Arthur Chu: ‘Jeopardy!’ Villain Turned Cultural White Knight
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because here’s proof that it’s never too late to change the tide of public opinion: Arthur Chu’s transformation from game show celebrity to cultural warrior.
Arthur Chu became a minor celebrity when he won Jeopardy! 11 times in a row using an unorthodox strategy that riled fans. But he lost his final game back in March so, theoretically, his 15 minutes of fame should be over. Theoretically.
Except now he’s redirected his broad intelligence to blogging about culture, and of the five articles he’s published on The Daily Beast, two have already gone wildly viral. He’s tackled homophobia, racism and sexism with unconventional arguments often told from the point of view of a “nerd.” In fact, Salon aptly coined Chu’s style as “nerdsplaining.” And so begins Chu’s new role: social justice warrior.
The tone he used to address ‘his fellow nerds’ was intentionally harsh.
“Dangerous villains are ones who know how to make friends, how to add value to an organization, how to be respectable and likable people — all while working toward evil ends,” writes Chu in his first viral article. “Sci-fi nerds are familiar with this concept.” He is comparing the homophobia of ex-Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich to the racism of Clippers’ soon-to-be-former owner Donald Sterling. Chu argued that Eich is a more “dangerous villain” than Sterling because he is valuable and well-liked yet quietly funds anti-gay rights campaigns.
Chu’s second viral article was published last week and tackles the Santa Barbara murders and misogynistic responses to #YesAllWomen. In it, he passionately scolds his fellow “nerds” for their feelings of entitlement and how they act when their romantic attentions are scorned:
So, a question to my fellow male nerds: What the fuck is wrong with us?
Chu’s articles spark instant and heated reactions — both positive and negative. His Eich/Sterling article drew attention from people criticizing his theory, Chu tells OZY, but the anti-misogyny article was met with an overwhelming number of positive and inspirational responses. Many women wrote to Chu revealing their personal stories, which he found deeply moving and a bit intimidating. He was also touched by the men who wrote to him saying he forced them to think about misogyny in a new way.
He said the tone he used to address “his fellow nerds” was intentionally harsh. “There’s a time and place for the gentle and empathetic approach,” says Chu, “And a time when you need to be slapped in the face and confronted.” Since he has the “armor” of maleness, he says the worst people who hate the article can do is call him a white knight or a beta male. “It’s not nearly as bad to what they do to women when they speak up. I’m not getting death threats or rape threats.”
“There’s a whole backlash against ‘Do we need another Tumblr social justice warrior? Do we need another person to complain about classism, racism, sexism?’ I think we do need those people,” says Chu.
And maybe that’s just the job for someone comfortable embracing controversy — it’s what made Arthur Chu famous in the first place. He’s credited with an “encyclopedic” breadth of knowledge that helped him win Jeopardy!, but he also won because he used a form of game theory called the “Forrest Bounce,” jumping around the board to find Daily Doubles. This did not make him popular among Jeopardy! enthusiasts, nor did his tendency to interrupt Alex Trebek and wear disheveled, wrinkled clothes. He was cast as a “game show villain” and accused of ruining the show.
I don’t care if it’s not fun for you to watch.
– Arthur Chu
Some might have responded to this criticism by shrinking into the shadows — not Chu. He live-tweeted his episodes, retweeted his haters and engaged with viewers on the online Jeopardy! community board, JBoard. His Jeopardy! fame was entirely intentional, a means to an end.
“I don’t care if it’s not fun for you to watch,” says Chu, explaining that providing 20 minutes of predictable TV enjoyment is less important to him than having a winning strategy. Chu, 30, is an insurance compliance analyst who also does voiceover work and comedy, has studied acting and aspires to be a motivational speaker. He’s been unabashedly self-promotional, capitalizing on his Jeopardy! fame to pursue his life goals and “exploit that attention to do something more meaningful.”
So far, his plan has worked. Chu’s columns have been popular, and Sujay Kumar, his editor at The Daily Beast, commends his ability to put his arguments together like a puzzle, filling in all of the holes that people could attack him on. “That’s a talent that he’s great at and he totally should be going with it,” says Kumar. “It’s really hard to get someone to say something that hasn’t been said or to look at it from a different angle.”
While he acknowledges that they’re a big chunk of his fan base, he’s very critical of his fellow nerds, and says he dislikes the “Masters of the Universe” arrogance of tech culture. “I’m not against economic disruption the way Silicon Valley does it,” he says, “I’m against the way certain people in that culture think that that kind of disruption solves everything. That sexism, classism and racism can be solved with an app.”
Chu grew up in New England and Los Angeles, and says he dealt with his “gifted child syndrome” by becoming the class clown. “People are drawn to you if you break rules,” he says. His acting teacher, Madeleine Burke, recalls Chu’s deep research on every character and how well-read he was, and Ben Kabak who edited Chu’s opinion pieces in college says, “He’s a formidable debater and someone you want on your side in an argument.” Still, in college at Swarthmore, Chu found he was no longer the smartest person in the room, and ended up graduating late with a degree in history and dealing with unemployment. He describes that period as getting hit with “the bedrock realities.”
I’m not willing to say things are OK. … That’s the kind of disruption that I think is meaningful.
– Arthur Chu
Now, Chu has been asked to speak at a Swarthmore 150th anniversary reunion, has appeared on CNN to discuss his articles and is discussing a possible book deal with a literary agent. He’s a bit worried that he has an “imposter syndrome going on” since he’s not an expert with a Ph.D., but he recognizes the importance of the platform he’s been given.
“You can’t ignore things like race, class, gender,” Chu says. “I’m not willing to say things are OK because that’s the way it’s always been. That’s the kind of disruption that I think is meaningful.”
He says in a small sense he disrupted Jeopardy! with this attitude, which can be applied to everything. He plans to keep writing for The Daily Beast and Mental Floss weekly, and one of his upcoming articles will address what it means to be an “ally” when you come from a position of privilege.
Is Chu a game show villain or a cultural white knight? Maybe, the lesson to learn from Arthur Chu is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. And who better to teach us that than an intelligent class clown who’s happy to slap us in the face with reality.