Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Letting the Geek Flag Fly

By ScottDS

A few weekends ago, some friends and I went to MegaCon, Central Florida’s largest celebration of pop culture, sci-fi, horror, comics, anime, and assorted nerdery. This was my fourth visit in ten years and the crowd was as big as ever. Looking back on the trip, a few thoughts have occurred to me... social, political, and otherwise.

One event was Sci-Fi Speed Dating. Yes, really! (I was pressured into it.) There were 53 guys and 50 girls, all of various shapes, sizes, and complexions. We sat with a girl, traded pleasantries for three minutes, then rotated. Multiply that by 50. At the end, we anonymously exchanged phone numbers and I’m proud to say I got two! Some people got bupkes. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t expect anything to happen but I would’ve felt worse getting nothing. How damaging to the self-esteem it must be not to receive any positive attention from the opposite sex at a sci-fi convention! If not here, then where? After chatting with 50 girls, there seems to be a clear dividing line in fandom. Imagine a Venn diagram: on the left are games, comics, and anime; on the right are sci-fi and filmed entertainment; in the middle are Dr. Who and all things Whedon. 98% of the girls in attendance belonged exclusively to one side or the other, with only a few in the middle.
I can’t explain it. Not only that, I’m guilty of it as well, with my tuches firmly placed in the right side of the diagram. I don’t hate videogames or anime – they’re just not on my radar but who am I to question someone else’s esoteric hobbies? Most of the girls were into anime and videogames. A handful were into Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, etc. Only one woman understood my T-shirt! One girl, when asked, said she was a fan of anything that had a good story and interesting characters. "You’d make a horrible Hollywood executive!" I thought to myself. No one mentioned anything resembling classic science fiction or any entertainment more than 20 years old (Dr. Who being an exception). We all decry the speed at which pop culture operates in the 21st century: nothing is allowed to settle and we’re always onto the next thing before the current thing has been given a chance. I had a small sample size to work with but it would seem that this thinking even permeates geek culture, at least to a small extent – the very people who you’d think would ponder the future while treasuring the best of the past.

Others may imply that there’s an element of sexism on display: in other words, that females can’t be "real geeks." I’m the last person on the planet qualified to write about the battle of the sexes but in my experience, anyone – male or female – can be a poser. Anyone can claim to know more about a subject than they actually do. And I hate to think us male geeks are so close-minded that we wouldn’t let females into the clubhouse! Are female geeks held to a higher "standard" because many of these things are seen as strictly male interests? Trust me, I’d be nervous if I were asked to go head to head with a hardcore Trekkie. Believe it or not, I don’t know everything there is to know about Star Trek! But in any subculture, there will always be arguments and a competitive streak. Sadly, it’s human nature. (As an aside, just because someone is a geek doesn’t mean they’re on the prowl for a geek companion – some of us have learned this the hard way. Even 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon fantasized about alpha male "astronaut Mike Dexter.")
There’s also a danger in geek culture being "co-opted." We’re seeing this already, with studios peddling their wares at the San Diego Comic-Con – a fun event that, in my opinion, has sold out – hoping for those coveted geek dollars. While some are easily swayed, others know when they’re being sold a bill of goods. PC Magazine’s Will Greenwald stated that, "Geek culture requires not just enthusiasm, but depth and scope. Those latter two characteristics are why geekdom will never be truly co-opted by popular culture." There’s a reason why Star Trek fans have conventions but viewers of Keeping Up with the Kardashians don’t. (If they do, call in a drone strike!) On the other hand, one can argue that conventions are celebrations of the best of pop culture, period. Breaking Bad and Dexter aren't exactly Comic-Con fodder but there's no shortage of merchandise or people dressed up like the characters. No one’s dressing up like Honey Boo Boo!

(They are, however, dressing up like characters from The Big Bang Theory, which drives me nuts. It’s nice to have smart characters on TV but their social awkwardness doesn’t help the stereotype. As one comedy writer put it, "Geeks who watch The Big Bang Theory are like black people who watched Amos ’n’ Andy!")
Then there’s the political angle. These things are 99.9% apolitical and can be enjoyed by anyone of any persuasion. It’s funny that MegaCon took place on the same weekend as CPAC, which might was well be MegaCon for conservatives. I’ve said it before but if a hack like Steve Crowder really wanted to make a difference, he’d stop preaching to the choir on Fox News and start working on his own comic book, or short film, or e-book, etc. Nothing that has to be exclusive to geekdom, mind you, and nothing political... just an interesting story well told, with conservative-friendly themes in the background. Sci-fi/comic conventions are the perfect place to interact with fans and sell your own work – capitalism in action! And geeks are early adopters – if they like something, they make sure the world knows it. And if they like you, they’ll support you through thick and thin.

I’m not saying folks on the right should cater to the geek demographic in order to win elections... then again, who do you think devised Obama’s election technology plans? It would also help if certain conservative bloggers (paging Mr. Schlichter) stopped making fun of geeks, nerds, etc. every chance they got. Sadly, in this economy a lot of people are living in their parents’ basements, and they’re not all geeks! Also, and this goes for the media in toto, it’d be wise to stop putting so much emphasis on box-office numbers. (Yeah, when pigs fly...) Money is no guarantee of quality. In most industries, that’s not true, but it is in this one and that requires a change of thinking that some people – especially market-friendly folks on the right – may not feel comfortable with. If Apple sells millions of iPhones, then it must be a good product, right? Right. If a movie like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World bombs, then it must be a bad movie, right? Wrong. So many variables are involved that it’s a miracle any movie gets released, let alone a good one. Filmmakers can try their best but no one knows what they want until it’s given to them.

And consider this when it comes to elections. Jim Geraghty of the National Review recently discussed how politicians could possibly hope to spread their message in such a fragmented culture. I’ve mentioned pop culture in this article but it might be fair to say that there is no pop culture anymore: only a variety of niche interests. In the 80s, The Cosby Show was watched regularly by 30 million people in a country of 240 million. Today, the aforementioned Big Bang Theory is watched by half that number in a country with an additional 80 million people in it. HBO’s Girls is a water cooler show in maybe three offices that have water coolers, yet it’s liked by "the right people" so it’s considered a hit with less than one million viewers! And the problem with a niche is that it can end up an "acquired taste," i.e., intimidating to newcomers. Star Trek certainly has this problem. Dr. Who’s history intimidates me. And, oh yes, a certain political party that seems to repel as many people as it attracts (such is my observation).
This brings me to a larger non-geek point. Conservatives need to pick an option: either culture is a trifle, in which case it’s not worth analyzing; or it’s important, and it’s worth taking seriously. And if it’s worth taking seriously, then realize that, behind every actor, there are thousands of talented artists and craftspeople, some of whom might be sympathetic to other points of view! And I'm all for the DIY approach but let's stop pretending that anyone can make a movie or write a book. Anyone can not do that, but they’re welcome to give it their best shot and hopefully the cream will rise to the top. I realize that many in the creative community don’t do themselves any favors when they say things like, "So and so was so brave for doing XYZ" where XYZ = putting on a prosthetic nose and saying someone else’s lines. I get that. But many conservatives do themselves no favors when they say things like, "Sure, XYZ might be a great actor but have they fought for their country? Can they plow the fields or perform open heart surgery?" It’s apples and oranges!

(You guys are good, though. Every time Andrew mentions his love of John Barry music or Tennessee Jed gives a shout-out to Douglas Trumbull when discussing visual effects, it warms this geek’s heart!)

[sigh] Well... my first semi-political article spawned from a trip to a sci-fi convention. Amazing! I suppose my point – if any – is that geek culture is like any culture; it’s a microcosm – one that Hollywood claims to love yet many of their films imply otherwise. But we’re a loyal and passionate audience... and as far as politics go, I’d like to think some of us are open-minded. So whaddya got? [smile]

(Special thanks to Orlando Attractions Magazine for the wide shot.)

19 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks. I love the costumes. It's amazing that anyone would put the obvious time and effort they put into costumes. LOL! What a world.

ScottDS said...

I know!

I swear some of these people are "professional cosplayers" who travel the country, going from convention to convention. On occasion, they even get a few bucks.

I'd love to have that job but I don't think I have the patience (or, uh, skills) to make something. I would, however, like to go to one of these things as a ghostbuster, but it would cost a lot of money to get everything (not just the uniform but the gear) just right.

Any other thoughts? I know I don't have any special political insight but as I mentioned before, this article didn't end where I thought it would when I started it!

K said...

You're dead on in your observation of these cons being the smash up of dozens of interests. Which is why smaller cons usually don't work. The interests are so dispersed that can't get a critical mass of fans in one particular area. There is some cross over, of course, but in general anime is not mainstream comics is not alternative comics is not Star Trek is not video games ..... etc.

When you get something large enough to bring everything together it goes nuclear - aka San Diego Comix Con.

ScottDS said...

K -

Nuclear is a good way to put it!

I think smaller cons can work depending on what's being celebrated. Even smaller Trek conventions get a decent turnout, but that's a big franchise. Something a little more esoteric may not get the same turnout.

And judging from the response so far, I think I'll keep my political observations, such as they are (from a disenfranchised Independent), to myself!! :-)

Anthony said...

Scott,

I'd say throughout pop culture, the cream doesn't necessarily rise to the top and few sane people argue that it does. Being in the right genre and being well marketed (people can't want what they don't know about) counts for a lot.

With a lot of pop culture, I just don't see a liberal/conservative divide. I think a lot of writers and game designers (I play a lot of videogames and read a fair amount of sci/fi, fantasy and horror) focus more on genre tropes than ideology.

ScottDS said...

Anthony -

Maybe I'm a blind optimist but I like to think if a movie is good, it will eventually find an audience. Maybe not in the theater, but later, which is why it's foolish to depend so much on the immediate return (box-office numbers).

But then there's the media, who only care about what's "hot" regardless of quality.

And you're right re: the divide. Unfortunately, we live in a highly-politicized culture and some folks (on both sides) have made looking for political subtext a sport for its own sake, with headlines like:

"The Bible seen by X million people!"

Well, guess what. 50 Shades of Grey has sold millions of copies, so what does that say? Americans like a dash of S&M to go with their Biblical stories? Or maybe people aren't so easily divisible into left/right?

(That was a horrible example, I know.) ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'll be back soon with more comments -- am doing my taxes. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!

K said...

I don't think it's the content of your political commentary that's keeping the comments down. There's just not enough true geeks amongst our esteemed commentariat. :)

Anthony said...

Scott,

The examples I like to cite are Avatar and The Dark Knight. A lot of people didn't give a crap about their politics, they just went to both SFX heavy action movies.

Alex said...

K,

I am one huge, true geek among the commentariat, so this article warmed my nerdy little heard. Man, why wasn't this stuff considered cool--or, at least, relatively socially acceptable--when I was in high school and college? We had to hide our geek bonafides, dammit! Now that I am out of the geek closet, so to speak, I'm married with a child and a job, which prevents me from spending time and money at conventions like this.

This is an interesting write-up, Scott. I hope that those phone numbers work out for you. Regarding the political bent to this article...I didn't really see one! Yes, conservatives need to get in on the storytelling process, but beyond that, just enjoy good art when it's good. Even stuff with a liberal ideology--and this is the important part--if done well, with respect for the audience and no malice in its heart, can be very enjoyable. We need to do the same thing.

Like everyone these days, I am an amateur musician (almost made a career out of it at one point...) and amateur novelist, and the struggle is to not be overt, but to use universal truths about human nature, life, economics, and the other things that may be called "tropes" to make good art. Now I'm a lawyer...sigh...where creative people go to die...

Anyway, I, for one, would love to see more geek-related stuff on this site! Keep it up!

(For the record, geek boxes I check are: sci-fi, fantasy, vintage video games, B-movies, comic books, and music (does that count)? Never cared for anime.)

Critch said...

In 2006 I returned from my deployment to the desert and walked into the hotel and Comi-Con or something,,,a geek convention,,,,I hadn't slept in 30 hours, I was in my DCUs and I swear Darth Vader walked up and asked who I was...it was sorta surreal. My kids love these conventions, they range from 21-28 and I figure it's just a hobby, sorta like me going to the NRA Convention.

ScottDS said...

K -

That comment was directed at the room, not at you specifically.

Sometimes it's just a slow day. :-)

(And I know not everyone here is a geek, but we writers all have our, uh, areas of expertise!)

ScottDS said...

Anthony -

You're right. In most cases, people don't care - they just want a good movie, or at least a good time out at the movies.

And a lot of the quote unquote "political" movies that are released are smaller indie flicks where the financial expectations aren't great to begin with.

ScottDS said...

Alex -

I'm only 30 but even when I was in elementary school, I was getting shit for being into this stuff. Today, 20 years later, it's the cool thing to be into and every kid has a favorite superhero, Star Wars character, etc.

We were just ahead of our time!

The political bent of the article came after I realized CPAC was the same weekend and I thought, "These people might have a greater impact at MegaCon instead!"

I think with ideology, there are plenty of variables but intent is also worth noting. If I write a movie that features an evil businessman, that doesn't necessarily make me anti-capitalist.

I've asked Andrew about this: when is something PC and when is it simply part of a story?

ScottDS said...

Critch -

That's why, even though I'm not (for example) a huge gun guy or car guy, I will NEVER nitpick anyone else's hobby. Nothing against guns, by the way, just not my thing... that may change in the future. :-)

Some people spend money on rims for their car, I spend money on film score boxsets and Blu-Rays.

Alex said...

Scott,

We are of the same generation, my friend. I am only 32.

When is something PC and when is it simply part of a story? Good question. I think you gave a great example about the evil businessman not necessarily being anti-capitalist. I think that works, because it is realistic: there are evil businessmen! The same way that there are evil governments.

Superman comics (told you I was a geek!) made a point in the 80s of turning Lex Luthor into an evil businessman. As openly left-wing as the comic writers and artists were, though, it never struck me as being "PC." Back then, they still had Superman as a champion of truth, justice, and the American way. He did NOT champion socialism. Now, Captain America is anti-American. This is an example of the political being more than just a part of a story.

Let me think of some movie examples: I think that The Long Kiss Goodnight comes dangerously close to this line--and it may cross it after all; I need to rewatch the film--with it's lefty conspiracy theory about oil companies. Does it work for the story? Yes. Is it political? Absolutely. Does it feel like a sucker punch? In retrospect, after 9/11, yes. At the time? It probably didn't.

As you can see, this is a difficult thing to define.

However, look at it from a conservative perspective. On this site, there is a lot of discussion about films with conservative themes. These are not cartoony, right-is-good, left-is-evil morality plays where the conservative guy isn't a Mary Sue. Think of, say, Star Trek: TOS. The conservative themes don't smack you in the face, but they are there, and they drive the story (as you and Andrew have so adroitly put it elsewhere on this site).

AndrewPrice said...

As for out geek contingent, I think we have a good number. Our visitors seem to have a wide variety of interests and I think that's great.

In terms of politics, I don't think your political take offends people here at all. We don't have that kind of crowd.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I wasn't concerned about offending people - I was concerned about coming across like an amateur! For me to dip my toes in the tepid waters known as politics is a big step for me!

As for the geeks, I've said it before but personally I'd like to branch out and cover some non-geek stuff. I'd love to, for instance, review The Hospital but I'm not quite knowledgeable enough about the subject matter to do it justice. :-)

ScottDS said...

Alex -

Great examples! It's been a while, but with The Long Kiss Goodnight, I think it had to do with the CIA doing a false flag operation: a bombing that would later be blamed on Islamic terrorists. Political? Yes. But is it gratuitous? No. (In retrospect, I imagine it's rather controversial.)

But I don't think Renny Harlin went into this movie thinking, "Yeah, this'll be my chance to get back at America for XYZ." I think he just wanted to make a fun movie. (It might be Samuel L. Jackson's most quotable movie, aside from Pulp Fiction.)

Sometimes the political stuff is meant to hammer home a point ("Nuclear power is bad!" "Wealth redistribution is good!" etc.)... and other times it's simply a means to an end.

RoboCop is also a great example: sure you have the corporate satire but at its core, it's an old-fashioned story about the lone gunslinger who comes in to clean up the town.

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