A Random Entry – Syndrome Syndrome
or, “There are no fake geeks.”
I am saddened by this phenomenon of defining “geek” and “fake-geek.” To be a geek is to self-identify as a geek, or have someone tell you that you are a geek. Once upon a time, to be a geek was to be an outcast and to be called a geek (or dork or nerd) was an insult. But now much of geek culture has *gasp* gone mainstream and many old-school geeks don’t like this. This article by a really funny comedian laments that once upon a time, geeks knew each other by oblique references and secret handshakes and could speak in their own code that no one else knew, but now with the internet, anyone anywhere can quickly amass the knowledge that once took years of obsessing and patience. Another manifestation of this is in particular aimed at women and the phenomenon of “fake-geek girls,” or women who pretend to be interested in traditionally geeky (read: stereotypically male) hobbies for the purpose of gaining attention from males who stereotypically don’t meet a lot of girls.
So I am sad as this name calling goes back and forth and lots of people (mostly women but some men) are forced to prove their geekiness. This is most unfortunate. Once upon a time, geeks welcomed all comers to their fringes. Stereotypically (and there is some truth in this stereotype), geeks and loneliness go hand-in-hand. Oh, such joy at finding out that the person you ride the bus with is secretly a fan of the Flash and has strong opinions on the death of Barry Allen and the rise of Wally West. Or the joy at finding out your physics lab partner can recite Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech in Klingon. Geek culture connects often socially awkward people, or people who are least afraid of being made fun of for their non-mainstream hobbies. Geek culture is safety.
Now, I’m not so naïve as to know there haven’t been fights for years over who is a “true fan” and who is not. This, to me, is merely the root of that battle that has morphed into geek vs fake-geek. Once upon a time, and even still, geeks fight with each other over which writer best encapsulates the essence of Batman and which writer absolutely butchered the character. Which is better, TOS or TNG? Who is better, Hal Jordan or Kyle Raynor? Who is better, Asimov or Heinlein? Back and forth and now with the internet there are forums aflame with debates like this. I’ve had a little back and forth myself about whether a heavy application of the “darker and edgier” trope actually makes better comics, or if Ant-man is really a hero.
But. And this important. But. I am not going to declare that anyone who thinks Ant-man is a hero is not a true fan, or a geek. That’s ridiculous. We all have our reasons for liking the things we like, or don’t like. We just want to win an argument, so we tell ourselves, “Well, that person clearly didn’t read issue #126,” or “that person is just ignoring the entire Inferno story arc,” and so on and so forth. But the “true fan” phenomenon isn’t limited to geek culture. That attitude spills over into any hobby, like sports or movies. The context of the arguments changes, but the outcomes really don’t, nor do the rationalizations. Indeed, many other hobbies have grumped about “fair-weather fans” for much the same reason geeks are now grumping about “fake geeks” – the thing they like is now popular. Sports fans might grump, “Well, I was a fan of the Bulls before Michael Jordan joined the team,” and therefore decide they are truer fans than people who started to follow the team at that point. So geeks now grump, “Well, I’ve read every Avengers comic ever before that movie came out.” Same grumping, different context.
There is no benefit to declaring someone to be a “fake-geek.” Many many geeks probably started off as what someone would consider fake-geeks. For example, by the time I got to college, my only exposure to comic books was the animated “X-men” and the excellent “Batman: The Animated Series.” I had heard of this thing called Dungeons & Dragons (and vaguely remembered a Saturday morning cartoon) but I didn’t know what it was. I watched TNG and DS9 and even Voyager but I didn’t follow them obsessively. But I went to a school that was known for its STEM program, and consequently I met a lot of geeks. And up until college, I could count the number of friends I made on both hands, so I was pretty eager (possibly desperate) to make friends. Well, they were into this D&D thing and I figured, what the hell, I could try that out. They liked comics and I thought, “Well, the shows were kind of entertaining, so what the hell.” They really loved all kinds of Star Trek and I could converse with people about the plotholes of certain episodes and they understood my frustration. This was an enlightening time of my life. Was I a geek? No. Was I interested in these stereotypically geeky hobbies just because I wanted to make friends? Absolutely. But so what? Humans do that all the time. If a person finds a group of people really interested in kayaking, they will probably try kayaking just to stay with the group. This is how people figure out what they’re interested in – often there are people that they want to hang around with that are into this hobby, so the person tries that hobby. We’re social animals, after all, and if we want to be liked, we’ll often pretend to like what others like, and this isn’t limited to geek culture. Sometimes we keep the people but ditch the hobby and sometimes we keep the hobby and ditch the people, and that’s okay. For me, I kept the hobbies and many of the people, so it worked out great.
Here’s another example. I have a female co-worker who is young and pretty and as far from a stereotypical geek as I have ever met. Her boyfriend, however, seems to be a very stereotypical geek. He has a gaming group, he’s a big fan of “Doctor Who,” he has Munchkin, he showed her the “Star Wars” movies because somehow she had never seen them. I was actually wondering how she met her boyfriend (because I also fall into stereotypes when I shouldn’t) until she told me she had a degree in chemical engineering. The light went on. Well, she has made an effort to figure out what it is about these hobbies her boyfriend likes so much. He gave her a “Doctor Who” mug for a present (it has the TARDIS on it). She told me that she had never had so many people randomly strike up a conversation with her until she got that mug, and she thought this was a good thing. By the way, she is now a more well-versed fan of “Doctor Who” than I am, and it really makes me mad someone might see her with that mug and assume because she is young, pretty, and as far from a stereotypical geek as possible that she is merely a “fake-geek girl” who carries the mug to strike up conversations with awkward male geeks because she likes the attention. This is unfair and unnecessary.
Geek culture doesn’t just belong to the old-school geeks. They, and we, can’t declare that obsessing over the easter eggs hidden in “Star Trek” sets that can now be seen in the Blu-ray releases are somehow our very own that no else can comment on. We can’t be selfish because it doesn’t work. Sports fan can’t declare their favorite team is their very own and only those potential fans that meet their exacting standards will be allowed to call themselves “true fans.” Pop culture belongs to everyone. We can’t horde it. People are allowed to be casual fans and they are still fans. Just because they had to look up Wikipedia to find out which issue Warren Worthington was reintroduced as Death while you painstakingly collected and preserved that comic doesn’t make them less of a geek than you. Just because back in the day it was harder to be a geek doesn’t mean it’s any less worthwhile now. Don’t be jealous you didn’t have the internet to keep track of the tangled Summers’ family chronology and had to write it out yourself; be happy there’s at least one other person out there so obsessed they did the very same thing you did and then shared their labor of love with the rest of the world.
This is Syndrome syndrome, from the excellent movie, The Incredibles. The villain Syndrome’s goal was to sell his advanced technology so everyone would have superpowers, and then, “When everyone’s special, no one is.” And that’s not true! Or, at least, it’s not relevant. The end goal of Syndrome’s plan would have been everyone getting superpowers and sure it wouldn’t have been special but would it have been less awesome? Think about it. If you had a pair of jetboots, and so did everyone else, would you not want to wear your jetboots to spite all those other people with jetboots? Hells no, because jetboots are awesome! So are flying cars and hoverboards and kinetic blasters and force fields and laser beams. Special does not equal awesome, and likewise awesome does not depend on special (heck, fictional characters can be special but it doesn’t mean their powers are awesome [see “Blessed with Suck”]).
Geeks should rejoice at some mainstream acceptance! I do! So geek culture isn’t a secret society with secret handshakes and shaming from the masses. We should celebrate the fact people seeing someone else carrying around a TARDIS mug strike up a conversation with the mug owner about “Doctor Who.” We should celebrate the fact that the more people like “Star Wars” the more people will really get Spaceballs. Yes, there are downsides. Quality of the superhero movies is going to drop and eventually they will stop being made, but for a little while. Then there will be new “Star Wars” movies, which can’t possibly be worse than the prequels. Okay, so the “Hobbit” trilogy is shaping up to be long and disappointing, but at least we got a pretty good Lord of the Rings. But as what once was geek is now mainstream, there are always other things that are not yet mainstream to be geeky about. And in the end I think those that grump about “fake geeks” need to remember two things – this t-shirt from the Onion and the MST3K mantra.