Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Geek Girls in a Geeky World: 21st Century Subcultures

If the geeks are going to inherit the earth, then why is everyone still laughing?

Ed Note: This post is part of a tandem series with the amazing SciCurious of Neurotic Physiology. Be sure to head on over an read her part of this story. In fact, why don't you do that now?  
Geek /gēk/ (noun):
  • A person regarded as foolish, inept, or clumsy.
  • A person with an eccentric devotion to a particular interest that places him or her outside of traditional social boundaries.
  • A carnival performer whose show consists of bizarre acts.

1915- 20; probably variant of geck (mainly Scots), meaning fool from Dutch or Low German gek.
I’m a geek girl, though I may not meet the stereotypical criteria associated with this status—i.e., I’m not a socially inept, basement dwelling, sports and pop culture averse, Plain Jane with immense knowledge about obscure/irrelevant topics that no one but a fellow geek would be interested in. At least I don't perceive myself that way, though it's possible that others might. Before we go any further, I want to stress that this is not my perception of what geeks are like. There are plenty of geeks, both male and female, who break this mold. But this is the way geeks are portrayed in popular media and it is the view that is often held by members of the mainstream. It is also a view that many who identify as geeks have come to embrace as their own.

Sure, I’m a history buff—utterly fascinated by the Dutch heritage in New York City and the ways those early traditions helped shape New York City into the metropolis it is today—and I won’t hesitate to tell you all about grid layouts or old marketplaces if the opportunity arises. My downtime includes video games ranging from SimCity to Assassin’s Creed. (Best.Game.Evah.) Also, I’m a bit of a DC-character fangirl, and I'd be glad to dissect Moriarty with you. And, of course, my head gets turned by technology and science and culture fairly easily. I’m driven to know how and why things work. I like to tinker, and push buttons—literally.But I’m not a fan of being sequestered in the basement. There's no reason to hide my geekiness, but I don’t feel that I need to exaggerate it for recognition or respect. I can be a geek. I can be me.

However, the badges of subculture identity are important, and polarized symbols have long been held as requirements for group membership and categorization. SciCurious of Neurotic Physiology has an interesting post up on the meeting between geek culture and the mainstream. She discusses the derision expressed by a marketing professional for Game of Thrones fans who elected to appear in “garb” at a publicity event, noting that even as geeks are becoming more visible, they’re still largely on the outskirts of acceptance. (Sci was not in garb.) She asks, “how loud is geekdom speaking?” because “if the geeks are going to inherit the earth, then why is everyone still laughing?”

Good question. Because the geeks have inherited the earth. Geekiness has never been more visible thanks to technology. Though some, like Patton Oswalt, have worried that this means that anyone can be a geek:
pop culture is nerd culture. The fans of Real Housewives of Hoboken watch, discuss, and absorb their show the same way a geek watched Dark Shadows or obsessed over his eighth-level half-elf ranger character in Dungeons & Dragons.
Technology has generated the means for communities to form around any interest. I don’t know that I necessarily agree that in-depth knowledge about the Housewives or Jersey Shore signifies geek status, but I agree that we have the ability to concentrate our interests in ways that suit us thanks to technology. And in this regard, geekiness exists in a much more visible way than it has in the past. While Oswalt bemoans the loss of the work entailed in attaining geekdom and the popularity of the objects associated with geekiness, this visibility also means that others can participate without abandoning all other aspects of personality.

For a long time, geekdom was defined by markers that placed it outside of the accepted social realm, and this identification has been one that geeks themselves have been slow to relinquish. Definitions that include ideas of “foolishness” and “bizarre” help encourage polarization. At one point, the only people who would have shown up to the Game of Thrones photo op might have been people willing to dress in garb. What “normals” would want to publicly declare an interest in something so obviously geeky? Geeks like SciCurious would have been in the minority—and maybe they would have been the object of derision.

The rise of the nerdette documents the emergence of smart, tech-savvy women like Tina Fey, Kari Byron, and Limor Fried. They’re also geek girls who don’t meet traditional geek stereotypes. But even as they assert their presence as geeks in technology and science, they’re also being used to typecast the identity of geek. As geek chic, they represent a way to be a geek without being too geeky, which is different from expressing geekiness while holding onto other aspects of your identity and interests. In this case, these women are touted as models of how to be geeky in a way that’s acceptable to the public. They’re being used as the example of middle-ground for geeks. Next to geek chic, garb looks incredibly removed from the norm, and becomes an item for ridicule.

The establishment of geek chic is itself a polarizing item within the subculture. Having long been ostracized and situated on the outskirts of society, geeks view these attempts to commercialize and popularize the identity as suspect. It has always been the case that subcultures defined themselves by certain markers, such as clothing, makeup, music, tattoos—anything could be meaningful to the group. Adherence to these types of markers demonstrated commitment to the identity. Thus it may be that geeks themselves are laughing at other geeks, and in doing so creating divisions within the subculture itself.

Being a geek has traditionally been a very local experience: Think of a bunch of teens gathered in the basement to play Dungeons & Dragons—they would represent the geek set for a neighborhood, and they were locked into that identity. That isn’t the case today—networks are large and diverse, and the shifts that are occurring reflect the influx of this varied membership which can straddle multiple subcultures. Geek guys who are initially quick to dismiss me are often surprised when I comment on code, video games, or the merits of certain super villains—though if I’m wearing my glasses, they seem to accept these additions a bit more readily than when I’m dressed up sans glasses. In mainstream culture, comments on code and super villains increasingly serve as ice-breakers. That is, being able to speak intelligently about these topics seem to give me a bit of an edge even if the audience doesn’t completely understand and/or agree with what I’m saying.

We’re in the midst of a shift concerning knowledge and interests. With information at our fingertips, it’s okay to be schooled in the obscure, and it’s okay to be smart. Patton’s concerns about technology reducing the work of becoming a geek are largely unfounded. An afternoon on Wikipedia does not make one a DC fangirl. You have to have read the comics, traced the histories, watched the cartoons, and discussed the nuances with others. You have to participate in the community of fandom. Technology is a tool of geekiness: being able to access and share information about the obscure will be as important as being able to spout that information at a moment’s notice in a basement somewhere. More people can participate in geekiness, and it’s okay to exhibit geekiness in the way that suits you. But even as these shifts occur, the pressure to typecast persists.

Photo: Limor Fried makes the cover of Wired. © Wired


  1. I'm a geek and I approve this message! I need to find one these geek women you refer to :p

    I agree that pop culture is not nerd culture. That would mean every fad receives nerd status. Extending the 60s reference, that would be like saying the Beatles had a nerd following. Although, there is a tendency to change the word geek into other contexts like "gleek".

  2. Point the First: my girlfriend has long idealized Lady Ada. I do not consider this a bad thing.

    Point the Second: Have you ever read Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald"? I've a suspicion you might like it.

    Point the Third: While female geeks do seem ascendent, they are not fully accepted into the geek community. I've seen this being explored both within predominantly male geek community, and by female geeks. I can't say I've found an easy solution, but what I've noticed is that the explorations of the issue seem to result in more, not less, divide.

    Point the Fourth: "Geek" as an identifier, and as a community, is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically (for relatively short definitions of history) identified geeks with technology, and even with specific technology - there was never a "printing press geek" culture. However, geeks have been a driving force in our cultural shifts for the last fifty years - it is geekery that has yielded the telecommunications infrastructure we have today, after all, and one cannot understate the importance of fundamentally changing the way we communicate. Resultantly, the technology with which geeks have been identified has become mainstream. This, yields something of an identity crisis. The cure, I think, is to understand how "geek" identifies a mindset and not a specific field of interest. I have a hard time personally defining it, but I think geekery revolves around a culture of speculation and curiosity. This is why there can be a Lord of the Rings geek subculture, but not so much a Desperate Housewives geek subculture: for all that there is a community of people who analyze Desperate Housewives or Jersey Shore, they fail at being geeks by virtue of focusing on the here and now, on a world that really already exists. That is not geekdom; focus alone does not a geek make.

  3. James, both you and Hasufin seem to agree on Point Four: "focus alone does not a geek make." Elemental to geekdom is a willingness to ask why and delve deeper, often at the expense of popular opinion. For geeks, I think it is not that the focus is singular, but that the focus is a driving force, which certainly encompasses a past, the present, and a reach toward the future.

    Hasufin, thanks for the recommendation. I've found a PDF of Gaiman and I'll add it to my commute reading. S is also quite pleased with my tech and science inclinations—the holds me to a higher standard when it comes to fixing things, and typically wants to know what I've done already in detail before he'll troubleshoot things for me.

    As for being a female geek—there's no denying it's hard. It's hard within the subculture, especially when you don't fit the Velma-stereotype for female geeks. And it's hard in the mainstream, precisely because you don't fit the Velma-stereotype. Male geeks have been dismissive and condescending, and mainstream folks have done the same. Having to straddle both worlds means finding a way to be comfortable in your own skin, and learning how to continue to assert yourself—which fortunately, has not been a problem for me!

    I do have hope that this will change, as I fully plan to encourage an entire generation of female geeks, who currently call me Aunt Krystal.

  4. Hasufin, you were spot on about the Gaiman piece.

    If anyone else is interest, you can find a copy here (pdf):

  5. *Interested.

    Gah. I'm going to go have a brownie.

  6. When did you figure out who the characters were? I had a niggling suspicion, but it wasn't until "Dynamics of an Asteroid" was mentioned that I became certain.

  7. Right about that point, actually. Immediately preceding that reference, the mention of the ash on the mantel tipped me off. "Asteroid" was the confirmation.

    Thanks for the recommendation!

  8. You're welcome! I had just read it last week, in preparation for Neil Gaiman's 10th Anniversary of _American Gods_, which I was able to attend.

    Also, I nominate Neil for second-best author who looks like a terrorist. I'd put him over Alan Moore, except that Alan Moore has the terrorist look down so well.

  9. Oh, do you read John Connolly at all? In Nocturnes, there's a short story that matches the final performance of the play in Gaiman's piece. I'm not sure it was an intentional connection as the theme is a common on, but it made me smile.