Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Geek Identity

“What are you doing this weekend?” my coworker asked, as she wiped down the bar.

“My Dungeons & Dragons group is meeting for the first time in ages,” I replied – whereupon she collapsed into a fit of laughter that lasted for about five solid minutes. Each time the giggles seemed likely to dry up, she would take another glance at me, patiently waiting for her to finish, and a fresh wave of uncontrollable mirth would strike. Eventually, staggering upright, wiping away the tears, she hiccuped out,

“I suppose – you still have – a few more years...”

Most of the people I regularly spend time with, online or in real life, are, like me, nerds. The ones who aren't tolerate my nerdiness, to the point that they don't tend to laugh uncontrollably at me (to my face, anyway). I had forgotten that the world is full of people who react to forthright declarations of geekery the way my coworker did.

If geek culture – as signified by markers like Dungeons & Dragons, devotion to cult TV series, paperback doorstoppers with dragons on the covers – is an adolescent pursuit we should all outgrow by our mid-twenties, what does that say about those of us who are lifelong geeks?

You're never supposed to admit this, but I haven't always been devoted to Firefly and Mystery Science Theater 3000 and China Miéville. These things are merely the current trappings of geekdom. Being a geek is a lot like being gay: anybody can latch onto the external behaviors and signifiers of the subculture, but externals do not a geek make. Geek is something you always have been and always will be, whether you like Star Trek or not.

Geekdom is the eight-year-old who sneaks away from the birthday party to spend the afternoon hiding in a closet with a book. It's the kid who works so hard in school that even the teachers write “Swotticus mingicus” on her report card (that's neo-British-East-African for “Dorkus malorkus”). It's the teenager who enjoys exams and spends her free time writing a novel.

Geeks are, I think, almost all introverts. It's not that we're friendless social misfits, though many of us have been at some point in our lives, but we thrive on our own company. The defining characteristic of geekdom is a love of minutiae and depth – the enjoyment of overthinking for its own sake – and that necessarily entails time spent alone with one's interests.

That's why we're all internet-diagnosed aspies (I score 34 on the AQ Test, yo), and that's why we all love Dr. Sheldon Cooper. The Big Bang Theory is probably the most popular mainstream representation of geek culture, and Sheldon is its best character by a parsec *audience laughs because I geekified a common idiom*. The other characters engage in the recognized cultural currency of geekdom – they read comic books, play videogames, watch sci-fi shows – but none of them displays that single-mindedness that is the hallmark of being a geek.

I realize that watching people be introverted would make for terrible TV, but there's no indication that Leonard or Howard or Raj gives to anything the time and attention that Sheldon gives to his work and his fandoms. Of course, in his single-minded devotion to his own interests, Sheldon frequently misses social cues and acts like an ass to people, but we like him because we wish we could do that too.

The Big Bang Theory, for all its claims to be representative of geeks and geek culture, buys into the idea that geekery is adolescent. Although lately it's improved its portrayal of women, adding several strong (and geeky!) female characters to the regular cast, the show is still beholden to its initial premise of laughing at the geeks' failures to interact with the pretty normie girl. Just last week, Priya (the other pretty normie girl) spoke disparagingly of her brother's nerdy hobby from when he was little, “but not as little as you'd want him to be.”

This coding of geek activities as immature plays directly into the heteronormative patriarchy. Yeah, I just wrote that sentence, and I believe it. Because “you'll outgrow geek culture” sounds to me a lot like “you'll get broody before you're thirty”. It's a way of delegitimating non-mainstream identities and assuming every life has to follow the traditionalist model of “growing up” – leaving behind all your interests and ambitions in order to have a spouse and children and a house in the suburbs and Tupperware parties and a mortgage. Which is fine if you want it, but not everyone does.

People tell me that one day I'll want to “settle down” and bear children; people tell me I'll “outgrow” my geeky interests. I say: God, I hope not.


  1. I'm so glad I fell in love with a fellow geek. We met on the Internet, over a message board dealing with anime and videogames. (Seriously, we were both Pokemon fans - ADULT Pokemon fans).

    My guy's nephew loves spending holidays with us when he can instead of "the other half of the family" because with us, he can be a geek. The things we talk about and do, the jokes we make... it's like geek-fumes come off of us.

    Normal? Who cares about that? I'm too busy having fun writing fan fiction and dressing up as Vash the Stampede at anime conventions (when we can afford to go to them). I'm aware that I'm weird, and we're weird and love it.

    I love my current job, although it's sterotypical of a "hick job" or "lowbrow labor" I like it because it's a lonely job - I'm set to work and that's it. Don't bother me. Let me focus on the task and be alone with my thoughts.

    I've not played Dungeons and Dragons yet, in my life, though. If folks would invite me in and teach a newbie how to go about it, I'm sure I'd become an addict. It always looked fun. I've done online text-roleplaying and round robin stories for my fandoms. It's how some of my fanfiction's come about.

    Eh, there's a quote I live by, I hope it's accurate:

    "When I was a child, I thought as a child. When I grew up, I put away childish things, including the desire to be very grown up." _ C.S. Lewis

  2. Wait, geeks can't be settled? So my crazy cat ladyness isn't a sticking condition???

    I'm with you here. Had a good conversation with my cousin recently who's a gamer geek and we started wondering if there's some sort of geek hierarchy, with film geeks being the cool kids, comic book fans the median and gamers in their own world. Not so sure if it fits or not, but I like the idea of being a cool kid SOMEWHERE!

  3. YES! I FOUND IT! I knew I'd seen this before.

    A flowchart of "Geek Hierarchy."

    Two seconds on Google brought it up.