The Myth of Geek Culture
(Partial editing credit goes to the wonderful @yutt on Twitter!)
I don’t believe in a unified geek culture; I don’t believe there is one. Games, comic books, sci-fi, etc. are different industries with different audiences. Yes, there is crossover. But it’s not a homogeneous blob. “Geekery” is a series of niches, and each with its own unique split of gender, sexuality, politics, and race and each with its own unique wants. If this sounds familiar it’s because I opened one of the first editorials I ever wrote with this exact point.
If you read a lot of my work you will find a number of common themes: freedom to express disagreement, an aversion to censorship, the emphasis on the individual, and the value of individual choices and expression — even those considered negative. These are facets of my worldview, and it’s a worldview I’m very away not everyone shares. But nevertheless they underpin most of what I write about. With that in mind I’m going to explore just why I think the term “Geek culture” is nonsense.
Two decades ago the terms “geek,” “nerd,” and associated stereotypes were universally seen as negatives and pejoratives; yet people now scramble over themselves to self-identify with those terms. That is puzzling to me. I’ve always thought of “Geeks” as being overly passionate about something and society saw that as abnormal, or being a cause for derision. Now that people value deep passion and knowledge about subjects it’s become cool, or in fashion, and has gained a footing in popular culture. We have geek conferences, geek t-shirts, even geek beverages. Along with these commercial shifts there has been a shift of focus to so called “Geek Culture” as more than just a derided, niche concept.
One of the first problems with the concept is there are — at my count — at least three competing ideas of what Geek Culture is. The first concept is the mainstream stereotype of modern Geek Culture. This has stemmed from the commercialization of the concept in TV shows like The Bang Theory; this is the external view for people who want to buy into being a geek whilst it is at its apex in pop culture. Second of these is the idea of “Toxic Geek Culture;” that geeks are exclusively leery male sexists straight out of a 1950s but having traded country clubs for basements — complete with racism and negative views of women. This idea is instilled by those who push the third idea of “Geek Culture;” that it needs to be an ultra-progressive space in order to fight back against the toxicity of the past, and be on “the right side of history.”
All of these things can’t be true at once, so we already have a problem.
Geek culture is prepositioned on the idea of a model geek. This is at odds with the individuality of self and thought that underpined why people were seen as geeks and nerds in the first place. Being labelled a geek was a sign of not accepting social norms; the idea that now geeks should conform to a culture, and set of acceptable opinions and practices, completely contradicts that individual spirit. It’s also at odds with a healthy exchange of ideas and diversity. Not the identity politics version of diversity, but diversity of ideas; a wealth of differing worldviews coexisting. Modern ideas of Geek Culture aims to create a group of people who have different identities on a surface level but have completely uniform thought enforced through the press, social media activism, and convention policies.
This is best demonstrated with harassment policies that have become methods of moderating thought, and filtering out individuals expressing ideas considered “undesirable.” Conventions have become political battlegrounds where the “no platform” pioneered in universities is being transplanted to all communities and events regarded as “geek.” For those unaware, the “no platform” position gives an event the right to block a speaker if they somehow think their opinions will be harmful to the people at the event, or the institution where it is taking place. Very often this decision is made by a handful of people for purely ideological reasons, and is a real blow to freedom of expression. The idea that “Geek spaces” should also be “Safe spaces” has also been adopted with frightening speed and voracity. Safe space doctrine is based on the right to not have your ideas challenged; it contests that normal, lively discourse is in fact a form of harassment, and that simply by stating an alternate viewpoint you might trigger someone into some PTSD riddled fit when in reality they are just uncomfortable with ideas that disagree with theirs.
At the vanguard of this push are collectives like Geek Feminism Wiki whose template harassment policies have been blindly adopted by many conventions.
The most egregious example of their brand of busy-body bullying is the “Creeper Move Card”
“The Creeper Move cards are red and yellow cardboard cards which are designed to be handed to people at geek events who are harassing others or otherwise being creepy.”
Note the use of “Geek events.” By virtue of an event being seen as “Geek,” feminist and other interest groups assume they have control of that event, but it’s really just a meeting of a lot of different people for lots of different reasons. These cards can be given out at any time, and for any reason. You don’t even have to be told what that reason is. The “Red Card” example also includes an implied physical threat stating:
“You should be happy you got a card and not a punch in the face. Check yourself — you might not be this lucky twice!”
In a normal social settings, people undertaking activities like disseminating threatening notes would be roundly ejected, but in the warped world of “feminist geek culture” these are the people supposedly making the event more welcoming and safe.
This isn’t an isolated problem either; being seen as “anti-feminist” and nebulous accusations of harassment are what caused The Honey Badger Brigade to be unfairly ejected from Calgary Expo, an event which has caused them to pursue ongoing legal action. There were also attempts to ban actor Adam Baldwin from various events due to his affiliation with the hashtag GamerGate. These people don’t fit into the prevailing ideas of “progressive” geek culture, and are therefore seen as somehow a danger to these events. The fact that many differing people with many differing ideas might want to meet and interact with them isn’t considered. Simply not agreeing with and not liking someone is seen as a culturally acceptable reason to ban them.
An idea is being put forward on multiple fronts. At conventions, in the video game community, in the comic community, in the table-top community, and in the collectible card games community; the idea that in order to belong to a “geek” community you must embrace ideas of third wave feminism, male/white privilege, and social justice . People who disagree with social justice ideas are routinely the subject of hounding on social media, in the press, and even in person at events and conventions. This is being facilitated by the belief in the purity and nobility of the progressive Geek Culture being put forward.
In politics we call this “Pork-barrelling”, stapling a seemingly unrelated issue into a more popular cause then pushing them as one and the same in order to benefit a small group of people. That’s how amendments to the Kitten hugging bill end up funding nuclear space lasers; it’s also why you can’t have a conversation about equal rights for women without people trying to bring up office air conditioning, and how people sit on the subway. Geek culture is used as a way to make people behave in a specific manner, or believe a certain ideology in order to be “allowed” to like something. I see people in fandoms saying those they dislike “need to get out,” or celebrating when people leave a community due to political disagreements. The exclusion of “undesirables” should never be cause for celebration, and is the hallmark of a very unhealthy community and discourse.
“Fighting for” what geek culture should be is an extension of the wider concept of the “culture war” that is invading many communities and types of media; as well as being a topic covered in this loose trilogy of articles. The invented idea of the sexist “No girls allowed treehouse” was never true. It is in my view backwards; gaming and geek things were stereotyped as “for male losers” because it was an outcast activity in the past. It was always taken up by whoever was around at the time. Until it became commercially successful and lucrative there wasn’t much care given to who was doing these particular activities — no one really cared. All geeks have been desperate to show others their interests — their “secret” nerdy world. Many of these communities were skewed male, but there was never any kind of plan to make it that way. It’s just how these communities coalesced. This of course ignores the sizeable female populations that have existed in all of these communities of people. Women and girls have always played and developed video games, table-top games, and comic books. We never seem concerned by fandoms that skew almost exclusively female, yet we always see hand-wringing about gender quotas in geek communities.
The ridicule and spite towards “White Male Neckbeards” is an exploitation of people’s yearning for acceptance and validation. These type of attacks causes many to go back into their shell, or believe there is something wrong with them. It’s an attack on a group who only wanted to have their long derided passions be understood, and it’s an emotional battering ram. The lie of “toxic geek culture” was invented as an excuse to impose ideas based on identity politics; the logic being this authoritarian shift was preferable to what was there before. It requires re-writing history, and shutting out the voices that remind us most enthusiast communities have always been welcoming to those willing to understand them and develop a passion for the subject matter. I think many of those who don’t feel welcome in enthusiast communities do so because they are more a fan of identity politics, and their own ideology, than the subject at hand. When someone isn’t knowledgeable about a topic, or is doing something for the wrong reasons, it’s immediately apparent to those already immersed in the fandom or activity.
Wrapping up your up identity and ego too heavily in your interests and politics is never a good move; by virtue of being a progressive geek people somehow think that makes them better or unable to be an asshole or a bully. Many see themselves as champions of causes and think being a male “geek” means they have to be subservient to, or advocate on behalf of, women, or that being a “female geek” somehow entitles them to a level of preferential treatment. The idea of “Geek Feminism,” as championed by men, has unleashed a self-superior fedora tipping nightmare upon the world. Individuals like Bob Chipman (formerly MovieBob until his unpleasant ravings got him removed from The Escapist) really do think by being the “right kind of geek” you become some kind of progressive übermensch able to expel those who share interests with you but dare to indulge in “wrong-think.” Bob is — in my mind — the logical endpoint of the politicization of “Geek Culture;” a living, breathing PSA for not intertwining your political ideas with your pop-culture interests, and trying too hard to use one to leverage the other. People like comic books and movies; they don’t like being told how to think.
There is also the issue of who decides what the proper “Geek Culture” is? With the rise of geekary to mainstream popularity as a pop-culture fad it has been celebrities rather than the community itself who have set the tone. I’m going to cover the issues with people who are famous for merely being “Geeks” in more detail my next article, but the effect is stark: it becomes about normalizing the political ideology of celebrities with a large platform, and leaning on others to conform if they want to feel like they belong. Those setting this agenda are attempting to wield a massive amount of influence over our culture at large. In their mind, media has a huge influence on people’s decision making rather than being a reflection of it.
The worldview put forward by those who want to police and control who is allowed in “geek spaces” is not progressive; it is regressive, exclusionary, and outdated. Geekary is defined as having many different cultures and sub-cultures that nevertheless come together to celebrate their love of a single subject. The single shared experience is that subject. The culture of the comic community is comic books, the culture of the MtG community is Magic the Gathering; anything beyond that is extraneous, and anyone wanting to attach outside ideas to meetings of these fans is pushing a mostly unwanted agenda. Two people might have nothing in common except their love of Batman, but through that shared interest they can come together despite not sharing anything else culturally in common.
Our beliefs are a lot more complex than simply what media we consume; as rigorous studies of video games have shown, our upbringing and peers have a much bigger effect on us than entertainment. In short, real life is much more real and impactful to us than the fiction we consume or fandoms we enjoy. This conclusion is not only backed up by a wealth of evidence, it is also indicative to how most of us see the world.
These facts mean that imposing an artificial “Geek Culture” is inevitably going to leave many people feeling excluded because it goes against this idea of political and cultural plurality. Ideas that “Geeks can’t be right-wing” or “Geeks need to also be feminist” are absurd, because in order to hold an interest you don’t have to jump through political hoops. Anyone can like anything. My version (and I think most people’s version) of a healthy geek community is one based on the classical ideas of liberalism and tolerance. Yes, that means tolerating people who don’t necessarily agree with you. I don’t think Geek culture exists because — as enthusiasts about differing subjects — we don’t need it to.
Geekery is a series of loosely overlapping circles — like a Venn-diagram. Not a single monolithic entity. I don’t write about comic books because in my everyday life I don’t purchase and read them very much. That’s not to say I don’t own a few, or haven’t researched them at all, but I am not a comic book “geek” for want of a better term. The more updated stereotype that has emerged in a pop-culture of nerds and geeks also ignores that many people are often only a fan of a single thing. With its countless surface level “geek” accoutrements to consume and purchase the mainstream media vision of a geek is out of touch with the reality. Interests in subjects like comic books or video games are seen as a prerequisite to geek status when fans of sports or cars are just as passionate, and have knowledge of their hobby as encyclopedic as any hardcore comic book fan.
We don’t lump together model train enthusiasts with bird watchers, we don’t see petrol-heads as the same as stamp collectors, we don’t bundle audiophiles and cinephiles as part of the same overarching group. These are enthusiast communities of their own, so why do people put video game enthusiasts and live action role-playing fans in the same category?
Many enthusiasts are not seen as part of the “geek community” when they exhibit the same behaviours, the same level of enthusiasm, and same eye for detail. Sports fans are generally portrayed in media as being at odds with the stereotypical geek when in actuality they have a lot more in common than one may think.
This is all — on a basic level — a form of stereotyping. For example, the “Bro vs. Geek” distinction has been taken up enthusiastically by feminists who have attacked so called “Brogrammers” who don’t fit the weak and subservient stereotype of the male geek. Women who don’t fall into their stereotypes are also given a hard time; I’ve seen countless examples of women being dubbed “too pretty” to be genuinely interested in geeky things, accused of trying to be “one of the guys” and dubbed a gender traitor for not feeling like a victim in their respective hobbies. Women who reject the vision of safe spaces and moderating speech often come into the harshest criticism because their dissent blows a gaping hole in the false stereotype of a female-unfriendly geek culture.
Enthusiasts come in all shapes and sizes; they share all kinds of other interests. There is no need for homogeneity, and we don’t need people who fit into a neat list of pronouns and interests. People are much more complex than that, and you can’t sum a person up in a short social media profile. You can be a fitness and sports fanatic, but also play Dungeons and Dragons; you can be a porn actress and also love video games. These things are not mutually exclusive.
I’ve been told in social settings, “You’ll get on with him, he’s a geek too” when in actual fact there is no guarantee we will have any kind of shared interests. If there is a geek culture, I certainly don’t feel like I belong to it, or even really know how to define it. I find it ironic that the same people who try to avoid using the word gamer also like to wax philosophical about who “should and shouldn’t be allowed” in various geek communities. I think there is a fundamental contradiction in what people championing so-called “diversity and inclusion” actually believe. The term “geek” is far less well defined than the term “gamer,” but the word is continually applied to collectives and “spaces” in order to moderate how people act.
There is no right way to be a geek. Believe what you want to believe as long as you don’t impose it on other people. Contrary to how they make it appear these self-appointed gatekeepers can’t actually police your thoughts. What they can do is make conventions and communities as miserable as possible in an attempt to squeeze out people simply for disagreeing with them. The truth is, if you are passionate about something then you are willing to put your differences aside to share and celebrate that with other passionate people. People speak of the ability of sports to bring adversaries together over a shared activity, and the many fandoms and communities put under the “geek” banner are capable of doing just that if we don’t move to push out those with different ideas.
I suppose you could boil my issue with the idea of Geek Culture down to this: culture is synonymous with shared identity and uniformity. What I see in different communities is anything but that. Culture is traditionally defined by nationality, religion, class and heritage. But the new communities that have sprung up with the advent of instant communication are based on shared interest, and are a jumble of different combinations of attributes. I would argue people congregating over shared interests are defined by putting aside traditional political and geographical boundaries in order to share those interests. They are made up of multiple different cultures due to their global nature. How can all these diverse people be crammed into one narrow definition or worldview? How could all these diverse people also belong to a white male exclusionist conspiracy? How can all of these diverse people be expected to adhere to a single set of politics? The answer is: they can’t, they don’t, and they shouldn’t.
There is no such thing as a unified geek culture, and there shouldn’t be one.
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