Thursday, July 21, 2011

A rebuttal in defense of Geek Culture

Here is an interesting and woefully misguided article from Nerve that offers 5 reasons why "geek culture should go away". If you don't feel like reading it, let me sum up the five reasons for you.
1. Geek culture is escapist
2. It's simplistic
3. It's dogmatic
4. It's sexist
5. It was better when it was cheap.

So let's take a look at Mr Peter Smith's logic and figure out why he's wrong. But before we do that, let me add my disclaimer. I do this out of love for geek culture, rather than a defensive position. I have my feet planted firmly in worlds like geek culture and firmly in the literary world for my degree. I'm not a fat virgin living in his parents' basement. I go to the gym, I hang out with my friends a lot (maybe too much - it's not easy on the wallet) and I'm able to speak with girls. I'm not reacting defensively to Peter Smith's article; I'm reacting logically.

1. Geek culture is escapist

Well no shit, Mr Smith. Tell me which aspect of popular culture isn't escapist anymore. The crux of his argument is that the worlds portrayed in geek culture have become so deep and so complex that nerds could "live on Dagobah and never leave". That's potentially true. But he's pointing out a small minority of nerds who cannot separate reality from fiction. He's also forgetting that there are millions of people out there who have shitty terrible lives and need to forget their problems. That's why they watch television that lets them unwind and escape, shows like reality TV or Jersey Shore or Dynasty or any show with rich people. Popular culture is escapist and not interested in conveying the harshness of reality. The US is in a recession and people want to avoid thinking about it. You can hardly blame geek culture for being good at this.

2. It's simplistic.

Have you read Game of Thrones, Mr Smith? Let me tell you, the simplistic monochromatic books and movies get short shrift where I'm from. I loathe simplicity. I seek out moral ambiguity, complexity and opacity. I want something to surprise me and make me think, and I tend to discover it. The most popular authors in fantasy and sci-fi are doing the biggest and most sophisticated storytelling in decades. Say what you will about Harry Potter, but it isn't simplistic. Or how about His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman? Or the giant and morally murky Peter F Hamilton books? Mr Smith trots out the familiar examples of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars in the defense of his weak proposition that geek culture is morally simplistic. I might add that logically speaking, Mr Smith is conflating geek culture with geek art. I'll get back to that point. LOTR and Star Wars are monomyths, Mr Smith. They are designed to be morally simple. A monomyth is the archetypal story of the hero's journey, and both LOTR and Star Wars use their predecessors in interesting ways, such as Beowulf or the Norse myths or Kurosawa. Their distillations of other more primal stories. Certainly simplistic in morality, but complex in world building

3. It's dogmatic

With his third point, Mr Smith actually reaches a logical one: his complaint is that geek culture has a sense of entitlement and is out of control defensive about its works of art. I might agree with him, but again, he's tackling a smaller subgroup of geek culture than the whole. Logically speaking, Mr Smith's argument rests on anecdotal evidence. He provides no proof of this beyond a hazy recollection of nerds getting uppity when people complain about The Dark Knight. In my experience, Mr Smith can only be referring to the dungeons of forums such as 4chan or the Newsarama forums, where the angriest and most vocal nerds shout their opinions. On the forums where I participate, such as Barbelith, anyone who had no understanding of logical discourse was routinely banned. You had to be able to defend your position, with proof and with logic. I think Mr Smith does have slight point, here, actually. But he's missing the mark ever so slightly. He thinks all nerds spring to the defense of their favourite work of art. Is he saying that he wouldn't defend The Beatles? Of course we're going to defend our art. It's ludicrous to think that if somebody is shitting on our favourite thing then we are going to meekly stand by and watch them do it? No I don't think so. However, and this is where I think Mr Smith does have a slight point, some of us are reduced to ad hominem attacks immediately and we drag out the worst defense ever: "you just didn't get it". If Mr Smith had refined his argument a little bit more, I would have agreed.

4. It's sexist

Now this one is a little bit murky. He says that geek culture uses female characters mostly as eye candy, that they are not afforded much complexity as male characters, that they are glittering prizes to be won. I almost want to agree with him. I'm almost there. However, speaking from personal experience, I've been to comic cons, and I can tell you positively that the female nerd is a demographic that is quickly multiplying. When I went to the anime convention, I saw two cosplayers in amazingly authentic Doctor Who costumes; both of them were female. Here's a logical proposition for you, Mr Smith, the more females that come into geek culture, the more diversified the art will become, and it's already happening. From twenty years ago to today, women creators in comics have flourished, from the indie scene to even Marvel and DC. With that, so do female characters. However, caveat emptor, shit like the women in fridge phenomenon or fans telling Kate Beaton that they want to impregnate her, that shit just won't stand, man. I've written a lot about how sexist our culture is, so I almost can't even dispute. All I can say is that I'm personally trying to be less sexist and less racist and less of a dick. Many other geeks are doing the same so we can let more cool people into our circle. The more people who watch Doctor Who means more people I can chat with and make friends with. Plus, I would love if my next partner was a Who fan!

5. All this stuff was better when it was cheap

This is a terrible and weak argument that rests wholly on nostalgia. Mr Smith thinks that big budgets do not equate with better storytelling. Yes, that's totally true. There's no correlation between them, inverse or otherwise. The Bell Curve shows us that most stories will be average, irrespective of budget. This is true now and the same is true of the past. In the heyday of sci-fi, either the fifties or the seventies, there were more schlock and b-movies than masterpieces. There has to be, that's the law of averages. The difference now is that there is MORE of everything, more movies, more TV, more comics, so it seems like there's a lot of shit. Well, yes, there is. But there's also more excellent stuff, too. I've fought this argument countless times on forums and it's always the same tired claim: everything is crap now, it was all better back in the day. Wrong wrong and wrong. Not everything is crap and NOT all of it was better back in the day. There were some shit movies done with big budgets back in the day, as well, Mr Smith. The Dark Knight is a good example of big budget storytelling done right. So is the new Battlestar Galactica. Same with the first Matrix film. There are tons of examples. I think that in the future, I'm going to call this the Nostalgia Law, kind of like Godwin's Law. Here it is: any discussion pertaining to culture will inevitably descend into arguments based on nostalgia and hazy fuzzy warm childhood memories of art with no connection to its objective quality. Boom, I just made history.

Also, and here's the best part, he claims that "[g]eek culture was better when it was the underdog; geeks, of all people, should know that sometimes things are worth more when you have to fight for them." This is sort of contradictory to his point regarding the dogmatic aspect. If everything is better because we have to fight for it, why would you not let us fight for it? It's either one or the other, Mr Smith.

This whole thing rests on conflating geek art with geek fandom. As with anything, there is a veritable rainbow of different kinds of fans. There are the obsessives, there are the moderates and then there are the entry level nerds. It seems that the obsessives, the trolls, are the most vocal, but that's changing. The stereotype of the fat neckbeard virgin is going the way of the dinosaur thanks to regular people coming out of the nerd closet in defense of their favourite geek art. I'm proud to say that I'm a nerd, but I don't just do it behind the anonymity of my blog of a forum. I tell people in person that I'm a Doctor Who fan, and that I go to comic conventions and that I had a custom made winter jacket designed on Captain Jack Harkness' coat. I defend my points with logic and reason, rather than nostalgia or emotion. Mr Smith ought to do the same.


KudzuDragon said...

I, and other geeks/nerds appreciate your cool headed, logical response to a rather opinionated and misinformed article.I tend to be more of an anime nerd, and I thought it was odd that the large anime subculture of nerds was not touched upon whatsoever. Back to the point, I'm glad that you took the time to write such a structured rebuttal. There are some nerds and geeks who are hot headed and would flair up, but that is not really the norm. I don't claim to know all about geek culture, but I rightfully claim myself as one, so reading his article made me really question what would "qualify" him to write that. Maybe he is in the closet about his own geekiness and so he feels the need to shit on it. Whatever it is, his title there at the end "This piece was written by Peter Smith, notorious Cool Guy." is just lame. Like he claims that he can spew all this and its justified that he knows what he is talking about because he is a Cool Guy. Whatever. I have been only to one comicon and it was so much fun! I'm going to animecon STL in January and I know it will be absolutely amazing! We are proud that our culture is going strong! Thanks!

matthew. said...

Thanks for the support, friend. As I mentioned in the comments section of the article, I'm not an anime fan, but I support the nerds who follow it, if only because I am a large believer in inclusion. I wanted to produce a logical response to something so emotional and ridiculous. Have fun at your future cons and keep doing what you do.

Anonymous said...

you're dumb as shit and he was completely right. Grats on wasting what was probably like 3 hours of your life tho

matthew. said...

Absolutely stellar reply. Thanks, anonymous commenter. I'm incredibly grateful that you happened to point out how dumb I am. What I would have done without your insightful, eloquent and intelligent remarks?