Last week I touched on the idea that geek culture was currently enjoying something of a renaissance, with gaming, graphic novels and sci-fi TV all happily flourishing away in their corner of the geekery garden. Let’s face it, the common stereotype would have us believe that geeks are in desperate need of some rehabilitation, so it’s probably about time that we all emerged from the Star Trek conventions, marathon D&D sessions and ComiCons and stepped blinking into the light.
But what does popular culture think of geekdom? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for one single second suggesting that we take pop culture as any accurate measure of value or interest – let’s not forget the cult of mass appeal is responsible for X-Factor and S-Club Seven and a host of other abominations. But sometimes it can be interesting to head through the looking glass.
If you frequent the shady corners of 4OD as I occasionally do, then you might have come across a sitcom called The IT Crowd. The premise is pretty simple. Two computing geeks and their luddite boss are consigned to the basement floor of a swanky business corporation from which Dantean perspective they lament their lot, engage in wacky roleplaying high jinx and display a startling lack of social skills. The character of Moss in particular manages to encapsulate every geek stereotype imaginable. He has eccentric hair and thick glasses; he brings a lunchbox to work and still lives with his Mum; he is utterly unable to cope with changes to his routine and struggles to process the emotions of others. And yet for all of this, Moss is kind of cool. He’s a figure of fun definitely, but he’s also the show’s champion in many ways, and much of the comedy comes from the idea that Moss is simply functioning on a different plane of existence to the rest of us. Whilst not always a blindingly brilliant show, what The IT Crowd does do well lies in its ability to embrace the stereotype and twist it simultaneously.
Less successfully, The Big Bang Theory is another show seeking to cash in with some gentle mockery of those blessed with greater technological understanding and fewer social skills than the rest of us. It’s significantly less sharp and surreal than The IT Crowd - even at its best - but what is interesting lies in the way the premises of the two mirror one another. In The IT Crowd, Jen provides the foil to Moss and Roy as an out of her depth, stiletto-wearing would-be corporate high flyer who neither knows nor cares about IT. In The Big Bang Theory four uber-intelligent, uber-awkward college students live opposite one peppy, beautiful cheerleader type who attempts to coax them out of their high-achieving comfort zone. Do I even need to bother pointing out that the geeks in this example are male, and their neighbour is female?
The thing is, whatever small steps geekery and its associated culture may have made above the visibility line of the mainstream, for the most part the stereotypes are still firmly in place. Men are the clever and socially inept ones who can disassemble your computer and turn it into a drinks machine. Women have social skills and care too much about appearances, both indulging and relying upon the technological brilliance of those around them.
And you know what, even in the places where you do find some recognition of diversity in geekery, it’s never entirely straightforward. If you have a Facebook account or have ever been within 100 meters of YouTube, then at some point it’s fairly likely that you’ve come across the infamous Geek and Gamer Girls video - a parody of Katy Perry’s California Girls in which four rather beautiful girls and the ubiquitous Seth Green dance around, playing computer games, cosplaying and LARPing. On the plus side - hey, a catchy song pointing out that girls can be geeks too! On the minus side, there is a certain sense that it’s largely OK because they’re still sexy – the embodiment of every wet dream your average basement-dwelling, World of Warcraft playing male geek has ever had.
I think my point is that it’s OK to be a girl who’s a geek. It’s OK to be pretty, or girly, or sporty and a geek. It’s OK to be 18 or 83 or married with three children and a geek. And it’s even OK to be every geeky stereotype under the sun and a geek.
But most of all, it’s OK to be a reluctant geek.
This week Kate Townshend is dancing around with her LARP sword