Age of the Geek, Baby

I’ve always identified as a geek and a nerd. I found refuge in the SF/F novels, comics, cartoons, movies, and TV shows I loved, and nothing felt better than bonding with other geeks over shared fandoms. I even met my husband because, as he put it in our first conversation, “You like Buffy.” So I was shocked the first time a friend said that they didn’t want to identify as a geek—after having a 50–odd comment thread of long, detailed, back and forth posts of friendly debate over the merits of Joss Whedon’s feminism, favorite X–Men, and why Batman rules.

When I asked why, they said that while they loved nerdy, geeky things, it was ironic how a community that was supposed to be based on shared experiences of being social outcasts wasn’t actually all that supportive of people who experienced marginalization for being a person of color, QUILTBAG, a woman, or a person with disabilities. They were disturbed by how often they saw the voices of POC dismissed when problematic racial tropes in comics were brought up, and how women were blamed when they talked about being harassed at a con, or were told it wasn’t a big deal receiving sexually violent threats while playing online MMOs.

To them, the word “nerd” meant “entitled straight white cisgender male.” To them, the word “geek” stood for “gatekeeping” and “exclusion.”

Geeks and nerds have come a long way in the thirty years since Revenge of the Nerds. As hacker–thief Alec Hardison often noted on Leverage, “It’s the Age of the Geek, baby. We run the world!” Comic book movies dominate the box office. Video games are a billion–dollar industry. San Diego Comic–Con is the Burning Man of annual media events, drawing over a hundred and thirty thousand attendees. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs are held as the ultimate examples of nerd success, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is the nerd equivalent of a rock star. Even Barbie is programming her own video game (albeit with questionable execution). Geek culture makes staggering amounts of money, and it is popular.

Yet the notion of nerds as social victims still holds sway. The Big Bang Theory has spent seven seasons making Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj the butt of every socially awkward nerd trope possible (even though they all have girlfriends, and enjoy successful jobs in their chosen fields). Brainy, pragmatic Alex Dunphy still reacts with horror to being called a nerd on Modern Family. Even Hardison’s teammates assume he was bullied as a kid because he had a Green Lantern action figure (interestingly, no one assumes he was ever bullied for being Black).

Not everyone experiences social penalties for flying their geek flag, but many geeks and nerds still bond over a shared sense of social isolation, whether it was being “forgotten” when it came to party invites and prom dates, or hiding the fact you spent your Friday night creating character sheets for your next D&D campaign. The common assumption is that geeks and nerds, being familiar with what it’s like to be treated as an outsider, would be empathetic with and welcoming toward other self–identified geeks. The dirty little secret of geekdom is that many of us have experienced some of the worst harassment and alienation at the hands of our own.

Gamergate, the “fake geek girl” issue, the fact that the need for anti–harassment policies is still a matter of debate, RaceFail ’09, the claim that progressives in SF/F are on a politically correct rampage, rants about cosplayers taking away attention from comics artists at cons—it seems geeks and nerds are perfectly willing to turn around and harass others right out of their communities for not being “the right kind of nerd” or “making waves.” Even more troubling is the notion that this sort of behavior is understandable because it’s just nerds and geeks being justifiably defensive because geek culture was their safe place, and it’s now being invaded by “all these new people.”

Of course, “all these new people” aren’t actually all that new to geek culture: POC, women, QUILTBAG people, and other minorities have always been a part of geek communities, although perhaps we’re more vocal now about our presence. Many of us know all too well the pain and loneliness that often came with being rejected as socially awkward nerds; we also know the sting of being marginalized, bullied and ostracized by other nerds, whether it was for being a woman, for being queer, for not being white, or for having a disability.

The victimization many nerds suffered for not fitting in, for being “too awkward,” or “too smart,” is very real. Unfortunately, so is the sense of entitlement and resentment that often stems from that pain. As Laurie Penny noted recently, it’s not uncommon for nerds who’ve experienced trauma to be “disinclined to listen to pleas from people whose trauma was compounded by structural oppression.” One of the double–binds of having social privilege is that while it might not protect you from, say, being bullied as a boy who didn’t fit into a narrow definition of masculinity, you don’t need to recognize how male privilege works or know that you have it in order to benefit from it in the first place, because you live in a society that, by and large, has been built to default to people like you. It’s why the straight white cis male heroes of Revenge of the Nerds are supposed to universally represent nerds everywhere, but don’t actually succeed in doing so.

Kom Kunyosying and Carter Soles recently explored the idea of “geek” and “nerd” as a “simulated ethnicity” in pop culture, providing an interesting framework for exploring why the “nerd as outsider victim” story—at least as it pertains to straight white cis male nerds—still holds sway in popular media, and how that narrative creates a false equivalence between social marginalization for being a nerd, and the institutionalized oppression experienced by minorities:

“…in the melodramatic mode, suffering, regardless of its source, equals moral superiority. It is through this process that the geek hero becomes a justified and superior protagonist in the face of all other identities and regardless of the politics surrounding the geek hero’s straight white maleness. The melodramatic mode allows the geek hero a niche in the politics of identity which lets him paradoxically identify as the victim of the socio–political system from which he benefits and, thus, be the ultimate protagonist with which audiences identify in a globalized, postmodern discourse.”

It begs the question: When some nerds claim to be part of an oppressed minority just because they’re nerds, regardless of the fact they’re playing on the lowest difficulty setting, what does that mean for those of us who are minorities within a minority?

Earlier this fall, 22–year–old Darrien Hunt was shot and killed by Sarasota Springs police officers while carrying a katana, possibly while cosplaying as Mugen from Samurai Champloo. When an indictment for the officers who shot Hunt failed to materialize a few weeks ago, someone posted the news in an online nerd community I frequent. The comments were overwhelmingly in favor of an indictment and lamented Hunt’s death. Several people wondered how much danger they would be in from police while cosplaying characters who carried swords, guns, and other weapons, and worried about their own safety. Some said to hell with the police and prejudice against cosplayers, they’d wear whatever they wanted because their costumes were awesome. A few questioned if carrying a weapon, cosplay accessory or not, in public was a smart idea in the first place. They all agreed that this was an issue that “affected ALL cosplayers.”

Every person commenting on that post was white. Not a single person mentioned the fact that Hunt was a Black man, and how race was an inescapable factor in the police reaction to Hunt’s possession of a cosplay sword. At a time when the protests over the lack of indictment for police in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner dominated the news, when #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe trended highly on social media, the absence of any acknowledgement that race played a part in Hunt’s death was glaring.

The silence of Black nerds and other nerds of color on that post spoke volumes.

It matters that, as Jay Rachel Edidin put it, “Geek is a gendered noun.” When the default assumption is that “geek” or “nerd” refers to men, it continues to promote the absurd notion that geeky women (and genderqueer people) are rare (we aren’t). It’s why I’ve always felt like I had to “prove my cred” by out–nerding every guy in the room as a pre–emptive measure, and why I used to think I couldn’t be femme and still fit in. While the idea that not a lot of women were geeks made me feel special and “not like other women,” it was also why I reacted to other geek women as if “there can be only one (in our social circle),” missing out on years of possible friendships because I was too busy playing “fake geek girl” gatekeeper. Turns out it’s pretty easy to internalize sexist norms when you pick up on the fact that you can’t be “too girly” if you want into the geek clubhouse.

The microaggressions marginalized people experience—being told “For a Black cosplayer (not to be racist) you did an incredible job,” getting “The Quiz” to prove you’re not a geek “just to get men’s attention” (while being appropriately attentive to men’s opinions and ideas)—are perceived as just a normal part of being in a geek community. It’s not as if anyone’s trying to grope your body or calling you an ethnic slur, right? Never mind how alienating it is to be an Asian woman listening to nerds bemoan being picked on by “that dudebro” at work for having Star Wars action figures at their desk, and in the same breath be told you’re making a big deal out of nothing because the Nemodians in Phantom Menace seemed pretty racist to you. (Also, so what if we didn’t see any female Rebel pilots? There were women coordinating the Rebel base in Empire Strikes Back, you know.)

If a straight white cis male geek can “paradoxically identify as the victim of the socio–political system from which he benefits,” then it’s possible to dismiss concerns that women are being pushed out of STEM fields because there’s no difference between nerds being made fun of for knowing how to code and the fact that girls and women are being told they just aren’t good at coding. It’s why white cosplayers can look at Hunt’s murder and say, “This is an issue that affects all cosplayers,” and not realize how it’s erasing the specific racial biases and institutional practices that contributed to Hunt’s death, and the risks Black people face just to enjoy cosplay. It’s why when women and genderqueer people speak about being threatened with sexual violence, stalking, and harassment, just for being visible while gaming, we’re often told, “It’s not sexism, men get trash-talked all the time, too.” It’s why a self–professed straight male gamer could claim that “BioWare neglected their main demographic: The Straight Male Gamer” by including same–sex romance options in Dragon Age 2, and why calls for ending the binary gender default in SF/F were treated as if it meant “The Cause” came before “Entertainment” (they’re not actually mutually exclusive).

The idea that nerds—regardless of intersecting axes of social privilege—are an oppressed social minority on a similar scale to POC, women, QUILTBAG people, and other marginalized groups short–circuits our ability to openly discuss the problems created by systemic bias and discrimination within geek culture, not to mention our ability to fix those problems. It makes our silence seem normal, so that when we share our perspectives, the distorted view is that we’re trying to dominate the conversation, when we’re just trying to be heard. When we’re told that geek culture used to be a safe place where (mostly straight white cis male) nerds could escape the confines of traditional masculinity and social convention, it elides the fact that for many of us, being around other self–professed geeks and nerds was never actually “safe” to begin with.

In this issue of Uncanny, Jim C. Hines has an excellent essay about the politics of fiction, in which he states that “All fiction is message fiction. All fiction is political.” In the Age of the Geek, the message that nerds can triumph in the face of social rejection, win popularity, and “get the girl,” is promoted as celebratory vindication for geeks and nerds everywhere. In a lot of ways, this is a true and comforting story about what it’s like to be a nerd or a geek these days. As Hines notes, however, it’s important to note whose comfort that message is intended for.

It’s a lot harder to feel excited about being a nerd when your gender means you’re often treated as a prize, a plot device, or a puzzle, not as a person; when fans argue if The Fantastic Four reboot is going to fail because Johnny Storm’s a Black man; or when your work as an author of color is honored with a statuette of a racist man’s head. The uncomfortable truth is that when nerds claim that they are the victims of a society in which they still benefit from privilege—by being white, heterosexual, cisgender, able–bodied, and/or men—geek culture ends up mirroring the same harmful social dynamics that many nerds, including minorities, seek refuge from in geek spaces. When you express concerns about how Firefly treats Asian cultures and are told, “Don’t make this a ‘race thing’ because we just want to have fun,” it becomes shockingly clear whose comfort takes precedence.

Being bullied hurts, regardless of who you are. The suffering and scars from those experiences are what created and sustains the narrative that we’re still the Rebel Alliance (even though we’re becoming the Empire). That trauma, however, doesn’t invalidate the systemic inequalities that exist and are harming people daily, even in geek culture and communities. In a similar way that “colorblind” ideology makes it possible to ignore institutionalized racism by focusing on individual actions rather than systems, and whitewashes cultural and ethnic identities by defaulting to the culturally dominant perspective—that of the straight white able–bodied cis manthe idea that geeks are socially oppressed erases our experiences of marginalization by other geeks, all in the name of geek solidarity.

We’re often drawn to stories, characters, and people because we find something in common with them, but empathy and connection aren’t reliant on a single, narrow axis of sameness. Many of my friendships began because of an overheard Spaceballs quote, or spotting dog–eared copies of Dune, or meeting every New Comic Book Wednesday at the local comic book shop. They’ve endured and deepened because of the rich differences and (sometimes challenging) perspectives we’ve brought to each other’s lives as multi–faceted individuals. I love characters and stories not just because they involve someone like me, but because they take what seems familiar and expand it beyond mere reflection, revealing depths and complexities outside my own perceptions.

What began with underdog geeks and nerds creating communities by sharing fandoms, hobbies, skills, and knowledge like secret passwords, hasn’t ended just because we’ve achieved mainstream success. It’s time to write the chapters where we don’t just revel in the power of that success, we use it to rectify the disparities that exist within geek culture. The story of the Age of the Geek should be one that reflects the full spectrum of our identities, and speaks to the truth of all of our experiences, even if those truths are uncomfortable ones.

So say we all.

Michi Trota

Michi Trota is a writer, editor, speaker, communications manager, and community organizer in Chicago, IL. She writes about geek culture and fandom (and occasionally food), focusing primarily on issues of diversity and representation, on her blog, Geek Melange, and is a member of the Chicago Nerd Social Club’s Board of Organizers. Michi is a featured essayist in Invisible: An Anthology of Representation in SF/F (edited by Jim C. Hines). She is a professional fire spinner, often performing with the fire/flow+bellydance showcase, Raks Geek, and at the Chicago Full Moon Jams. Her secret mutant superpower is to make anyone hungry just by talking about food. Michi is also the managing editor for Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Follow her on Twitter at @geekmelange.

Photo credit: Vincent Giovannone

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.