Take the music video for the Ariana Grande song One Last Time as an example.
A colourful comet tears up the sky and Ariana pushes her way through a crowd of stargazers, ending up inside a residential building. In a dingy apartment, an overweight, bearded and distinctly dishevelled man stands at a bank of computer monitors.
The Grande video, viewed nearly 200 million times on YouTube already, exists as a brief mainstream portrayal of a distinct stereotype of an Internet user: the neckbeard.
A pejorative term that entered the Oxford Online dictionary in 2014, neckbeard describes a physically unkempt man, so named because of his facial hair. Unlike the stylishly cultivated scruff worn by men at the vanguard of fashion, the neckbeard also has hair in places other than the face: notably his neck.
At home in the basement
More than mere chin hair, the neckbeard is fat, is unattractive – perhaps even troll-like in his actions and his aesthetics – and is at home in a filthy basement, sweating it up in front of a screen. The computer here is key.
My new book Cyberbullies, Cyberactivists, Cyberpredators: Film, TV, and Internet Stereotypes examines a range of screen stereotypes of characters who are defined by their computer use.
Off screen, the Internet – be it on our desktops, our tablets, our phones – is our default tool for doing everything from scheduling and socialising through to stimulating and satisfying. We’re all computer nerds now. The normalcy – the ubiquitousness – of real-life Internet use, however, has failed to be conveyed in the news media, nor as I argue in my book, in film or television.
On screen a character’s Internet use invariably defines them. They’re a bespectacled geek, a cybergoth hacker, a virgin-hunting cyberpredator, a heavy-breathing cyberperv.
And then there’s the neckbeard.
In The Simpsonshe’s Jeff Albertson, the fat, pony-tailed and bearded sarcastic misanthrope more commonly known as the “Comic Book Guy”. In the Bart the Fink episode, Albertson wheels a barrow full of tacos through town commenting “Yes, this should provide adequate sustenance for the Doctor Who marathon”.
In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo(2011) the neckbeard is Plague: surrounded by junk food packaging, this greasy hacker has the gracelessness to use the toilet – door agape – with company still in his apartment.
In the Make Love, Not Warcraft episode of South Park, Jenkins is the neckbeard: fat, part-acne ridden, part-bearded, the character tasks himself with no duty other than killing off characters in World of Warcraft.
At a cursory glance, the neckbeard is an easy figure to both loath and laugh at: he’s the fat guy whose whole pathetic life plays out exclusively in cyberspace. This screen stereotype, however, has other interesting elements to it.
Every new technology at its inception has been plagued by fears of addiction and the Internet certainly hasn’t evaded this: by the mid-1990s the new ailment of net addiction was claimed to be ruining relationships and socially isolating teenagers.
The screen’s neckbeard is a product of this: he’s not just a user of the technology, the technology is his life. He is a physical incarnation of modern-day gluttony – too much sedentariness, too much darkness, too much isolation, too much computing. He is what happens to the body – to society – when we become too reliant on machines: we go soft, we go to fat.
The neckbeard is unkempt, of course, because heft and dishevelment are regularly coupled on screen in a culture loathing of fatness. But he’s unkempt because of his computing. He’s not leaving his basement, he’s not socialising; the machine has made him reclusive and facilitated his isolation.
The neckbeard is often also a jerk. Be it as a griefer, a misogynist, or a compulsive commenter, this character amuses himself by being a bastard online.
In an episode of Luther,the obese Jared Cass occupies himself by sending haunting messages to the parents of a recently murdered teen girl. In Gamer(2009), Gorge is a compulsive player of a sim-gam: naked, he sits in his wheelchair dabbling in his rape fantasies while eating waffle sandwiches.
The repulsive exteriors of these characters function as an insight into their filthy psychology.
These men are socially isolated, and behind their monitors (and invariably in the bravery of mom’s basement), they get to stand up to their tormentors – to the women, for example, who ignored them – and feel a modicum of (digital) power.
The screen’s hate affair with the neckbeard stereotype provides insight into some of our fears about the Internet centred on addiction, on social isolation, on humans going soft. It’s also a distinctly notably gendered portrayal indicative of how Hollywood routinely couples technology and bad behaviour with masculinity.
Banner image: Shutterstock