…and why it is cause to celebrate.
I recently read Slut Shaming and Concern Trolling in Geek Culture by Emily Finke. I would recommend reading it for a number of reasons. Finke gives a personal account of “by geeks-at geeks” brand sexism and anachronistic slut shaming. Her story is all the more compelling for its balance (she gives fair mention of both positive and negative experiences) and loyal sci-fi fan insider’s view. In the case that you have not read it, Finke was chastised (quietly) by women for her revealing, but series-authentic, Star Trek costume that she wore at a sci-fi convention. She was also questioned by men so as to ascertain her status as a “real” geek, having to answer Trek trivia from those reluctant to (I assume) believe an attractive woman could be a “real” geek instead of… I’m not sure what. An impostor?
I find the sexism atrocious, and I was left wondering what the questioning accomplished. What would it prove? Finke “passed” according to her account, which netted them, what, an amusing anecdote to tell their friends? Will they tell it like a Sasquatch story, about the time they met an actual woman who could recite the original Enterprise-D serial number? And what if she had failed? Would that make her a phony? A conniving schemer who tried to fool them?
I don’t think that it would. What if a woman (or man) enjoyed Trek enough to cosplay and come to a convention even though they had not obsessively watched each of the television series and dozen films plus various Enterprise-related media bric-a-brac? Even a relative newcomer or casual fan should be just as welcome as anyone else, perhaps more so. Finke’s petitioners seem to me afraid of losing something important that they think that they have: insider cred. They’re worried it could be brazenly stolen by way of boobs. After all, they worked hard to become the hard-core fans they know themselves to be (anyone who has seen every episode of Enterprise has worked hard, I would say.) Their fear is groundless, however, and they are asking to see a passport to a country that does not exist. Geek culture is over.
Psychology of the sub-culture
At any one time, there are many sub and micro-cultures in America. And that’s a great thing. People with insular interests clump together to commune, collaborate, and just plain have fun. Whether you like Badminton, crocheting, or French stamp collecting, there’s a community for you out there. A large enough group of communities becomes a sub-culture or part of a sub-culture. Something else important always happens in small-ish groups of people united by a single interest: they compete for status with each other and with respect to that interest. This is often totally benign, and there is a lot of variance in intensity, but you basically find it everywhere. Status in a subculture can be hugely important to people who feel that they do not “fit in” with society outside of that group. It can be an important and healthy source of self esteem.
It’s important to note, too, that persecution of the kind given to “geeks” for many years tends to intensify the value of in-group geek status for members of that group. Enduring social persecution takes courage, and those who have done so may resent those who were able to stroll in late without having to have faced it (even if this is not strictly rational).
The price of success
While most sub-culture activities never gain wide public interest, many if not most pieces of popular culture started out or were heavily influenced by small sub-cultures. In its early decades, Baseball was a strictly amateur affair, competing unsuccessfully against Cricket for media attention. What is often called geek culture is mainstreaming, and by “geek culture” I mean such items as science fiction franchises, video gaming, the fantasy genre of books, television, and films, and even the use of computers and the internet for social and other purposes. In years when these things had only small audiences, they could be called a part of a geek subculture. This gave meaning to words like “geeky” or expressions like “she’s a geek”. Those words are useful when they specify something; when they identify something not easily guessed about any random person. For this reason it’s hard to conjure adjectives which precisely describe interest in ubiquitous or extremely popular culture: he likes rock music.. he’s a.. uh.. rock.. fan? Mary likes baseball.. she’s a.. baseball-likin’ sorta .. person.
The Big Bang Theory is a big bust
Maybe this is why many people don’t like the television sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Just about everything “geeky” we see the “geeks” do on the show is, in fact, massively popular (I will except from this at least two items: comic books and Dungeons & Dragons; but even these have substantially greater acceptance today than ever before). Let’s review the insularity of the most popular “geek”-identified activities:
Harry Potter all films worldwide gross: $7.7 billion.
Lord of the Rings: $2.92 billion gross.
Game of Thrones (Song of Fire and Ice): Every book in the series was among the top 100 best-selling of 2011 and 2012.
Game of Thrones (television) is the second most-watched in (HBO) network history; 5.3 million viewers watched the season 3 finale.
In 2011, the industry was estimated at $65 billion worldwide, existing at the same social/economic footprint scale as feature film.
Video gaming is now a large economic ecosystem with no fewer than 6 multi-million selling platforms(game systems)
And those are just the raw numbers. Qualitatively, each of those also gets frequent mention in the general media and references on “mainstream” TV and movies. The demographics are no longer restricted to young white males. According to the ESA, the average gamer is 37 and 42% of gamers are female.
The consequence of sub-culture success is annihilation. Not because these things or their fans go away, but because the sub-culture simply becomes… culture. The fans are not isolated groups with secret handshakes and insider lingo; the fans are everywhere. If being “geeky” is liking things that people generally like, then it doesn’t really mean anything. At the very least, it confers no membership in a special club. That brings us back to Emily Finke’s inquisition.
Finke’s questioners (in addition to being sexist) were misguidedly guarding against the devaluation of their insider cred. They must be in denial of the fact that Trek has clearly become a part of ordinary pop culture (no offense to you hardcore fans!) They may not realize that while the former benefits are gone (insular in-group cred), they aren’t needed anymore. There’s just nothing pejorative about being a fan of Star Trek as there once was. The boundary has evaporated. It is no longer there to sooth your ego, but it also isn’t there to confine you to the fringe. Isn’t the desire for acceptance part of the genesis of geek culture to begin with? Then be glad! The world accepts you and your geekiness. And for the love of Kirk, don’t deny the same acceptance to members of other marginalized groups where their sphere overlaps your own, as happened to Emily Finke.