Sex and the City “Geeks” (and Geek Studies) in the News

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 it—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. … 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 ‘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. … 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. … 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.

13 thoughts on “Sex and the City “Geeks” (and Geek Studies) in the News

  1. Hmm. One thing that strikes me is context. Facepaint would be seen as excessive for a regular-season game viewed at a bar, but fine at the stadium. I think some of the ‘couture’ of SatC is only appropriate at, e.g., a premier, but I’d have to check with the GF on that.

    Similarly, a lot of Trekkies* cringed when that woman started wearing her uniform to jury duty, even though they would be happy wearing the same thing to a con.

    *Incidentally, Safari seems to come down on the Trekkers side of the Trekkies/Trekkers debate, judging from its spellchecking.

  2. I’m tempted to forward this to my office at large given the current promotion on our website: (I’m going to claim that’s not blatant promotion for my employers due to the fact that I’m probably not exactly reaching our target audience by posting here.) Given that some of my coworkers are also heavy users of our service and SatC fans, there’s the potential for some interesting feedback there. By the same token, I’m wondering what the market is for, say, sword rental among LARPers…

  3. Church:
    Yes, very good point. Though I suspect fancy dresses may have a wider variety of acceptable contexts (outside of SatC fandom) than elf makeup.

    I am happy to hear the thoughts of Bag Borrow Steal employees! Also: is the company lending bags to the movie?

  4. The fact that people are thinking of SATC as a possible geek event points to several other things that might be worth considering. (I do think that Jason’s system for determining geekiness makes sense, especially given the fact that the women really themselves don’t see themselves as geeks.)

    First, I’ve been exposed to SATC marketing that encouraged women to dress up for their trip to the theater in all their Sex in the City best. Indeed, several radio stations were sponsering “go have your own SATC experience in NYC promotions”.

    Second, I think that the idea that dressing up for an event (be it an anime convention, San Deigo Comic Con or the Star Wars Movies) is something that has been connected to geeks. And so it makes some sense that they would connect women “dressing up” for SATC as a geeky.

    (I think it has a lot more to say about how the entertainment industry is failing to serve an entire gender when Women get this excited about a movie because it is something they can relate to. (As opposed to movies designed to tap into the Males aged 13-39 demo which seem to come out at about one a week.)

    Ultimately, and I’m not someone who blames the media, I feel like the American people (or the media or something) says that you can’t just be interested in something–they have to be geeked out over it…if you can’t point to X as the single thing that makes your life living, then you don’t have a life. (Where X is whatever pursuit you follow in a geeky way.)

    Just a couple of thoughts..I’d write more but a small child is about to attack my laptop.


  5. Okay, I guess that my son is happily asleep and I can try to make a little bit more sense.

    I feel like the geek paradigm is a real money maker for media companies (ie, if you cultivate a serious fan) and its in their best interest to encourage people to act like geeks when it comes to spending money on their products.

    (Which also explains last season’s serious geek courting via shows like Chuck, Bionic Women, Big Bang Theory, etc.)

    Anyhow, that was my main point, I think. Maybe.

  6. Huh. CC’s point is a good one, although I think there’s a love-hate relationship between media companies and fandom (fans have a tendency to be vocal when they don’t like what’s been done to *their* franchise.)

    Completely off-topic, but I was surprised to hear Henry Jenkins on NPR’s In Character discussing the fandom of Mr. Spock.

  7. 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.

    Change the bit about “husband and family” to “an joyless self fullfillment” and I think this is very much a description of the show. Yes, these women are independent and sexual and so on, but a marked improvement on images of women on popular television they are not.

    Talk about SITC fans not being geeks makes me sad. Exceptional deep, semi-social activity around narrow media interests? This is geekdom, and any claim otherwise sounds pretentious and needy in all the wrong ways. Though I suppose if your geek interest is a television show that is all about social/financial aspiration and being cool and loved, you’re not going to run out after watching and join your brother geeks in a pride march.

    I do think Church has a fair point w/r/t context. And SITC is years old now, and those that remain are the most hardcore of viewers. A few years off the air (and journalistic desire for novelty in social culture writing) has been an effective filter for showing us nothing but the geekiest of all SITC fans.

    BTW, if there’s money in it for me to benefit from the fickle tastes of LARPers, I will be the first one to provide Louis Vuitton swords on loan. I may not like LARPing, but I will happily exploit it for cash.

  8. I feel like the geek paradigm is a real money maker for media companies

    Oooo, want to hear my crazy crackpot connectionist theory? European luxury clothing and accessories have been riding high for years, but largely on a handful of markets (Japan for LV, US for men’s watches, etc) which now show signs of saturation. This is a fact. The crazy starts when I tell you that the SITC film only exists now to increase a particular kind of aspirational spending among middle-class white ladies, that eat yogurt and then dance and talk to their friends about yogurt. That this is the quickest, easiest way to increase market size for designer goods, and it was done. And I’m not saying it was the Freemasons behind it all, but I’m saying that it *could* have been the Freemasons.

  9. Thanks, CTW! As for the quote used in the article, as soon as I said it, I realized with a sinking feeling that it was pretty much the only thing I’d said in the entire conversation that would actually see print… 🙂

  10. I’ve always thought that geeks were nonconformists (although not all nonconformists are geeks). I doubt women obsessed with Sex and the City would label themselves nonconformist.

    I don’t know, Jacob seems to contradict himself: “Though I suppose if your geek interest is a television show that is all about social/financial aspiration and being cool and loved, you’re not going to run out after watching and join your brother geeks in a pride march.”

    Social aspiration! Aren’t geeks supposed to eschew social aspiration?

  11. I dressed up for the SaTC premiere. High heels, fancy dress! But I have also dressed up as an elf at GenCon. Let me tell you, the reaction from my “less geeky” friends to my elf costume vs my SaTC outfit says it all…

  12. Ha! Thanks, Kimberly. Safe to say that people find it kinda funny to dress up fancy for a movie, but a different kind of funny altogether to dress up like an elf for any reason besides Halloween..?

    Suddenly I wonder about how much fun it could be to have a crossover event of some sort here (elves in fancy dress..?).

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