Like a Geek God #5 by Mark Pursell
Geek is the New Cool
My husband is an elementary school teacher. You can imagine the sort of anecdotes he brings home after spending every day teaching a formative generation born with smartphones in their hands. One thing that particularly struck me, however, happened last year. A constant complaint of my husband’s is that the kids at school, especially the fifth graders—teetering on the edge of a hyper-advanced puberty that mainstream pop culture has been trying to shove them into their entire lives—act like they don’t “care” about anything. The social norm that he observed being adopted and, indeed, self enforced, was that it was “uncool” to seem like you cared too much about something, to show too much enthusiasm. He told me that one time, a little girl let her excitement shine through her veneer of above-it-all boredom when a particular lesson (abstract expressionist art) caught her attention; but as soon as she realized what she was allowing herself to express, she carefully withdrew into her “so what?” shell.
This isn’t a new story, or even a particularly interesting one at this point in American culture. The twin paradigms of “geek” and “cool” have orbited each other like binary stars—locked in opposition but never touching—since the 1950s and possibly before. To be “cool” is be unaffected, imperturbable—“not bothered”, as comedienne Catherine Tate puts it in one of her schoolgirl sketches. Yes, you seem jaded and uncaring, but you also seem strong, walled in your own armor of dispassion. If you don’t care about anything, you’re not vulnerable. You can’t be hurt. By comparison, geeks—and by “geek” I mean “a person who displays deep knowledge of and great or even excessive enthusiasm for a particular thing or subject”—are walking, talking targets. Our unfettered enthusiasm is a weakness.
When our fearless leader here at The Drunken Odyssey, John King, first approached me about being a contributor to his daily/weekly cultural blog project, it didn’t take us long to arrive at the perfect area for my column: geek culture. (It is possible that, after being Facebook friends with me for a while and being subjected to an endless onslaught of 3:00am rants about superhero movies and lazy worldbuilding in MMORPGS, this is entirely what John had in mind in the first place). But after we had decided on this and I began brainstorming about possible column ideas, I found myself thinking less about the specific subjects I was going to write about and more about being a geek in and of itself: what it means to be a geek, and what it entails. Is geek even the right word for us? We, the lovers of Star Wars and Star Trek, the cosplayers and the con-langers, fanboys and fangirls with our fingers on the pulse of everything from Bioshock Infinite to Sailor Moon—what are we? Mainstream culture has always tossed a plethora of pejoratives our way, in an attempt to minimize and disenfranchise our pop culture power and capital. “Nerd”, “dork”, “dweeb”: those of us who dare to violate the Code of Cool in some way are appropriately labeled and pushed to the fringes. (While it is helpful to lump us, the Great Uncool, into a single subcultural bracket, there are distinctions to be drawn. “Nerd” connotes academic and scholarly excess; “dork” and “dweeb” evoke social anxiety, interpersonal clumsiness).
In the last decade or so, however, geek culture has become less ghettoized, more standard than ever before. You have only to use America’s most cherished yardstick—the financial one—to see that this is true. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games: geek culture is culture these days, and those are only three franchises in a teeming subculture of science fiction and fantasy properties that is less “sub” with each passing year.
Does this have to do with geek pop culture properties in and of themselves? I don’t think so. There have always been (and always will be) people who love wizards and aliens and every permutation thereof, in all their otherworldly, operatic glory. And being a geek isn’t just about science fiction and fantasy; you can be a geek about geology, or presentation design, or antique furniture. Being a geek isn’t about the object; it’s about the state of mind, about having the self confidence and the security in yourself and who you are to not only care deeply about a given thing but to be zealous and unabashed about it, to display that enthusiam without worrying about who is going to cut you down for it.
And who knows: maybe the affected apathy my husband sees in his students, in the up-and-coming generation, is nothing more than a by-product of adolescence and navigating the strangeness of school—here today, gone tomorrow. Or maybe the new generation will see all our hype-blogging, button-clicking, multiple-tabs-opening frenzy as a waste of energy and recalibrate accordingly, greeting the psychic bombardment of the Information Age with chilly disdain. But as a first-wave Millennial with one toe on the Gen X line, I look around and see my peer group (twentysomethings and thirtysomethings) repudiating apathy—on every level, from pop culture to politics—with the fervor of proselytizers. In this sense, being a geek has become—at least for a little while—the New Cool.
Mark Pursell is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can most recently be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.