State of the Geek?

For the past several years, Felicia Day is someone who has become almost synonymous with the term “Geek”. As an actress in LA she has made guest appearances in TV shows from Lie To Me, to House, and is a certified Joss Whedon alumnus having appeared in three of his various series. During this time she has also written, produced, and acted in her own web-series The Guild, and last year founded the internet channel, Geek & Sundry.

Earlier this week she released a youtube video announcing that this would be returning for a second year, and also talks about a subject that is important to her, her audience, and myself.

What is it to be a “Geek”?

If for any reason you can’t/won’t watch the video, I’ve transcribed the important bits for you here:

In the six years I have been doing this, that word has become something else. We’ve been using it so much that it’s kind of lost meaning. Geek has become a cliche. It’s become a label. It’s become something to monetize, to market to, to pigeonhole, to brand, to exploit. It’s become something that describes a person who is defined solely by liking comics, or games, or movies, or TV, and it’s like we’ve become these consumer badgers that will eat anything you can put a zombie or a superhero on, and just like STOP! Just stop. That is not what Geek means to me.

We are more than the hobbies that we do, or the things that we like. We are not mash up t-shirts, don’t get me wrong I love a good mash up t-shirt, but that is just like the superficial stuff. To me, Geek means an outsider, a rebel, a dreamer, a creator, whether it’s our own world or someone else’s. It’s a fighter. It’s a person who dares to love something that isn’t conventional.

The mantra of Geek to me, is “your judgement is not my problem”. You think comics are dumb? Fine. You think I may not be a real gamer? Whatever, that’s your problem.

I think we need to re-own Geek.

In the ten years since her recurring role as a potential in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicia Day has gone on to slay numerous outmoded stereotypes and gender roles. In a world where female gamers (especially attractive ones) are thought to be either non-existent or should be looked down upon, she has been a role model of campaigning for Geek acceptance just by getting out there and doing her own thing.

Although I discussed their/our representation in films from Scream to Fanboys for my MA dissertation (albeit using the more academic term of “fans”), like too many others, Geek is a word that I take for granted in order to describe myself, my friends, and the things we enjoy. 

The origins of the word itself, stem from 18th century circuses, referring to the freaks in a sideshow. Whilst it’s safe to say that this is no longer strictly true, its connotations have remained for a long time, and it seems like only recently that its use is becoming less disparaging.

Also throughout these past ten years, more and more aspects of what would previously have been labelled as Geek culture have made it to the mainstream. Perhaps it was my growing up in rural Britain, but back when Felicia was known as Vi, names like Joss Whedon and The Avengers would have had most people I know either scratching their heads, or thinking of 60’s spies. This last summer however, Marvel’s heroes’ and their writer/director’s were the most talked about throughout the entertainment world.

Not that I am begrudging them their popularity, Whedon is an accomplished film-maker who deserves to have his work seen by a wider audience (allowing me to boast that I was a fan before it was cool), it seems to me there is a difference between Geek becoming accepted, and appropriated.

In fact it seems that like Che Guevara before it, Geek culture is now seen by many to be less rebellious and more fashion statement, often referred to as “Geek chic”.

Richard "Ringo" Langly shows his support of The Ramones.

Once the image of an ostracised Geek, “thick lenses in black framed eyeglasses – he wears a Ramones T-shirt” is now seen as fashionable.

More than just an overall fashion it seems that specific icons of Geek fandom, even the punk band The Ramones have also suffered this fate. Likely due to their retro punk image, but also perhaps in part due to their endorsement by conspiracy theorist Richard “Ringo” Langley on the sci-fi/horror series The X Files

Comparable to Day’s Geek mantra, Langly admired lead singer Joey for sticking to his punk principles and the fact that “He never gave in, he never gave up, and he never sold out, right up to his last breath.” (It is also worth noting he voiced his praise in an episode called Jump The Shark.)

In recent years however, and after the death of not just Joey but also two other original band members, Dee Dee and Johnny, t-shirts and bags embellishing their logo have become an increasingly common sight. 

Combining mainstream appeal with a cult fanbase, it is not surprising that crossover TV shows such as The X Files may have been the first port of call for those first wishing to adopt aspects of what used to be a niche appeal.

And this is something that annoys me. On the other side to Felicia’s argument, the main problem I see isn’t what being a Geek is, it’s what being a Geek isn’t.

Although I don’t solely define myself through them, I enjoy films and TV shows, and that’s why I studied them at university, it’s why I collect VHS tapes, and it’s why I edit wikias. Admittedly I don’t shout about those last two from the rooftops, and maybe sometimes I haven’t always stood up for them as much as I should (sorry Felicia), but those are just some of the reasons I use the word Geek to describe myself.

Perhaps almost conversely, I chose the name i, Coomber as a reference to Asimov’s i, Robot, and if you think the shortened use of iCoomber is because I’m an apple fanboy rather than the internet not liking commas and spaces, then, like Day says “that’s your problem”.

But when I see “fashionable” girls walking through the high street with a jumper saying “Geek”, I want to ask them how they feel about the differences between old school and new Battlestar Galactica, before berating them for not even knowing what I’m talking about, let alone not having an answer. Again, as Day says, knowledge of cylons and vipers isn’t a prerequisite to use this term, and I admit there is a certain amount of irony that they will likely consider my prejudice to not be their problem, but do these factors still make them a Geek as well?

I agree with Felicia that it is something we need to re-own, but knowing how to go about it may take more thought than a single youtube message. How do we rebel considering that many of the symbols of our rebelling against the conventional, have themselves become usurped as an adopted convention?

For those of us with genuine interests, not caring about people’s prejudices and not subscribing to corporate labels is one thing, but I believe that these are not the people we need to re-own Geek from. 

I now wear my Soylent Green t-shirt as much for its warning about industrialised processes creating products not for, but from people, as much as because I enjoy the 70’s classic. I do so because I walk past too many others wearing a Ramones t-shirt that have never heard their music, let alone embody a spirit of being a rebel, an outsider, or a fighter, and so I have to ask.

Is that “not my problem” too?

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