Thursday, May 22, 2014

Are you an Ambassador, or a Gatekeeper? by John Garcia

I couldn't resist. -Ed

One of the first times I had to look up the word “Geek” was after watching one of Kevin Smith’s  “Evening With” shows. He gave a sort of an etymological flashback of the word, telling the audience that a “Geek” in its original meaning, was a circus performer who bites the head off of chickens. I thought about it, and decided it was a proper definition.  In addition to being a synonym to “freak,” as one who lives outside the mainstream, a sub-category of geeks do it for the acclaim, attention,( and sometimes alcohol) because they are so desperate for such things that they would sacrifice their own dignity.

(How I found out the etymology of "Geek")

One can see how that definition can translate to what we know as “Geeks” of today.  Both define “Geeks” as people living outside the mainstream.  To add to that definition, some of people we would call “Geeks” or  “Nerds” (a term  I won’t use outside of this sentence just for clarity's sake) experienced having to go through a social rite of passage dictated by people who are “Popular.” They would either fail, or gain a sort of shallow acceptance, where they are on the bottom of some type of social ladder anyway.  Either way, I would say the translation of the word from outsider to a modern version of an outsider is apt. 

Our current mainstream culture seems to have been converging on things that used to be considered "Geeky."  When they're properly translated into popular culture, these things can be trendy, but if they're not, they can end up shallow versions of their former selves.  I think this second part, the shallow, fetishized translations of certain formerly-“Geeky” things are what bothers many self-proclaimed “Geeks.” 

Mainstream Disseminates into Geekdoms

I thought about that dynamic of the “Geeky” disseminating into the mainstream or vice versa.  It reminds me of one  time when the Watchmen movie was coming out of theatres.  It came out in 2009, but prior to the movie being mainstream (despite how good or bad you think it is), many people, even in San Diego Comic Con, had no clue who the Watchmen were.  I  cosplayed as Rorschach in 2007 and 2008, complete with a netted facecover, and an insulated refrigeration trench coat (it was insulated and had room for ice packs, so under the San Diego sun, I wouldn’t die from the heat).  Those cosplay pictures were up n and Facebook during the pre-movie years, and it was generally just there.  Sometimes I got a couple of questions or compliments from people, so it was nice. 

After the movie hit, however, that Facebook group swelled in number from barely a thousand members to a couple of thousand, and suddenly I was not the only one posting watchmen cosplay pictures.  It was also the time the ridicule started pouring in.  My favorite was “That Rorschach had been eating too many beans,” while others with much less craftier costumes, or even with store-bought costumes were receiving high praise.  Suddenly, being a Watchan cosplayer is also about being a Doctor Manthattan with washboard abs, which admittedly was a bit  uncommon in the more traditional “Geek” circles.  It was like being in the worst social piitfalls of high school, the hierarchies in the social totem pole. 

I asked myself, “What happened?  We all like the same thing, and we all like to dress up and be geeky.”  I started seeing that some types of people were now not simply just fellow fans, but wanted to exclude others from their fandoms.  It’s like they took their exclusionary tactics from high school  and applied it to our geekdom, “OUR GEEKDOM.”  Yes, it was “ours,” not just theirs, and for those who were older fans, some of us welcomed these new people.  I think it’s moments like this that makes “Geeks” overprotective of their fandom.  I’m sure it happens many times when something hits mainstream.  Upon hitting the mainstream, Geekdom opened its gates to those people who used to ridicule it. 

The mainstream media doesn’t help either.  You always see those Anime Expo or San Diego Comic Con pictures where the reporter would interview someone in an awesome costume, then ask something like “And when is your mommy picking you up?”  There are also those lists and articles that treat women like meat, those “Hottest Cosplay in SDCC,” as if these women did it not for themselves, or for the fun of being geeks, but to appease their television audience’s heteronormative male gaze.  I find it even harder to be in conventions that are open to more mainstream audiences.  A lot of them, again, see women in cosplay and equate it with all the things that “Cosplay is not Consent” is against.  A lot of them don’t even have the etiquette to stop and ask for pictures. 

I start to worry that all these people from the mainstream showing up, will start excluding us who were part of these “Geekdoms” in the first place.  While it’s true that both men and women come from the mainstream, and some come to dominate and exploit some “Geeky” sensibilities, I don’t think labeling “Fake Geeks” as such is very conductive to the spirit of being a “Geek” at all.  We are outsiders who learn to accept others precisely because they were outsiders too.  If we start delineating the line of where a “True” or “Fake” Geek is, then we are ALL FAKES because we are all becoming just like these exclusionary monsters that we used to fear. 

The Traditional Geeks Strike Back

On the other side of the traditional Geek and mainstream Geek binary, we find that traditional geeks are likewise acting out, due to the mainstream disseminating into various fandoms.  It’s not just the former “popular” people who are excluding others in certain fandoms, I found that traditional geeks are equally (if not more ) guilty of being exclusionary “Gatekeepers” of the Geekdom.   Earlier, I talked about being excluded because I was a traditional geek, but now the mainstream geeks have started to change the standards of the community.   In reaction to, and attempting to “protect” some “traditional” notion of what used to be, I find that there are many geeks that are so  resistant to change that they exclude people, and use “casuals” as a derogatory term to describe someone who is from the mainstream discovering something Geeky. 

 I see this happen a lot in the Transformers fandom.  It’s full of what we could call “Traditional” geeks, but when the Michael Bay movies hit and made the brand mainstream, there was this prevailing hate for not just Michael Bay (which is a different subject altogether) but the fans that those movies have brought in.  These fans experience ridicule or are placed in a bottom rung of a social totem pole in the community because they were not G1 Transformers fans, or they are not Beast Wars fans, or they know little about the Japanese Headmasters, Masterforce, and Victory series.  I see posts on message boards from these fans, emerging  “Geeks”  and they get so much sarcasm or ridicule for something they are starting to like.  There are many geeks from that fandom that are very hostile and unhelpful to newer fans, or ones that come through the mainstream route. Even those who try to help these new fans find a place are ridiculed by the Old Guard.

The Future of Geekdom, not Gatekeepers, but AMBASSADORS

Because “Geeks” seem to have this background of being outsiders, or living in counter-culture, there seemed to be animosity between them and those who follow mainstream culture. As I mentioned, a lot of “Geeks” faced ridicule and exclusion during our formative years, so we (yes, I am one too) faced these struggles and take it to our adult lives.  Just how we take it to our adult lives seem to vary in the way we interpret “Geek.”  

One way is to cling onto the definition of being a “Geek” as a sort of small, counter-culture thing, and to keep it safe from outsiders who would just make it unpure. This is a form of vengeance, or some twisted sense of justice, but most likely if one chooses to be a “GATEKEEPER” and exclude others, that person isn’t exacting revenge on the same people who did it to him or her back in the day. 

Being a “GATEKEEPER”  would misunderstand the awesome aspects of being a “Geek,” which is the community of people who understands us for who we are.  There is a spirit of inclusion in being a geek precisely because we were such outsiders. Being a small group has little to do with the spirit of being a “Geek.” Now that it has become more mainstream, the numbers change, and there are more geeks.  That’s perfectly fine too.  (In fact, that's GREAT. -Ed)
The other way to interpret “Geek” is to learn from our own experience of exclusion, show empathy to those wanting to be included in whatever group, and accept them.  

We’ve all read, heard, or watched that trope of “We should not be the monsters that we are trying to defeat.”  Being elitist, sticking to this notion that being a “Geek” means it’s something only a few can be or enjoy, should change.  Like I said, we should move towards the definition of “Geek” as those who have empathy for those who were or are outsiders.  We can reach out to more people this way.  We can mend those old social scars, by keeping in mind that the best way to celebrate being a “Geek” is to spread it to others, to be an AMBASSADOR of Geekdom.  Being a GATEKEEPER has damaged Geekdom  enough, and it has even festered into abominations that have plagued the world outside of Geekdom in the past. Rampant sexism, homophobia, and sometimes even some sort of Geeky institutionalized racism. 

After all, what used to define “Geeks” is a sense of being an outsider. We felt secure with other-like-minded people, thinking that we would not experience ridicule or worse, exclusion. Let me repeat that. We value our “Geekiness” or “Geekdoms” because we feel accepted in a group of outsiders.  Then, when being a “Geek” becomes mainstream, when the “Geek inherited the Earth,” doesn’t that mean that mean we start ACCEPTING INSTEAD OF EXCLUDING people instead?  

Let us be AMBASSADORS; we all are.  The next time someone argues that Aquaman sucks, don’t call that person a “Fucking Casual,” instead show them a copy of JLA: the Obsidian Age.  The next time someone ridicules a cosplayer for cosplaying out of their body type, speak up instead of joining the crowd doing the ridiculing or staying silent.  The next time someone on the message board calls Japanese Sentai ‘s giant robots as “Zords,” don’t flame them, inform them of the nuances and subtleties of the real differences.  The next time someone calls out a “Fake Geek Girl,” call them out for being a “Fake Geek” because a REAL Geek is someone who knows empathy for the excluded, a REAL Geek is NOT A GATEKEEPER.  
John Garcia is a Professor of English, specializing in popular culture, comparative literature, and postcolonial studies. He is also an artist and character designer for Smorgasbord Productions.

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