If a television show turned cultural phenomenon spawns diehard fans who recite dialogue by heart, wear costumes inspired by the show and buy all the tie-in products, are these devotees nerds? If the show in question is Star Trek, The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the answer is certainly yes. But what if we’re talking about Sex and the City?
Mark Medley, a reporter writing for the National Post, asked me this question a couple weeks ago. Now, it kicks off an article titled “Female Trekkies.” (Another version, sans my brief quote, made it to the Victoria Times Colonist under the title “Sex and the City Fans. Geek or Chic?”)
This may sound a bit confusing to people who aren’t familiar with Sex and the City and its devoted fan following. For some fans, being a SATC fan goes beyond catching up on the show every week: It means buying the outfits featured on the show, and being thrilled to catch the movie premier now that the show’s off the air. Sound familiar, browncoats? Some fans of geeky media may surely think so, such as comics writer/novelist/blogger Jamie S. Rich, who describes (in a link via Chris) a screening of the new Sex and the City movie:
Really, it was like I was at a comic book convention, but one for chicks. Though, I don’t think it’s fair if I show up for the Hulk screening covered in green make-up I’ll get called a geek and going to see Sex and the City in fake couture is somehow not geeky. You can’t even make a claim that having boobs is what makes it different, because I know a lot of comic book guys (and sports fan guys) with bigger boobs than any of the actresses in the movie (well, except Jennifer Hudson). Nerds in any other underwear are just as nerdy.
I’m sure there are some around here, too, who would argue that ‘geek’ is now a broad enough term to apply to just about any fervent interest, especially when applied to pop culture in this way. That take on the concept of ‘geek’ lends it a little legitimacy, when you think about itâ€”how could ‘geek’ be a bad thing when just about everybody is a geek nowadays?
That said, when Mark Medley asked me whether I thought SATC fans were geeks, I told him no. Or, rather, I told him that my research prioritizes what people tell me over what I think personally, and I suspect that these fans (a) wouldn’t call themselves geeks and (b) wouldn’t be considered geeks by most of those who do consider themselves as such.
Annalee Newitz, io9 and She’s Such a Geek! co-editor, was quoted as denying this geek definition flat-out:
Women who follow Sex and the City are not geeks. â€¦Â They are doing what soap opera fans have always done: obsessively reading about their stories, and buying related consumer items. Are women who read Vogue geeks? Are women who know every detail about Sephora cosmetics geeks? No. You can’t expand the term â€˜geek’ to mean anyone who is interested in something without draining the term of all meaning.
And one especially enthusiastic SATC fan quoted in the article kind of backs this up, distancing herself and fellow fans from this label:
I don’t think there’s anything nerdy or geeky about Sex and the City. â€¦ I think it’s more of a diva, glamour [thing]. I guess that’s more what I’d consider myself.
So what’s the big difference here? My quote that made it to the article suggests:
Being identified as a geek, or identifying oneself as a geek, kind of signals an understanding that you are or you know that you should be feeling embarrassed about what it is that you’re interested in. â€¦Â And I doubt that…Sex and the City fans are really particularly embarrassed about their great interest in the show.
This isn’t a complete explanation, of course, but a reporter can only fit so much of my lengthy ramblings into one article. I thought it might be worth it to expand upon this a bit here, though.
In this context, I think that the big difference between a geeky fan interest and a not-geeky fan interest is how much the interest conforms to broadly understood norms of gender and maturity. It’s tempting to say that geeky/nerdy interests are more “intellectual” or based around obsession over “data,” but really, that wouldn’t count out SATC fans or even most sports fans. (Some geeks may be surprised by the breadth of statistics and history known to the average sports fan.) The only dimensions we’re talking about here are depth of enthusiasm and an interest in costuming (or fashion, if you prefer). Sports fans, too, will similarly “dress up” (in jerseys and/or face paint) for major fan events.
No, what we’re seeing here is that some interests are characterized as geeky and some are not, regardless of the specific behaviors or level of excitement involved. Sports represent a traditionally masculine interest, celebrating competition, aggression, and physical prowess. And, arguably, this is all connected to adult interests of strength and (to put it bluntly) suitability for mating. At the same time, being a SATC fan represents a sort of acceptably feminine interest in a feminist age. Even the SATC fan’s comment quoted above resists the “geek” label in favor of “glamor” or “diva,” a clearly gender-coded understanding. What’s particularly interesting to me about SATC is the way that it updates these feminine interests for a feminist culture. The characters aren’t the image of the female consumer constructed in a lot of old television and advertising, dedicated to swooning over heartthrobs, living for husband and family, and spending frivolously. They may be just as interested in relationships and shopping, but they’re sexually open, and successful career women in their own right.
Geeky pursuits don’t really fit anywhere in this paradigm of age- and gender-appropriate interests. To the world at large, they seem primarily aligned with childish boys, not adult men or women. Comics, games, and sci-fi represent escapist fantasy, a rejection of the hypermasculine, and not quite aligned with the traditionally feminine. The war paint of a sports fan somehow seems more manly and acceptable than the war paint of a LARPer. And in comparison, the fashionable dress and four-inch heels of the SATC fan is practically unassailable as an acceptably adult and gender-appropriate “costume.”
Of course, I’ve never claimed it was my job to arbitrate who is a geek and who isn’t. I pay attention to how others decide that for themselves and for one another. Sex and the City fans, now’s your chance to let your geek flag fly and stomp on my own observations, if you’re so inclined. So far, though, I’ve had the impression that geekiness is defined as much by how the world looks at what interests us as by how deeply we get involved with those interests.