Is “Geek” Culture Really Any Different from “Real” Culture?


You know we love our geek culture here. We wear it on our sleeves and everywhere else. Video games and cartoons and comic books full of sci-fi, fantasy, and all of the stuff that the jocks and yuppies just don’t get; yesiree, that’s where we want to be. And those opposed? Yeah, they think we’re a bunch of man/womanchildren that still live with our parents and can only interact with the opposite sex in two dimensional terms. But that’s cool because at least we aren’t a bunch of superficial plastic celebrity-worshipping jerks with pretensions of sophistication. Sure both sets of stereotypes are somewhat true and often false, but [Morpheus voice] what if I told you that the divide between regular culture and nerd culture was practically negligible when taken in perspective?

That’s right; I said it. Most mundanes are pretty damn nerdy when you get down to it. I’m not even talking about the impending absorption of everything we love into the larger mainstream consumerist collective symbolically represented by Marvel Comics and Lucasfilm being bought out by Disney. I’m saying that regular beer-drinking, sports-loving jocks and wannabe socialites are just as nerdy in their own way, but that their brand of dorkiness is somehow deemed more socially acceptable due to its long-standing prevalence.

The word culture is more or less defined as collective achievements of creativity representing uniquely human experiences as a society. Seeing that humanity is represented by large numbers of differential factions -even in the smallest of communities- that makes the scope of the concept almost infinite. So how on earth does one define “real” culture or even attempt to place value on something so subjective? Well, one thing that is definitive in all human cultures: we all love to argue.

So fantasy; historically a genre for dorks, virgins, neckbeards, and general losers who are too lame to cope with real life so they wrap themselves up in childish fairy tales about audience surrogate heroes in fantastic worlds full of magic and robots and silly stuff like that. No self-respecting adult would ever consider such tripe worthwhile entertainment, much less any sort of classic. I mean, talking animals? Can it get any more childish?


Well, yeah, maybe if they linked arms and sang together while skipping…

Oh wait. There’s that whole “universally beloved and acknowledged as a masterpiece and cultural touchstone” thing. But surely The Wizard of Oz can’t be compared to nerd bait like Lord of the Rings. It had Judy Garland! Or maybe the setting for a story doesn’t matter as much as people think it does and our own prejudices are the only thing holding us back from a good time.

Is going to see the latest epic adaptation of Tolkien’s work that much nerdier than going to see The Lion King on Broadway or A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare in the Park? One is seen by some as high culture and art while the other is disregarded as pop trash for children. Good entertainment is fun, and everybody likes fun. Most of us can all agree on that; except when we don’t.

Take those freaks who like to dress up in costumes. Please. I mean, how big of a loser do you have to be to go to a Star Wars movie dressed up like a character from the series? It just ain’t normal. I mean who does that?


Fresh from a hard day on the ranch bustin’ broncos and rustlin’ cattle, I’m sure.

So just to get this straight: it’s perfectly acceptable to dress up like cowboys (or something) when going to see a fake country concert and wear professional athlete jerseys when watching grown men play games involving inflatable balls for obscene amounts of money, but dressing up similarly to see a film or attend a convention? That’s for social outcasts. Good to know.

So my wife likes to watch boring shows about families, relationships, tearful betrayals, secrets and lies, and all that lameness. But not me; I like to watch Arrow. You won’t catch me getting all caught up in some teary-eyed drama about familial bonds and love triangles and…I am watching a soap opera that happens to feature a guy in a costume who shoots people with a bow and arrow aren’t I? Well shit.

Comic books have long been considered the domain of children but have now graduated to “manchild” status, so some headway has been made. Mainstream society unreservedly accepts the value of art and of literature, but somehow draws the line at the combination of the two. But movies made from them are all right.  Why does the society who made Fifty Shades of Grey a cultural phenomenon opposed to granting similar status to a medium that regularly features high quality artwork coupled with allegorically sophisticated storytelling techniques that often can’t be reproduced in other mediums? Judging by the cover of any given romance novel, I’d say it’s got precious little to do with the objectification that some complain of. I suppose some cultural prejudices simply defy any amount of rationalization.


Et tu, Beast Boy?

Oscar winner Black Swan was inspired by an anime, but considered high art by massive numbers of pretentious film critics because it has ballet in it. Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary: a pure ballet film ignored altogether because it involves vampires and is a silent film. In other words, it is both too high concept and too low concept at the same time to warrant attention. Ironically, a lot of the people who like to think of themselves as cultured are also the ones who run screaming from “movies that make you read”.

So nerds are often drawn foreign language features (which represent exposure to culture in the most literal form), but high society can’t comprehend Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon beyond it having flying people in it. Sure, it can get a nod as a “foreign language” film, but can’t be included in the same league with the “real” (read: Eurocentric) films. Yet the choreography and wirework in that film rivals any ballet you are likely to come across in its beauty and expressiveness. Go figure.

And is playing World of Warcraft and investing all that time into building up your characters and playing with friends online significantly lamer than fantasy sports leagues? They’re both paying to play with a bunch of statistics to brag about? But at least with video games, you aren’t relying on someone else to do the playing for you. And I think it’s safe to say that online geek culture has developed some behavior that often resembles that of high school bullies.


To be honest, this behavior is not in any way exclusive to nerds or bullies. It’s pretty ubiquitous.

I think the determining factor in these conflicts boils down to the same thing it always does: personal preference. We like to think of the stuff we enjoy as superior to what everyone else likes but- regardless of taste or preference- art and culture are nothing more than the style in which we like to present ourselves. You can’t really label any one variation as “real” since it implies that anything (and anyone) else is somehow less authentic.

No matter what costume you choose to parade around in at whatever gathering of people with similar interests and/or backgrounds, it’s all just the same thing with different window dressing. We all love ridiculous drama and stuff that looks nice and our own little sets of celebs and games, and it’s all just divergent versions of the same basic human behaviors. These are the ways we choose to communicate our feelings and identities to one another, and what we typically communicate is that by-and-large we’re all a bunch of weirdos.

Now that it’s been established that our inter-cultural arguments regarding the allegorical pronunciation of “potato” are all just a big waste of our time, we can focus on further compartmentalizing and labeling each little sub-clique until every single one of us is considered a culture unto ourselves and we can attain peace on Earth. Or possibly Armageddon.


Probably Armageddon.


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  1. The Wizard of Oz. Star Wars. Lord of the Rings. Batman. Superman. The Avengers. Game of Thrones. The mainstream doesn’t necessarily exclude geek culture any more than it excludes most subcultures. When was the last time you went to a heavily-attended, smash hit Shakespeare movie?

    Not that I exactly disagree with your premise, but I’m not sure this line of attack really works. Even in this piece, where you assert that we aren’t so different after all, you slip into sniping pop country and football fans. And people who don’t like reading subtitles, which… I mean, that’s more of a language/culture barrier anyway.

    IMO, the stigma against fantasy and the geek pursuits in general comes from the way that so many of us are just looking for escapism, instead of the higher aspirations you identify here. Like, I’d love to say that the comic industry was a beacon of artistic integrity, fully taking on the responsibility and depth that the form is capable of, but… man. It’s in rough shape. There’s visionary work being done but there’s a lot of crap to wade through to find it. And a lot of the crap is in the most high-profile titles out there (I’m looking at you, Snyder’s Batman run).

    And that’s not getting into the whole territorial thing you encounter if you want to partake this stuff. I mean, I’ve had Star Wars fans out for my blood because I like the wrong Star Wars movies. There’s been plenty of writing on here already about the way “hardcore” gamers use the word “casual” as a pejorative. Sometimes it feels like the geek culture (not you, specifically) is more interested in being recognized for how awesome they are then they are in actually sharing their interests with the world.

    But yeah, we’d all do better to remember that art is art, quality is quality, and preferences are just preferences.

    1. Yeah, sorry about the inconsistencies of premise. I’ve had a rough couple of weeks and this article didn’t shape up as good as expected it to when I conceptualized it. In a way there’s almost too much to say to really cover all of the ground I wanted to cover without risking being boring or too preachy. It’s a fine line to tread. I was literally adding and deleting stuff as I posted this last night.

      I try not to act like I’m above any of this stuff, mind you, so that’s some of it. I enjoy slinging mud at both sides of the argument and doing stuff like making fun of people who make fun of people while fully aware that I’m one of the people making fun of people.

      Seriously, though, there’s nothing on the planet worse than pop country right now. It horrifies me like institutionalized racism enforced by death squads with orders to target children.

      1. We’ve all been there. Actually, I think I’ve sort of set up shop there.

        This whole issue is certainly a worthwhile one to deal with, but it is essentially a thesis paper in the making. Even the divide between “sports fan” geeks (the ones who are into memorizing the history, dressing up in costume, and essentially treating the fantastic as “real”) and the “art critic” geeks (who review and rate and all that) is a perilous and nebulous thing to try and parse.

        It IS a thesis I’d read. Maybe one of our readers or writers is a college student?

        And for the record, I have mostly antagonistic relationship with pop country, though I can’t… go QUITE as far as you, I don’t think… 😉

        1. Clearly, you haven’t had a close-proximity coworker with an iPod full of nothing else who refuses to listen to anyone else’s music. That’s the difference between antagonistic and pure black hatred in this case.

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