The Substance of Geek Culture

"Geeks" are more than passive consumers of corporate media.

In his article “On Geek Culture,” Ian Williams writes, “. . . what is Superman in the twenty-first century but a corporate mascot, albeit one with a lavish backstory?” This sets the tone for a fundamentally reductionist approach to geek culture and the various cultural products that populate its mediascape, from Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica. Indeed, Williams goes even further in his project of reducing works of art to their commodity form asking the reader to imagine a scenario in which the usual costumed superheroes and other genre characters are replaced by “Geico geckos or Progressive Insurance Flos.”

The article is not without its merits, particularly in its call for more creator-ownership over the cultural products of geek culture. Williams’ definition of what constitutes a “geeky” approach to material also echoes the definitions of such notably commentators (and participants) in the sub-culture as Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day. Essentially what makes a geek is not what material is loved — sports, role-playing games, the Star Wars expanded universe — but how it is loved. A true “geek” approach to such material involves a passionate engagement and a serious concern for un-serious material, a practice which echoes the childhood act of playing.

Where Williams’ argument breaks down is his next step of reducing this engagement to a passive act of consumption, “[t]he tie that binds geeks of a given strain together is what they choose to buy.” The error in this line of thinking lies in assuming that the only form of engagement in geek culture involves passive consumption of media produced by corporate monoliths.

The reality of geek culture is quite a bit more complex. For one, there are few if any committed fans who aren’t aware of the various forms of capitalist intellectual property constraints that dominate the cultural products in question. Rarely will a cursory glance over message boards not result in exposure to various analyses of the impact of intellectual property constraints on beloved cultural products, for example the recent acquisition of the franchise by Disney has resulted in an explosion of debate and analysis by fans.

Furthermore, what constitutes a fandom is not so much an aggregate of individual fans as the community produced by the many forms of interaction between them. Message boards, blogs, chat rooms, individual relationships developed through various forms of correspondence from Skype to e-mail to face to face encounters, meet-ups at conventions, panels, fan fiction and its accompanying literary criticism altogether constitute a community of people collectively referred to as “geek culture.”

What defines a geek is precisely their hostility to passive forms of consumption. Indeed the very word “consumption” seems ill-placed here, since much of what is called “consumption” actually involves creative engagement, critique and appropriation. An excellent example of this can be found in David McNally’s recent work, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism in which the prevalence of common tropes of the horror genre are analyzed within the context of the evolution of global capitalism itself.

Fantasy author China Mieville has made a powerful case that engaging in the fantastic mode of expression is a practice uniquely suited for understanding a global culture grounded in commodity fetishism. Mieville claims that “narrow realism” is just as “partial” and “ideological” as our everyday lived reality in which things, like the stock market, are treated as living forces while living forces, like the natural world, are treated as mere things. He asserts, “I am claiming that the fantastic, particularly because ‘reality’ is a grotesque ‘fantastic form,’ is good to think with.”

This should not imply that that Mieville is here making “the ridiculous suggestion that fantastic fiction gives a clear view of political possibilities or acts as a guide to political action.” Nor should it imply that the vast majority of geek culture’s denizens are busy thinking about the nature of the social order (though an argument can easily be made that they think about it as a matter of course when analyzing any of the world-building done in the various cultural products).

The point is rather that a reduction of all engagement with this material to a passive form of consumption analogous to choosing which brand of toilet paper to buy at the grocery store represents a step away from critical engagement with popular culture to a more vulgar dismissal of it. Such approaches have long done a disservice to critical thought by attempting to explain away the complexity of human agency in artistic contexts. While it may be easy to look at human interactions with artistic products in a simplistic manner in which material is transmitted to the consumer rather than interpreted, modified, dismissed, appropriated with modification, etc. it paints a crude picture of a much more intricate reality.

Another important issue which Williams engages with concerns the intersection of geek culture with the broader social order. Williams is correct to note the prevalence of privileged white masculinity in geek spaces, though his assertion that, “if media is non-inclusive, the subcultures which are defined by consumption of that media will be reflexively non-inclusive, as well” again ventures into reductionist explanations of media consumption. In reality, white, heteronormative masculinity dominates geek culture because geek culture does not exist in a utopian vacuum of its own creation, rather it exists within a broader context of a social system dominated by white men.

With this standpoint in mind, the fact that white masculinity dominates geek culture is not very surprising, it just confirms the reality of white masculine domination over the broader social order. No special empirical investigation into geek culture is needed to understand why this state of affairs exists. What is far more interesting is the way in which the social identity of the “geek” has been used by forces within geek culture to undermine that very dominance. In short, just as “geek” was originally a label assigned to outcasts, those who have consciously assumed the label have used it as a rallying cry against creating outcasts within geek culture itself.

Over the past few years a series of directly political micro-movements have emerged within geek culture. One of the most dramatic of these is the “cosplay does not equal consent” effort by thousands of women and male allies dedicated to fighting back against the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault that has plagued conventions.

A great irony of the resentment against female cosplayers that an aggressive minority of white men have expressed is that it is precisely men who have designed the overly-sexualized attire for their female heroes. One of the most absurd encounters at a convention involved a man refusing to sell an artist’s print to a woman on the grounds that he recognized her from a pornographic film, thereby implying that his consumption of pornography was legitimate but the labor she put into producing it was not.

The effort to codify zero tolerance sexual harassment policies at conventions has made some headway, but it has led to a broader showdown with the dominant trends of geek culture itself. A newer phenomenon has arisen in response to the bizarre social practice of “credibility quizzing,” in which white men routinely target women with a barrage of obscure questions to determine if they are “authentic” fans or opportunists jumping on the geek bandwagon.

In response to this, the “nothing to prove” effort was launched by a viral music video put together by a band called The Doubleclicks. The video features dozens of women, girls and a few male allies holding up signs that explicitly or implicitly call out the sexist behavior of many geek men. For example one sign says, “I own a comic and game shop, but people just assume I’m humoring my geeky husband.”

An organization called Geeks Out has emerged as an alliance of people willing to challenge the status quo within geek culture. Recently they have made headlines in their call for a financial and cultural boycott of the upcoming Ender’s Game cinematic adaptation on the grounds that the book’s author, Orson Scott Card, is a board member of a rabidly homophobic organization dedicated to drafting legislation to curb LGBTQ rights.

The point here is not to romanticize these efforts but rather to point out that geek identity is contested, not monolithic. Just as consumption of geek culture does not involve passivity, the identity itself is the product of various social forces engaged in a state of struggle. History, as always, is a product of human agency interacting with malleable social forces.

For many, the act of “owning up” to a label once imposed by oppressive social forces, most often in middle school and high school, is analogous to the re-appropriation of labels by oppressed groups. While the experience of those labeled “geek” cannot be compared in terms of scale or social importance to those labeled “queer,” a similar phenomenon of self-determination is at work in which a label of derision is transformed into a badge of honor. To dismiss this complex historical process to a one dimensional act of consumption, as Williams’ article does, is to miss out on a much more compelling human drama unfolding before our very eyes.