Fake Geek Girls

The article du jour about Fake Geek Girls has, I think, its heart in the right place, but is nevertheless spectacularly wrong in all its particulars, like someone trying to refute flat-earthers by citing the Pythagorean perfection of spheres.

Four years ago John Scalzi wrote the (somewhat more venomous and self-aggrandizing) ur text from which all anti-anti-Fake-Geek-Girl posts spring, and I think the core error is traceable to him. The problem is that Scalzi conflated geek culture with geek identity.

Nerddom is a subculture (or a series of interrelated subcultures), and this is part of the way cultures work: There can be people who are, objectively, in the culture and people who are not. Edge cases and ambiguities exist, of course, but there must also be clear examples of an inside group and some of an outside group.If there are no such examples, you’re probably not talking about a culture.

Everyone knows John Wayne is an American; everyone knows Sartre is not. Sartre doesn’t get to proclaim himself an American (obv. he wouldn’t want to), which is why we all make fun of weeaboos who think they can “turn Japanese” by watching lots of anime. Now, countries have “official” barriers to entry, and a bureaucracy decides who is an official American, but it is of course possible to become a citizen of a nation state while refusing to join in its culture…

…But that’s an unimportant complication, because we’re talking about a subculture here, and most subcultures have no bureaucratic barriers to entry; and yet we are not confused by who is in a subculture. Here’s a quick test: Who’s a hippie, Abbie Hoffman or Spiro Agnew?

We all know the answer, and you can’t really contest it. If Spiro Agnew decided to call himself a hippie, he would not be a hippie, he would be a narc. He could wear a tie-dyed shirt and a beaded headband, and he wouldn’t be a hippie: He’d be dressed as a hippie, just as I have been dressed as a cowboy without being a cowboy. You can’t even say Agnew was cosplaying as a hippie, because Agnew is not a cosplayer. Even Agnew in costume is not a cosplayer; at most, he is dressed as a cosplayer.

Of course, Agnew could become a hippie, if he really wanted to. (Actually he can’t because he’s dead.) He could wear that tie-dyed shirt every day, and listen to the Grateful Dead, and kill Sharon Tate, and do all the canonical things that hippies do, and eventually he’d become a hippie. Timothy Leary was once a West Point cadet.

Some people are hippies and some people aren’t and then again some people are in between. I don’t think there’s any way around this. I can’t help but suspect that if you don’t agree, then one of us doesn’t understand how cultures work or what they are.

So when Scalzi, quite explicitly, said that anyone who wanted to be a member of geek culture could be, by magic, I just dismissed his post as a huge and somewhat illiterate mistake. It was a mistake I more or less agreed with — as I’ve said before, the characteristic virtue of fandom is acceptance — but that doesn’t mean it made any sense.

Only much later did I realize that Scalzi wasn’t talking about, or thinking about, nerrddom as a culture; he was talking about nerddom as an identity.

To speak by analogy: let’s say you’d lived for years in the Castro, steeped in gay culture; and then some guy from the middle of Oklahoma gets off the bus and thinks that three minutes later he knows everything about your habits and beliefs, and starts talking like an old hand. Who is this guy? He never played Trixie at Rocky Horror; he never campaigned, or rioted, for Harvey Milk; he never feared AIDS (there aren’t great examples, but you get my meaning). He is totally ignorant of your daily life, but he saw several seasons of Will and Grace and now he thinks he’s mastered something you’ve spent a lifetime participating in. Oklahoma kid may become an insider someday, but right now, if he pretends to be one, he is objectively wrong. He is a poser, and I don’t mean this pejoratively. I mean he is objectively a poser. No one gets to join a subculture and be an insider on day one.

But if this same kid said he was gay, what are you going to say? “No you’re not”? Of course not! The kid gets to decide if he’s gay, because homosexuality is an identity as well as a sub-culture.

Scalzi is treating geek as an identity, and as an identity anyone can self-proclaim geekiness. Viewed this way, Scalzi’s statement, “Who gets to be a geek? Anyone who wants to be, any way they want to be one,” goes from being an absurdity to being a truism. This is not the way I think, and it blinded me to his meaning.

Theoretically, once we realize this difference in interpretation, we could go to Scalzi and say, “Hey, you’re talking about geek qua identity; what if we talk about geek qua culture?” And then Scalzi could say, “Oh I guess we both didn’t define our terms, so there was confusion. Here are my thoughts on culture…” And then we could have a dialogue and progress.

By the time I figured any  of this out, though, Scalzi’s framework had taken on a life of its own. (Also, I’m not in charge of the internet, and John Scalzi doesn’t know who I am and has no reason to listen to me anyway.) Certainly Liccione’s article (the one linked to above) uses the word “culture” but frames everything along Scalzian lines, defining a culture completely by the products it consumes.

Freddie de Boer (a writer I admire much more than any of the others cited here) once wrote a NY Times piece facilely titled “Geeks, You Are No Longer Victims. Get Over It” that was, predictably, as terrible as any article with the words “get over it” in the headline has to be, and which made this same mistake, pointing to the popularity of superhero movies and extrapolating from there. At the time I suggested the alternate reductio ad absurdum headlines: “Everyone Likes Wizard of Oz — Gay People, Stop Complaining” and “TV Shows Have Hip Hop Soundtracks — Black America, Why Do You Care if Cops Shoot You?” (To his credit, de Boer has since offered a more nuanced view of his argument, although I think it still makes the same basic error.)

But I want you to imagine an alternate timeline in which Scalzi had decided to frame the narrative not as one of identity and exclusion but rather as one of culture and cultural appropriation.

Every subculture has a problem: If no one joins it, it will die out, like the Shakers; if EVERYONE joins it, it will be swamped. Periodically Christian sects crop up that try to return to the days of the “early church,” before the entire Roman Empire swelled their ranks and, ostensibly, diluted their message. Go to an American anime convention in 1988 and in 2008 and see if anyone from the first one can recognize their culture among the glomping, yaoi-paddle wielding tweens.

The problem therefore is not that girls want to sell Grit; the problem is that normal people want to be geeks, somewhat surprisingly, and geek culture may not be able to handle it. At comic conventions, the Silver Age inkers get driven out by Twilight fans; Untitledback issue dealers get driven out by Hollywood merchandisers. The point here isn’t that Twilight fans or Hollywood are bad; the point is that con space is a zero sum game, and having Twi-hards (this isn’t pejorative, is it?) camp at a panel they don’t care about drives out people who wanted to be there.

I don’t know who coined the term “fake geek girl” (was it this woman?); the phrase does not quite appear in Joe Peacock’s screed that Scalzi was reacting to, nor in Scalzi’s response. (Peacock later elaborated (somewhere in Scalzi’s comments section) that he had meant things completely differently from how they were taken). Regardless of its origin, it’s a terrible term, begging to be cast as a misogynist attack. Probably we would have ended up in the same boat we’re in, Scalzi or no Scalzi, just because the terminology is so poor.

Of course, all cultures are constantly dying and changing, and everything you love and value will be trampled in the dust if not by your children then by their children. I wrote a book about this, and I’m resigned enough to it that I don’t freak out about “n00bs.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand why people might be worried about their culture being overwhelmed by “immigrants” with different values. Probably a new set of terms is called for, but it’s hard to decouple the conversation from the one we’ve been having for years. It’s hard to say, “I want to stop talking about demographics for once; I want to talk about a culture.”

There’s an argumentative technique, common online, in which you preemptively attempt to define the terms of the debate. It is probably impossible for me to write about an inundated nerd subculture without half the internet sticking my argument in a box labeled geek-girl shaming and the other half in a box labeled ugh! geek girls, am I right? So everything we say will be just a display of what box we a priori put things in. Everything we say will be signaling.

Liccione signals when she writes: “The only purpose of fake geek shaming is to exclude newcomers, particularly women, from fandom,” which isn’t false but is misleading, and: “The only reason for male dominance in these fandoms is the deliberate exclusion of women as creators and fans throughout their histories,” which is rather a revisionist view. Emma Orczy and Mary Shelley may have invented superheroes and science fiction (a debatable but plausible theory), but neither one was a dork! They did not once in their lives participate in geek culture, which, to be fair, did not exist yet.

When Liccione writes: “Let’s stop pretending a geek identity is something you only unlock at a certain level, and instead, give people the freedom to explore and enjoy geeky media at their own pace” she is explicitly talking about “geek identity” and geek consumption patterns, and she is therefore correct. The problem comes in silently shifting the conversation to a demand about how a culture treats outsiders.

I sometimes imagine fandom as a kind of leper colony, where the people who couldn’t fit in anywhere else could go and be accepted by other lepers; then someone found gold on the leper colony and the prospectors came swarming in. Predictably, they loved the gold, but unfortunately there are all these gross lepers around! Rubbing their hands together, the prospectors dream of a day that they can scoop up gold in peace, with the lepers displaced elsewhere.  Who cares where. Seriously, who cares? Cue a host of self-satisfied think pieces about nerd entitlement. See how many of these calls for tolerance use the term “neck beards,” thereby giving away the game. “Why can’t we,” the subtext always runs, “enjoy Star Wars surrounded by people a little more kempt?”

None of us want a moribund dork culture, like the few remaining Oddfellows inching their walkers along at the Fourth of July parade; anyone who cares about the long history of fandom wants to bring in new blood. I’m enough of an anarchist to think that fandom has to deal with its own success, and should be kind in introducing its tenets, like its products, to a new generation. I think we have to stake our culture on acceptance, even if it will be the death of us. As I’ve said, I agree with both Liccione and Scalzi at heart.

Nevertheless: I know there are regions of the internet that are very concerned that soccer moms may somehow “steal” yoga from a billion Indians; can we also admit the possibility that the 100 million people who watched Avengers may have some level of power over the 50,000 people who’ve read the last issue of the comic?



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