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.

14 thoughts on “What is geek culture?

  1. Perhaps male geeks are so against women joining the (geekdom?) because they know how it felt to be alienated by the rest of society (jocks, “normal people,” popular and pretty girls), and now they are frightened, intimidated and angry that the very people (in their mind) that alienated them now want a piece of the cake. It’s almost like when an enemy changes their mind and claims they wanna be allies. Would anyone trust them? Most likely not. In this case, male geeks have unconsciously antagonized women. Some women may have teased and mocked them in an older time when being a geek was seen as a bad thing. So today, when the current generation of male geeks sees not just women, but “popular” people embracing their “territory,” they feel threatened, and if anything, uneasy.

  2. This was an interesting article. I’m not going to deny that hostility towards women does happen sometimes though from what I’ve seen my experience is a bit different. I was the silent type in high school and had the chance to join the popular crowd but mainly passed on the offer to because I had different interests that could be considered nerdy and geeky. I had a pretty big group of friends about equal amount male and female. Mainly we had our own interests away from those more popular people.

    My group of friends didn’t reject more popular girls (or guys for that matter) when it came to discussing similar interests. Some of the girls in this group were more popular and had more interest in partying and sports than the rest of us. I do understand the cause of this article and that it is stating that this isn’t a totally big thing. I honestly hate the idea of “alpha” and “beta” males or females but I do agree that it is there. Though I think the solutions to these problems isn’t necesarily a geeky male accepting all girls including fake geeky girls. I think the solution to this problem is gaping the bridge between popular and unpopular (geeky/nerdy and non-geeky/non-nerdy) and pretty much just accepting people.

    I know my experience was a rare exception but I have seen guys who have been burned by popular guys and popular girls too. Usually in media you see the geeks making fun of and bullying anyone who is new or isn’t into the whole geek culture but is in their territory and standing out. Most geeky/nerdy guys/girls I know even ones i met in university (i’m 19 btw) accept any woman or man who has a geeky interest. Though I can understand why some geeky people wouldn’t want to accept outsiders to geek culture and become bitter and hostile towards it. They weren’t accepted and now they just return the favour sort of thing not that it’s right.

  3. So Geeks were outcasts, made spaces for themselves, made these spaces big enough to be somewhat safe, and now that these spaces are started to be seen as safe, in comes cultural appropriation, but thats ok, because if I frame this space as male white and middle class enough nobody will call it cultural appropriation.

    1. When I think of the problems of cultural appropriation, I think about the bullies not letting you do something, then changing its meaning by doing it in a way that serves superficial purposes only. (For example, using religious symbols from oppressed religious groups as jewelry.)

      The thing is, geek culture is about loving geeky things. It’s not an ethnicity, social construct, or physiological difference which can be marginalized or appropriated by people with power. If someone likes a thing you’re a die-hard fan of, even if they only do so casually, that doesn’t diminish your ability to pursue your own enjoyment of that thing. In fact, it de-stigmatizes the act of liking that thing! It makes what you were already doing more socially acceptable and gives you more opportunities to engage others in conversations about the thing you like!

      I’ve always loved geeky things. I’ve been navigating the space between identifying as a geek and identifying as a woman for most of my life. I’m only just learning that it’s okay to be both. FWIW, I’ve been choosing “geek” over “woman” this entire time… Most of the geeky sisters-in-arms I’ve met over the years have gone the other direction… How wonderful that the world is changing so that we no longer have to choose!

      1. This is when liking specific things become a part of your identity. I’m sure most of us relishes the experience of sharing the love of something geeky with another, bc it’s one more person to fangirl with, but what if that person is not coming at it with the same authenticity as you are? I believe cultural appropriation is taking something integral in a cultural group’s identity, and then trivializing it and bastardizing it for the benefit of the appropriator, which is what’s happening to geek culture now. Of course it can also be fair to say that that is what happens to whatever becomes popular. Like when important aspects of characters are changed to fit a story calibrated to appeal to the tastes of the masses, just to make more money for the studio… it is taken out of it’s context and this warped version is made into reality. It is going into their space just as it is acceptable to do so, taking something important to geeks, something they have long treasured, ignoring all of it and saying ‘this is how I want it to be!’ and changing it to just suit you while leaving things seemingly worse off for them. Geekery has become cool, liking geeky things makes you cool, so then people adopt the superficial mien of a ‘geek’ without the actual effort or interest in geek culture. Of course bitterness would come in discovering this, because people would rightly be possessive over things they treasure. Nobody likes the sort who fakes an interest just because it’s popular. It trivializes the identity of those who really do enjoy it. The anger then comes in since it is those people that have the power to direct the future geek culture is headed, as companies strive to pander to this wider audience. This IS cultural appropriation – it follows the patterns of gentrification and colonialism – although it is not as malevolent as the ones tied to race and nationality.

  4. Certainly times have changed. Im a 52 year old female, in 1969 I watched a man walk on the moon, read my first Asimov Robot story and had heated debates with my friends over which was better, Lost In Space or Star Trek and swapped comic books with them too. Ive been a devoted Sci-fi/Fantasy/Comic book enthusiast all my life. “Geeks and nerds” were the kids that belonged to the math and chess club, knew how to use a slide ruler and had about as much imagination as a calculator. We were not them, they were not us. We dressed up as our favorite characters at conventions and holloween and everyone had a great time, no one was excluded, harassed or had their motives questioned
    I grew up in the midsts of feminism and was taught that a girl could do/be anything she wanted to..boys respected us, feared us or just plain didnt know what to make of us. But they never stood in our way and it never ocurred to us that we were some how insinuating ourselves on the “boys only club”.
    I have been following with great interest (as well as saddness and indignation) the current “wave” of this movement and have a difficult time wrapping my brain around the things I read, especially the expreinces of women. I suppose that once the community became lucrative it all went to hell in a handbasket and Im truly sorry to see it go that way.

  5. I think the “other girls” syndrome is people’s desire to categorize everything. E.g. girls who wear heels and make-up are stereotyped into being superficial and subscribing to “conventional” beauty standards whereas girls who wear converse and t-shirts subscribe to “unique” and “subversive” beauty standards. I think people approach “fake geek girls” the same way. When I go to comic book stores, game stores etc or I’m often labeled as “not like the other girls” because of my “masculine” appearance. Presenting more masculine legitimizes me in the eyes of some geeks because I’m categorized as “one of the guys.” It’s a frustrating paradigm.

    I realize I mostly wrote an incoherent rant, but I guess my point is in a male dominated culture people (women are guilty of this too!) want to alienate femininity and feminine things because they are associated with negative boring things. People have problems reconciling the idea that someone can like to wear heels and make-up while loving “guy things” in geek culture.

    P.S. Sorry for all the quotation marks, but I felt the need to use them in order to convey my sarcasm and disdain aimed at gender roles and stereotypes.

    1. “People have problems reconciling the idea that someone can like to wear heels and make-up while loving “guy things” in geek culture.”

      I agree with this 100%, but I think there is maybe more to it – I don’t think geeks want to alienate femininity – I think WE are alienated FROM femininity by mainstream culture.

      The bullying (is it even really bullying? Is it just ostracism? Social pressure?) that geeks face is absolutely sexualized and gendered. We are told by Normals (male and female) that we are virgins because we like comics/sci-fi/D&D and vice versa: we like comics/sci-fi/D&D because we are virgins. Geekhood and virginity are one and the same. This isn’t a small thing in our lives. It is constant. It is everywhere – at home, on TV, in movies, at school – everywhere. Geek culture is for lonely loser virgins. This has a huge impact on our psyches that no one is really addressing or talking about. It fucks up our brains. I’m happily married, but even I still have some serious hang-ups about sex and sexuality all going back to how I was bullied just for liking sci-fi and fantasy. It just doesn’t go away. Ever.

      This is partially just my own perspective, but my guess – my personal theory – is that geeks NEED you to be “one of the guys,” or else you become something they simply cannot handle. That isn’t your fault, but I don’t really think it’s the geeks’ fault, either.

      1. This happens to geek women as well. Why should we put up with extra bullying from geek men who refuse to see that and geek women who are afraid the same thing will happen to them if they don’t take the same side as the geek men doing the bullying?

  6. This is the first time – seriously the first – that I have seen the geek culture problems actually addressed in a blog post. This is actually the blog post I’ve had bouncing around in my head for months now – left unwritten only because my only blogging outlet is Facebook, a pre-selected audience.

    The thing is, I haven’t gotten to a point where my idea of geek culture can include women. I mean, it’s not like my idea of geek culture excludes women, but I had only gotten to the point of “geek culture is ‘beta male’ space, and that invasion is unfair to us.” Feminism addresses men’s issues, sure, but I’ve often seen feminism picked up as a tool by “normal” men to use to bash “betas” like me. Sometimes feminist bloggers do it, too.

    But your conclusion is perfect. Geek culture should include everyone, and the critiques of it aren’t an invasion of geek private space – they are an attempt to put a hand on geek culture’s shoulder, look it in the eye and say, “Dude. Calm down.”

    I still feel there are some contradictions in place (the feminist blog dialogue about cosplayers bothers me for a lot of reasons, for example), but I think you have put the issue into perfect, absolutely perfect, perspective.

  7. Out of curiosity, how do we approach or address it when it’s a well-known, well-liked Internet personality throwing down the gauntlet against invading fakes and posers (of whatever gender), and said personality themselves is a woman? This cropped up just last week and everyone seemed to ignore it.

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