Thursday, November 12, 2015

Aging with Geek Culture



So yesterday was my birthday where I added yet another year on top of a lot of others. You hit a certain point where you do get a little reflective about where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, and what’s changed since “back when I was a kid.” I actually passed the traditional starting point for that a while back, but it still hits me on birthdays. So when I started writing this for a site about geeky pop culture- actually the day before my birthday –I started thinking about decades of fandom and geek culture.

Wow, has it ever changed. On the whole it’s changed for the better. Sure, there are some things that the march of time have added into the mix that should probably have been left out of the recipe for today’s geek culture, but it’s by far seen what every little fanboy and fangirl from years ago would have called pipedreams if you went to way back then and told them what today was going to be like. The geek haven’t simply inherited the pop culture world, they’ve taken it over.

I want to remain largely positive, but there are things that I wish hadn’t started growing in geek culture; although they were inevitable with geek culture’s growth. I’ll touch on two of those now- get them out of the way –before talking about what’s out there that would have blown my young geek mind way back when. These are the two that really bug me.

The Dark Side

Humans are weird. We feel a need to form groups wherever we go and with whatever we do. That’s not always a bad thing. It’s actually sort of protected us in more ways than one over the centuries. With geeks, our groups became a form of shelter. A lot of us way back when grew up in areas where what we all loved then and now wasn’t popular in the mainstream of our peers. “Geek” was a word seen as a stinging pejorative, and being into geek things was not “cool” in any way. As a matter of fact, it could make you violently unpopular with the “cool” kids.

Being before the internet, let alone social media, it wasn’t always that easy to find others to fill out your small band of geeks, but we still managed it. We found small groups, and our small groups would find other small groups. These groups would all communicate with each other and connect with still more groups. Then, conventions starting happening a bit more and groups could see each other a few times a year at events where we’d find even more small groups to add to the network. Slowly over the years our groups have gotten bigger, and the things we love have started to dominate the mainstream. Our little groups have essentially become giant geek nations.

The problem with creating nations is our nature to want to form groups. We’ve actually grown so large that the things we used to hate having others do to us we now do to ourselves. Groups form and attack others, sometimes viciously, over artificially created standards of being a “True Geek” or a “True Fan.” As cosplay has grown, groups have formed in that community who do the same thing; judging others, attacking them, and attempting to exclude them from the pastime based on artificial standards they think everyone else must follow. Yet other groups form in cosplay declare themselves as not at all cosplayers, but rather a group superior to the “unimaginative” cosplayers “parading around” in things they didn’t have to design.

Now, granted, least someone say I’m talking about how it was always better back then, we had groups form divisions back in the day as well. Marvel VS DC was taken so seriously by some fans that they would never buy books by one of the two companies, and they could often be found somewhere at your local convention discussing the “inferior” characters of the company they chose not to support. Star Wars VS Star Trek could get to heated levels of debate now and again as well. Star Trek even had its own weird meltdown in fandom as some people actually fought over whether Trek fans should be called “Trekkies” or “Trekkers” while claiming their preferred side was the better group and totally different than those other people. Hell, for that matter, certainly unbelievable if you walk around almost any convention just about anywhere today, there was even a time that “real” sci-fi and fantasy fans (and even more than a few comic book fans) saw Star Trek fans as an unwelcome, intrusive group who didn’t know anything about “real” science fiction beyond their favorite TV show. These “real” sci-fi fans were actually annoyed that these “so called” sci-fi fans were invading their sanctums, the convention scene, in large numbers.

The thing is though; divisions like these started on the smaller scale and fell away as the size of geek culture grew. What we’re seeing in geek culture now is the opposite of that. As the size of geek culture grows, the groups that want divisions grow slightly larger and more numerous. We’re seeing more instances of geek culture forming groups to take the place of the groups it used to hate dealing with. We don’t have the same kind of issue that we used to have with multiple groups in the societal hierarchy informing us that we didn’t belong, weren’t welcome, and weren’t allowed to be in the “cool” groups while seeking to ostracize us to a degree, so we’re replacing that outside condemnation with new groups we’re forming in our own ranks.

It’s stupid, but I suppose it was inevitable. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t go away.

But the larger thing that bothers me is the encroaching stupidity of the extreme fringe that many derogatorily refer to as Social Justice Warriors. You may have seen them out and about on college campuses, at rallies, and complaining about whatever (often) made up problems they can think of to use to inflict their brand of stupidity on others. These are the people who have literally dumbed down some colleges so badly the colleges have issued staff guidelines instructing (mainly white male) faculty to avoid talking about how hard work pays off or stopping minority students who look lost and asking them if they need help because each act is a “microaggression” that hurts and angers some students. They’re also big on screaming “Cultural Appropriation!” at the drop of a hat.

They’ve been playing on the fringes of a lot of areas for a while now. For a long time I figured the one area of society that was sure to reject these people was fandom. A lot of geek cultural was big on accepting new things. We grew up liking things where inhuman looking aliens were best friends with human characters. We have an entire fandom built around a show that introduced “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations” into its core concepts. We love taking something from one fandom and mashing it up with another fandom. Cosplayers do it all the time, we’ve always had people drawing mashups like a TARDIS Transformer, and Steampunk fandom has become amazingly creative about taking something from one fandom and turning it into a Steampunk version. Hell, we’re even big on taking creations and spinning new versions of them designed as if they were created in other cultures or even swapping genders on creations.

Geek culture is a culture of taking whatever becomes a part of it, incorporating it into itself, and adding it to the creative potential of the whole. It’s one of the aspects of creativity that has always thrived with geek culture. That makes geek culture seemingly the exact opposite of an ideology that says it can introduce something into the whole, but no one can borrow from it without first asking for and then being granted special permission to do so by the small handful with the self-proclaimed authority to do so. It would seem like the kind of thing that geek culture would automatically repel.

Sadly, it’s not only not being repelled, but there’s at least one actual geek culture convention designed around SJW philosophy. It’s a convention, and not a new one, that actually has featured panels built around the concepts of telling writers they can’t use ideas or inspirations from cultures that are not “theirs” without permission from some self-appointed authority. It’s a convention that actually has color coded rooms. By color coded, I mean you can’t enter the room unless your skin color or ethnicity meets a certain criteria. The stated reason is so that people can relax and unwind around people like them and thus avoid the aggravations of being around people who don’t share the same skin color or ethnic background. It’s a convention that has special badge codes to govern how you interact socially at the con. It’s also become known as a con where some of the faithful eat their own for not walking in lockstep with them.  

And while that might seem like an isolated, fringe convention, it’s not entirely anymore. While some of the dimmer aspects of the con have yet to go very far, I have seen some of the things you see at that con making their way into other cons. While there’s certainly room for discussion at any con on variations of the themes found in any panel with a more extreme focus, the idea that geek culture and fandom is happily and willingly forming groups whose point of existing is limiting creativity or interactions among fandom is really rather disturbing. While not as large and widespread as the other issue, it’s a snake in the garden of fandom I’d prefer to see the head lopped off of sooner rather than later.

While seemingly different things, the two issues I cited have a very common central core to them. They’re each about restricting and reducing what fandom can be. I grew up with a restricted and reduced fandom. I watched it grow into something where just about anything and everything could walk in the door and add to the overall creativity and greatness of fandom and geek culture as a whole. I don’t like seeing things that by nature are designed to reduce, restrict, and exclude people, creativity, imagination, and ideas from fandom. Both of these things do that; one by chance, one by deliberate design. Not good stuff either way.

Now the Good Stuff

Okay, now that I got the crappy stuff I’ve seen over the years growing into fandom out of the way, let’s talk the good stuff. Let’s address the stuff that makes me feel like sometimes we’re in THE golden age of fandom.

We’re everywhere. We used to count ourselves lucky that we got a live action show here and there that didn’t totally bastardize, screw-up, throw out the source materials, or gut the genre concepts of the genre pool it was playing in. These days you can’t turn around without seeing live-action films and television shows that give us the things we always said it would be great “if only” they could be/would be done.

Several nights of the week I have amazingly well done live-action superheroes on my TV in the primetime hours of the evening. By well done, I mean damned fantastic execution across the board. Shows are given decent budgets, we get outstanding performances and direction, stories are given thought, complex, and long-term plots are created without someone stepping in and killing the idea as “too cerebral” for “those types" of viewers.

We’re having spots of geek outrage on social media because some people think there’s too much stuff being done. We’re seeing people gnashing their teeth over the fact that one aspect of a film might not hold up as well as the rest of the film. People are actually talking about franchises and discussing their fear that the films or shows have been so good for so long now that they’re afraid of the “inevitable” possible slide in quality to come. We would have loved to have such problems 30 and 40 years ago.

Hell, Marvel is actually making their movies and TV shows now. We’re seeing Marvel shape films and television shows around both new stories and classic stories from their books with amazingly entertaining results. We’re seeing Marvel characters in films where the people making the films are not declaring they’re taking the name but doing everything they can to get away from the, said in a derogatory manner,  “comic bookish” look of the characters, storyline concepts, and general aspects of the source materials. We’re getting the actual characters and stories; sometimes with input by people who actually worked on them.

Even if it’s not Marvel, we’re seeing changes. The Walking Dead was a comic book. They sought to make it a TV show and they actually wanted the creator involved. I don’t think people who weren’t around as little as 20 or 30 years ago realize how big of a change that is. Not really all that long ago, you practically had to be a Stephen King or James Clavell to get serious say in the adaptations of your works, and even then you might get the short end of it when a studio exec who knew better than you how your work should be stepped into the picture to interfere.  

That makes me think about horror. Horror has always had a place on television, even if it was a watered down place, but we’ve seen a mainstreaming of some very intense, very intelligent TV horror in the last 10 years. Some of that is the impact of cable, but we’re seeing it on networks as well. The same goes for science fiction and fantasy. These were genres that were often marginalized, ghettoized, and unfortunately treated more often than not as fluff, kiddie fare, and belonging to a demographic that wouldn’t care if you dumbed it down and did it poorly on the cheap. These days? Some of the biggest buzz television shows and movies are science fiction, fantasy, or horror based.

There was a time when our little gatherings were sometimes seen with disdain even by the people that wanted to take our money. There were hotels that treated fandom conventions and the people attending like the plague. Our money was good, but that was sometimes the only thing seen as good about our presence. Hotel horror stories were abundant back then. Slightly larger conventions, convention events that starting drawing in the high thousands, were referred to as invasions; sometimes in the negative manner the word creates.

Today? Today there are entire cities that welcome giant fan gatherings. Businesses look forward to the increase, even if temporary, in their customer bases. We’re not seen as an invasion, but rather embraced as an annual event. Conventions aren’t these things discussed as curiosities in the local media, when they discussed them at all, but rather hyped as the big thing for locals to go see the pomp and circumstance around and in some cases discussed by the national media in the same way they hype major sporting events. We’re not seen or discussed by the majority of the people around the locations of our get-togethers as “those stranger freaks” who are into “weird stuff” anymore, but rather as people celebrating popular, mainstream entertainment culture in a way that invites interest rather than derision.

Then there are the toys. We have a lot more of them now, and they’re even being specifically targeted to our tastes. Sure, some remnants of the old stigma may still be there. We talk and label our way around calling them toys by describing some of them as multipoint articulation deluxe poseable joint display figures, but they’re still toys. Some of them are awesome toys at that. They’re toys that you can put all over your cubicle or on the shelves in your living room and people don’t look at you like you’re mentally defective. Why? Because we’ve taken over the markets, and the brass and stone mini-busts of yesterday have become the 26 inch Godzilla’s with 1,376 points of articulation of today.

Plus there’s the matter having actual toy toys do something that I wish some of my toys could do. I’m not even talking high tech stuff here. One of the things I’m most jealous of my kids over is something insanely simple and basic and provided to them by one of my two favorite toys from back in the day. See, I kind of liked being able to mix and match my toy lines for giant mash-ups and battles of epic proportions. My Micronauts might be part of my big Star Wars battles. G.I. Joe might end up in the mix as well. Throw in any number of other lines and you had a weird looking battlefield. But there were limitations to play options.

If you wanted a figure from line ‘A’ to steal a vehicle from line ‘B’ in a great moment of action, you might find that figure from line ‘A’ wouldn’t fit in the vehicle. Sometimes it was the legs not bending or spreading out into a giant ‘V’ shape when put into a seated position. Sometimes it was a size issue. You could have two characters that, if real people, would both stand around 6 feet tall. However, due to the differing scale of the toys, one would be the equivalent of a 6 foot man while the other would be anywhere from 7 to 8 feet tall. Sometimes they could be the same height but the little peg holes in the back or feet didn’t match up and you had a figure falling off or out of their seat. Then there was the whole issue with weapons and tools being anything but universal.

Then, about 15 years ago, Lego seemed to get the idea that they needed to develop a licensing arm. First they picked up Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Spider-Man. It seemed like an odd grouping, but it was a kind of cool little experiment depending on your fandom. Most people I knew thought it was doomed to failure. Instead of failing, it was a huge success. Now the lines of licensed Lego products include or have included Marvel and DC superheroes. Harry Potter, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Simpsons, Toy Story, Star Wars, and the recently announced Doctor Who line. I’m sure I left more than a few things out there, and seeing how much they’ve grown their licensing I wouldn’t be surprised to see two new lines by the time some of you have read this. But now it’s opened up the door for huge lines of sets full of characters that might not exist together in any other toy line, and they all fit together in the same little toy world with perfect compatibility.

We’ve even found our way into what was once seen as the bastion of a culture you’d see as far removed from the wild, crazy, geek culture. We’re in the fabric stores. No, I’m not even talking about the printed fabrics that your mom or grandma used to find and buy to turn into a pillowcase for you. We’ve hit the point where major fabric outlets are getting products that are specifically made for and marketed to cosplayers. In my lifetime, I’ve watched the idea of “dressing up” go from being seen as something that “those weirdos” did to being described as a “cosplay culture” to being embraced in the mainstream media coverage to becoming seen as a wanted, desired, and valuable market to cater to.

Best of all, these days we’re out. I was never embarrassed about being a geek, but openly being a geek cost me some associations over the years. Being seen as one of “those people” or being seen as being fine with being with and around “those people” was a no-no in the eyes of a lot of my peers in a lot of places. These days I’m probably a bigger geek than before, far more open and displaying it in more ways with greater visibility. The end result? I just end up making more geek friends, the people that would have been more closet geek back in the day don’t hide it as much, and the people that aren’t into geek culture that much still see it as something that’s just fine and dandy.Better still, I've made more and better friends in fandom in the last decade than I did outside fandom in any two of the prior ones.

Looking back over the decades I’ve been a part of geek culture, It’s hard to think of geek life back then as even being a part of the same world as geek life these days. We’re so far removed from where we were relegated 20, 30, 40 or more years ago. The geek have inherited the Earth, or at least the majority of the Earth’s popular culture and pop culture identity. We’ve really come a long way.

It’s an amazing time to be a geek. I’m glad I was able to see it. I’m even gladder still that I’m able to see it now while still having quite a few good years left ahead of me to see how much better it gets. 

Jerry Chandler is a serious horror geek with a lifelong love of trying to find books and movies that can scare the spit out of him. When not watching and reading horror, he can sometimes be found helping to make horror with his filmmaking family in NC, Adrenalin Productions. He loves Halloween slightly more than Christmas, and almost as much as Dragon Con. When not writing here, he can be found at his other homes on the web by looking at his own blog, his Twitter, and his Facebook.  

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