‘There has been an awakening… Have you felt it…?’
These words resonate in your ears as you watch the new trailer for one of the most anticipated films of 2015 (and perhaps of all time) garnering over 8.5 million views in less than a week. I am, of course, talking about the trailer for the next instalment in the Star Wars franchise -- The Force Awakens. Helmed by J.J. Abrams, the movie has set the world of ‘geeks’ and ‘nerds’ to a fever point of anticipation.
Yet these words hold a more serious connotation of what is happening in our culture and mainstream media. There has been an awakening in a sub-culture and it has infiltrated our entertainment industry, fashion world, technology and pop culture. No longer are geeks quietly inhabiting the lesser known comic book stores, dueling over card games and strutting the halls of libraries whilst avoiding the school bullies. As Rachel Riga exclaims: ‘the geeks are here…out from the depths of book and comic stores to take over the world’, and she’s not wrong.
If you think this is just a phase, you couldn’t be more wrong. ‘Geek culture’ is a big deal. In fact the change is huge. If you scan the lists of all time box office champions, highest grossing films, all-time best selling games, top TV shows or best-trafficked blogs/websites you will find their roots are firmly grounded within this cultural phenomenon. These days comics, or references towards the art form, can be found everywhere. They've invaded movie screen, video game console, high street fashion clothes and commercialized toys. Comics dominate the shelves of youth orientated retailers. Graphic novels are reviewed in the critic circles of mainstream media such as the NY Times and placed firmly in the windows of book retailers such as Waterstones. They are no longer bottom of the social hierarchy. It is now the in thing to label oneself as a geek.
This view is supported by an Omnibus survey by Modis (2013), in support of Geek Pride Day (May 25th) regarding Americans’ perception of geeks, personal passions and hobbies, and technology. The results were uncannily in favour of the geek with 65% of respondents saying that if they were trying to impress someone, they would take pride in their “geek” toys (i.e. stuffed animals and action figures). 90% of those surveyed said they would be proud of their books and comic books, and a surprising 65% would be proud of their superhero or cartoon character clothing, including pyjamas. 68% of all respondents said they would date a geek. This may be due to 67% of Americans associating geeks with being loyal, an important component to any relationship.
Thus, all evidence points towards a general consensus that it's cool to be geek. However, this current trend of identifying oneself as a nerd is not the result of a sudden change of heart. Instead it is the result of a carefully marketed plan via the mainstream media.
Content producers and manufacturers realized that there was a huge opportunity to tap into a sleeping giant of a market. The term geek chic has entered contemporary parlance, reflecting that many people in society now define the word as a positive, rather than a derogatory term. It has even entered the Oxford Dictionary, which defines the term as ‘The dress, appearance and culture associated with computing and technology enthusiasts, regarded as stylish or fashionable.’ Yet this somehow still feels like an oxymoron or some form of joke. The definition goes against the very ideas that people have of what a geek is supposed to mean. A recent survey by advertising agency ‘Inferno’ further highlights the public’s adherence towards the now cool sect of society. Their findings indicate that the public finds intelligence and passionate engagement with a hobby four times more attractive in a person than good looks or dressing well. What’s even better, the name of the campaign is ‘Geek Is Good’ (Inferno campaign, 2013).
So what does this all mean?
Has the geek finally been absorbed and claimed by the mainstream? A sub-culture once rooted in its love of pop culture minutiae and expertise in all things technical, now reduced to commodities sold for fashionable reasons, rather than love of the culture (much like rock band t-shirts worn by unwitting fans). For theorists such as Warren Ellis, the notion of geek culture itself is becoming outdated. He finds the phrase weirdly disparaging and box like for something so hugely autonomous.
When we look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the most popular shows from self-confessed geek and writer/director Joss Whedon, we look at it in the confines of geek culture. Yet this was one of the most successful shows of all time with an average audience between 4-5.3 million in the USA. We could also argue that modern cinema is now in the age of the superhero and fantasy, with movies such as Lord of the Rings and the lucrative MCU, but this isn’t a result of geek culture beating the mainstream. Instead, it has become a new iteration of the mainstream. This has led to a stark shift in what the culture represents. It’s very representation and definition has been reinvented as a result of its new found popularity. As Rob Salkowitz states, the culture sits at a ‘crossroads of art and commerce’.
What does this crossroad mean for the culture?
It is this crossroad of art and commerce that lead me to have a more in depth look at arguably the biggest representation of geek culture in the wider media, the massively popular "The Big Bang Theory".
The Big Bang Theory (2007-Present) is a contemporary American sitcom that focuses around a set of characters all in the scientific field. The five young scientists are sharply contrasted with their pretty blonde neighbour, which is the source of much of the comedy. Consistently ranked in the top 5 shows in the world, The Big Bang Theory (2007-present) is arguably the biggest advocate for the advancement of the geek within pop culture and entertainment. In an editorial called ‘The Revenge of the Nerds’ in The Journal of Popular Culture, Gary Hoppenstand credits the show for having
‘struck a responsive chord in its audience, giving hope that nerds have become at least an interesting topic for Mr and Mrs Average American’.
Even in the hugely popular show this idea of reverting back to the infantile self and stereotypical view of the geek is prevalent. It teaches that sometimes the geek can get the beautiful girl, but it’s usually the least ‘geeky ‘ (Leonard) of the bunch. Even when the ‘geekiest’ (Sheldon) member gets a girl (Amy), she is as much a social outcast as he is, and as with all sitcoms, all the lessons learned are forgotten by the next episode and the individuals revert to their stereotypical selves. It never calls the shows basic premise into question, the idea that beauty and brains are mutually exclusive.
The shows humour works from its dual address, having inside jokes for people familiar with the selected fandom fuelled content (such as Star Trek jokes) or scientific field, as well as working with identifiable stereotypes for a mainstream audience. This is an example of the double articulation of television discourse. Televisual dialogue is designed for the audience or the ‘overhearers’, who are ratified and intended to be there.
The Big Bang Theory is good for the geek... Right?
It is true that the show focuses on a set of stereotypical nerds and has championed its place as one of the most popular shows of our time, yet a recent New York Times article has shown that many scientists feel the show is a step back to the Stone Age. They doubt that this show will spur many on a course for a career within the STEM field of academia. Anderegg also agrees that the show isn’t necessarily positive for the modern day geek. Rather, he feels the show has negative connotations, reinforcing the idea that people with intellect, an interest in maths and comics are also social misfits with no sense of humour or chance of getting a girlfriend… ever.
The show has reignited the debate around the portrayal of the stereotypical geek, especially with one of its central characters -- Sheldon Cooper. He epitomizes the pathologising of fan behaviour with his excessive and obsessive fandom, something Joli Jenson describes as ‘a form of psychological compensation, an attempt to make up for all that modern life lacks’. Fans, academics and critics have all viewed the representation of Sheldon Cooper as problematic when it comes to damaging stereotypes. Studying the character, it is easy to see the traits that he has been given are those that yield derogatory connotations of the geek. He believes in his own intellectual superiority, was a child prodigy, struggles with social interaction, has obsessive compulsive tendencies, has an affinity for computers and science, hates change and cannot drive. It is almost certain that his traits would lead him to have a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome on the Autistic Spectrum. Thus, a lot of the comedy is at his expense of his total lack of social abilities and understanding. For Monika Bednarek, Sheldon Cooper is:
“Styled as someone who fulfils all the stereotypical character traits of a nerd/geek as well as some other that are shared with particular psychological conditions, ranging from “arrogance, obsessive-compulsive and Asperger like- behaviour”
Interestingly, a lot of the dialogue within the show concerns other characters explaining everyday social situations to Sheldon who clearly cannot fathom them. Here is an excerpt from Season 1, Episode 16 ‘The Peanut Reaction’. In this scene, Sheldon has to be taught the social practice of gift buying. Sheldon is only able to comprehend the social meaning when one of his equally geeky friends informs the pretty blonde Penny what to say:
Penny: Uh, Sheldon, I didn’t see your present.
Sheldon: That’s because I didn’t bring one.
Penny: Well why not?
Howard: Don’t ask.
Sheldon: The entire institution of gift giving makes no sense.
Howard: Too late.
Sheldon: Let’s say that I go out and I spend fifty dollars on you, it’s a laborious activity, because I have to imagine what you need, whereas you know what you need. Now I can simplify things, just give you the fifty dollars directly and, you could give me fifty dollars on my birthday, and so on until one of us dies leaving the other one old and fifty dollars richer. And I ask you, is it worth it?
Howard: Told you not to ask.
Penny: Well, Sheldon, you’re his friend. Friends give each other presents.
Sheldon: I accept your premise, I reject your conclusion.
Howard: Try telling him it’s a non-optional social convention.
Howard: Just do it.
Penny: It’s a non-optional social convention.
Sheldon: Oh. Fair enough.
Howard: He came with a manual.
This is a further example of the dual televisual language used within the show to provide a comedic element that both factions of fans will understand. Sheldon's semiotic practices also demarcates him as a stereotypical geek. His hair, clothes and mannerisms are all examples of the nerd/geek schema. Yet Sheldon is even demeaned verbally by his geek friends. I would argue that this, although seemingly rooted in comedy, is largely due to his character embodying all the traits of a geek, in particular the perceived psychological traits.
When we analyse Sheldon, it becomes clear that his on screen personality is perpetuated and reinforced through the self, and other representations that draw on stereotypes commonly believed by the target audience. His paralinguistic behaviour and trademark laugh, his routine actions or in later seasons his bazinga catchphrase which signifies his use of a joke all reinforce this perpetuation of the self. Although the show has been successful in creating an interesting and loveable character in Sheldon, the characterization is largely damaging in its use of derogatory stereotypes.
The show can be seen as a positive in creating a space within mainstream popular entertainment for the celebration of all things considered geek and rooted in science, but the fact remains that The Big Bang Theory is ultimately damaging in its representation of stereotypes that audiences would be familiar with i.e. the anti-social geek.
The on screen stereotypical depictions of the geek has led to some hostility from figures within the subculture.
This mainstream attention have given rise to a wave of hostility from individuals who feel they have been part of the culture well before it gained any notoriety. A form of Geek Hipster if you will; hating those who have new found love for the subculture, which they might never have encountered it without mainstream exposure. Patton Oswalt was one of the first to warn against this geek revival in an article again for Wired magazine morbidly called ‘Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time To Die.’ He claimed that anyone could now claim a form of connection to geek culture due to the influence of the internet and the increased access that people have to images and texts from the past. Believing this to be a largely threatening aspect to the idea of being a ‘fan’ Oswalt begrudgingly concluded that:
‘with everyone more or less otaku (Japanese term for people with obsessive interests) and everything immediately awesome … the old inner longing for more or better that made our present pop culture so amazing is dwindling … Etewaf (Everything That Ever Was – Available Forever) doesn’t produce a new generation of artists – just an army of sated consumers.’
This argument is the idea that to be a geek/nerd was to be part of the minority. This is an ideology that mirrors Brownfields ‘Geekster Handbook’, and his 6 precise types of people who portray the characteristics worthy to be a nerd. This is rather troubling, as they refuse to acknowledge the acceptance and inclusion of geek culture in a wider context opting instead to argue for what Lincoln Geraghty describes as ‘some kind of special status’.
This stereotyping does not just fester in celebrity and entertainment culture, it has also seeped its way into the political world. In August 2010, The New York Times ran a story on Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan. The article referred to his good looks throughout. It described him as ‘fit from years of an intense exercise program called P90X’ and paid special attention to his hair. Sounding increasingly dreamy, the article then goes on to warn how his ‘inner nerd seeps through’ due to his meticulous planning and, bizarrely, his use of PowerPoint. This article could just as easily have said; this guy has it all, looks, brains and hardworking initiative. Yet, look deeper. What this article is really saying is, he may look pretty but on the inside he’s a geek because, as Anderegg previously told us, ‘one cannot be both sexy and smart’.
Compare this to TIME Magazines scathing description of their ‘Person of the Year 2009’, Ben Bernanke. They use descriptions such as ‘tired eyes’ and a man who ‘doesn’t have a commanding presence’. They state that he has ‘none of the look-at-me swagger or listen-to-me charisma’. They even justify this almost personally ‘Because Ben Bernanke is a nerd.’ This article places emphasis on the aesthetic appearance of Bernanke to make it that more jaw-dropping a fact to think that he has won person of the year and all because… well he’s a nerd. This fascination is grounded in the idea that people still think that physical beauty or sexiness and intellectual achievement are mutually exclusive.
So is it a good time to be a geek?
The most prevalent family in pop culture is without a doubt the Kardashian clan. However, for every teen looking up towards the Kardashian family as defining cultural icons, I would argue that there is even more looking up and aspiring to the lofty heights of figures such as Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs.
The reason behind this is due to the success that each individual has had coming from what is perceived as a ‘geeky’ background. Their inventions and initiatives are intrinsically linked with their so called ‘geeky’ passions and obsessions. If Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t a geek, we’d never have Facebook, Steve Jobs would never have invented the Apple brand and Richard Branson wouldn’t be pioneering commercial space travel. The reason these figures are now looked upon as cool and inspirational is due to the marketing and new found mainstream portrayal of their life’s work. It's cool to be a geek, and it's also cool to be proud of your passions and hobbies.
With this newly found attention to the geek, global corporations have tapped into an almost limitless supply of commodities that can be packaged and sold to masses. These new stalwart icons of popular culture are a result of the accessibility of cool gadgets and technology. Technology has become easily attainable, with companies such as Apple and Microsoft making significant technological advances and the availability of the products for the mass market covering all demographics, not just those of the geek/nerd. No longer are computers intriguing and complex hobbies for geeks; rather they are part of everyday life for the majority of the first world. The elitism of mastering technology is over, as the digital explosion has democratized technology.
Welcome to the age of the Geek... May it long continue!