How We Talk About Geeks

Apparently geeks have won (again) and mainstream culture is geekier than ever, says The Guardian. But what exactly were geeks fighting for? And were they even fighting?

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The latest asthmatic wheeze of geek culture's victory comes from Andrew Harrison at The Guardian, who points out that geek culture has "won." Writing with breathless glee, Harrison declares that geekiness — much maligned, much derided  — has risen to triumph despite all odds.

"The clever people have won at last," Harrison claims, pointing to evidence of geek culture's triumph: popular clothing brand Top Shop selling shirts emblazoned with "GEEK"; "geek chic" entering the Oxford Dictionaries Online (Harrison mistaken calls it the Oxford English Dictionary); the statistical potency of Nate Silver; the recent cool of glasses (thanks for that, Warby Parker). 

But was this really a victory that geek culture even wanted? What were geeks even fighting for? The fight for geek acceptance is more complex than is generally understood. For those who want to be well-informed about all things geek, here's our primer.

Geeks Are not Nerds

Until you understand that, continue no further. Here's a helpful chart.

One T-Shirt Means Nothing

Harrison doesn't say it, so we will: major fashion brands are exploiting geeks. "This summer's Topshop T-shirts might be the most conspicuous indicator that our culture has been geeked," Harrison writes, as if merely slapping "GEEK" on a shirt indicates the acceptance of geekery. That's sort of like suggesting socialism won because people wear Che Guevara t-shirts. What Harrison cites as acceptance is really little more than crass cultural appropriation.

Geek Culture Actually Won a Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Not Too Far Away

Proclaiming the victory of geek culture is kind of like proclaiming that Woody Allen is back — everyone likes to say it, but that doesn't mean it's true. Indeed, the so-called victory of geek culture is actually a decade in the making. Going by geek trend stories in major publications, geek culture actually started winning so much that actual geeks eventually wanted it dead. Here's a brief history:

  • May 8, 2005. The New York Times's A.O Scott declares the summer of '05 to be the "Revenge of the Nerds" thanks to comic book geekery and upcoming movies like Superman Returns and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins
  • October 1, 2007. CNET creates its Geek Culture blog after having a reporter on the geek beat for two years. 
  • July 23, 2008. "Has Comic-Con become a beast?" USA Today wonders, explaining that "Years ago, Comic-Con quit being about comics and became more about creating pop-culture hits."
  • July 24, 2008. The A.V. Club's Keith Phipps points out that 2005 Comic-Con was definitive proof that "geek culture had grown virtually indistinguishable from mainstream culture." He even made a mention of t-shirts, explaining: 

I can't say definitively if the man wearing a faded Captain America t-shirt on my flight was a dyed-in-the-wool geek or just a Target shopper drawn to the image in their stack of retro T's.

  • May 6, 2009. CNN reports that "Geek Now Chic in Pop Culture."

...and so on. You kinda get the picture, right?

Geek Culture Is Not Immortal

If shows like Big Bang Theory and pop icons like Nate Silver are indicators of geek culture's big win, then what does defeat look like? Even worse, what if geek culture is already dead and we're just fighting over the carcass? What if we will never have it as good as we did back when Stars Wars first graced the silver screen?

Oswalt posited this notion back in 2010, pointing out that the Internet shattered hidden dens of geekdom:

There are no more hidden thought-palaces—they’re easily accessed websites, or Facebook pages with thousands of fans. And I’m not going to bore you with the step-by-step specifics of how it happened. In the timeline of the upheaval, part of the graph should be interrupted by the words the Internet. And now here we are.

I'm not as pessimistic as Oswalt, who seems to believe geek culture should have died three years ago, nor as bright-eyed as Harrison, who claims that "geek is displaying greater longevity and adaptability than previous cultural waves."

True, there's something refreshing in kids no longer having to conjure up a long explanation when people derisively ask why they play World of Warcraft or read Guardians of the Galaxy. But there's also something beloved about the speakeasiness of geek culture—that secret room factor. Sure, there are still pockets of Reddit, esoteric weightlifting forums and actual comic book stores yet untapped by the mainstream. These, however, are endangered.

The best dens of geekery — Comic-Con, video games like World of Warcraft — were places people to escape from the real world, for people who didn't always fit in. But with the Internet, that escape is widely available to everyone, and the secret hideouts of geekery become accessible to all. It's hard to call that victory.

Photos via: Topshop/CBS's Big Bang Theory

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.