What is geek culture?

stock: True War Romance 16, penciller Bill Walsh, digital comics museum

What we talk about when we talk about fake fangirls.

Back in the day–the non-branded, power-to-the-people, halcyon days of geek culture–being a fan was being a geek, was being an outcast, was being a fan. Or so I’m told. Everyone who could be said to be participating in geek culture was by definition a little bit weird, because liking geeky things and admitting to it, amounted to scarlet nerding yourself. Instant outcast. Or maybe you were a geek first, and you found the things later. Regardless, it was you and your SF novels against the world. Geek culture then, was a refuge from the wider cultural world outside, that you couldn’t quite fit into. Geek culture wasn’t just about the things, and intense appreciation of the things, it was about a way of being together, and a way of being a man.

These days, geek culture is everywhere. Geek culture is diverse. Geek culture has money. And geek culture is a brand. Power tool companies set up booths at comic cons and give out handyman-themed comic tie-ins. Car commercials are built on Star Wars jokes. Geek culture is changing, has changed, and naturally, not everyone is happy. And so: the spectre of the fake geek girl, the angry black fan, the humourless queer geek, and worst of all, the users: the money men who see geeks as just another subculture to be monetized. In going global, they say, geek culture lost something: the intimacy of a basement D&D game, that safe space for the social outcast. Alas, alas.

But did it really? Is that geek culture gone, or does it share shelf space with other geek cultures? Let’s break this down a bit.

What happens to the fan is a geek, is an outcast, is a fan tautology, when the things that fandom is built around worshipping, and even so many fannish behaviours, are no longer grounds (if they ever were) for shunning? Well, it falls apart. Fans aren’t outcasts. Fans might not even be geeks. And most scary of all, geeks might not be outcasts either.

Meanwhile, what’s going on with geek culture? It’s hard to tell if mass culture is getting geekier, geek culture is getting more mainstream, or both, but it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference between being a Star Wars fan, and not being one. The rules and rituals of being a geek are both more widely known, and less religiously practiced by fans as a whole. But what I’m describing, the Problem of Geek Culture, isn’t just cultural drift–it’s a lingual mishap, loaded up with territorial panic. There are two geek cultures obviously at play in the Problem of Geek Culture: old school geek culture, and this new geek mass culture. The Problem of Geek Culture is framed as invasion.

So what’s being invaded? Old school geek culture typically refers to a cluster of interests (SF/F novels and movies, comics, games), activities (larping, cosplay, cons), and lastly, a particular group of people. It’s hard to nail down precisely because old school geek culture is taken to be monolithic and known: it doesn’t need defining because everyone already knows what geek culture is. It’s hard too, to figure out the weight of the things, and the way of being, in old school geek culture. Protests about the death of old school geek culture are equally about other people touching my things, and newbs not doing stuff my way. More disturbing than possessiveness or in-group gatekeeping, are the protests about those people entering geek culture–and changing it.

The fake geek girl meme depends on the narrative of invasion. The particular battle at stake is women entering male space, and demanding that it change. “Everyone knows” that was primarily a masculine space. And not just masculine, but an oppositional masculinity, primarily performed by straight, white, middle class men. This was a masculinity of no-bro, no-ma’am: geek masculinity was being united in victimhood and staking out positions of power therein. Geek culture was “beta” male space (to borrow the language of men’s rights activists), a refuge both from other, dominant, and harmful forms of masculinity, and from femininity. It’s become cliche to talk about Revenge of the Nerds, but it remains an apt comparison: the geeks built a house where they felt safe, became more confident, and then together stormed the campus. What causes panic is firstly, all the other clubhouses being set up, and secondly, the perception that women and non-“beta” men, might want to come over for drinks, and maybe even stay awhile. It’s both the sense of lack of control, and the sense that the “mundane” people they feel victimized by (alpha males and hot girls) are pushing open the door.

What makes the fake geek girl so horrifying is the idea that she might be an alpha female in “beta” female’s clothing–a hot mundane who only pretends to geekdom, seemingly accessible as either friend or girlfriend, but ready to shut you down with judgement and rejection at a moment’s notice. Sure there’s the worry that a fake geek girl trivializes the things, the rules and rituals of geek culture, not just by her insincerity, but by her feminine performance (she’s into fashion? no girls allowed), but even worse is the possibility that she’s not one of us; she’s not for us to have.

But the fake geek girl meme requires a geek-outcast monolith. It requires that “everyone know” that old school geek culture was masculine, was about being an outcast as much as it was about liking particular things a lot. It requires that the geek, fan, outcast tautology be real. It requires we ignore other communities of fans, geeks, and outcasts. Female spaces, poc spaces, LGBTQ spaces, and the wider international context. It also requires that we accept that the “beta” male geek-outcast space is under threat, in need of and worth saving. Even entertaining the fake geek girl meme requires that old school geek culture is geek culture, or at least the heart of it.

What geek culture is is contingent on who you interact with and what you consume: why weren’t Sherlock Holmes nerds included in old school geek culture? Why weren’t historical re-enactors? Costume nerds? Puzzle freaks? Crafters? The truth is, they were and they weren’t, depending on the makeup of the geek culture you were immediately surrounded by.

Diagram of Geek Culture, by Juliana Brion.
Diagram of Geek Culture, by Juliana Brion.

The narrative of old school geek culture under threat by mass culture, fake geek girls and other barbarians, isn’t the truth, or at least it isn’t the truth for more than a tiny subset of a much bigger fan culture. It’s a narrative that serves to protect the clubhouse, and to reassert a right to gatekeeping whatever it is we call geek culture. The fake geek girl makes credential-checking not just a competitive sport, but necessary. It breeds “I’m not like other girls” posturing; the deputization of female fans to police other girls and women. It makes concerns about objectification a little ludicrous (“we’re just having fun”) and even mean (“you ruin everything”). It also positions the oppositional “beta” male masculinity as inherently and irreconcilably hostile to feminism, and to real girls and women.

When feminists talk about objectification, homogeneity, and hostility in geek culture, we aren’t looking to knock down the clubhouse, or to take away that special place of being-together; we are addressing the part of your subculture that is hostile to women, and other groups of people.

One thing feminists get is patriarchy, and the ways that it harms women and men. Oppositional masculinity isn’t the problem. But an oppositional masculinity that recreates white, straight, patriarchy with geeks instead of jocks on top, isn’t something worth protecting. You can have your basement tabletop game; you can’t have the fake geek girl meme.

To be honest, I’m sick and tired of talking about fake geek girls. I’m more interested in talking about how we can move past this meme, and what it represents. I have a couple of ideas.

1) Let’s uncouple the things from the ways of being. Being together doesn’t require a sense of total ownership of Spider-Man; it only requires that we (whatever “we” you are a part of) enjoy Spider-Man together, in a particular way.

2) Let’s stop talking about geek culture, and start talking about geek cultures. Let’s stop worrying about what’s going on in the geek culture downshelf. Your enjoyment of Spider-Man is in no way threatened by people enjoying Spider-Man in some other inexplicable-to-you way.

3) Let’s stop buying into the stereotypes of fake geek girls, angry black fans, tiresome queer geeks, and users, and turn our attention instead to the people who claim to be under threat. Let’s stop pretending that women, poc, and LGBTQ have the power in this equation.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.