"--in two seasons they haven't gone down the, "Sometimes instinct is better than math!" road with the sympathetic characters. They understand that someone who has done a lot of math will have developed a mathematical intuition--and when something tweaks Charlie's mathematical intuition as wrong, he doesn't just hare off after a random feeling, he redoes the math. There are some times when he's chosen premises that are ill-suited for the problem, but when your basic backdrop assumption is that geekdom is good, your geek characters can make mistakes a lot more freely without it looking like an endorsement of whiny anti-geek bullshit. (Exception: one episode was enough to let Peter MacNicol write. Ick. Just say the words they give you, Janosz.)

And--well, big difference: Dr. Spencer Reid is still being a prodigy. And Dr. Charles Eppes has just gotten to the age where he isn't one any more. And that's interesting. Reid is in a field where prodigies are rare and noticeable; Charlie is in math, a field where--at least at the level at which we're to believe he works--they're expected. When he's challenged in the field, it's at least as much because he doesn't fit a preconceived job as because he's young; with Reid it's almost always the "are you out of high school?" looks from the episode's other law enforcement characters or crime victims.

And bless the writers of Numb3rs, Charlie Eppes is consistently written and given camera angles as though he was completely hot (which he is). And Charlie has a consistent romantic interest where his non-geeky big brother does not. The writers can't be unaware of the sexless geek/geek who can't get a date idea. It's just not what they want to do with this character. When Charlie is romantically unsuccessful, it's because he and Amita are having difficulty moving from colleagues/friends to lovers. He has had a long-term serious girlfriend in his past, who shows up briefly. He is very, very much a geek. But he's not that particular geek. Part of the difference between that and Criminal Minds is just that David Krumholtz is never, ever going to be mistaken for a 17-year-old again in his life, no matter how he's dressed. There are only two years' age difference between the two actors, but Matthew Gray Gubler is a guy who can be dressed to look much younger than he is, and David Krumholtz really isn't. Charlie Eppes gets nervous the way people get nervous when they're dealing with potential romantic relationships, but he is not written as a skittery virgin. He's a geek as a fully mature, though young, man. Yay for that.

And there's this: Charlie Eppes is not an FBI agent. He is a professor who consults with the FBI from time to time. He doesn't have the direct practice with the more violent cases that an agent would have, and getting used to them takes him longer in show terms because he is off doing math like he's supposed to. The ability to use a gun is still in the realm of personal choice for Charlie Eppes, not professional responsibility, and small crimes can still horrify him--so the viewer is handed a geek who is the most empathetic and the most emotionally involved of the people on the team solving these crimes. Far from the stereotype of geeks as socially disconnected, Charlie is the one who's still socially normal enough to not only get upset--they all get upset--but let that upset get out of control, even if it's often in very introverted, geeky ways. And Don and the other FBI agents protect Charlie as a little brother and as a civilian. For Spencer Reid, the protection of the other agents has to be limited, because he is a team member. He is an FBI agent. So when he has nightmares, they have extremely personal sympathy, having been there themselves--but they also know that this is part of the job, something he has to get used to in a way that Charlie Eppes never would.

So one of the things I was thinking about is, why is this idea of geek-as-younger-sibling (who am I kidding: younger brother) so prevalent? I know a lot of geeks. Really a lot. And most of us are oldests and onlies. Of course there are geeky middles and youngests; naturally it's not a universal thing. But the numbers are really pretty striking: the majority of geeks look a lot more like Mac in Veronica Mars in their family lives than like Charlie in Numb3rs. But we don't have a corresponding "geeky big brother/sister" screen type to go with that reality, and I was wondering why that is. Even in Veronica Mars, we got Mac, but we also got the Casablancas brothers doing the "geeky little brother" stereotype thing again. What's the deal? I have half a theory germinating, but I'm not sure quite how to put it or whether it applies beyond crime/mystery shows, so I'd be glad to hear alternate theories for the popularity of this type.

My half a theory says that geeks know stuff, and when you're more experienced and you know more, that's a pretty big imbalance built right in structurally, so if you want a comparatively balanced team or group, making the geek character younger means that they don't end up knowing everything.

My half-assed theory says that it's a way for writers who are not fundamentally threatened by geeks themselves to make geeks look less threatening to other people.

What do you think? Other examples/counterexamples/thoughts?
Tags: small screen
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