Originally posted at the Portland Mercury, August 20th, 2014
Almost five years ago, comedian Patton Oswalt wrote an article for Wired called “Wake Up, Geek Culture, Time to Die.” It was equal parts eulogy for the romanticized nerd he once was, and a lament for the shape of nerdery to come.
At the time, I took issue with the idea that the mainstreaming of Geek was somehow a bad thing. I stand by that; I don’t think it’s wrong somehow that the star quarterback/homecoming king might bust out his 3DS and play some Animal Crossing on the way to the game, or that someone could watch their first episode of Doctor Who one week and show up the next in a bow-tie, a fez, and a working knowledge of all 12 Doctors (No, sir. All 13!).
But I find myself now, with the accumulation of almost five more years of Geek Culture foaming about my knees, looking back at Oswalt’s recommendation that it be euthanized and realizing he was right to call for it. In fact, I think it’s already dead. Or to be accurately clichéd, un-dead. It’s stumbling around, moaning and shuffling in a bad facsimile of its brief, former life.
In hindsight, the Geek Renaissance (2003-2010) looks, more than anything else, like a necessary social phase most people had to go through as their use of the internet increased exponentially. It helped provide context and structure for our presumably marginalized interests, simultaneously rewarding Geeks for our “weird” obsessions while reassuring us that we weren’t as weird as they thought. “It’s fine you’re on the internet more and more,” said an inner voice that probably sounds like Matt Smith. “It’s ‘geeky,’ and being geeky is cool now.” Eventually, the word was reclaimed—we the Geeks had, indeed, taken it back.
But now, the internet is the dominant form of interpersonal communication for hundreds of millions of people. Its perception as a mysterious electronic realm separate from “the real world,” where one could stash indulgent alter-egos, is outdated and corny now, a conceptual relic from the late ’90s that’s aged about as well as The Lawnmower Man. The kind of people who still believe in that internet have self-segregated to image boards and anonymous comments sections, a sort of appendix to the body internet: a once useful organ that is no longer necessary, existing almost solely to accumulate poison until it swells and bursts. We don’t need to be comforted by Matt’s soothing voice in our head anymore, because there is no longer an artificial divide between “the internet” and “real life” anymore. In fact, the internet is no longer even remotely special at all: It’s just the tool we use to talk with each other.
When Geek was reclaimed, the anti-social behaviors embedded deep in our subculture were minimized. Knowingly. A cheerful tribalism emerged, helping wave away a lot of the racism and sexism we’d rather not acknowledge, in exchange for the comfort of knowing it was okay to have a sword collection, or make Babylon 5 costumes in our spare time. Being Geek suddenly had a lot less to do with my inability to talk to the opposite sex, process a social cue, or interpret a joke; it was more about quoting lines from Ghostbusters or recognizing the Star Wars reference in that one movie (all the movies).
Thus the gates to geekdom were flung open and the mainstreaming began. Star Wars is a great example of this: Somehow, one of the most popular film series of all time, responsible for billions of dollars in box-office, home video, publishing and other merchandising over the course of three straight decades, was considered shorthand for Geek—and nobody questioned it. The bar for Geek—which was never that high in the first place—was now set at a point where the price of admission was equal to the price of the DVDs in your Amazon cart or a ticket to see Captain America. In the Renaissance, being Geek was not much more involved than simply buying something, and considering myself a more well-rounded, interesting person for having purchased it.
This shouldn’t have been a bad thing, as it led to the popularization of some really cool shit. More people enjoying more diverse types of media—and sharing that enjoyment with one another—was the realization of a dream for many Geeks who thought we were more or less alone in our interests. There was a security in choosing to attend a convention, and knowing I could feel (somewhat) safe among the multitude of costumes & logo’d t-shirts, all standing on common ground, a common ground more regularly spreading into that “real world” with things like book release parties, midnight screenings, and game releases.
The validation continued as Geeks watched the more well-known of our number join the industries we followed. Fans began making the games we played, drawing the comics we read, and writing the movies and TV shows we watched. Traditional media couldn’t expand fast enough, and fully-formed networks sprang up in response, offering things like podcasts, video game playthroughs and tournaments, and frame-by-frame dissections of Star Trek movies longer than the films themselves. The success was undeniable. The money was too good. Geeks finished the first decade of the 21st century and saw that we had “won.”
But champions must fight to keep their trophy, and kings must war to retain their crown. A few of us, who had been around before the renaissance had started, took stock of this changed landscape, and saw things that needed to be fixed. Thus began the defense of Geek Nation, a defense nobody really asked for, undertaken by volunteer warriors ill-equipped for their amateur endeavor.
Step one in protecting the sovereignty of this newly established country: We cannot admit the Geeks have won.
We can revel in the unprecedented importance of media in American life, we can marvel (pun intended) at the success of things like interconnected superhero movies and sci-fi, horror, and fantasy TV shows, but we cannot relinquish the otherness that comes with the title of Geek. That would mean recognizing the reclamation of the term has served its purpose and the name is no longer necessary, because—to paraphrase The Incredibles—when everyone is Geek, nobody is.
Admitting we won means we can let off the gas, and there’s no financial incentive to do that. Geek Culture is a legitimate market now, filled with customers eager to choose their own exploitation; well-trained the fine art of consumerism, we often consider quality a secondary or even tertiary concern behind branding. And any content provider would have to be a fool to entertain any notion that the Geek brand has run its course. There’s too many T-shirts left to sell, books to hawk, and talk-shows to host.
If we admit Geek Culture won, we’re admitting that, really, it’s just Pop-Culture—or even worse, plain-old Culture. Period. No hyphenates or slashes. But then it’s not unique anymore. It becomes harder to consider myself special for having engaged with it. Its status as an identifier of cultural importance is diminished. If tens of millions of people can love the surly raccoon and the dancing tree, it’s not so cool when I do, too. If Geek Nation has gotten too big to defend, then shrink it back down, to restore and protect that uniqueness.
This brings us to step two: removing the unworthy.
Letting everybody into the party was fun at first! We were excited at how remarkably popular this intergalactic kegger was, and surprised by the number of charming, attractive people lining up at the door. The outside validation was intoxicating, but some of us drank way too much, blowing past the fun buzz of supplementing our personality with geeky interests, and tilting headlong towards the blackout, where personality isn’t supported but completely subsumed, the person inside hollowed out and discarded to make way for more. In that state, it was easy to judge those who hadn’t drank as much as we did, to suggest they were lightweight, bridge and tunnel tourists who couldn’t hang with the real thing. The hangover that followed was rough indeed, as the method chosen to cull the nerd herd was sourced straight from Geek Culture’s quietly nurtured sense of white, male, heterosexual superiority.
Minorities were told their requests for representation in Geek media were unfair and silly. Women were told that—since Geek is now synonymous with “cool”—they were just faking their interests to have sex with us. A real anger began to boil over, scalding and scolding newcomers for crimes against the culture including (but not limited to): being late to the party, not valuing geek tradition, posting on Tumblr about Supernatural, complaining about being called a faggot on XBox Live, complaining about the broken spines of our oversexed heroines, and for having the gall to come into our basement and criticize the laminated pinups (targets) we have pinned on the wall.
This is confusing to many, although it shouldn’t be. When a subculture celebrates emotional stunting and infantilization as much as Geek Culture does, entitled little boys are going to act accordingly, especially if they hold any amount of power. And we do (just like plain old regular culture). With that power, we’ve chosen to alienate and excommunicate those not willing to just put up with our tantrum-throwing bullshit. And so it goes: Anita Sarkeesian can get the fuck out. Zoe Quinn can get the fuck out. Janelle Asselin can get the fuck out. They’re not real geeks anyway with all their faux-outrage and their PC whining, and if they wanna keep it up, I got an army of fedoras with dick pics and rape threats just raring to go, both for them and their thirsty White Knights.
Step three is currently underway, and involves one last act of reclamation.
Geek—the term that began as a derogatory and became a shiny marketing tool—is now too nice. So the keepers of the flame of Real Geekery, the protectors of a subculture that was never all that sub to begin with, a group of people who pledge allegiance to the illusion of individuality through the mass purchase of goods manufactured and sold by worldwide multimedia conglomerates, have decided Geek needs to be a derogatory again. Because it’s easier to kick out the women and the minorities who won’t just shut up and accept this is just how it is, than it is to adjust our behavior accordingly. To progress.
Instead, in the most sadly predictable course of action we could have possibly taken, Geeks have chosen to reboot our own past like a Platinum Dunes production. We could accept the reality that our subculture is just pop-culture now, that the relative ease of mainstreaming Geek means being Geek probably never really meant that much; we could use that opportunity to enjoy the common ground we’re sharing and invite even more people to share it than ever before—but instead, we’re going the easier, less imaginative route, and remaking the past. (But with new special effects!)
Because to go the other way, to go forward, to allow the culture to shed its former self and actually become something new, is to recognize that maybe we weren’t ostracized because we liked comics. We weren’t made fun of because we played Dungeons & Dragons. It had nothing to do with the things we liked or our choice of pastime. Now that it’s easy to see everyone can like the same stuff I like, and it hasn’t turned them into the misanthropic little shit I am, I have to deal with the possibility that it was just me. And I probably knew it was just me. But it was easier to blame it on Batman than it was to try growing the fuck up. And it still is.
So Geeks have doubled-down on the idea that anyone who has a problem with our culture, especially during the reign of Geek Nation, is a poseur who doesn’t deserve our title or our hospitality (such as it is). As a result, it’s undeniable that geeks are returning that exclusivity to their ranks. But the citizenship test now consists of questions that reward being exploitative, mercenary, sexist, mean-spirited, homophobic, closed-minded assholes. Some of us might try to say “Well, it’s not all of us. And there’s more good than there is bad!” And technically, yeah, maybe they’re right. But not by much. I think it’s time to admit that Geek Pride is a largely empty emotion, and “Don’t be a dick” doesn’t cut it as a philosophy or a battle cry. It never did.
So if this is what means to be part of Geek Culture, then fuck Geek Culture. I don’t want anything to do with it. You can have it back.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m damn sure not gonna stop watching movies, or reading comics, or playing games, or even going to conventions. I’m still gonna host my pub quiz, and make my podcasts, and maybe hook up a mashup or two. But I’m not buying into this toxic Geek shit anymore. None of the stuff I like needs to be a part of your insular, suffocating culture to succeed. I don’t need to look at things through that filter to better understand or like them. The stuff that works? It works just fine without you.
I’m honestly thankful that the Geek Renaissance was there to obliterate the unnecessary barrier to new forms of media for millions of people who otherwise would have never had their lives enriched in a multitude of ways. But I don’t think I belong here anymore—not if something as simple as enjoying some comics comes with a cost like denying whole swaths of people their basic humanity.
Geek Culture is asking to be abandoned, and I’m amenable to their offer. It’s much more important to me that I try being a better person rather than maintaining status as a good Geek, and the effort it would take to consistently reconcile the two is better spent doing more worthwhile things:
Like doing all those things and then inviting a group of friends over for a barbecue, grilling up some burgers and maybe watching a movie or playing a game or maybe just enjoying the company of people I consider good and decent for who they are, and not for what they think about a TV show. You know…
Like growing the fuck up.