In 2012 Mark Henderson published his book “The Geek Manifesto” which argued that all politics and policy making should be grounded in scientific evidence, and that in a democracy it is up to the scientifically literate to make it so. Naturally, the biggest argument this kicked off was about the definition of nerds and geeks so I’m going to add to the mess by using the other slang term for a different kind of subculture, and a different kind of manifesto, but one I think equally as important and far-reaching.
Any precise definition of geeks and/or nerds is problematic, and not to mention constantly changing. I’ve enjoyed watching the subcultures these terms describe evolve and mutate a lot over the years. Thirty years ago, when I began identifying with parts of it, things were very different. In one sense, things were much more divided, in another much more homogenous. The former came from the fact that nerds and/or geeks were quite new and quite socially isolated and as such only mixed as much as they needed to do. As soon as you found one obsession and one group to validate that your obsession was okay, you were fine. So the wargamers didn’t really talk to the roleplayers, who didn’t talk to the comic geeks who didn’t talk to the sci-fi freaks.
Yet across all of that, we were extremely homogenous: we were almost without exception white, straight cis-men, and, to quote Chasing Amy (a movie that at once threw geeks into the mainstream yet also now is massively out of date), “extremely underweight or overweight adolescents”. There were some grognards too, of course, a term whose origins in a French word for old soldiers shows just how the hobbies were viewed. Indeed for a while it seemed like the audience for gaming was generally aging with those who started in the 70s and 80s, with limited new blood flowing in: gaming, and a lot of other nerd/geek circles was a subculture stuck in adolescence, which was not un-true for some of its members.
As adolescents, we were sullen, negative and exceedingly tribal. We shunned those who might be on our periphery: drama and art nerds were too expressive, punks and goths too socialized, freaks and stoners too cool. We even at times excluded the downtrodden, the physically, mentally and socially handicapped – the goofs and the dweebs and the loners – lest they bring us down with them. Of course, a popular narrative of the time for nerds was the sense that all these little sub-cultures were all nerds in their own way and we could all unite, at least against the rich kids, the preppies and the jocks. Some went so far as to suggest that even that barrier was too far and we should all come together.
High school movies ruled 80s pop culture and informed high school culture as much as it observed it, and it borrowed a lot from media about racial and class oppression at the time. This was particularly noticeable with nerds because they existed outside the classroom, as they fixed our computers and invented our new toys. The beachside detecives Nick and Cody in Riptide didn’t have a magical Native American or Asian sidekick, they had a guy with hornrimmed glasses and leather patches on his cardigan with a wacky Jewish or Polish name. Sitcoms featured nerds the same way they did the handicapped and racial minorities: to show how nice the hero was by treating the “weird” person properly, and helping that “weird” person find their potential and/or acceptance amongst others. Revenge of the Nerds made this explicit: not only was it subtextually echoing college stories of the 70s about the rise of black fraternities, the titular nerds joined an all-black fraternity and in the emotive end-of-film speech linked America’s history of tolerance to a general sense of “stop picking on people who are weird”.
It is of course no surprise then that modern geeks in this subculture, even ones who have barely felt any censure as it becomes more and more mainstream and accepted, continue to appropriate the language and ideas of minority struggles to their own drive for acceptance, to ridiculous and offensive extremes. But if you’ll bear with me, there’s a good side to this I’m going to tease out.
Because if we look again at those Revenge-getting Nerds, only three of them were the horn-rimmed spectacle computer-using white guys. They were joined by the gay guy, the foreigner and the stoner, and although they were all men and perpetrated a litany of horrifying sexual crimes and sexist attitudes for which there can be no excuse, they also had moments of acceptance for the non-body-typical ladies of their female counterpart fraternity. Which is to say: why it was horrifying that nerds co-opted minority identity, the flip side is that in nerdity, there was a way for mainstream white straight people to “try-on”, if only for a moment, a sense of what it is like to be excluded. To cosplay, if you will, as a minority. And I actually do believe that’s important, and has grown into something powerful as geekiness has evolved.
Things have changed a great deal in the last thirty years. The Trek reboot was successful enough to mean the mainstream couldn’t ignore Star Trek any more, and the same thing happened with Star Wars reissues and prequels. Comic superheroes rewrote the rules of movies and made comics hard to ignore. The X-Files and Buffy made TV a place where fantasy and SF could flourish and attract a different kind of audience: women in particular being drawn in to the romance and sexual tension in both. And then Settlers of Catan kicked off the board game revolution which provided a less-intensive entry point into gaming, while things like the World of Darkness and LARPing tapped whole new subcultures into roleplaying. (Computer gaming meanwhile dug itself into a dark hole of marketted masculinity the results of which we are reaping now, of course – but it is catching up slowly at last.) Nowadays, things like The Walking Dead, Avengers and Game of Thrones is so widely and deeply stamped into the popular consciousness that the very idea of genre fiction being a minority thing is laughable.
The new audiences means conventions are changed. They are no longer quiet gatherings of button-down, horn-rimmed white straight adolescent males shuffling into dedicated hobby-spaces for the obessesed and obsessive. Now they are mardi-gras – a word I use very specifically – of costume and culture. Every event crosses all the smaller parts of nerdiness, linking comics, tabletop, video games, costumery, performance, with the only link being heavily merchandized genre fiction tagged to identity. Of course, even the genre fiction element is debatable, as any TV show can be “nerded” now, as long as you binge watch it and buy the figurines, and in music, goth-punk-rockabilly blend and run over into metal-alternative-hip-hop-nerdcore-dubsteb-whatever. Everyone is a nerd, because nerd now means “easily marketed to using attached identity to a subculture”.
But again, there’s a good side. Because again, marketing is harvesting off a real human need to build tribes and create culture, however cargo-constructed or delivered pre-fabricated. And as we do that, we again cosplay at other cultures, and that can give us insight and understanding into more shall we say fault-line stricken cultures. Minority culture survives by strengthening itself in festival and pageantry and culture, now that nerds are dancing too, we might at last see why the gay and lesbians needed a mardi-gras.
And cosplay was the heart of mardi-gras and gay culture not just because it was about reinforcing culture, but because it was a way to try on new ideas. Straight men could go in drag for a day as a way of touching the other. Indeed drag as a whole for straight and gay men was a way of exploring gender politics through costume. It was never intended to be a mockery of the trans experience (although some have made it so), it was designed to be a way to explore it through borrowing, like nerds learning about being not-white for one second by building nerd culture.
So what we have then, in this new emergent prefab geek culture is a way for people do play in a drag-like fashion with new ideas. And because at the heart of this is genre fiction, a world of fantasy, that realm allows us to play with reality without the need for a once-a-year mardi-gras. Long before 1970s dragqueens the Arabian Nights tales and Greek myths helped us try-on new ideas about gender with its tales of swapping things around. It was magic, but then it always was: Star Trek famously got the first cross-racial kiss on television through “mind control”, and they got the first gay kiss through “aliens”. Fantasy – in the widest sense of stories outside reality – is all about trying things on because Things Are Different Here. We have gone into the woods where the rules no longer apply, and people can fall in love with who they least expect. As Mark Twain said, travel is deadly to prejudice; I suggest that magical travel can be doubly so.
The great episode of Deep Space Nine “Far Beyond The Stars” made this point so well about how science-fiction can dream a reality that is literally unbelievable to the world around us and then once we dream it we can BUILD that world. Dr Rosemary Jackson argued in her incredibly important book that fantasy is not and never has been mere escapism or flight of fantasy but rather that fantasy is the literature of subversion. Once up can be down and day night and gods walks amongst us and magic is real, then men can marry men and black men can be president and nobody bats an eyelid. When we can dream it we can build it, and the first gateway to dreaming it is the world of the possible, the world of fantasy.
This isn’t just true in the cultural, but in the personal as well. Whoopi Goldberg’s famous quote about seeing Uhura in Star Trek inspiring her to be an actress shows us how important representation is, and we see it again now as little girls thrill to see Rey take centre stage in the new Star Wars.
And so in this new geek culture we have something that not just apes minority culture in a way that can teach us greater acceptance, but also where fantasy provides room for a heightened level of experimentation. And that makes things possible, and people dream that little bit further. We can be more playful. Which is why, faced with the absence of representation, fan art and fan fiction rushed to fill the gap, to take that last little step. It’s why the deep female friendship between Huntress and Oracle in Birds of Prey was so attractive to young gay women, because they felt able, in this world of fantasy, to draw conclusions they might not have in Cagney and Lacey, perhaps. And why the internet has rushed to turn the bromance of Finn and Poe in The Force Awakens into a romance sans the “b”.
John Barrowman is a great example of this, of someone who uses his geek celebrity and the celebration of that culture and of it being both a bit weird and hard to understand and excluded but at the same time magical and permissive to be very vocal about supporting LGBTI issues, in a playful way that only the pageantry of geekiness allows. Captain Jack can be bisexual without it being a problem, and when we dip into Doctor Who culture, when we celebrate that culture, when we were the accessories of that culture, we allow that to be true. To be a geek is therefore to be political, to permit a more accepting culture for the world and for you.
The best example I’ve seen of this in person though was at a gay marriage event. I’ve watched politics – my other “fandom” – grow more and more geeky over time as “politics” (a disgustingly insufficient word for ‘accepting others’) has bled into geekiness, and at a 2012 event there were enough cosplayers to count it as a convention. Some were “gay” cosplayers, in BDSM, drag or protest garb, but some were not. A priest performed, as a political act of definace, an illegal marriage ceremony for anyone who wished it. Two proud homosexual women got up and they were dressed as Castiel and Dean from Supernatural. Again, a bromance from which fans have furiously removed the “b” in their imaginations, and here, dressed as genders they were not, as characters that never existed, and whose sexuality was not that way anyway (in canon, you know), under the spell of all that fantasy, they performed their own ultimate fantasy of being married in a way the law prevented them from doing so. Little dreams allow bigger dreams, and understanding how others can exclude little dreams allows you to understand how bigger dreams can be realized.
The Nerd Manifesto then is to accept and engage with our inescapably now-political hobby, to understand why fantasy and freedom intersect as they do, and to take that and build better worlds with it. If you believe a man can fly and the Doctor will win, embody that hope in a world where even more important dreams can come true. To use the power of subversion that lies at the heart of fantasy to subvert the world, until it conforms to who you are when you dream.