But wait, isn’t that a little redundant? Geek…Outsider… Geeks are outsiders, right? According to every waify, awkward, glasses-clad nerd in the movies that’s true. Or, at least it was before the Geek Boom that in the past few years has seen graphic novels topping New York Times Best Sellers lists, a huge and growing fandom for shows like Doctor Who, and a proliferation of “I heart nerds” shirts (a perfect explanation of what I think about that here). Today, longtime geeks are proudly defending (or insisting on) their geekhood among an influx of new fans of all things geek. I sincerely hope this new popularity is helping a geek or two score at the bar.
This wasn’t always the case, of course. There’s no shortage of teen movies that put geeks squarely on the outside… outside the in-crowd, outside the mainstream, outside of anything resembling cool or popular. Still I’d argue that geeks have never really been all that outside as we think anyway. Outside the mainstream or popular culture interests? Sure. Everyone who grew up geeky probably remembers the sting of having to go to prom with your cousin, but geeks have always had a thriving subculture to retreat to. Not to mention, typically geek culture is generally thought to be primarily made up of individuals who are as socially as insider as you can get – white dudes.
A testament to the always thriving nature of geekdom is the fact that many geeky pastimes require multiple individuals. Think about it — MMORPGs, D&D, Magic the Gathering, cosplay, larping Renaissance fairs, Comicons, Star Trek fleet clubs… Hell, EverQuest at some point needed a raid of 40+ to beat it’s baddest bosses! Even geeks in the academy have their conferences and their publish-or-perish directive that insists on interactivity. We might not have always been so “in” as we are now, but we’ve always had our own geek-fellows, and our own geeky “in” crowds.
In this new day — where geekdom is embraced, where Game of Thrones has made dragons and swords cool and Comicons are overflowing with newbie nerds — “geek” and “outsider” are no longer synonymous, if indeed they ever really were. Rather than bemoan this change, rather than sticking a flag in it and proclaiming “I was geek before it was cool!”, “Geek Outsider” cleaves these terms for good.
In this age of rapid-fire memes, and twenty-second fame, what makes someone “outside the mainstream” changes just as rapidly as what makes someone “in”. And unless you can keep up, then at some point we’re all outside the mainstream. Yet, there persists the idea of the geek as something still different, even when cleaved from this idea of being an “outsider”. So, what is a geek?
We all know the stereotype – the skinny, sexless sci-fi nerd who turns every stick-like object into a light saber, and stammers awkwardly in front of the pretty girl while he fixes her computer… Okay, ya, so sometimes that’s kinda dead on. I know at least two guys who fit that profile pretty well, minus the stammering. But “geek” has evolved over the ages and come to encompass a lot more than waify, bespectacled white guys in a permanent state of puberty.
Throwing it way back, at some point “geek” meant” a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, as biting off the head of a live chicken.” In the 50’s geek icon Robert Heinlein gave the term a makeover when he used it in “The Year of the Jackpot” to refer to obsessive geniuses specifically with science/math/technology aptitude. John Hughes movies in the 80’s led us to believe they were poor fashion rebels with squeaky voices, angsty faces, and hopeless crushes. A modern dictionary keeps it on the academic side, claiming a “geek” is someone “slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits. ” So, over the decades” geek” has managed to mean super gross/weird, super science genius, poor fashion freak, and it eventually graduated to anyone smart, awkward, and afraid of sex.
But the definition has evolved more still! Over time we’ve come to think of geeks not just as genius scholars, weird-dressing losers, or tech pros, but also as gamers, fanboys, larpers, steampunks, and cosplayers. “Geek chic” broadens the term to include fashion nerds, and “Nerdcore” brought hip-hop into the geeky fold.
Today, “geek” covers the whole range from intellectuals fascinated down to the details of their fields, to gamers who dedicate hours to unlocking special combat moves or exploring every nook and cranny of their virtual worlds, to artists and cosplayers who pour mounds of energy into creating stories/costumes/music/tools that bring their favorite fantastical worlds to life, to engineers and makers who turn sci-fi stories into technological realities… what have you! There are SciFiGeeks, BandGeeks, FashionGeeks, ComicsGeeks, HipHopGeeks, FoodieGeeks, GamerGeeks, KnittingGeeks, NeuroscienceGeeks, PostColonialLiteratureGeeks… So many geeks!
What a geek is about is reckless obsession, about hyper-focus, about being “scary into” something different, something that others might not see as worth so much time, but which gets your geeky brain all drunk with gollum-style excitement. It’s about immersion, about creating or playing or paying homage to worlds and ideas you can get lost in. Gamers game, makers make, scholars think and discover, artists draw/dress/program. The lot of us immerse ourselves in whatever world it is we’re building or believing in, in whatever ways we can, be it fanfiction, bowties, making meals from the Game of Thrones cookbook, or even just imagining you’re dodging Cylon raiders while you weave in traffic. That is Geek. To Geek is to get seriously into it, whatever it is. Geeks Get Into It.
It’s also about not giving a damn if people think you’re weird because you talk about nothing else, and not caring that the terrifying amount of time you spend immersed in other-worldliness probably makes you more than a little socially awkward and likely pale due to lack of sun exposure. So maybe that’s the kind of “outside” that geeks are — outside this world. Yup. I said it. Geeks are out of this world.
But that’s not the type of “outsider” I mean here. “Geek” already holds that meaning. “Outsider”, on the other hand, is in the spirit of what feminist/poet/public intellectual Audre Lorde meant by “outsider” in her incredible book Sister Outsider. Outsiders are those who exist in the margins, looking in on the center from outside, but finding no representation for themselves there, no comfortable permanent residence there, and therefore marginalized. But there advantages of this position on the outside, namely that being
outside gives you a clear view of the whole scene. This position doesn’t not come at the expense of admittance to the inside.
Indeed not. In fact, outsiders are fluent in the language of both the insiders and outsiders, and commute all the time to the inside. How else would get our comics, beat Warcraft bosses, and strut in our costumes at cons?
Yet, while insider geek fluency will get you in the door, outsiders still don’t look like insiders, that is, of course, the stereotyped geek – white, male, awkward. The outsiders in geekland are Black or Brown or Female or Gay or, in other ways, not fitting the standard. And it’s a precious rarity to see superheroes or geeky creators that are any of those things attaining visible levels of popularity. And when they do they are often subject to painfully offensive (if not always deliberate or obvious) attacks, degradation, or injustices. Not to mention the not-always-so-welcoming gestures of the insiders themselves towards these outsiders.
But like I said, there are advantages, right?! Yes! Being a Geek Outsider is hardly a victim’s role. There’s mad cool stuff on the outside, independent minority scholars, conducting revelationary research, creators pushing the envelope and coming up with stories and characters insiders never dreamed of! And the best of it is that Geek Outsiders enjoy both worlds, whereas many insiders are unaware of the thriving life on the margins, or at least are afraid to go there. Luckily tons of outsiders are working to bring this cool awesomeness into the mainstream and some insiders are mixing it up a bit too, both with an eye towards creating and participating in more dynamic worlds.
Audre Lorde says we must keep one foot outside, keep our toe on the line, so as not to get comfortable in the center and lose sight of all it’s faults and the ways it must be improved. Yes, improved. For decades geeks have participated in the creation of new worlds, and revelations about our own. Geeks have been bringing these worlds to life, changing the way we see our own societies, and turning fantasy into reality through myriad means -cosplay, larping, acting, stage and film adaptations, technological upgrades, digging at Machu Picchu, photographing nebulae…
Today whole fantastical universes have complex languages and stunningly realistic visuals and soundtracks, and details that can make you lose yourself completely. Newer video games boast 3D, shaking controllers, and impressive storytelling – some of the best have elaborate stories for every character that wanders on screen and fine-tuned dialogue that sounds like everyday conversation. The movement, not just in gaming, has been towards blurring completely the line between reality and fantasy.
Geek Outsider is about that, about real-izing worlds. That is, celebrating the kind of geeky efforts that push the edges and push us forward, taking daring risks and trying new things to make all things geeky more awesome. It’s about shining the spotlight on the margins, and drawing attention to where we’ve been lacking. It’s about combating misrepresentation of marginalized communities in geek culture. It’s about reminding white fanboys that they can enjoy and empathize with a comic featuring a lead character that looks nothing like them, just as easily as they dig Asgardian kings or giant, red, hornless demon PI’s. It’s about useful criticism and sometimes just calling BS.
But mainly it’s about celebrating inclusion and representation, daring and revolutionary ideas, and the geeks and geekery that’s pushing us forward, which, as much as graphics and expansions, just makes for better geeking.