Geeks in the News

Today, at the recommendation of Penn library staff member Andrea, I searched through the recent archive of New York Times articles for any references to “geek” or “nerd.” I was looking for an article she saw about “making geeks hip” with regard to TV and movies. Not only did I find a few articles worth blogging about in greater detail, I also found that these terms have found their way into common use even more than I expected.

First, I just want to draw particular attention to those few articles that seem particularly relevant to the kind of geek culture I write about here.

The TV/Movie Fanboys

First, we have an article about Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the screenwriters behind Mission: Impossible III, The Island, Transformers, and the upcoming Star Trek prequel. The article discusses at length how these guys are big geeks and are very aware of fans’ reactions, so doing character-driven movies is key. Some particularly telling quotes include:

“It doesn’t matter if people think what you’re doing is camp,” he said. “You have to take your genre seriously. If you write it tongue-in-cheek, the audience will see it, and they’ll feel they’re being talked down to.”

“And,” he added, “they’ll kill you.” […]

Yet for Mr. Kurtzman, raised on comic books and science fiction, and Mr. Orci, who once owned a telephone shaped like the Starship Enterprise from “Star Trek,” the passage into legitimacy was bittersweet. Where they had been mere consumers of geek entertainment, now they bore the responsibility of creating it. […]

“Alex and Bob are both geeks and nongeeks at the same time,” said Damon Lindelof, a creator of the television series “Lost,” and a producer on the “Star Trek” prequel. “They can have a tremendous amount of respect for the source material, but they know that a studio is bringing them in because they can make it understandable to an audience that has no comprehension of that source material whatsoever.”

In the case of “Star Trek,” Mr. Lindelof said, the screenplay was well served by the push and pull between Mr. Orci, a die-hard fan of the original television show, movies and the syndicated spinoff “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and Mr. Kurtzman, who gave up on the franchise after “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”

“It’s like talking to a priest and a casual churchgoer about Catholicism,” Mr. Lindelof said. “The story is being cooked up by someone who is aware of every shred of arcane Trekkery, and someone who isn’t hampered by decades of canon.”

I’m always fascinated by comments like Lindelof’s “geeks and nongeeks at the same time.” As I write the lit review for my dissertation proposal, I’m struggling to find something relevant in the existing literature on subcultures and identity that adequately addresses the idea that you can have part-time membership in a cultural group or a dual identity. What I’m coming across is a bunch of postmodernist stuff which is occasionally but not always relevant, such as Maffesoli’s concept of “tribes” as urban groups with part-time membership (a seemingly relevant idea that is way too hedonistic to account for all the idealism in geek culture); or, for another example, various notions of hybrid identity (which so far seem only really applied to postcolonialist ideas of ethnicity, which I’m not sure applies as well for a primarily white group with a sense of cohesiveness largely engendered through media use).

The Con-Goers

Before I get off on too much of a tangent on all the food for thought I culled from that article, I should move on to the second article of interest, about fantasy/sci-fi fan conventions. This one popped up in my search because of one phrase: “‘I work 9 to 5, Monday through Friday,’ said Mr. Fults, a beer deliveryman from Shelbyville, Tenn, who was flanked by a pair of ‘Star Wars’ storm troopers. ‘Every now and then, I got to get my nerd on.’”

In addition to the helpful calendar at the end, a bunch of things jumped out at me about this article. For one, the range of interests was highlighted:

MidSouthCon draws about 1,300 people and attracts a representative sample of fandom. Some arrived in elaborate costumes or simply in T-shirts (“If you’re really a Goth, where were you when we sacked Rome?”) to share in a mutual love of stories about not only planet-devouring aliens, but Middle-earth hobbits, Gotham City crime fighters and denizens of all points in between. […]

Some MidSouthCon’s guests were encouraged by the big-tent approach to celebrating fandom. “I don’t care whether it’s science fiction or comics or ‘Doctor Who’ or what it is,” Mr. Waid said. “There’s a common language to it all. I sense an esprit de corps here.” […]

There were also some telling comments about cosplaying, somewhat indicative of where fans draw the line between “geeky” and “freakish,” and suggesting some interesting things about identity and performance:

“Some people go way overboard with their costumes,” said Jeff Frank, a security guard who had traveled from Cleveland. “I’m not to the point where I’d get my teeth shaved or anything.” […]

“It’s kind of strange,” said Emily Barnhart, a fast-talking 15-year-old from Memphis dressed in the schoolgirl outfit of Tohru Honda, the upbeat heroine of the Japanese anime “Fruits Basket.” “Cosplaying means we’re acting as someone else, but it allows us to be ourselves more. No one’s going to dis you because you like to wear cat ears.”

Nigel Sade, a graphic artist from Kent, Ohio, does not consider himself a cosplayer, but he does dress as a 17th-century buccaneer. Though his sartorial choices have become more acceptable since the success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, Mr. Sade said that some conservative science fiction fans still weren’t ready to embrace him.

“I don’t even deal with them,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Whatever, man. You be from outer space, or from ‘Lord of the Rings.’ I’m going to be over here.”

I find it particularly interesting how tabletop gaming has become such a major presence in fandom. Even as the article touches upon the diversity of genres and media represented at the con, it also notes a “generational shift” away from utopian/idealistic sci-fi and toward gaming:

But on Saturday afternoon, after lecturing on deep-space colonization, Les Johnson, the manager of NASA’s science programs and projects at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., lamented what he saw as a generational shift in fans’ interests.

“I see a lot of young people here gaming, but I don’t see a lot of the younger folks here for the science fiction,” said Mr. Johnson, who has been attending conventions since his own adolescence in the 1970s. “That bothers me, because the dreaming is what interested me in getting into physics. If they aren’t reading the stuff, where are our next-generation physicists and NASA engineers going to come from?” […]

“Sometimes it’s actually looked down upon,” Mr. Irby, 18, said incredulously as he explained his hobby, in which card collectors face off in imaginary battles whose outcomes are determined by drawing cards from each player’s deck. “Some people just don’t understand it.”

I’m wondering whether this “shift” is a recent phenomenon or long underway, but I have found it interesting that playing games doesn’t necessarily fit the usual conceptions of being a “fan” of something, yet it’s such an integrated part of fandom.

Comedy for Losers

Finally, the third article of interest is about “giving the last laugh to life’s losers,” highlighting the recent trend in comedies about slackers, schlubs, geeks, and nerds, such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. There’s a lot in here about the success of comedy resonating with insecure men:

”I always thought of myself as a nerdy guy,” said Mr. Apatow [….]

The feeling has apparently never gone away, despite the fact that Mr. Apatow, 39, is now married to an attractive actress, who is in his film, with whom he has two daughters, who are also in his film. ”We’ve been married for 10 years in June, and he’s still really uncomfortable with me sometimes,” said Leslie Mann, Mr. Apatow’s real-life wife, who plays Debbie, Alison’s unhappily married sister. ”He still spills things before giving me a kiss. He’ll knock a glass over and get flustered by it. Sometimes it feels like we’re on a first date. He didn’t outgrow the geeky boy he was. It’s still there in him.” […]

What is it about these American men? […] [T]he men in these contemporary comedies often consider women as scary (like the self-pleasuring vixen in ”The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) as they are unattainable (Alison in ”Knocked Up”). Perhaps there is something in the culture, a generational cue that may come from the rise of women’s economic and sexual independence or from the arrival of a recognizable geeky archetype, that makes this paradigm comforting for audiences. […]

Mr. Rudd, who contributed to the ”Knocked Up” script, said: ”We were all pretty nerdy dudes. I had horrible skin. I was Jewish, living in the Midwest. And I don’t think we’re alone. I think there’s an army of young dudes out there who are really into comedy. They’re not on the first string of anything. They’re varsity nothing. That’s just us, and we’re older now, with the studio giving us a little bit of money.” […]

[Judd Apatow] added: ”I always wanted to be given a shot. And the sick part is this: No matter how many shots I get, I never completely lose the feeling of inadequacy that makes me wish I would get a chance to prove myself.”

I often wonder about the ethical implications of writing about nerds—who are largely White, middle-class men with job mobility—as a minority group. After all, as this article suggests, there may indeed be legions of geeks, nerds, dorks, and other insecure guys who have achieved success by all traditional adult measures. At the same time, the influence that high school social hierarchies plays on personality and self-image seems so important that the term “mental scars” seems potentially appropriate in some cases. Grown men still make sense of their existence with phrases like “they’re varsity nothing,” and still find some sense of connection and reassurance through entertainment media. You can grow out of the bizarre social world of high school, perhaps even grow into a role of ethnic and economic privilege, but perhaps not everyone can grow out of what they became in school.

Other Nerds and Geeks

Now that I’ve discussed (at length!) the articles that seemed particularly relevant to me, I just want to take a moment to point out how much traction terms like “geek” and “nerd” have made recently. I know Lori Kendall did a recent content analysis of how often “nerd” has appeared in newspaper headlines, discovering that it’s raised pretty steadily since the ’80s, though the NYT search is useful because it searches the body of all articles as well. So, in addition to those articles discussed here, over the months of June and May, the term “nerd” appears in articles about every two weeks, whereas the term “geek” appears in articles every few days or so. These include references to:

  • a “rose geek” (like, really into the flower, June 22)
  • a “Greek-myth-loving geek” (June 19)
  • a “suspender-clad squeezebox geek” (i.e., accordion player, June 15)
  • a “fellow computer geek” (June 12)
  • a “huge Apple geek” (June 11)
  • a “wine geek” (June 6)
  • fantasy baseball players who are ardently not geeks (says one sociologist: “The people in the fantasy world have been fighting this perception that they’re some geek in their parents’ basement still wearing a Little League uniform,” June 4)
  • actor Patton Oswalt (“He’s a nerd gone wild, an unrepentant lover of comic books and pulp fiction, food, pornography and role-play video games, a guy who likes guns and yoga, hates hippies and President Bush and is capable of spewing out ornate, passionate, profanity-laden screeds on just about anything,” June 24)
  • a guy who wrote a “slacker’s guide” to surviving under Mao (“In the United States Mr. Kang might have been a beatnik, a slacker or a nerd,” June 13)
  • yachting as a profession and subculture (“a self-described nerd from Kansas who spent $68 million to win the Cup in 1992 aboard America3,” June 3)

… And more. This raises for me, of course, the question of where we draw the boundaries of what we call “geek culture” at all. That’s a question for another day, perhaps.

(Thanks again to Andrea for the link, which was way more useful than you thought it would be!)