Jessica Mills, aka geekyjessica, wrote a short essay called When Geeks Become Bullies. Presumably she wrote this in response to the sometimes vitrolic rhetoric that pops up about various people, in particular the nebulous idea of “hot chicks” who are geek poseurs. It’s an impassioned post, and there’s several points I agree with.
I’ve been a geek for a long time now, and “geek culture” has often been known for its divisiveness. Star Trek vs. Star Wars. Tabletop Gamers vs. LARPers. Everyone vs. Furries. Sure there’s always been crossover, but much as in academia, the infinitesimally small stakes of geekdom have resulted in battles of laughably epic proportion. To my chagrin, I’ve been a participant in the kind of exclusive, bullying behaviors that she highlights.I have, in my day, fiercely defended my little kingdom of fandom, like many before me I was geek red in tooth and pocket protector.
Of course the stakes aren’t so small anymore, at least in one respect, and unfortunately I think Ms. Mills, for all I laud her call for inclusiveness, overlooked an important aspect.
One of the reasons, and I suspect it might well be the main reason, that geek culture has increasingly bled into mainstream pop culture is a simple one: the almighty dollar. Companies have increasingly realized that when taken as an aggregate geeks have a lot of buying power, and that many geeks will cheerfully lay out large amounts of money in pursuit of their particular bliss.
On the one hand that’s a good thing. It has made more geeky bits and bobs available, which means more geeky stuff for us to indulge in. It has, as Ms. Mills rightly points out, also lead to people who otherwise might not have been exposed to geekdom, or might have shied away from professing their geekdom, an outlet for expressing themselves and finding their bliss.
However, it also brings a couple of problems. The first is the issue of pandering; of taking on the accouterments of geekdom, of presenting one’s self as a geek in order to secure the “geek vote,” or more accurately to tap into the revenue stream that is the geek dollar. If you’re female and a geek, “hot” or otherwise, that’s awesome. If on the other hand, you’re simply adopting the trappings of geekiness to try and open my wallet through both my dick and my fandom… I’m not so big on that. Sure, I like sex. I like sexy women. And while I’m perfectly happy to be jerked off, I don’t appreciate being jerked around. By anyone. When you do it with my fandom, over the fact that I am a geek, and that I grew up in a time and place where that was a source of both ostracism and comfort to me… yeah, I’m going to be a bit annoyed with you. I may not approve of some of the vitriolic rhetoric that gets thrown around, but I can understand the sentiment. I’m perfectly willing to give a corporation, or an individual for that matter, a hearty fuck you when they’re trying to manipulate me in this fashion.
The second element, and the one that touches more directly on what this particular blog is about, is the question of authentic selfhood. This isn’t separate from the issue I point out above. “Wear Brand X, or your friends won’t think you’re cool.” “If you don’t have the latest jPhone, jPad and jColonStimulator than you’re so last season.” Companies want us to buy their products. Fair enough, they’re out to make money after all, and if we’re going to allow any degree of an open market to exist we need to accept that. However, too often one of the ways these folks try to make money is by telling us that what we own, what we buy, is who we are. It’s not just in the form of status symbols either, though status symbol possessions are certainly part of the problem. Much as those cyberpunk sages warned us about, corporate branding has leaked into personal identity.
Geekdom also won’t be the first place where this has happened. Just think about tattoos and piercings for a moment. When I was growing up, tattoos and piercings were often regard as “edgy.” They were the domain of bikers and rockers. Now… now they’re not only largely part of accepted culture, they’re a corporate force, with TV shows, magazines, all the way through to the steaming pile of excrement that is the Ed Hardy franchise. It’s the mainstreaming of those places that were once out on the edge, with marketing designed to make these things seem like they’re edgy. Yet the truth is these things become increasingly homogenized so as to appeal to middle America, and in the process lose much of, if not all, their power to lead one toward an authentic expression of the self.
On a philosophical level, this isn’t opening the doors so that people can find their own bliss; it’s locking the doors and telling people that this is who they should be if they want to be valuable people. As a geek, as someone for whom these things have made up who I’ve been and who I’ve am, it does in certain respects feel like an aspect of myself has been lessened. People who’ve visited this blog before will realize that doesn’t sit well with me on either level.
Still, we should neither reflexively reject the mainstreaming of geek culture, nor should we lash out and create a culture of divisiveness. To do so does mean we lose those positive aspects. At the same time, uncritical acceptance is no healthier that reflexive rejection, and in many ways could be even unhealthier for geek “culture” such as it is.