jncar (jncar) wrote in hp_essays,

Reading Snape as an Example of the Pop-Culture Character Type of the Lonely Nerd

First, I must give credit where credit is due. The idea for this essay was sparked by this discussion at bohemianspirit's journal. Here, the discussion centers on comparing Snape to being an outcast/nerd in Real Life. I've taken the same root idea, but abandoned Real Life altogether to focus on where Snape fits into the spectrum of pop-cultural depictions of nerds.

So, without further ado, here it is:

Severus Dynamite? Reading Snape as an Example of the Pop-Culture Character Type of the Lonely Nerd

“Nobody’s gonna go out with me….I don’t even have any good skills….You know, like nun chuck skills, bow-hunting skills, computer hacking skills—girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.”
-Napoleon Dynamite

I know that comparing surly and secretive Severus Snape to bushy-haired loser Napoleon Dynamite seems like a pretty big stretch, but if you’ll bear with me, I’ll explain how both of these fictional characters are embodiments of the same character type: the Lonely Nerd. The character of the Lonely Nerd can be found in numerous films, television shows, and books in pop-culture, and by coming to a new understanding of this character type we can gain fresh insight into Snape’s character and motivations.

For those of you who have not yet seen the cult-favorite film “Napoleon Dynamite,” don’t worry. This essay is primarily a textual analysis of Snape as a character, an examination of nerds in pop-culture, and a discussion of how Snape seems to fit in with those other pop-culture nerds. I will occasionally throw in comparisons to characters in “Napoleon Dynamite,” (mostly just for fun) but those characters and that film are simplistic enough that no one should have any trouble understanding my underlying arguments.

Defining Nerd

Firstly, what is a nerd? Those of you reading this can and probably will willingly self-identify yourselves as nerds—it’s a term that seems to fit most, if not all, of fandom. Dictionary.com defines “nerd” as first: “a stupid, irritating, ineffectual or unattractive person,” and second as: “an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit.” (That second definition is the one that applies to us ;)). The American Heritage Dictionary online elaborates this by saying that a nerd is: “single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.”

It’s clear how these definitions apply to Napoleon Dynamite. He is most certainly socially inept, and could easily be called irritating and unattractive. In addition, he is single-mindedly devoted to the idea that he needs to acquire “skills” in order to impress women and win respect and friendship.

But Snape? A nerd? Snape fangirls and fanboys everywhere might cry out in protest at this label for their beloved Potions Master, but let’s take a minute to analyze the text and see if it might support the idea of “nerd!Snape.”

Let’s begin with the very first glimpse of Snape in canon, in chapter 7 of PS/SS. Snape is described as a teacher “with greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin.” Shortly thereafter, Percy responds to Harry’s queries with the following description: “He teaches Potions, but doesn’t want to—everyone knows he’s after Quirell’s job [Defense Against the Dark Arts]. Knows an awful lot about the Dark Arts, Snape.”

Immediately, Snape is described as fitting several of the definitions of “nerd.” He is described as unattractive, and is commonly known to have a single-minded pursuit of an academic subject, as well as high achievement within that same subject. It was a brief introduction, but so far he certainly seems to be falling into the category of “nerd.”

Let me briefly digress to comment on academia and teaching in regards to nerd-dom. Although most people associate the word “nerd” with someone in the sciences, computers, or fandom, you could easily call academics of all stripes “nerds.” They are just a special sub-set of nerds. History-obsessed nerds often become history teachers. Literature-obsessed nerds often become literature teachers. The same applies to nerds obsessed with Philosophy, Art, Linguistics, Mathematics, Physics, and so on. I would posit that the same idea is applicable in Wizarding society. Herbology-obsessed nerds aspire to teach Herbology; Arithmancy-obsessed nerds aspire to teach Arithmancy; and, naturally, Potions-obsessed nerds aspire to teach Potions. The key difference in the Wizarding world is that far fewer teaching positions are available, so one would have to be the best of the best—and/or the most deeply obsessed—at one’s subject in order to win one of the coveted teaching positions. In other words, one would have to be the King or Queen of nerds in his or her subject. I’ll come back to this point later.

On “Skills” and being a Nerd

Pedro: “Aren’t you pretty good at drawing, like, animals and warriors and stuff?”
Napoleon: “Yes. Probably the best that I know of.”

One of the clever running jokes in “Napoleon Dynamite” is the fact that the nerds are determined to impress each other and every one else with boasts and displays of their “skills.” This holds true, to a lesser extent, in real life. I’m sure most of you have seen fan authors or artists proudly displaying links to their fan creations on their personal blogs. And I’m sure many of you know people who will talk on and on about the characters they’ve created in either live-action role playing games, or video games like World of Warcraft. And I remember back in my days as an academic nerd in high school, all of us students in honors and AP classes would gossip about our test scores, class ranking, and the varying difficulty of our class schedules. Those are all different forms of nerd-skills.

Instead of relying on social acumen to prove themselves to people or to win respect and friendship, nerds often seem to think that they need to prove themselves worthy with their “skills.” This holds true with Academia-nerds, as well as other types of nerds. And this sort of “top-nerd” bravado is also on display in the world of Harry Potter.

It starts, interestingly enough, with Professor McGonagall. During the first Transfiguration class in PS/SS chapter 8, she opens her class by saying: “Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts… Anyone messing around in my class will leave and not come back. You have been warned.” Immediately she demonstrates a flawless and difficult act of Transfiguration for her class. I would like to suggest that this is more than just an introduction to the subject of Transfiguration—it is a bragging session for the Queen-nerd of Transfiguration. She has proved herself the best at her academic subject, earned the coveted position of teacher, and she is using her bragging in an attempt to lure young students into sharing her private obsession with the subject of Transfiguration.

Snape repeats her pattern in his opening speech to the first-years in the same chapter. He says, “You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion-making…As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic…I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death—if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.” Again, Snape appears to be opening his class with a nerd-skills bragging session, which reinforces the idea of nerd!Snape. Snape’s opening speech is very similar in its objectives to McGonagall’s. In essentials, the two of them are doing the very same thing—it is only their tone of voice and manner of presentation that differ. The only reason McGonagall’s speech left a more positive impression with Harry is the fact that she is more socially adept than Snape. This very social awkwardness actually makes Snape appear as an even nerdier nerd than McGonagall.

Does Snape really believe that “wand-waving” is foolish? No—clearly not. In COS, it is established that he is an accomplished dueler—a task that requires a wand. In HBP it is revealed that in his youth he invented many original spells—all using a wand. And the job he covets (Defense Against the Dark Arts) is one in which he will primarily be using a wand. Snape calls “wand-waving” foolish not because that is what he really thinks, but because he is trying to establish his credentials as the King-nerd of Potions. Likewise, by disdaining other magical arts and elevating Potions, he attempts to establish himself at the top of the magic-nerd pecking order among the other teachers.

For both Snape and McGonagall, it is all about “skills”. What nerd-skills do they posses by which they can prove themselves worthy of respect and admiration? As demonstrated by Napoleon and Pedro’s obsession with “skills,” this is the one path to social acceptance that nerds see as a viable option.

The Lonely Nerd

Napoleon: “So me and you are pretty much friends by now, right?”
Pedro: “Yes.”
Napoleon: “So, you got my back and everything?”
Pedro: “What?”
Napoleon: “Never mind.”

Pop-culture today typically depicts nerds as fitting into one of four different categories of nerds. The first is what I would call Content Nerds. These nerds are aware of who and what they are, and are fairly content with their lot in life. They have friends, family, and a degree of wider social acceptance. These nerds include such icons as Steve Urkel, Screech of “Saved by the Bell,” Wesley Crusher, and Lisa on “The Simpsons.”

The second category of pop-culture nerds is the Blissfully Ignorant Nerd. These nerds don’t really know what they are—nor do they care. They skate through life in a state of blissful ignorance. This category includes nerds such as Dwight Schrute of the American “The Office,” Willy Wonka, and Bruce Wayne/Batman. These people probably wouldn’t categorize themselves as nerds, and would likely laugh at anyone who did. But by and large they keep their own counsel and don’t care much what other people think of them, nor do they care if they fit into normal society. They are who they are, and they are happy that way.

The third category is what I would call the Bitter Nerd. These nerds know that they are different, know that other people don’t like or respect them, and they are bitter and angry about it. They often believe that their own skills and obsessions make them better than other people, and don’t understand why the rest of the world can’t understand them. They feel that they intrinsically deserve respect and admiration. Examples of this type of nerd include Warren on “Buffy,” Comic Book Guy on “The Simpsons,” Uncle Rico in “Napoleon Dynamite,” Buddy/Syndrome from “The Incredibles,” Sylar from “Heroes, and Tom Riddle/Lord Voldemort.

The fourth and final category of nerd is the Lonely Nerd. There is a lot of overlap between the Bitter Nerd and the Lonely Nerd, and I believe that even within a single film/book/show a single nerd can move back and forth between the two groups. Lonely nerds, like Bitter Nerds, know that they are different, know that they are looked down on, and don’t understand why. Also, both the Bitter Nerd and the Lonely Nerd are typically depicted as coming from broken or unhappy hopes. However, unlike the Bitter Nerds, instead of becoming bitter and angry, Lonely Nerds become depressed and lonely, longing for love and friendship above all else. Pop-culture examples of this type of nerd include Jonathon from “Buffy,” Wesley from “Angel,” Brian from “The Breakfast Club,” Napoleon from “Napoleon Dynamite,” and, I would submit, Severus Snape. I’ll elaborate on this later.

Using Nerd-Skills to Win Friends and Respect

Pedro: “Do you think people will vote for me?”
Napoleon: “Heck yes! I’d vote for you.”
Pedro: “Like, what are my skills?”
Napoleon: “Well, you have a sweet bike. And you’re really good at hooking up with chicks. Plus you’re like the only guy at school who has a mustache.”

Both the Bitter Nerds and the Lonely Nerds seek ways to win friends and respect, and more often than not nerds from both of those groups see nerd-skills as the surest way to achieve their goals. Snape is no different.

Snape’s obsession with proving himself through his “skills” starts at a young age. As early as GOF, Sirius tells Harry: “Snape’s always been fascinated by the Dark Arts. He was famous for it at school…Snape knew more curses when he arrived than half the kids in seventh year, and he was part of a gang of Slytherins who nearly all turned out to be Death Eaters.” Later, in OotP, Sirius elaborates when he tells Harry that “James was everything Snape wanted to be—he was popular, he was …good at pretty much everything. And Snape was just this little oddball who was up to his eyes in the Dark Arts.”

Clearly, Snape’s old classmates were left with the impression that Snape desired popularity, but instead earned only notoriety as a Dark Arts-obsessed “oddball.” This certainly seems to fit the definition of nerd—socially inept, and obsessed with a nonsocial pursuit.

I would like to suggest that Snape’s obsession with the Dark Arts derived not from a desire for power or a love of evil, but out of a desire to impress others with his nerd-skills.

In OotP chapter 28, Harry’s trip into the Pensieve shows us an academically gifted/academically obsessed young Snape. His Defense Against the Dark Arts essay is “at least a foot [longer] than his closest neighbors,” and he hunches over his exam with single-minded determination. After the examination ends, Snape remains focused intently and exclusively on his exam questions, even after settling down outside on the grounds. Clearly, this is a young man obsessed with academic achievement. And his obsession was not without positive result—Dumbledore would never have hired him as Potions Master unless he was highly qualified for the position. Later, he proves himself equally qualified in Defense Against the Dark Arts. Clearly, being an expert in not just one but two academic fields, Snape proves himself an academic nerd in the fullest sense of the word, and it was through his nerd-skills that Snape sought to establish a place of respect and admiration for himself in the Wizarding world.

It is not until DH that we were allowed to see the full extent of his early obsession with nerd-skills, and his desire to use those skills to win friends and acceptance. He uses his magical knowledge to win what appears to be his first and only friend—Lily. She looks up to him, and craves the knowledge he offers. It is a Lonely Nerd’s dream come true.

I believe that young Snape fits into the Lonely Nerd category because young Snape longs for friends, love, and acceptance. He stares at Lily “greedily” because in his mind she represents everything that the Lonely Nerd wants.

His family is described as being tempestuous and unpleasant, but few details of it are given. I find it telling, however, that once at Hogwarts he boastfully assumes the moniker of “Half-Blood Prince,” taking on his mother’s maiden name. Though no clear reason for this choice is given in the text, there is a great deal that can be conjectured about this title. Perhaps the little half-blood could only gain the respect and approval of his Prince relatives by showing off his nerd-skills in the Dark Arts? This would explain why he knew so many curses when he entered Hogwarts. And once he was sorted into Slytherin, his Dark Arts nerd-skills earned him a level of respect that he had never before experienced—not even with Lily. His nerd-skills even granted him acceptance to a “gang” of other like-minded Slytherins. This would undoubtedly cement in his mind the notion that his nerd-skills are the key to social success.

I submit that this is why he was so confused by Lily’s later rejection of his friendship. From his point of view, she wasn’t his friend because she merely liked him. Rather, he believed that he won her friendship by impressing her with his nerd-skills. Yet, suddenly, instead of being impressed by his nerd-skills she is disgusted by them. All his other friends still respect and admire his nerd-skills, so why doesn’t Lily?

I believe that Lily’s rejection of Snape pushes him over the thin line between Lonely Nerd and Bitter Nerd. He still believes that his nerd-skills are far superior to any skills possessed by Lily’s Gryffindor friends, and he believes that he is better than any of them. He has the respect of his Slytherin friends, and he deserves the respect of those Gryffindors as well! Now that he has moved from Lonely Nerd to Bitter Nerd, his decision to join the Death Eaters should not be a surprise. It is no longer about longing for respect and love—it’s about a sense of entitlement.

This idea was confirmed by J.K.Rowling in her famous post-DH chat with readers. She says: “Well, that is Snape’s tragedy. Given his time over again he would not have become a Death Eater, but like many insecure, vulnerable people… he craved membership of something big and powerful, something impressive….He never really understood Lily’s aversion; he was so blinded by his attraction to the dark side he thought she would find him impressive if he became a real Death Eater.” Snape convinced himself that he needed even better nerd-skills to win Lily back, and that is why he joined the Death Eaters.

Other pop-culture examples of the Lonely Nerd becoming a Bitter Nerd include Wesley from “Angel,” Andy on the American “The Office,” and Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite. Napoleon himself was able to avoid that jump by finding a few open-minded friends who chose to stand by him. Another pop-culture character whose journey mirrors Snape’s is Jonathon from “Buffy.” He started as a Lonely Nerd, but after being rejected by more popular and “normal” people once too often, he falls in with two Bitter Nerds who respected his arcane knowledge and infected him with their own bitterness toward society at large. I believe that this is role of Snape’s gang of Slytherins. They shared his obsession with the Dark Arts, and encouraged him into his bitterness toward the larger Wizarding world, and toward his Gryffindor rivals in particular.

From Bitter Nerd to Malevolent Nerd

Uncle Rico: “How much you wanna make a bet I can throw a football over them mountains? Yeah... Coach woulda put me in fourth quarter, we would've been state champions. No doubt. No doubt in my mind….I'd have gone pro in a heartbeat. I'd be makin' millions of dollars and...livin' in a...big ol' mansion somewhere. You know, soakin' it up in a hot tub with my soul mate.”

Just as the jump from Lonely Nerd to Bitter Nerd is an easy one, so is the jump from Bitter Nerd to Malevolent Nerd—the ultimate extreme of the Bitter Nerd spectrum. The Malevolent Nerd not only believes that he intrinsically deserves respect and admiration, but he undertakes immoral, destructive, and even evil acts in order to force that respect and admiration out of the people around him.

Examples of Malevolent Nerds in pop-culture include Warren on “Buffy,” Sylar on “Heroes,” Ben Linus on “Lost,” Syndrome on “The Incredibles,” most of the super-villains from “James Bond,” and of course Lord Voldemort.

The transition to Malevolent Nerd from Bitter Nerd, however, is not inevitable. Jonathon on “Buffy” eventually resisted the evil influence of Warren and even tried to help Buffy and the gang. Uncle Rico eventually gave up on trying to control the lives of Kip and Napoleon and left them in peace. Likewise, when Snape was faced with the moment of decision about whether or not to become a Malevolent Nerd, he chose to retreat back into the perpetually unhappy realm of the Lonely Nerd. When he requested Lily as a prize from Lord Voldemort he very nearly crossed the line into being a Malevolent Nerd. Just like Jonathon on “Buffy” nearly crossed that same line when he colluded with Warren to cover up a murder. In the end, both of those characters regretted acting on those evil impulses and realized that in their hearts they still only desired love and friendship. Just as Jonathon made moves to use his nerd-skills to help Buffy, Snape decided to turn to Dumbledore, and agreed to use his nerd-skills in the capacity of a spy, in order to protect Lily and eventually Lily’s son.

Why Snape Stays a Lonely Nerd—Not a Bitter Nerd

The case could certainly be made that if adult Snape is indeed a nerd, he is a Bitter Nerd rather than a Lonely Nerd. It would be hard to argue definitively against this because, as I said above, there is a great deal of overlap between these two groups. However, I prefer to categorize adult Snape as a Lonely Nerd.

He certainly has many moments of bitterness—all his times raging against Harry’s arrogance and rule breaking, for instance. His treatment of Hermione is likewise full of bitterness—he seems to instinctively respond to her show-off-ishness as he would to a rival for top-nerd status in his subject, and treats her with disdain. Likewise, his cruel treatment of Neville could be seen as bitter. On the other hand, his treatment of Neville could be seen as a somewhat misguided attempt to toughen up a boy in whom he sees reflections of his younger self—Snape may be trying to make Neville strong where he himself was once weak.

Despite his moments of bitterness Snape’s actions seem to me to be more those of a Lonely Nerd than a Bitter Nerd. This is exemplified in one of his exchanges with Dumbledore in DH chapter 33, “The Prince’s Tale.” When Dumbledore asks Snape to vow to protect Harry, Snape agrees, but only if Dumbledore will swear it to secrecy. “My word, Severus, that I shall never reveal the best of you?” replies Dumbledore. A Bitter Nerd would want the world to know the noble and great things that he was doing, because the Bitter Nerd feels entitled to public respect and admiration. Only the Lonely Nerd would demand that his best deeds be hidden from public knowledge.

In fact, the entire chapter of “The Prince’s Tale” is rife with examples of Snape submitting his will to the wishes and orders of Albus Dumbledore. In a most telling moment, Dumbledore comes to Snape with his injured hand, and Snape says, “If you had only summoned me a little earlier, I might have been able to do more, buy you more time!” These are not the words of a bitter man who desires public admiration, but the words of a lonely man who is afraid of losing his only friend. Yes, Dumbledore was something of a puppet-master with Snape, but Snape willing submitted himself to being that puppet. Why? Because Dumbledore filled the Lonely Nerd’s deepest desire—the desire for friendship, acceptance, and love. Snape seemed to believe that in Dumbledore he had found the understanding and friendship that he had always longed for. And in true Lonely Nerd fashion he did whatever was required to hold on to that friendship and acceptance. I believe that Snape did all that he did not only to honor the memory of his first friend—Lily—but to maintain the respect and approval of his last friend: Albus Dumbledore.

Pop-culture and literature is full of examples of Lonely Nerds making the choice to follow a path of self-sacrifice for the sake of their few friends. One example from classical literature is Sydney Carton of “A Tale of Two Cities” laying down his life for the sake of his beloved Lucie and her family. More recent examples include Jonathon of “Buffy” risking both his safety and his freedom to return to Sunnydale in the hopes of winning back some respect—or at least forgiveness—from the people he misses and admires. Another example is Napoleon Dynamite risking public humiliation in order to help his friend Pedro by doing a dance routine in front of the whole school. The pop-culture stereotype of the Lonely Nerd certainly seems to include the propensity for acts of great self-sacrifice in order to help the people whom the nerd cares about. Snape fits this pattern perfectly.

Finally, Snape’s dying acts identity him as a Lonely Nerd to the very end. At that point in the narrative it is only necessary that he communicate to Harry that part of Voldemort’s soul resides within him. Instead, Snape pours out memories of key moments throughout his life. Why? Because even as he is dying, Snape still longs for understanding, acceptance, and even love. He hopes that by sharing his story with Harry, that Harry—and through Harry, the world—will finally grant him respect and understanding. In a sad irony Snape achieves the wide public respect and admiration that he always wanted only after his death. He was denied the happy ending of nerds like Napoleon Dynamite and instead, like Jonathon, died like he lived—a Lonely Nerd.

Snape as the Lonely Nerd in Fanfiction and Fanart

So, if Snape really is a Lonely Nerd in canon, what about in fanfiction and fanart? I’m sure the question that fan writers and artists are more interested in is: Can nerd!Snape still be sexy? My answer is a definite Maybe.

There are other examples of sexy nerds in pop culture—from Star Trek’s Mr. Spock to Buffy’s Giles. There are even sexy Bitter/Lonely nerds. My favorite example is season 4 Wesley from Angel—I thought he was very sexy while having hate-sex with Lilah and pining away for his ideal she-nerd, Fred. If they can be sexy, then so can nerd!Snape. It just takes a little more creativity—something which fan writers and fan artists have plenty of.

I, for one, would like to see more art and fiction with a Snape that is less a dark and brooding Bronte-esque hero, and more of a self-involved “The Office”-esque nerd. I’d love to see an adult Snape that is less Mr. Rochester, and more Dwight Schrute. And I’d like to see a young Snape that is less Heathcliff and more Napoleon Dynamite. In particular I’d like to see a young Snape that is the Jonathon to Mulciber’s Warren, or the Duckie to Lily’s Molly Ringwald (please tell me I’m not the only one here who remembers “Pretty in Pink”?). I think that the possibilities of nerd!Snape in fan writing and art are varied and fascinating, and though I’ve only read and seen a handful of nerd!Snape creations so far, I look forward to seeing more.


I hope that by now I’ve managed to convince at least a few of you that reading Snape as a Lonely Nerd is indeed a valid interpretation of the canon character. He is physically unattractive, socially inept, single-minded, and obsessed. In addition, he lives a lonely and misanthropic life devoted to the memory of one friend and the service of another, all the while longing for acceptance, understanding, and love. He seems to believe that the only way to gain the acceptance and respect that he wants is through attaining and displaying his nerd!skills. Finally, he is willing to perform great acts of self-sacrifice for the sake of the few friends he does have. In Snape J.K.Rowling truly created a character that fits the pop-culture character type of the Lonely Nerd. In my opinion, this understanding of the character adds a wonderful new depth to readings of both canon and fanon. It also explains why Snape is so immensely popular in fandom—he is one of us.
Tags: books:deathly hallows, characters:severus snape

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