What Dr. Horrible Can Teach Nerds (And Everyone Else) About Love

Does anyone represent the trials and tribulations of the modern day nerd quite as much as Dr. Horrible? He wants what we all want: to build a fairer, more just and equitable society. To be recognised and valued for his gifts and contributions to the world at large. To get through the day without being tormented by the anti-intellectual bullies that seem to get all the glory for somebody else's hard work. For the courage to talk to the cute girl he sees at the laundromat but can't quite bring himself to talk to.

Of course, he also wants to join the Evil League of Evil, take over the planet and use his dictatorship to sweep the old order into the dustbin of history, crush his nemesis Captain Hammer underneath his boot-heel and damn near got his crush run over by a car during a robbery-gone-bad… but hey, what're a few details between friends?

For all of his super-villain ambition, Dr. Horrible is the sort of character we can empathise with and relate to. Every nerd can understand his resentment toward and anger with the world that doesn't seem to understand or respect him. We have all felt the urge to get back at the jocks and bullies who hog the spotlight for no better reason than that they happened to be at the right place at the right time. We all know the frustration of desperately wanting the person we like to notice us if we could only muster up the courage or find the right words to say, and the pain from when it all goes wrong.

There's a lot to learn from the not-so-good Doctor.

You Need To Be Self-Validating

From the very get-go, Dr. Horrible wants us to know that he believes the world is almost irredeemably corrupt; in fact, it's so far beyond redemption that the only way to save it is to burn down the existing power structure — cut off the head of the rotting fish, as it were — and to start over with a new ruler. A benevolent dictator who would usher in a new world order, one that's more just, more fair…

Which, when you translate for Buffy-speak and a certain level of deliberate obfuscation means that Billy really wants a world that acknowledges him for the cool guy he knows he is deep down and the rest of the world just doesn't see or recognise. Instead it's arseholes like Captain Hammer, with the muscles and the cool hair who get all the glory, all of the attention and, critically, all of the women.

Dr. Horrible is almost defined by his need to have others validate him, whether it's by getting official super-villain status from the Evil League of Evil, having the world recognise his genius or even just have Penny validate his coolness by preferring Billy with his hidden layer and unassuming gifts rather than tools like Captain Hammer who seem cool but have all of the depth of a mud-puddle.

The problem is that Billy has lost his locus of control by letting his self-worth be defined by others instead of believing in his own value. He's looking for others to tell him he's cool. And that's part of what holds him back. It's why he can't muster up the courage to talk to Penny. It's why he's a half-baked super-villain. He lets his need for the approval and validation of others dominate his thinking.

And yet, all he can come up with are what might be considered nuisance crimes. He's robbing banks and performing car heists, not holding cities for ransom or demanding millions of dollars in exchange for not dropping a viral mutagen into the municipal the water supply. The fact that Bad Horse and the Evil League of Evil demand that he commit a murder to prove his villain bona-fides1 freaks him the flying fuck out. He's not villain material, so why isn't he taking the straight life or even trying his hand at being a super-hero?

Because he wants the "respect" and edginess that comes with being a supervillain. He doesn't just want to change the world, he wants to rule it. He wants the world to acknowledge that he's superior to them and that they were wrong to treat him the way they do. He craves the approval of others to fill the hole that he feels in his life. The problem of course, is that this hole will never be filled… even when he has everything he wants.

Girls Don't Like Assholes

The central conflict in Dr. Horrible revolves around Penny. Dr. Horrible loves Penny. Penny, on the other hand, is dating Captain Hammer… who is only dating her because he knows it hurts Dr. Horrible.

But this is the way of the world, isn't it? After all, he's a jerk jock and we all know women love arseholes so what's the point? This is just the natural order of things.

Except it isn't. In fact, Penny's pretty clearly interested in her laundro-mate2 Billy. By the middle of Act 2, she's already having second thoughts about the guy she's dating, even dropping some pretty sizable hints that she's unhappy with him and may be looking for someone who actually cares about her. By all rights, her fling with Hammer would have been fairly short-lived except for… well, y'know.

The attraction to Hammer isn't that difficult to parse. To start with, there's the fact that he "saved" Penny's life.


My heart is beating like a drum

Must be, must be in shock

Assuming I'm not loving you to death


So please give me a sec to catch my breath

Her heart's racing, she's short of breath, her body is shaking… considering that she just damn near got taken out by a car, it's understandable that she's freaked out, no? Except that the physical symptoms of fear — adrenaline surges, racing heart beat, dry mouth — are almost identical to the physical symptoms of sexual desire. Captain Hammer is taking advantage of a condition known as misattribution of arousal; her brain is thinking "Hey, I'm terrified but why? OK, there's this big hot guy right here… maybe I'm not terrified, I'm just really turned on. That makes sense!"

And there's a lot to like about Captain Hammer, at least superficially. He's handsome. He's smooth. He has almost infinite belief in his own self-worth and he has certainty and self-assuredness that can be magnetic. But deep down… he's got nothing to suggest the possibility of a long-term relationship or even a relationship that manages to last longer than sleeping together once.

I mean, c'mon. He doesn't even get to do the weird stuff.

It's not surprising that Penny starts dating the Captain. She's lived a life mostly defined by disappointment and now there's this guy who seems to be in a position to make her dreams come true. She's overwhelmed by the celebrity, lifestyle and the fact that he's making her biggest goal — building the new shelter — a reality. And yet… she's not happy with him. She's trying to rationalize staying with him because…well, everyone seems to think she should and real life isn't a fairy tale with happy endings.

Assholes, y'see, may be able to attract the girl, but they can't keep them… because they don't have anything to offer beyond the very superficial. So he's good looking… and? He's not confident, he's arrogant and self-obsessed. He's not helping her out of compassion or a belief in her cause, he's doing it to fuck with Dr. Horrible and to make himself look good. He can't even make it a third of the way through a speech about helping the homeless without making it all about how awesome he is. He's shallow, vain, only cares about himself and he doesn't really know a damn thing about what makes Penny tick.

Billy, on the other hand, gets her. He's no Captain Hammer but he's no slouch in the looks department. He's quiet, but he's got intensity. They have a lot of similar goals and dreams in life. He has ambition. He has drive. He has passion and he clearly cares about her.

If only Billy had made a move.

Nice Guys Finish Last

Y'see, Billy made the classic mistake: he was so afraid of rejection that he let it paralyze him into inaction. Instead of walking up to her and saying "Hey, you know what, it's crazy I see you here twice a week and we've never said ‘hello'. I'm Billy…" he freezes, trying to find the "perfect words" to make her fall in love with him. Like many guys, he got hung up on the opener — literally the least important thing about talking to her. All he really needed to do was find a pretext for a conversation. Anything is better than silence.

More from Paging Dr. Nerdlove

What Makes Men Attractive "I wanted to get down to what women really find attractive. So I asked them."

Dating For Introverts "You're not going to dig for oil in a city street and the odds are that an introvert isn't going to find true love at a shot bar."

Read Her Signs (Without Reading The Tea Leaves)" A smile that seems plastered on — one that doesn't reach the eyes — is a sign that she's not interested in you, and is only continuing the interaction out of politeness."

The problem is that he who hesitates, loses. If you don't make your move, somebody else is going to make theirs.

And for somebody determined to join the Evil League of Evil, Billy is a little too nice. He's the classic Nice Guy lamenting the fact that the woman he loves is in love with a jerk and doesn't see what an awesome person he is. Instead of making his play for Penny or even just admitting to her that he likes her, he sits and sulks in the Friend Zone, even as she's giving him the sign that she's waiting for him to make his move.

But Doctor Horrible is a little too wrapped up in his need to get back at Captain Hammer at this point to recognise that. And as a result… he misses his best chance at getting what he really wanted.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Let's be real here: we all know that Dr. Horrible isn't a villain. The only person who refuses to see that is… well, Dr. Horrible. He doesn't even want to be a villain, not really. It's just that he thinks it's his ticket to everything he believes he wants and he can't seem to let go.

Look at his stated goals: he believes that there needs to be drastic social change. He wants fame. He wants fortune3 He wants glory and adulation. And he wants Penny.

On a practical level, this would be far easier to achieve in a legal manner. He's a legitimate scientific genius who has figured out a way to stop time and teleport solid matter. Licensing that tech would put him in the same scientific pantheon as Hawking or Einstein and bring him riches beyond dreams of avarice. The level of influence he would have would be more than enough to influence society and bring about the new world he dreams about… not to mention building Penny's homeless centre with what would amount to pocket change for him.

Unfortunately he's so caught up in the idea that he needs to be a supervillain — that he can force the world to make amends for everything that's happened to him that he misses out on what's most important to him. He ends up with everything he thinks he ever wanted: the fear of the city, status as a super-villain, even humiliating Captain Hammer… and it doesn't mean a thing.

A little less time focused on elaborate revenge fantasies, less time worried about getting the approval of others or defining himself as a dork and a loser and he might have had it all — the riches, the fame and the girl.

Harris O'Malley provides geek dating advice at his blogPaging Dr. NerdLove, the Dr. NerdLove podcastand The Good Men Project. He's also a member of The League of Extremely Ordinary Gentlemen. He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and Twitter @DrNerdLove.

Dr. NerdLove is not really a doctor.

Republished with permission.


    Great Read

    We want Mal Reynolds back :(

    So, here's my opion on the Article - there's some pretty big mistakes made by Harris about what happens/is-shown in the Story and also plain interpretations based on own thoughts. Not saying his points on making a go of it & over coming fear is wrong, but maybe bends the source material (Penny) alittle to fit own interpretation, which we (including me) all do-

    * Captain Hammer started dating Penny (for a while atleast judging by montage) before knowing that Dr Horrible even knew her or liked her. And the whole opening Montage is about Penny "feeling rapture inside of me" about Dating Hammer and NOT seeing him act a douche. He even says he stick around to "bang her twice" because its nice, his own douchy way of expressing enjoying being a hero for the needy & dating Penny. She is thrilled and thankful for Hammer's help with her dream at the start of Ep.3. What she does see of his douchy behaviour is "Cheesy" but that she thinks he has layers beneath this (ALL of which could be partly true - He is being a Hero rather than Villian, arrogant & ignorant, but still trying to save the day)

    * At no point does Penny explicitly express interest in "Billy". Maybe im not as experience as Dr Nerdlove, but I never read any sort of hints with Penny's interaction with Billy outside of friendliness, which i know I and many friends have mistaken in past for romantic-interest from Girls.

    Only in opening to Ep.3 that there's a hint (though i'd say nothing beyond friendship really) that she likes Him when she's waiting at Cleaners with 2nd yogurt, BUT is singing about Captain Hammer & accepting it as a Happy Ending, though doubting due to her own bad history & him not being prehaps perfect. There seems to be another large(ish) length of time between 2 & 3, adding to the suggestion of Penny missing Billy who's been gone awhile, BUT again you cant read too much into that, and it simply being missing a friend she has gotten close to. Even when dieing she doesnt say anything close to liking him, but instead a final defeating moment for Horrible that She still, even though seeing the douche finally in Speech, trusting in Hammer to save the Day & both of them, adding to Billy also being responsible for her Death.

    Main point get at with this is to be open UPFRONT with how you fell and "see how cookie crumbles", which is never simple thing do in real life for most, but atleast you know where you stand and go from there. Problem is often want to get to know person more before date them, but, here's my bias from mine & (yes real) friends; you can very easily be seen as being uninterest & fall into "friend-zone" you could say- your own actions interpreted as being only "a friend" & all the issues that come from that later :P

    Billy IS who she's looking for you could say, BUT instead sees Hammer as this for most part & that takes up her whole (viewable on-screen) romantic-interest in most of the episodes, she never sees Billy as this because her interest is taken up by Hammer (with Billy not stepping forward & being clear), leading to Billy thinking he has to be a trully horrible Dr Horrible (also revenge against Hammer big part) to get her attention.

    Last edited 17/10/12 2:53 am

    FFS I clicked one link on that site then I clicked three others then several more or over the place and it never ends :(

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