Who Gets To Be a Geek? Anyone Who Wants to Be
(Adding this note in late 2019: It should be noted that the subject of this piece, Joe Peacock, has over the years changed his position from what I’m responding to here to one more encompassing and welcoming. I don’t think it’s especially fair of me to occasionally point to this piece without noting that. Take the piece as a snapshot of a moment of time, and be aware that people can change their minds and attitudes over time — JS)
The other day CNN let some dude named Joe Peacock vomit up an embarrassing piece on its Web site, about how how awful it is that geekdom is in the process of being overrun by attractive women dressing up in costumes (“cosplaying,” for the uninitiated) when they haven’t displayed their geek cred to Mr. Peacock’s personal satisfaction. They weren’t real geeks, Mr. Peacock maintains — he makes a great show of supporting real geek women, the definition of which, presumably, are those who have passed his stringent entrance requirements, which I am sure he’s posted some place other than the inside of his skull — and because they’re not real geeks, they offend people like him, who are real geeks:
They’re poachers. They’re a pox on our culture. As a guy, I find it repugnant that, due to my interests in comic books, sci-fi, fantasy and role playing games, video games and toys, I am supposed to feel honored that a pretty girl is in my presence. It’s insulting… You’re just gross.
For the moment, let’s leave aside the problem of a mentality that assumes that the primary reason some woman might find it fun and worthwhile to cosplay as one of her favorite science fiction and fantasy characters is to get the attention of some dudes, to focus on another interesting aspect of this piece: Namely, that Joe Peacock has arrogated to himself the role of Speaker for the Geeks, with the ability to determine whether any particular group of people is worthy of True Geekdom. This on the basis, one presumes, of his resume and his longtime affiliation as a geek.
Well, fine. Hey, Joe: Hi, I’m John Scalzi. I am also a longtime geek. My resume includes three New York Times bestselling science fiction books, three books nominated for the Best Novel Hugo, six other Hugo nominations (as well as Nebula, Locus, Sidewise and other award nominations), one novel optioned for a science fiction film, a stint consulting for the Stargate: Universe television show, a long history in video games as a player (Atari, yo) and as a writer, including writing for the Official US Playstation Magazine for six years and currently writing a game for Industrial Toys. I wrote a column on science fiction film for four years and have two books on the subject. I’ve been writing this blog for fourteen years and was one of the early adopters of self-publishing one’s books online; additionally three books of mine (including one Hugo winner) have been of work originally published online. I was a special guest at this year’s ComicCon. I am the toastmaster of this year’s Worldcon. I am the sitting president of this. Here’s a picture of my peer group. Here’s another.
I outrank you as Speaker for the Geeks.
You are overruled.
Your entire piece is thrown out as condescending, entitled, oblivious, sexist and obnoxious.
And no, you can’t object (well, you can, but you’ll be summarily overruled). You made the decision based on your life experience as a geek that you could tell other people who is welcome as a geek and who is not. Based on my life experience as a geek, I have made the decision that I am qualified to tell you to suck eggs. You want to slap down people who you don’t feel qualify for geekdom? Then I get to slap you down for being wrong, on the basis of being higher up in the geek hierarchy. You don’t like it? Then you shouldn’t have played this game to begin with. You played your cards, and I now I’ve played mine. This round goes to me. I have the conch. And now I will speak.
Who gets to be a geek?
Anyone who wants to be, any way they want to be one.
Geekdom is a nation with open borders. There are many affiliations and many doors into it. There are lit geeks, media geeks, comics geeks, anime and manga geeks. There are LARPers, cosplayers, furries, filkers, crafters, gamers and tabletoppers. There are goths and horror geeks and steampunkers and academics. There are nerd rockers and writers and artists and actors and fans. Some people love only one thing. Some people flit between fandoms. Some people are positively poly in their geek enthusiasms. Some people have been in geekdom since before they knew they were geeks. Some people are n00bs, trying out an aspect of geekdom to see if it fits. If it does, great. If it doesn’t then at least they tried it.
Many people believe geekdom is defined by a love of a thing, but I think — and my experience of geekdom bears on this thinking — that the true sign of a geek is a delight in sharing a thing. It’s the major difference between a geek and a hipster, you know: When a hipster sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “Oh, crap, now the wrong people like the thing I love.” When a geek sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “ZOMG YOU LOVE WHAT I LOVE COME WITH ME AND LET US LOVE IT TOGETHER.”
Any jerk can love a thing. It’s the sharing that makes geekdom awesome.
Let’s take these women cosplayers, who Mr. Peacock is so hand-flappingly disgusted with and dismissive of. Let’s leave aside, for now, the idea that for those of this group attending ComicCon, spending literally hundreds and perhaps even thousands of dollars on ComicCon passes, hotels, transportation, food, not to mention the money and time required to put together an excellent costume, is not in itself a signal indication of geek commitment. Let’s say that, in fact, the only reason the women cosplayers are there is to get their cosplay on, in front of what is likely to be an appreciative audience.
As in, so what if their only geekdom is cosplay? What if it is? Who does it harm? Who is materially injured by the fact? Who, upon seeing a woman cosplaying without an accompanying curriculum vitae posted above her head on a stick, laying out her geek bona fides, says to him or herself “Everything I loved about my geekdom has turned to ashes in my mouth,” and then flees to from the San Diego Convention Center, weeping? If there is such an unfortunate soul, should the fragile pathology of their own geekdom be the concern of the cosplaying woman? It seems highly doubtful that woman spent hundreds if not thousands of dollars to show up in San Diego just to ruin some random, overly-sensitive geek’s day. It’s rather more likely she came to enjoy herself in a place where her expression of her own geekiness would be appreciated.
So what if her geekiness is not your own? So what if she isn’t into the geek life as deeply as you believe you are, or that you think she should be? So what if she doesn’t have a geek love of the things you have a geek love for? Is the appropriate response to those facts to call her gross, and a poacher, and maintain that she’s only in it to be slavered over by dudes who (in your unwarranted condescension) you judge to be not nearly as enlightened to the ways of geek women as you? Or would a more appropriate response be to say “great costume,” and maybe welcome her into the parts of geekdom that you love, so that she might possibly grow to love them too? What do you gain from complaining about her fakey fake fakeness, except a momentary and entirely erroneous feeling of geek superiority, coupled with a permanent record of your sexism against women who you don’t see being the right kind of geek?
These are your choices. Although actually there’s a third choice: Just let her be to do her thing. Because here’s a funny fact: Her geekdom is not about you. At all. It’s about her.
Geekdom is personal. Geekdom varies from person to person. There are as many ways to be a geek as there are people who love a thing and love sharing that thing with others. You don’t get to define their geekdom. They don’t get to define yours. What you can do is share your expression of geekdom with others. Maybe they will get you, and maybe they won’t. If they do, great. If they don’t, that’s their problem and not yours.
Be your own geek. Love what you love. Share it with anyone who will listen.
One other thing: There is no Speaker for the Geeks. Not Joe Peacock, not me, not anyone. If anyone tells you that there’s a right way to be a geek, or that someone else is not a geek, or shouldn’t be seen as a geek — or that you are not a geek — you can tell them to fuck right off. They don’t get a vote on your geekdom. Go cosplay, or play filk, or read that Doctor Who novel or whatever it is you want to do. Geekdom is flat. There is no hierarchy. There is no leveling up required, or secret handshake, or entrance examination. There’s just you.
Anyone can be a geek. Any way they want to. That means you too. Whoever you are.
Anyone who tells you different, you send them to me.
(Update: Joe Peacock shows up in the comment thread with thoughts here and in a few subsequent comments.)