Nerds in the News

I turned in the first full draft of my proposal to my advisor this past weekend, and I will be defending on August 20th, just before leaving for PAX. I’m still quite busy getting back to people I met in San Diego, Lisbon, and Paris, in addition to revising papers for journals—but I can’t pass up two explicitly geek/nerd articles in the New York Times posted in one week, can I?

On Comic Con: A New York Times article proclaims that “We’re all geeks here” (via Mike S.):

With dazed smiles, sweat-stained Superman T-shirts, pink hair, deathly pallor, yards of tattoos, rolls of fat and an occasional pair of detachable devil horns, troops of comic-book fans, collectible professionals and enthusiasts, science-fiction nerds and circling Hollywood sharks descended on the San Diego Convention Center last weekend for the 38th annual Comic-Con International. Happily adrift and at times gaga from sensory overload, I did too.

I expect to see this thing at Kotaku, which declares that “Comic-Con + Video Games = geekery extremis,” but that’s geeks calling each other out. Interesting to see so much more of this happening in mainstream news lately.

The article goes on to suggest, “This is where you let your freak flag fly without getting beaten up by the playground bullies.” It’s kind of a funny statement, maybe half-correct; I’m curious to find whether most of my interviewees were bullied for being nerds as kids, and I picked Comic Con as a site because I knew I’d find people who feel like they can be unabashedly nerdy without embarrassment, but I doubt that literal beatings are a huge concern for the largely post-adolescent attendee base. Also, while the people in colorful costumes are quite numerous, articles like this make them sound like the majority of attendees. That seems unlikely to me, given that I have come upon nobody in costume while pseudo-randomly looking for interviewees (e.g., by deciding that I’ll request interviews from every third person I pass by when I walk into a room). I think the author hits the nail on the head in this paragraph, though, which gets to the heart of what I suspect I’ll be discussing in my own chapter on geeky fan interests:

Granted, there’s something juvenile about immersing yourself in the world of superheroes and action figures, about getting in touch with your inner Mini-Me. But that’s the point and the pleasure of events like Comic-Con, which give men, women and children of all ages permission to dress up and act out. Comic-Con isn’t (only) about the new culture of arrested development, about young adults still living with, and mooching off, Mom and Dad, or those young adults whom the journalist Adam Sternbergh calls grups, a word borrowed from the “Star Trek” episode in which Enterprise crew stumbles across a planet ruled by children, the grown-ups (grups) having died from aging. Comic-Con is about play, freedom. In a word: utopia.

Of course, Henry Jenkins and Matt Hills (by way of Theodore Adorno, of all people) have pretty well addressed the idea of fandom being analogous to childlike play, so I’m not yet sure what I’ll have to bring to this. I wonder, though, whether there’s something particularly childlike about geeky fandom compared to other kinds of fandom—and if not, then why do we even need a term like “geeky” applied to some fan interests and not others?

Also, I’m not sure yet of what I want to say about the last two paragraphs, but I know I want to remember them:

The outsider identity that clings to comic books has been instrumental to the creation of what has become a multimillion-dollar industry. The cliché about fans being losers with no social skills, no friends and no clue is essential to its myths, marketing and even its most loyal readers. In the last few decades the emergence of a geek elite has helped legitimize this outsider culture and helped bring legions of 97-pound weaklings into the sightlines of the industrial entertainment complex. In some respects America is now a country of freaks and geeks, self-professed outsiders who imagine themselves somehow different from the herd, perhaps because they are Americans — radical individuals who are united if only by their increasingly narrow interests and obsessions.

This kind of atomization of the culture has its problems, as we know deep in our bones. Yet for all my worries that we are turning into a nation of iPod people, that’s only part of the big, postmodern, late-capitalism picture. Despite all the plastic and dissembling, events like Comic-Con represent something genuine and true and, yes, powerful about how people live in the modern world. Every day we wake up to navigate through a faceless, inhuman, Made-in-China existence. Some of us escape through literature, some of us burrow deep into movies. And some of us find sweet relief in what, to the outside world, looks entirely disposable, useless and — here’s that word again — childish. They find happiness in Hot Wheels, wonderment in Wonder Woman. Superman teaches them how to fly, and they do.

Okay, moving on…

On Nerdcore: Another Times article titled “Dungeons, dragons, and dope beats” (via Cabral) describes nerdcore hip-hop through a rather oversimplified history:

There was a time that brainy, pimple-cheeked misfits could only work out their frustrations alone, in action-figure-filled bedrooms, blasting through level after level in “shooter” video games likes Wolfenstein 3D.

Then nerdcore came along.

I also find it kind of amusing that this article uses the same trope I keep seeing in other articles about nerdcore—”It could have been any other hip-hop show, but little details seemed off…” Cue references to Goonies, D&D, Boba Fett, etc., with a note that “From its early days, hip-hop has been an art form born from oppression and marginalization.” The article also reports that nerdcore/”geek rap” artists may now number in the thousands. Nevertheless, nerds in hip-hop must still “keep to their side of the cafeteria”:

Nerdcore, said Jonah Weiner, a senior editor at Blender magazine, “is not even in the big tent of hip-hop, it’s not even in the sideshow freak tent.”

“It’s a bunch of kids setting up a tent down the road, from their mom’s car,” he said.

Like the above article on Comic Con, this one refers to a phenomenon with largely adult audience with a phrase reminiscent of school experiences. I find these kind of assumptions worth nothing because, as I’ve probably mentioned earlier here, no academic study has yet made any connection between the people called “nerds” as kids and the people calling themselves “nerds” (or geeks, or whatever) as adults.

Moving on, we see some more talk about how geeks are mainstream and heroic and all nowadays:

Peter Kong, 23, a professional translator who wore long sideburns, a shag haircut and blocky black eyeglasses that made him look a bit like a Bond henchman from the mid-’60s, said the nerd ethic has become so mainstream nowadays that even nerds are ready to move on.

“It’s become so obvious,” he said, “we don’t use the word anymore.”

Being a nerd no longer merits a scarlet “N” in an era when Napoleon Dynamite and Ugly Betty have become teenage heroes, the Apple founder Steve Jobs is virtually a rock star, and YouTube has helped make every geek a star in his own mind.

And again, we see MC Chris connect the phenomenon back to childlike play:

“I don’t think it’s about nerds,” he said, after reflection. “It’s about grown men who are in this new phase of their life, their mid-20s or late 20s, postcollege. They just want to think about the kid stuff. Because it’s easier. It’s a simpler time.”

I’m not going to elaborate any more right now on the whiteness of nerdcore—see this post and comment thread if you want in on that debate—but this article does mention a couple times that of those thousands listening to and making nerdcore, it seems like a pretty non-Black phenomenon.

All right, I’d love to comment further, but I think I’ve exceeded my blogging quota for the day. Please feel free to take over where this leaves off (or just disagree completely).

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