Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Measuring Stick: Coming to Grips With Nerddom

banner image by Riley James Keith

“There is no spoon,” a stoic little boy tells a tall man in a trench coat and sunglasses.

This man doesn’t quite believe he is The One. He wants to believe, but his hold on what he knows hasn’t quite lost its grip. It’s not until later on, in the face of terrible danger and decision making, Neo does make his leap and comes to realize there really is no spoon. The Matrix is real. He is the One. He will bring the machine to its knees.

I want to say the same thing about my fellow nerds. I want to look someone straight in the eyes and say, “There is no spoon” and have that mean something. I want the sentence to be a comfort, that the frothing at the mouth, the death threats, and the rampant misogyny is just an aberration, an Agent Smith coming to find those of us who have rebelled and bring us back in line.

Sadly, the Matrix is our reality. There is a spoon and it will not bend.

I did not grow up knowing I was a geek. Oh, I was made fun of, and I had my weird little obsessions, but no one ever came and told me outright  what I was.  I had my Sailor Moon comic books, my Dungeons and Dragons manuals, my interest in history, and an aunt who introduced me to Dune, Farscape, and Star Wars. I was content. It wasn’t until later in life I understood what I was. Knowing this did not make me automatically reach out in an attempt at open-armed acceptance into a world I’d been a

Signpost for nerddom

part of without actually realizing it. The societal pressure of being ‘normal’ was imprinted, seared into my brain by years of torment. It wasn’t good to be open about my love of the Magic School Bus, the Gundam Wing anime, or my knowledge of the Trojan War. It wasn’t acceptable to be passionate about something, to show that love in clothing or obscure movie references and hastily scribbled fanfiction. It was better to pretend to be “normal,” to feign love of a football team or some movie I’d never wanted to see just to be “cool.”

At my core, I was still a nerd, but smoothed out by the rest of society so that I would always remain on the fringes of nerddom, the outsider looking in. I watched as anime became mainstream, as Hollywood embraced Marvel and DC and brought them both to the screen. I watched as nerd culture grew and finally felt a part of something I’d only been skirting the edges of for most of my life. All Are Welcome was the phrase shouted from the rooftops. Suddenly, walking into a comic shop wasn’t an exercise in uncomfortable stares and stunned silence. My favorite shows were coming back and even getting rebooted.

My late twenties is a great time to be a nerd. For the first time in history, to be a nerd is to be suddenly cool. Having a wide knowledge of the superhero universe is not seen as a social death sentence, but something to be envious of. YouTube and the silver screen have all opened up worlds previously kept within bound and colored pages to varying degrees of success.  Twitch has given us access into live gaming streams. Geek and Sundry takes it upon themselves to introduce the world to new tabletop

Tell me to my face I’m not geeky enough

games while explaining the rules of the old ones. The avenues to get kids and significant others interested are there, free for public use. There are whole pages dedicated to fandoms on Wikipedia for those who want a crash course. Gone are the days where one had to wait a month for each successive comic. Gone are the agonizing waiting periods between Battlestar Galactica episodes. Insta-geek is the new norm.

For those of us on the fringes, this rise in a subculture is great. The hunt for someone who shares the same interest as you is nowhere near as hard as it used to be.  Funko Pop have become conversation starters, Hot Topic the denizen of Her Universe Fashion, and ThinkGeek the place to go when you want to decorate your house.  Suddenly, it’s not about how much you know, it’s about how much you love that thing and want to share it with your friends. Being a nerd doesn’t mean being the pasty white kid dressed up like a wizard in his mom’s basement playing Dungeons and Dragons with his friends anymore. It means inclusivity, acceptance, popularity, even haute couture; all of those things the pasty kids so desperately wanted to be true are finally happening.

And yet.

And yet. 

A spoonful of sugar does not make change go down easily. The new geek culture has become the dreaded words pop culture and not everyone is happy about it.

For those who withstood the test of time, who were there first, this widespread cultural shift is horrendous; what was once sacred has become stained. Those who would call themselves geeks are labeled, dismissed, and even lambasted on Twitter for their pretense.   To these gatekeepers, the mere fact of a Captain America t-shirt or a Magic the Gathering deck does not a nerd make.

In an attempt to prove their point, the measuring stick is brought forth and slammed up against the would-be geek. Questions are asked. Timelines are given. Knowledge of characters, rules, universes and their minutiae are tested. In the event of Doctor Who and Star Trek, a choice is given and may the Elder Gods help you if you do not pick the right one. And if you’re a woman? Forget about it. The measuring stick is made twice as high, the questions loaded with assumption, and the accusations of ‘faking it for attention’ automatic.

Dear Fake Geek Girls, Please Go Away,  Booth Babes Need Not Apply, Fake Death Threats all point to the common denominator of you woman, not nerd. The resulting explanations for the necessity of such tests are asinine at best, downright insulting at their worst. The double standard for women in the nerd community is palpable. Despite making up 25% of comic book readers,   only 1% are creators at DC, and a whopping 34 women are working on Marvel content.

The struggle is real

Women can cosplay, but only if they fit the mold. If they do not, if they dare go out as anything but what has been dictated for them by another measuring stick, they are shamed and harassed for it, just as the women with the so-called ‘correct’ physical attributes are shamed and harassed, called out for only getting into nerd culture for the fashion when, in actuality, they’re fans of the character they’re dressed as. And let me point out, too, that women are not the only ones who face body shaming in cosplay. It hits men, and people of color have a whole other measuring stick they’re placed against.

If one does manage to pass the tests laid out, the issue of time inevitably comes into conversation. “How long have you been a fan?” is usually followed up by the bandwagon accusation, “You only like X because of the movie.” Those doing the asking find it convenient to ignore the purpose of movies is to appease the old and bring in the new. To “hop on the bandwagon” is to be categorized as a lemming, only following the crowd because X is hot right now. Once the fervor dies down, it is understood the “geek” will revert to whatever he/she was before he/she decided to call themselves geek.  “True geeks” do not appear like magic. True geeks have been there since the beginning.  True geeks keep the faith; they act as police of their fandoms, lashing out at creators and content alike.

“There is no spoon,” the little boy tells a disbelieving Neo.

Except, there is a spoon and it’s going to take a lot of bending before it breaks. Nerd culture has erupted into gale wind force, bringing with it new fans curious about what they see on the screen, and outside fans happy to see the thing they love more easily available to buy and collect. But oh is there a long way to go.  Long has the nerd community touted itself as “all inclusive” and “welcoming.” It’s time to show the world we mean what we say. Just as the “real fans” and “true nerds” have set themselves up as Agents, poisoning fandoms, ridiculing and shutting out those who do not measure up, so do we have to set ourselves up as Neo and fight back for everyone marginalized within our own community.

The madness must stop.  No one should give up on the thing they love because of the actions of the minority.

There is no measuring stick.

There is no spoon.



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