Gatekeeping and “Geek Mythology”

No matter the positive progress and how far we’ve come, there’s always someone fighting against it. And the same shitty elements keep repeating, sometimes a little more aggressively, as a reaction to said progress.

Take this little gem that was doing the rounds on Twitter a few weeks back:

I’ll give you a moment to absorb just how amazingly cliche this tweet is, then hit you with the immediate follow up:

It’s a sentiment we’ve heard over and over again. And while so many others have already addressed this in much more succinct ways, I want to take a moment to highlight a major flaw in these tweets as well as the sentiment in general: It’s based on something that isn’t completely true.

Take the author of the original tweet for example. Looking through the swamp that is his Twitter feed, he is apparently 25 years old or thereabouts. That means “nerd culture” has been “popular” for pretty much all of his life.

The “pop” in “pop-culture”
Perspective is a wonderful thing. Once you stand back far enough from something you can get a better picture of the whole scene.

The things that we all consider “nerdy” or “geeky” have always been popular to some extent. You can quibble all you want about the semantics of “popular” and “mainstream” but the reality is that if it wasn’t popular enough then it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has.

Star Trek has lasted over 50 years and is often celebrated for its influence on science and engineering and its hope for a better future. The Original Series was saved thanks to a letter-writing campaign. It was at its most popular during the entirety of the 1990’s with The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Voyager all airing during that decade, three feature films, an explosion in toys and merchandise as well as an interactive experience in Las Vegas.

Speaking of the 90s, the world lost its fucking mind in the lead up to the release of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. It was the biggest thing on the planet for a time. Rewind to the original trilogy in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and fans were lining up around the block to see these films!

Movie fans line up on Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street for the premiere of the Movie “Return of the Jedi” Wednesday May 23, 1983. Fans began lining up Tuesday night to see the Star Wars trilogy. (AP Photo/ George Widman)

And you can’t talk Star Wars without mentioning how it helped to revolutionise tie-in merchandise for the last few decades to nearly obnoxious levels (way before Disney came along and bought Lucasfilm, might I add).

Comic books as an industry might be running on fumes at the moment but it has endured for such a long time, which it couldn’t do if its characters and stories weren’t popular.

Superhero films? We’ve always had them and we’ve always loved them. Christopher Reeve’s performance in Superman from 1978 is still beloved to this day. Tim Burton’s version of Batman revived the genre in the 90’s. The holy trinity of superheroes, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are household names thanks to their presence in TV shows and cartoons over the last 70 years (similar with Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man).

The single most profitable entertainment property of all time just happens to be a video game, raking in US$6 billion dollars since its initial release in 2013. Although video games feel like a relatively new medium, we’ve pretty much grown up with them and seen them evolve from the arcade to the console to the mobile phone (yes, mobile games are still games, don’t give me this “casual” bullshit).

I mean I could keep going: the enduring popularity of Dungeons & Dragons giving rise to other tabletop role-playing games, the prevalence of science fiction and fantasy literature over the centuries, as well as the long-lived fascination with toys and collectables…

The reality is that these things lasted as long as they have because there is a big enough audience to sustain them over the decades. People confuse “niche” with “obscure” or “underground” when it really means “smaller or specific audience”. But even then that’s all relative because there needs to be a large enough audience to make enough money for these things to exist and endure in the first place.

Money makes the world go round
When you list all the things that are considered “geeky”, most of them were predominately aimed at younger audiences. In regards to Star Wars and Star Trek they were simply accessible to young audiences but everything else was more or less created specifically for children. As that audience gets older they become a demographic that now has their own money to spend.

Realising this, companies (doing what they do best) found ways to cash in on that newfound audience and this is where we have the perception of things “suddenly becoming popular”.

Revitalising old properties, taking advantage of/creating the nostalgia boom, adapting stories, marketing of high-end collectables. This supposed boom isn’t a sudden change, it was a slow growth brought about by a public throwing money at the things they love, which then resulted in these already popular things being accessible to a much wider audience.

(SIDE NOTE: And technically it happened once before. This is almost the same audience that were around during the 80’s when Ronald Reagan’s government deregulated advertising to children and allowed the creation of many of our favourite properties.)

Some of that audience was already there but weren’t necessarily vocal (or welcomed) predominantly women and minorities, others are only just discovering these things thanks to the aforementioned accessible media (not everyone reads comic books but they are falling in love with these stories thanks to movie adaptations and maybe want to learn more). And the more accessible media are keeping these characters and stories alive for a newer generation to appreciate and experience.

And that’s where you have growth and that growth sustains the properties we all enjoy and even helps to develop more of what we love.

But again, it comes down to there being a market for these things. They survived because there was a market for them in the first place, and in some cases they were revived because those fans grew up to have their own disposable incomes.

It didn’t go from obscure to mainstream. It went from profitable to even moreprofitable. And that allowed for other things to come along for the ride.

“Geek” mythology
There is a narrative about “nerd culture” that has persisted for the last few decades, despite being based on half-truths and stereotypes that even I’ve had to un-learn over the years.

It’s an over-simplification (I’m writing a rant not a thesis here) but once upon a time, movies depicted our heroes as square-jawed scientists ready to throw a punch at the drop of a hat. Over time we saw a gradual shift that turned intellectual characters into comic relief often exhibiting awkward, anti-social characteristics that are now often associated with being on the spectrum.

Many stories often use stereotypes to quickly (and quite often lazily) convey character and story points when there isn’t enough time to develop or give background and of course this includes the “nerd” stereotype.

It has persisted for decades in media mainly because the very people creating said media were the folks that fit the “nerd” archetype in school and are now most likely working out their frustrations through their art (they were the ones playing with the video equipment in the media room, volunteering their services to the drama production, or starting up radio clubs).

One of the more positive examples:

Verses one of the more horrible examples:

And that media is what we learn from and absorb. While I’m not saying said media is being dishonest, those already singular perspectives and experiences are further filtered, further simplified, and distilled and then sent back into the cycle.

I can only speak anecdotally but my own high school experiences over half a lifetime ago, while featuring some of the cliques, characters, and social structures often portrayed in media, they never had the clearly defined boundaries between one group and the next let alone the hierarchies. But then again I was in the “miscellaneous” group so perhaps that perspective is off?

“You didn’t want us to begin with”
Bullying is a major problem, there’s no denying that, and kids pick on others for the most trivial of reasons yet the impact can be cruel and life-altering. Having experienced this myself as a kid as well as later in life I know the impact it can have on one’s mental state.

Young people who are LGBTQI, disabled, or those who aren’t white get picked on for being “different”, something they cannot change or do not have any choice in.

Someone liking Star Wars however has a choice, a choice that is seen as “childish” by some. Perpetuated by the notion that we’re meant to “grow up” a certain way by a certain time and that is supposedly exhibited by our interests.

When you examine what it is bullies are focussed on it’s not about a person’s interests. It’s the stereotypes and behaviours associated with these otherwise innocuous markers they are picking on, behaviours and stereotypes that are considered “different” and not “normal”. It’s a way to make themselves feel better and superior to others because they secretly fear they are lesser.

That’s zero comfort to those that are on the receiving end of this bullying but there’s a real reason for this delineation: bullies are cowards (that’s important for later).

Sadly, some of these cowards get older but they themselves never really “grew up” either.

But maybe in some cases, the feeling of rejection can be as singular as being turned down by the opposite sex. So instead of actually looking at themselves and their behaviour they find other reasons for that rejection.

Infinite diversity in infinite combinations
It’s rather interesting that this experience of supposedly being ostracised for their interests and hobbies has not instilled any sense of empathy in such people that would make them more open to diversity, groups marginalised by society, or even welcoming more people to enjoy the things they love so much. Instead they cling to the idea of being victims and even use the same language of victimhood to maintain that underdog identity.

Being an underdog, being ostracised, to them is what they think makes them special. They’ve wrapped their identity up in that narrative. It’s delusional and somewhat deranged. It’s also very limiting.

The idea that “nerd culture” (which by the way is such a misnomer but we’re here now) thrived because it was “niche” is the height of delusion. If anything “nerd culture” became stagnant because it was deliberately directed at such a specific audience.

Most of our popular media has almost always been catered to a certain demographic. The comic book industry almost went under in the 90’s for many reasons but it only survived as long as it has because of licensing out the properties and the adaptations that reached a wider audience.

As I mentioned before, that media is where we learn and absorb other perspectives and this change (slow and gradual as it has been) has allowed for so many new voices to contribute to the popular culture and make themselves heard, offering new and interesting perspectives, keeping these things alive for another generation.

But some sad dweebs keep fighting against this change. How the hell does someone watch Star Trek all their life but then complain about “forced diversity” when there is a black female lead or an openly gay couple on Discovery?

How does one refer to their interests as “lady repellent” but now that girls and women are all over the scene (especially in cosplay) these terrified man-children respond by declaring them all to be “fake geeks”? The hilarious thing is that female fans (or as I like to call them: fans) have always been there but they haven’t always been welcomed, taken seriously, or let alone remembered.

Why not allows others to enjoy what it is you feel so passionate about? Why not let in other marginalised people who also want to feel special and part of something? Have you achieved so little in your lives that you tie your identity to your hobbies just to feel accomplished?

Git Gud!
This is a quick one: there is yet another debate about accessibility in video games and whether or not some games need difficulty settings. Those who are vehemently against an “easy mode” or even accessibility for others seem to have a very out of touch, elitist attitude when it comes to other people enjoying games.

Like it’s one thing to be challenged but it’s another altogether when that “challenge” is not fun and doesn’t help progress the experience.

It’s almost like this jerks want others to suffer through the same shit they may (or most likely have not) endured to be worthy of being called a “fan”. A bit like a war veteran complaining about “young people” having it too easy when the whole point of fighting in the war was to protect the freedoms they enjoy so they wouldn’t have to face that hardship at all. Again, the difference is the war veteran actually achieved something.

Mainstream or Generic
Being accessible to a wider and more varied audience is not a bad thing. The fear that it becomes “generic” is an odd fear to have. Either you love something because it was good and enjoyable or you don’t. If you got into a hobby because it was supposedly “obscure” then that says more about you than it does anyone else.

Things survive, thrive, and evolve thanks to the many voices that partake, appreciate, and even have a hand in shaping it. Things die when they are left in the dark and left to rot (except for mushrooms but we’re not mushroom).

When you examine what this whole gate keeping nonsense is about, it’s fear: It’s fear others, fear of change, the fear that they’re not as special a they thought they were because they tied up their identity into something that was not completely true.

It comes from the same dark place that gives birth to racism, misogyny, and homophobia. From the same place that tells you different is wrong. You’re not like them, you’re just pretending so you’re not allowed into the club house.

Oh the irony.

Boom and growth
One of the biggest and most enduring sentiments that has come out of this recent “boom” is fans meeting and hanging out with other fans. The communities that grew out of shared interests have gotten bigger over the years.

Conventions are one of the main melting pots for such the world over and they do provide a wonderful insight into just how varied and diverse the fan bases can be. Also how fantastic it is to have a diversity of perspectives to help shape our understanding of one another.

People have made lifelong friends because of these communities, they’ve met their partners, their children have been growing up loving these things. Our perspective on the world is expanding the more we open up to those varied experiences.

Those who grew up pretending to be ostracised for their hobbies and then turning into bullies themselves are hopefully a dying breed. They are desperate to cling on to an outdated ideal that was built on half-truths because it made them feel special when they were afraid they weren’t.

They ignore the plight of others, hold back the benefits to what they love, as well as close themselves off to a world of possibilities because they fear they will no longer be the top of this imaginary heap they’ve created in their own minds.

There’s a sentiment that the popularity of “nerd culture” will one day die out but I’m not sure that is accurate. If anything the way we talk about pop culture and those things we once upon a time (and still do) refer to as “geeky” will perhaps quieten down or evolve in such a way that we don’t highlight them like that anymore. But the things themselves will continue to thrive as long as we continue to love them (and money can be made from them).

In any case the world is changing and that change, that openness to others, can only make us better.

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