Can’t Geeks All Get Along?

(TW for mentions of violence, bullying and suicide)

About a year and a half ago, a story broke about a little girl who was teased for having a Star Wars water bottle because Star Wars “is for boys.” The geek community rose to her aid, informing her that she shouldn’t let her tastes be dictated by gender norms.

While the boys in question were being mean, this article is not about them. Rather, it’s about the response to the incident and some who took it too far.

It would be churlish to call sticking up for a five-year-old girl White Knighting; however, there was also a certain amount of Pedestalization. The Geek Commandment of Thou Shalt Honor Geek Girls was invoked, the rationale being that geek girls are a prize above rubies. This is condescending and basically defeats the purpose of the idea that geek has no gender, but that’s not the worst part.

At least a few of the commenters suggested that the girl whack the boys with her bottle. Even more shocking, one poster pondered how he could legally beat up the boys, or hire a kid to do so.

Remember, we’re talking about six-year-old boys.

This is an extreme example, but it shows a troubling aspect of geek culture. There is an increasing amount of hostility among geeks, and few seem to be addressing it.

In the essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” Richard D. Hofstadter noted that what distinguishes political extremists is their feeling of powerlessness and persecution. I don’t think geeks are extremists, but I believe that many consider themselves outcasts even though in many ways they dominate mainstream pop culture. On the Internet, the traditional assets for bullying (physical strength, intimidating size) fall away. Literally anyone can be a bully or be bullied online.

Literary critic Terry Eagleton has referred to religion as a form of pop culture. That’s debatable, but in many ways pop culture and geek culture in particular has become a substitute for religion. There are the prophets (Gene Roddenberry, Stan Lee, J.R.R Tolkien) and the fallen idols (George Lucas…) There are the holy scriptures (and the debate over what is “canon”) and the threat of excommunication (I’ve been told many times to “turn in my geek card.”) Flame wars can resemble crusades or even inquisitions.

There is also a way in which geek culture resembles sports fandom. Geeks root for their teams, and not just in a speculative could-The-Hulk-beat-Superman way. Some male geeks mock Twilight fandom, but is Team Edward vs Team Jacob that different from Team Marvel vs Team DC?

It’s not good enough to enjoy a geek movie anymore; the movie has to pwn the competition. (Discussing the success of the latest superhero movie on one forum, a fan wrote that the fans of another franchise were “slitting their wrists”) Isn’t there a point where this stops being fun?

To further the religion analogy, I once thought there were two types of fans. Evangelists would preach the Good News at the drop of a hat (“you’ve never heard of _____? You’ve gotta see it!”) Gnostics, on the other hand, want to keep stuff for themselves (“you’ve probably never heard of ______”)

Now, I see there is a third option: geek ecumenism, namely accepting that there may not be One True Path to geekdom. As with the religious variety, it’s probably the most difficult road to travel, but it’s also the most rewarding. If there are Geek Commandments, is it too much to ask for a Geek Golden Rule?

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37 Responses to Can’t Geeks All Get Along?

  1. God, while I sympathize with wanting something bad to happen to bullies, they’re children! Show some decency people.

    On another note, I always found friendly rivalries to be one of the most fun things about fandom. It’s when people take them too personally that it becomes a problem.

  2. joe blogs says:

    I don’t understand why you’d start out by condemning the gendering of geek, then proceed to write the rest of the article in the same gendered terms. Geek is not a masculine noun any more than nerd, or fan and it’s mainstream Hollywood valorising “fanboy” culture all the time that reinforces this gender binary. I thought this blog was about critiquing and thinking outside the categorise we get shoved into, not naturalising them further.

  3. Hunter85 says:

    The geek-religion comparison reminds me of this:

    I can see why the geek girl is pedastalised. It’s like a 10:1 ratio of guys to girls in the geek crowd.

  4. L says:

    @Hunter: Uh… no it’s not. It’s very close to parity, which is why pedestalization is sexist bullshit. And it’s also why geek girls tend to stay the fuck away from geek guys and why geek guys continue to think that the ratio is 10:1. It’s a self-perpetuating feedback loop of awful that has no basis in reality. It’s also why everyone continues to think that sci-fi, fantasy, or cape stories featuring female leads and predominantly female casts don’t do nearly as well as male-focused stories (and for a more immediate example, why Black Widow keeps getting removed from product lines for the Avengers movie).

  5. noahbrand says:

    …what L said. Geek girl communities often tend to quite deliberately stay off the radar as much as possible. Not saying that’s a good idea, but I understand the reasoning.

  6. IDiom says:

    Yes it is too much to ask, in the same way that not all sports fan will agree which sport is the most enjoyable, or which team is the best. In some places there will even be riots about sports (popular in Europe, and Canada). After they happen society goes about it’s business as usual and the agencies involved in trying to prevent hooliganism from occurring go back to work again and life goes on.

    So what if nerd culture mirrors other popular interests in it’s ferocity. It’s because there is passion, a need to express one’s love for certain subject matter. This isn’t a bad thing, in the same way that sports fans arguing about sporting teams isn’t a bad thing. The culture will develop into it’s own fully fledged and socially recognised community and should do so on it’s own terms, with all the stumbles, missteps and mistakes that come along with it.

    And you know what’s great? It feels good. A while back I took up watching E-Sports, mostly League (of Legends) and some Starcraft II, like a sports fan I devoured statistics, learned the game and watched hours, and during a recent League competition even found myself chanting in support of my favourite team (TSM! TSM!) and booing a team I dislike (goddamn CLG). But at the same time I can find enjoyment in reading about the antics of EVE guilds conducting mass suicide bombings on trade centres. Even though I don’t play EVE.

    I’m proud to be a nerd, to live life as one and to revel in the culture. If I choose to change my attitude or behaviour, I will do so on my terms. Other geeks should do the same, and let our difference, our belligerence, passion and fandom define us, disparate parts forming a whole – a multifaceted whole that is glorious to behold.

    Anyway i’m rambling, because this post annoys me and suggests that these antisocial behaviours are in some way ‘abnormal’ or ‘aberrant’, but are just part of the maturing culture.

  7. monkey says:

    Joe blog: I honestly don’t see how the rest of my article was gendered.

    IDiom: um, I don’t think geeks should look to soccer fans as a model for behavior. There ate friendly rivalries and then there’s viciously demeaning your opponent.

  8. IDiom says:

    Nice strawman there Monkey. I didn’t say that we should look to exemplify those traits, merely accept that they may exist as part of the whole, and that their presence in no way diminishes said whole. Ozy talks about acceptance, but then forgets that one should also accept that groups of people will always have antisocial and belligerent people. Accepting that they exist and moving on is part of a mature attitude.

  9. monkey says:

    Noah: sigh, both articles say the same thing I did but so much better. However, I bristle when people use “fundamentalist” in a broad sense; Fundamentalism originally referred not just to conservative Evangelical Christians but to a specific branch of Christianity.

  10. monkey says:

    IDiom: yeah, no. I’m not saying that we should “excommunicate” belligerent geeks, but I think it’s a good thing to call people out on jerky behavior.

  11. FlawInTheSystem says:

    One big impact on geek culture, and one a rarely see brought up, was its massive shift from outcast to mainstream, and as such, broadening of what being geek is. Certainly when i was younger a (loose) definition could be said to be those who enjoyed pass time with some form of mathematical intellect, even if not obvious (such as statistics in tabletop rpgs or wargames, even if you weren’t so aware of that). Compared to say someone who was massively into say star trek, and not much else, would have been considered a nerd. Then a few years ago geek became “cool”, and suddenly people are knitting geeks or cooking geeks, because adding geek to your current hobby (rawr suddenly sports geeks!) became cool and quirky, as opposed to weird and other.

    It seems to me most of these clashes seem to be between the newer whatever-my-hobby-was+Geek-Added crowd and the old guard geeks who think there label is being hijacked.

  12. Not Me says:

    Umm… they’re six. The typical six-year-old thinks “Do unto others” means “Do bad things to people you don’t like because they’d probably do bad things to you given half a chance.” Both boys and girls are often like this, it’s just that boys tend to go for violence and threats, and girls tend to go for vicious false accusations and petty vandalism. At least, that’s what most young children that I knew while I was growing up were like. I was like that too for awhile. Not saying that this is a good thing, mind you, just that people might be reading a bit too much into it.

  13. Jebedee says:

    This is a bit peripheral, but I’m a bit irritated by the reflexive labelling of the girl and others involved as “geeks”, a term that seems to be becoming so universally used as to be meaningless. You like Star Wars? That’s nice, I like Star Wars too. But the thing about the Star Wars franchise is that it’s worth many zillions of dollars because EVERYONE LIKES STAR WARS. Star Wars is mainstream. Video games are mainstream. Superheros are mainstream. The internet is mainstream. Yet *go* on the internet and it seems to be packed to the gills with people proudly labelling themselves “such a geek” and acting as though they’re part of a rarefied subculture because they’ve enjoyed a scifi novel, or made a website, or been interested in science, or played an RPG on the Xbox, as if 99% of the rest of the population were only interested in pushing people into lockers and getting a brewski, dude. Film geek, comic geek, science geek, computer geek, even sports geek – is it possible to be *interested* in something these days without being a “geek”?

    And no, this certainly isn’t saying there’s anything bad about the mainstream, or some snobbish rant that you’re not a “real geek” unless you’ve done XYZ, just a of bit exasperation with people’s fetish for self-labelling and the allure of regarding oneself as a bit special and interesting because you like an aspect of pop culture that vast numbers of people also like. Because, to get back to the topic for a moment, I think it contributes to silly and unhealthy things like the pedestalisation of the “girl geek” and the OMG WE’VE PLAYED THE SAME VIDEO GAME YOU’RE ONE IN A MILLION AND I SHALL HAVE YOU FOR MY INTERNET GIRLFRIEND, or alternatively the negative perception that this something strange for anyone female to do, when it’s probably about as remarkable as someons saying she likes movies, or drives a car.

    “You too? I drove a car the other day! Yeah, I’m *such* an automobiler…”

  14. L says:

    @Jebedee: Okay so… what do you propose we use the word “geek” for? Or are you saying it should be done away with altogether? I don’t think I’ve ever met a geek that actually called themselves one (except maybe my mother), let alone did it with the intention of sounding “special” and “different”. Also, people that play video games in the way you’re alluding to tend to call themselves gamers, because… that’s what they do. They game.

    Celebrating the shit you like using a label doesn’t equate to seeing oneself as a super special snowflake anti-mainstream outsider. It’s just a freakin’ category of interest. The definition you’re holding it to is definitely just more of that dumb old-guard “EVERYONE ELSE IS A POSER” crap, sorry.

  15. Jebedee says:

    @L – I’m not holding it to a particular definition, I’m saying that the current usage is so broad as to be meaningless, a hair’s breadth away from just “people who like stuff”. My most realistic proposal would be to not bother using the word, because I doubt the process is reversible.

    And yes, there are people who just use the word to indicate an interest (though it’s not clear why they wouldn’t just refer to themselves as “interested in X”, but would you really deny that it frequently comes laden with implications about personality, social status, intelligence and/or behaviour? Many of them negative, of course (there’s been plenty of pejorative use of “geek”), but there’s significant numbers who celebrate it. In either case, it bothers me (no, not in some rage-inducing intolerable way, it’s just an observation in a comments box) to see such significance assigned to fairly unremarkable interests.

    So, to reiterate, the point is not “Mainstream interests are totally lame and having them means you’re just a poser and not a REAL geek”, but “adopting a label with deeper significance based on the fact you like something that enormous numbers of people like is a bit silly, because the fact that it’s so widely liked means that your interest in it isn’t really saying a lot about yourself”. Plus the general idea that a word that grows to encompass vast swathes of things becomes rather meaningless.

  16. prodigeek says:

    I wonder if this would seem too far out of left field. Maybe not though. The connection for me is in relation to this idea of comparing it to religion, except I think that at the heart of it there’s a more general principle. That is, the idea of dominant groups who feel persecuted.

    One always needs to be careful about how they understand things like this. Things are never as simple as THIS LABEL makes you THAT. There are places in the world for example where being out as a christian can get you killed. Always keep this kind of disclaimer in mind.

    Now back to the point, I believe there is a dynamic where the members of a group identify themselves as underdogs apart from whatever reality might be. It seems to me that as geeks, we have long surpassed the aggressiveness and social brutality of any group we might be able to call “jocks”. We dominate the online medium, which is now the dominant social arena. Take an ignorant and moderately disinterested sexism, and make it active and aggressive. Take a sense of insecurity overcompensated with outward arrogance, give it a dozen red bulls and some adamantite claws (figuratively speaking) and you have the modern male geek. Add a science degree and/or a self conflation with being “rational” and you’ve got a skeptic which is often a scarier monster, another rant for another day.

    Another way to look at it is that men are very keen on defining themselves by what they are not. Almost universally we like to define ourselves as “not woman”, “not gay”, “not-trans”, etc. For the geek we add “not Star Trek/Wars”, “not DC/Marvel”, “not LARP”, “Not LoTR”, etc, etc.

    Anyway you look at it, we’re a paranoid and powerful bunch. This is never a good combo. We have become the new bullies. We just haven’t figured it out yet.

  17. Frollo says:

    I think it may just be a definition thing, but I can’t really say I consider ‘geek’ to have gone mainstream. Yeah, a few things geeky have gone mainstream, but it’s not like the stereotypes associated with, say, Dungeons & Dragons or anime conventions have gotten any more pleasant. How exactly are you defining the word here?

    But I do absolutely agree that some of the hostility in the culture really needs to go. It’s hard enough to get new people to try pen and paper games without people being hostile to newcomers or confusing things with massive wars over which edition of a given game is The One True Edition.

  18. monkey says:

    What I think has gone mainstream is the general cultural artifacts- the movies, the books, etc. I’m very, very old- I can remember a time before Star Wars. Before Star Wars, the top movies were Gone With The Wind, Jaws, The Godfather and Sound Of Music. Now, pretty much the only high grossing movie without a geek following is Titanic. That’s what I mean by mainstream. (I’m less sanguine about Big Bang Theory, which I find pandering.)

    I had two experiences of the extremes of geekdom this week. One was the forum discussing Avengers, where people were brutal to each other. The other was when I talked to some twentysomethings who wre killing time before the midnight showing. They were very friendly and enthusiastic. As I said, the extremes are evangeluzing (let me share this with you) and Gnosticism (only I and my group can have this sacred knowledge!$

  19. Hugh says:

    “However, I bristle when people use “fundamentalist” in a broad sense; Fundamentalism originally referred not just to conservative Evangelical Christians but to a specific branch of Christianity.”

    Yeah, and “Africa” used to mean a small piece of what’s now Tunisia.

  20. monkey says:

    Hugh: what I’m saying is not controversial. “The Fundamentals” has a specific meaning in the history of religion.

  21. Doug S. says:

    @Hunter: Uh… no it’s not. It’s very close to parity

    That depends strongly on what sub-branch of geekdom you’re talking about. Anime conventions seem to have a relatively balanced male:female ratio. At large Magic: the Gathering tournaments, however, the male:female ratio is probably somewhere around 50:1.

  22. Frollo says:

    Doug: “That depends strongly on what sub-branch of geekdom you’re talking about. Anime conventions seem to have a relatively balanced male:female ratio. At large Magic: the Gathering tournaments, however, the male:female ratio is probably somewhere around 50:1.”

    I’ve see ratios worse than that at most major events I’ve been to. I would love to see some solid numbers on the subject though, because I find the assertion that the number is close to parity interesting. I can understand why geek women would avoid such events and the fact that geeks of all flavors tend to be relatively unsociable probably doesn’t help increase visibility. Still, the idea that the numbers are anywhere near parity (rather than simply less dramatic than one would believe) leaves me a little skeptical.

    monkey: That’s true. I wouldn’t say that’s made society any more accepting of the sub-culture itself, though, just some of its more popular fallout/icons. As for your experience regarding the two groups, I believe that particular divide can be easily explained by the Greater Internet Dickwad theory.

  23. noahbrand says:

    I’ve see ratios worse than that at most major events I’ve been to.

    Been to Sakuracon? Con.TXT? Yaoi-con? Escapade? Vividcon? Just about any Creation con? You’d see less sausage than a kosher deli, if you’ve even heard of them. How about the Stumptown Comics Fest or Emerald City Comic-Con, if parity’s what you’re after? If they’re not 50/50, they’re close enough that I didn’t notice. I think what you’ve got is sampling error.

  24. joe blogs says:

    @monkey It’s mostly the examples you choose. In making the point that geek has no gender, why choose only examples of fan idols who are male? In finding an example of geeks mocking other geeks, why the “male geeks” of Marvel/DC versus the Edward/Jacob “Teams” of Twilight? Why use sports as an example and imply it’s made up entirely of over-competitive, rabid spectators when that’s only true for a certain slice of sports culture?

    What I get from these kind of gendered examples is that you’re not talking about geek/fan culture as a whole. I know you’re talking in broad brush strokes here, but when you talk about “an increasing amount of hostility among geeks”, I think it’s important to be clear that you’re not talking about “geek culture” as though it’s some monolithic thing. It’s that kind of language that erases the experiences of male fan fiction writers and female sports fans. There’s a specific form of “geek” masculinity that is valorised by producers that “dominates mainstream pop culture” at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that those of us who might choose to identify as fans or geeks have to speak from within the categories provided to us. I’m really not trying to be a nitpicky asshole here – but I think we should be just as careful about the language we use when we’re talking about media/culture as when we’re talking about anything else to do with gender.

  25. no more mr nice guy says:

    What I think has gone mainstream is the general cultural artifacts- the movies, the books, etc. I’m very, very old- I can remember a time before Star Wars. Before Star Wars, the top movies were Gone With The Wind, Jaws, The Godfather and Sound Of Music. Now, pretty much the only high grossing movie without a geek following is Titanic. That’s what I mean by mainstream. (I’m less sanguine about Big Bang Theory, which I find pandering.)

    Movies like Avengers are mainstream blockbusters so most people who watch them are mainstream. They are not geeks – even though they are geeks who watch them. It’s like the Star-Trek movies : most people who watched them were mainstream, it’s only a minority that were trekkies.

  26. Smith says:

    Note how often geeks make statements based on what True Fans of X are, much like extremist religious folk tend to spend lots of time concerned with who is or isn’t With Them.

  27. monkey says:

    Joe Blogs: the whole point was that those were *negative* aspects of geek culture. I could have used a few female geek examples (the extremes of Twilight fans come to mind) but these were the examples fresh to me.

    No More Mr. Nice Guy: The Avengers is music stream, but believe me 30 years ago it wouldn’t have been. Star Trek wasn’t either in its original TV run. There has definitely been a shift. (Star Wars is different, but it was the event that made everything else possible)

  28. no more mr nice guy says:

    The Avengers is music stream, but believe me 30 years ago it wouldn’t have been. Star Trek wasn’t either in its original TV run. There has definitely been a shift.

    Both Star Trek and Avengers have something in common : they were very popular with kids originally and when these kids became adult they watched the movies based on the TV-show or comic-book they loved when they were kids. It’s not just a geek phenomenon. Movie geeks are more interested in old cult movies, B-movies, Asian movies or direct-to-video horror movies than in mainstream movies. And I know about it, I am a movie geek. 🙂

    Furthermore, the reason movies like Avengers or Star Trek are made is not to attract geeks. Originally genre movies were mostly low-budget movies shown in drive-in and were popular with young people – not only geeks. Major studios started to make them in the 1970s to compete with low budget studios. I’ve watched an interview of Roger Corman (he made ton’s of exploitation movies and was the king of the drive-in) explaining that when he saw Jaws in 1975, he thought that he was in trouble, because Jaws was exactly like the movies made by low-budget studios with a better budget, better actors, and better special effects. And this is what happened, in the 1980s : independent studios closed one after another and the ones that survived started to make direct-to-videos movies.

  29. Frollo says:

    @noahbrand: My ‘ratios worse than that’ comment was regarding MtG events specifically. But to address your larger question, most anime related events I’ve been to do maintain parity. But most events I’ve attended related the gaming side of the culture, be it video gaming or tabletop gaming, tend to be overwhelming male. This is not to say I think these women don’t exist (and I have known a few), I’m just interested because what you suggest runs so contrary to personal experience.

    I suppose it just may be me centralizing my thoughts around the portion of the culture I tend to participate in most often.

  30. Schala says:

    I’ve never been to a single convention, event, tournament or whatever related to gaming. Yet I game most of my day.

    The only appeal an anime convention could have would be the cosplay part, if I had something (and I’m unable to design anything myself). Otherwise, I see no reason to go to conventions. Given my discretionary income, going to one would be like wanting to drool forever, and inflicting it on me. Also 90% of the content would miss their target (I’m not after blood, violence or sexualization, or networking, cute pets, or farming…I’m after stats management in complex games).

  31. L says:

    @Frollo: That’s confirmation bias if I ever saw it. Yes, while there are some niche interests among the various and sundry groups within the greater world of geekdom, you’re going to get some that are far more male-dominated, just as you’re going to get some that are far more female-dominated. I could take my own little slice of uber-niche geekdom (Transformers/mecha cosplay), and extrapolate from that that the ratio of all geeks everywhere is probably 20:1 in favor of women. Which is… not true. However, I CAN use that as a counterpoint to your MtG ratio of 50:1, as well as all the other niche groups that I’m part of that are female-dominated, and that brings us closer to parity.

    Just because the girls don’t go to your LAN parties and your card tournaments, that doesn’t mean geekdom and pop-culture stuff isn’t close to parity. The gals have their own clubhouses because we just really don’t like having to bother with meeting the standards of male geeks on their turf.

    PS- Have you not ever been to a convention? The ratio is pretty much even at all of them now.

  32. Hugh says:

    “No More Mr. Nice Guy: The Avengers is music stream, but believe me 30 years ago it wouldn’t have been.”

    What about The Avengers would have made it unlikely to be successful in 1982?

  33. monkey says:

    30 years ago The Avengers was not a comic known by most people. Maybe people knew Captain America (which had been done as a terrible TV movie) but that’s it. The special effects would not be good enough to pull it off.

    I realize I’m speculating here.

  34. Hugh says:

    I think most people knew who The Hulk was. Thirty years ago CBS’ The Incredible Hulk series was just concluding after a five year run where it enjoyed major critical acclaim and good ratings.

    You’re right that Iron Man and Thor (let alone Hawkeye) were not nearly so well known, but I think it’s less a matter of The Avengers becoming more popular recently and thus getting a movie, as it is The Avengers movie (and its prequels) raising awareness of the characters. The 2000s superhero movie surge didn’t really happen because more and more people were getting into the original IP, it happened because studio executives realised that superheroes made good frameworks for generic Hollywood action-dramas.*

    *Not that I have anything against Hollywood action-dramas or think that studios shouldn’t make them about superheroes.

  35. monkey says:

    Well, I still think there has been a change. The Incredible Hulk was more or less a kid’s show (and they attempted a sadass version of Th in a TV movie).

    Let me put it this way: 30 years ago Comic Con would not be as big a launching pad for new movies and TV shows (Glee -Glee!!!- had a presentation at Comic Con a few years back.)

    Heck the name Gleek is an example of geek becoming mainstream.

  36. @Noah & L: Frollo and Doug S’ point is valid. They were pointing out that estimations in the breakdown of the Geek population by gender is next to impossible. Noone really has any idea if it’s “close to parity” “hopelessly male dominated” or even boasts “less sausage than can be seen in a kosher deli.”

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