Our home base, Comicazi, was recently featured in the Boston Globe’s style section as a top place to “find your inner geek,” as the article declared. It was exciting and some great press for the store. However, it also raised the hackles of some die-hard fans of the shop, who felt like labeling comics and gaming as “geek” hobbies cast them in a negative light – the realm of socially awkward misfits.
This was not exactly the intention. The article was written in an empowering manner – You’re a geek and that’s awesome! – and even draws parallels between geeks and Boston Brahmins, the wealthy elite of the city in the 18-1900’s. However, I think this raises a larger issue that isn’t just about taking back the word geek. It’s about subcultures in general and whether they’re desirable – do you want your hobby to be part of a subculture, whether it’s currently a fashionable one or not – or do you want it to be considered culture, period?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s also SOMEWHAT about the historically negative connotations of the words nerd and geek. I myself have a terrible habit of presenting some of my hobbies – comics, or fantasy novels, for example- as “super nerdy” to people I don’t know well, as if apologizing for them, and I don’t know why. Not only are most of them, regardless of their interests, not going to judge me, no one ever has. In high school I was as much of an outcast as everyone ever was (I’ve never met anyone who didn’t feel that way a little) but it was never because of my hobbies. There are no foaming carton caricature jocks or cheerleaders waiting to laugh at my love of the Flash, and if there were, why would I care? So clearly it’s about my own internalized geek shame, which means the word isn’t as reclaimed as we might like. Real humans don’t care that you have all of your old Star Wars action figures (or they think it’s awesome) but popular culture still uses those hobbies as shorthand for loser (see The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Big Bang Theory, Beauty and the Geek.)
So, those demons aside, what do we get out of embracing the geek label, by claiming it for the smart iconoclasts who invent new technologies and make new fashion and bring you killer action movies? I guess you get to be different, and special and feel like you belong to part of a community of people who like what you like, who get you. And that’s a very human, understandable thing to want. The danger may come, however, in who gets left out of that safe haven.
I think part of the proliferation of this clubhouse mentality comes from yet another angle of the “geek” reclamation, which is marketing. You have a website, say, where you want to sell some funky products that relate to sci-fi movies and fantasy novels. Or one where you collect images of totally awesome stuff in that vein. How will you make sure the right people can find your site? What do video games and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and zombies all have in common? Well, I guess we could say that the people who traditionally like them are…geeks. But super-cool geeks, right?
And thus, the issue perpetuates itself. And maybe that’s okay, and we don’t need a new word or way of looking at things, we just need to take back the old ones. But I’m not totally convinced yet, because I keep coming back to the idea that liking those things doesn’t have to make you geeky, and that we want everyone to find and love these things – don’t we?
You don’t have to call yourself something special in order to love cartoons or Muppets or larping or the X-Men. Those things are for everybody who wants them. Or at least I think so – what do you think? Share your ideas about the geek reclamation with us in the comments!