Thursday, June 23, 2011

If you'd told me in 1993 that people would be fighting over people wanting to be called "geek", I would have burned you for a witch

Apparently at some beauty pageant this week, the winner stood on stage and declared herself "a geek".  Specifically, she called out a few shows she liked including Game of Thrones (which is amaaaaaazing, but we'll discuss that later), and declared herself a "history geek".  And with that, it seemed, the meaning of the term "geek" that I knew and as I had once understood it, died a last and wheezing death before a televised audience's eyes.

I didn't see this, of course.  I didn't watch TV last night, and I don't watch beauty pageants when I do watch TV.  But I have the internets, and the internets were abuzz.

I want to refer you to an article I wrote in 2004 about the death of the phrase "bling", which was a not-dissimilar experience.  When white-bread moms are dolling up their upper-middle-class daughters, they may now use the phrase "bling", but the word has lost any weight or meaning. 

And, so, too, has the term "geek".

It sort of reminds me of when a very dear friend of mine from high school who's tastes ran toward Top 40 radio, top-rated sitcoms and whatever fashionable people were wearing, etc... (I love this person, and I genuinely am not trying to be critical, but I'm being honest here) jumped in the car with me during a winter break home from college, put in Counting Crows on the CD player, turned to me smiling and unironically announced "see, Ryan, now I'm alternative."  It was so adorable, I just wanted to give her a hug.

Today there's this whole weird argument raging on the internet, and it seems mostly to be happening in the Girl Geek quarters, especially amongst younger women (in their 20's, it seems) who are debating what constitutes a geek, and many are PROUD (like, fierce, angry proud) of overcoming their self-stated reject status and fighting for the right to have a community they may not have felt like they've had before.

So, when Miss America describes herself as a "geek", its causing a kerfuffle. It's the co-option of a hard-won name for a lot of folks out there, and the insinuation of oneself into a community that seems to feel that their rejection at the hands of the beautiful people in high school and then the self-identification of someone who looks exactly like those people who made their lives hell...?  It can be seen as an affront to everything they believe they've discovered, nurtured and built an identity around.

Yes, it sucks when you see the people you can't stand like your favorite band or are, say, using the Superman logo on the mudflaps on the same truck upon which they've dangled Truck Nutz.

In reaction, Jill Pantozzi defends everyone's right to be a geek and Total Fan Girl picks up the argument and runs with it.  Frankly, I've made the same Football Fan argument that TFG brings up.  Its cosplay and its maintaining a wealth of stats, names, dates, etc...  that most people don't care about.

Bad-Ass Digest considers what it means when the term is co-opted and actually dismisses the football analogy, pointing out that sports are socially acceptable and is more concerned about the co-option of the geek culture and what is surely the watering down of a sub-culture as its embraced by "the mainstream".

I get it.  I get both sides.  I completely understand that you can't judge a book by its cover and that everyone will surprise you with their weird, dorky little obsessions, and I get that part of today's standard for being a real geek means getting over the social pariah status for doing what you love and letting your freak flag fly (in theory, anyway).

For folks not living on the comics web-i-sphere, I try to explain my feelings regarding how differently the Gen-Y'ers and their antecedents interact with comics, movies, etc...  than I did or do.*  And I know that there's an obvious ignorance of the way it was before the internets, and a general misunderstanding of how comics, computers, interest in science, movie monsters, etc... were perceived in everyday life up until, oh...  2000, I'd guess.  Why, to tell someone under the age of 35 that once upon a time that if you sat in front of a computer all say, that was considered perhaps a bit uncool - it sounds like a fairy tale from some far off land of cavemen who deserve to be selected against. 

There was a time when I entered high school and intentionally put away my comic book shirts in a drawer (after being one of two "Batman Guys" at my middle school**) so that when I entered high school, I wasn't wearing a big yellow disk on my chest that said "don't date me".  No, I didn't understand what it was about comics then, and I don't get what draws a certain crowd to them now, but there was most certainly a stigma about both the medium and the people who were into the medium, and I knew it.  Sure, I'd talk about comics with a select number of people in high school, but I could count the number of people I knew who read them on one hand.  Most assuredly, other people read them, too, but it also wasn't something you just talked about.

Bear in mind, the only acceptable sci-fi of the era was Star Wars with flashes of James Cameron's stuff.  You could go see a sci-fi film, but you weren't really supposed to admit that you liked the sci-fi film.  Sci-Fi was most definitely something you either grew out of, or you were supposedly doomed to a life of virginity, living in mothers' basements and bad haircuts.

William Shatner SNL skit Get A Life 1986-12-20 by efly2020

When someone called you a "geek", it wasn't in order to let you know that they appreciated your eccentricities, even (and perhaps especially) among your friends.  Your friends, actually, weren't supposed to use the word unless they were trying to point out something crossed their particular boundaries.

If memory serves, the web embraced the term about 2002.  I remember seeing the t-shirts that said "I like nerdy boys" around 2003 or 2004, thought that was kind of cute.  And, frankly, I've been glad to have a phrase that makes sense when I'm talking about what I like and what my hobbies are that doesn't involve five minutes of explanation.  "Comic Geek" means something, and that's handy.

But I'm also not crazy.  I knew that when I said "I'm a comic geek", I was (and am) bringing all sorts of baggage down upon my own head, and these days I've definitely quit trying to immediately follow up declarations of my fandom with some qualifier about how I'm "not as bad as those guys you're thinking of".   Reaching my 30's, looking at my own home and being realistic about who I turned out to be, and seeing a culture that has grown to embrace nichey hobbies and interests... it all helps a lot to let me know who I am, and that I am (mostly) fine with it.  But I haven't forgotten the weird shame and refusal to talk about my interests with my buddies on the basketball team about why Batman was cool.

When I hit college, what I do remember is realizing the more I talked about the comics thing, the more people would bring up their own interests in comics and sci-fi, and that was absolutely not my experience to that point.  I had friends on my floor who I would walk with to the comic shop, and stuff.***  That was great, and I'm still friends with a lot of those folks.

However, again, geekiness wasn't something that parents encouraged, bosses understood, etc...  It was something that, when people found out about your interests, they would literally laugh, roll their eyes and say "oh, you're one of those.  You hide it pretty well."

But I'd argue that it took the creation of an entirely new form of communication (the internet) to make that happen and for the geeks to find each other in numbers large enough to realize that there was a community here.   

It seems pop-culture has so embraced the idea of geeking out on something that the term doesn't mean what it used to.  I suspect "nerd" and "dork" likely still sting a bit for kids.  Frankly, I wish there had been a new or better term for enjoying Superman stuff.  When people at work ask about the Superman pictures in my office (and, yes, there are a few) I say "Oh, I collect Superman stuff" and that usually is enough. I don't want to arm them with the term "Superman geek" if I can avoid it.  I work with lots of people over 35 for whom "geek" retains the old definition.

I can't take Beauty Queens calling themselves "geeks" too seriously.  Its not that I doubt this young woman has sincere interest in things which her social circle doesn't enjoy, but I have to agree with Bad-Ass Digest that it just seems to miss the loaded weight of the word.  Also, these days its become super-trendy for every celebrity to insist they were unpopular in high school, yadda ya.  It makes them more "relatable".  I'm not sure that's what this girl was doing, but its so commonplace that now I do sort of wonder if a 20 year old pageant queen can even process what it means to call oneself a "geek" for what the word is and was.

But I also start getting a bit twitchy when groups start getting outwardly exclusionary and start building an us-vs.-them mentality, which is sort of an interesting outgrowth of the past few years. I guess part of that is that I was never a kid who went particularly nuts trying to self-identify with any one group, and a bit of paranoia about what folks assume I am like before they spend any time talking to me (and I've had people tell me everything from "I thought you were a total button-down jerk" to "but you're a metal-head" to "we all thought you were this mean, crazy guy"), and my absolute understanding that even within the comic geek "community", being a Superman fan actually makes you sit at the loser's lunch table.

I just don't buy that the community is actually all that cohesive, and everyone finds somebody that's doing something that's just unforgivably "geeky" in the sense of the word as I knew it in middle school. 

And part of me sort of wants to say "hey, you there calling yourself a 'geek'.  Yes, you in the knit cap and ironic glasses drawing web comics and writing a foodie blog and drawing minimalist superheroes.  You're not a geek.  The guy you wish wasn't here, the 42 year old one with the weird hair, stack of Adam Warlock comics and too-tight Flash t-shirt?  He was already here when you showed up.  Your hipsterish little appreciation for Galactus wouldn't even be happening if this guy hadn't gotten his ass-kicked, built websites, pioneered message boards and kept supporting comics when cons were one-day shame-fests in Holiday Inn ballrooms.  Show some @#$%ing respect."

*the sense of entitled ownership regarding what they like, right down to the constant cosplaying, slash and fan-fiction writing, selling stuff on Etsy, etc...  is all neat in one way, and in another way...  I totally don't get it.
**what up, JAL, Mr. Other Batman Guy!
***by the way, I met our own JimD in screenwriting class when he saw me leafing through comics before the start of class one day and he wanted to know what I was reading as he was a comics buff.

1 comment:

Fantomenos said...

I totally get both sides of your ambivalence. When I was a geeky punk-rocker in high school, that was taking a solid risk of physical violence.

So when I see Hot Topic tweens with mohawks and dyed hair I think:

a) Awesome! They can let their freak flag fly!

b) Their haircuts were paid for in sweat and blood by people like me.

And this generation has no idea how much has changed. I read an interview with an old puck icon who was asked whether it was better "back then" and he basically said no, since "back then" (the 80's) you couldn't walk into a bank and get a loan with tattoos. Getting a tattoo was a real statement about your relationship with society.