Tandem Posting! The Geek Subculture

Jun 22 2011 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

Krystal D'Costa of the fabulous Anthropology In Practice blog and I were chatting the other day. We got on the subject of being geeky, and I related an anecdote of my own geekdom. She wanted to look at it from an anthropological perspective, and so I've posted my recounting of it and my thoughts on it here, and Krystal is posting her analysis over THERE. YAY tandem posting!

I’m a total Game of Thrones fan. I’ve been one since I first picked up the books. Sure, there are things about it that I’ve been told I shouldn’t approve of (women are rarely in powerful positions, women are portrayed as being less than, in true HBO style there’s far too many boobs), but I’ve noticed that most of the people who point these things out have only seen one or two episodes of the show, and never read the books. The Game of Thrones series that I have come to know and love is a beautifully written portrayal of various people (male and female) in positions of political and physical power and weakness, and how they adapt and remain alive (theoretically) in the situations which are constantly building and swirling in their world. Yes, there are certainly issues of power between men and women that are, well, medieval. But I find that only makes the characters and their responses ring more true to me. It’s NOT an ideal world they are living in, and you feel it in every page. As the series goes on, I find I like all of the characters less and less, as I watch them make decisions that are ignorant, cruel, and just wrong, but watching them make those decisions in context, and how it changes their lives, is part of what makes the series such an interesting political and personal portrayal of character...

...I could go on like this for a while. As you can tell, we GoT fans are some major geeks. Most of us aren’t just geeks for GoT, either. We read other fantasy series, Sci-Fi. Many of us play Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, Portal (does that even COUNT as geeky anymore?), Magic, and more. We play board games while drinking large amounts of beer (or mead), and we feel great doing it.

Since the advent of the internet, geekdom has undergone something of a sea change. We are becoming more accepted for our knowledge, and the concept of being a “geek”, someone who seeks knowledge for its own sake, has begun to look better as many of us put that knowledge to use (you are, after all, reading a science blog right now. Yes. A blog. Where I usually write about science. Geek.). And the internet has allowed geeks to showcase the one thing that big Hollywood people really listen to: their purchasing power. What do we want? A re-run of Firefly! When do we want it? NOW! It feels like geeks can come out and show off the things they love.

This means that now, more than ever, the TV and movie industries are willing to go to bat for geeky shows and films, banking on a hardcore audience and the additional recruitment of others. And so it was with the production of Game of Thrones. The show is big budget, and we watched from our internets as HBO pulled out all the stops. Star cast. Expensive sets and costumes. And a marketing campaign that made my jaw drop. I saw dudes holding large swords on bus stop posters for the first time since Lord of the Rings. All this, for a TV show! Truly, geekdom had spoken.

But how loud is geekdom speaking? Is the world at large really taking notice and accepting geeks as just another aspect of society? Or are they still trying to enforce the idea of geeks as social underdogs? Recently, I had an experience which made me think it was the latter.

Being a true GoT fan, you can imagine how excited I was when it was announced that they would be touring replicas of the famous Iron Throne used in the GoT filming around the country, and allowing fans to take (free!) photos with the set piece. The Iron Throne is a massive piece of furniture. In the GoT world, the Iron Throne is the throne of the united kingdom of Westeros, built from the weapons of the enemies defeated as the land was united. It’s huge, spiky, and bristling with metal, cold and uncomfortable to sit on, an everpresent reminder that no one should be comfortable in the seat of power. Uneasy sits the...ass...that wears the crown.

Mr. S and I made an excited journey into the nearest city hosting one of the thrones to get our picture taken. The journey was kind of long for something so short, but definitely worth it to us. We arrived during a lull, walzted up to the throne, and were duly photographed looking extremely awesome.


(Sci takes the Iron Throne)

The photography was state of the art, with lots of bells and whistles. Images were sent directly from the camera to iPads in the hands of the Throne handlers, who showed you your picture (already in a GoT commemorative border) and sent it to the email address you requested. As things were relatively quiet, I chatted with the marketing people standing there, recruiting people to get their photos taken. I asked how business had been (pretty good, but not stellar), and if they’d had anyone show up in garb.

For those not in the know “garb” is usually a reference to Medieval or Renaissance costuming, the kind referenced in many fantasy tales, and the kind often worn when people do Live Action Role-Playing or participate in the Society for Creative Anachronism. For people who aren’t geeks, or don’t know their history, it’s pretty head-turningly shocking to see a man in doublet and hose striding down the street. GoT takes place in a fantasy universe in a similar Medieval kind of period, and the costumes are of that type, so I imagined that some people would probably want to wear their costumes out, to look extra powerful on the Iron Throne.

The marketing guy laughed and said “OH YEAH, we had one guy come in this morning in this blue THING with this gigantic SWORD. He was great. They’ve had a bunch in other cities. It’s so crazy. We’ve been sending the photos back and forth to our groups all day and laughing.”

I smiled and left. But inside I winced as his words echoed in my head. “It’s so crazy”. “We’ve been sending photos and laughing...”. Ouch. Those are my people you’re pissing on, buddy.

I’d like to think it doesn’t matter. But the more I think about it, the more it does. I actually felt betrayed. Betrayed on behalf of the guys who showed up in garb that morning. Sure, geeks are becoming more visible and losing some of their stigma. While this does make us less afraid to be loud and proud, acknowledging your geekiness can still be a moment of truth. When you meet someone, maybe you get to know them a little. Size them up. Are they a geek, too? You look for signs. A nerdy tshirt slogan. A button with a webcomic character. Tattoos that might be in Elvish. You know, the little things. When the time seems right, you drop a little hint, “yeah, did you see that Game of Thrones show that just went up...?”, and wait for a bite. If the response is “ugh, yeah, ‘nother frakkin’ fairytale with dwarves, you know?”, you drop it and back away slowly. But if the response is “YES! You know, I can never stop thinking of Sean Bean as Boromir...”, well, then you’re friends. A connection has been forged and you’re good together.

There are some times where you’ll let your geek guard down more than others. Places like Comic Conventions are good places to display your geekery. You feel safe there, these other people are probably just as geeky as you. Gaming stores, book release parties. Places where you feel it’s ok to wear your nerdy tshirt, and maybe put on your robe and wizard hat. Places where you’d walk outside, wearing full Medieval garb, to go sit on the Iron Throne, and know that most of the people there with you thought you looked cool instead of stupid.

Well, I guess not.

I was rather shocked to hear the marketing people laughing at us poor geeks. I know they were hired for their PR, and they don’t have to like the thing they are promoting, but it felt to me like I imagine it would feel if a baseball fan walked past an announcer just in time to hear them say “man, you know I totally hate baseball. The fans just SUCK.” It’s a place we felt safe showing our true geek colors, only to find that the people running the show were laughing at our passions. It made the GoT premiere, when I finally saw it, feel a little fake to me. Did these Hollywood types care about the story I love? I kind of doubt it.

I feel more than betrayed. I feel manipulated. It doesn’t feel right to make a huge, big budget series with such care and precision, only to laugh at those who are excited about it. I’ll bet you no one was mocking the people excited for “Boardwalk Empire” or “Treme”. Never mind that a foodie in the kitchen can geek out every bit as much as a geek at PAX.

The promotion and the behavior behind it felt dirty to me. We’re going to elevate this geek subculture...and we’re going to mock it. We’re going to use it for its monetary potential and laugh all the way to the bank. And in the end, putting me in my place as a social underdog of the world. If the geeks are going to inherit the earth, then why is everyone still laughing?

8 responses so far

  • olegt says:

    Sci,

    If the marketing people shared your enthusiasm, that wouldn't be geeky, would it?

    So don't get mad, get even. Moichandising! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvmZ9SPcTzU

  • CW says:

    I still think GoT on TV is a good step forward for the geeks of the earth. Granted that the marketing guy's comment was pretty thoughtless (duh, consider your audience...) but there are fans in every area of interest that go all-out about their fandom, and they know they are going to get attention for it. Like the guys at a football game who wear enormous Viking helmets, or cheeseheads, or chicken suits...you know everybody behind THEM is taking cell phone pictures and giggling!

    Also, I am incredibly jealous of you for getting to sit on the Iron Throne. And I 100% agree that Sean Bean is always Boromir!

  • Doug says:

    Sci, you have perfectly captured how much I love this series when you wrote "As the series goes on, I find I like all of the characters less and less, as I watch them make decisions that are ignorant, cruel, and just wrong, but watching them make those decisions in context, and how it changes their lives, is part of what makes the series such an interesting political and personal portrayal of character...I could go on like this for a while."

  • Arlenna says:

    Sci, first of all, I LOVE YOUR REVIEW of the books and series that is inherent in this post. I am addicted to this series--I skived out of multiple days of work to power my way through the books my first time through them (during my postdoc days), ignoring my husband and living for nothing else while I still had more to read. Right now I have the pre-order of the 5th one waiting to download to my Kindle once it is released; so many geekinessess coming together. 🙂

    Being part of (and recognizing that we are a part of) the geek subculture is an important exercise in perspective-taking, giving us that little bit of experience of what it is like to be "other" that otherwise we might miss out on. I'm very cynical about how our larger culture works (and has always worked, and probably will always work); and sadly I don't see a way around it, so I guess all we can do for now is just try to keep living locally to make our own little worlds a better place.

  • Bashir says:

    First. Who cares about the marketing people? I know that many Geeks are happy that the culture has apparently been accepted by the mainstream. There are certainly benefits to that. Though it also seems to lead to everyone and their mother claiming to be some sort of geek/nerd. Dudes playing Madden, folks watching Big Bang Theory, etc. Lots of people are superficially interacting with geek culture. It doesn't quite make them part of that culture. So the marketing guys laugh. Big whoop. Since when do we require their approval?

  • Dr Becca says:

    AWESOME review of GoT, Sci (and the picture of you on the throne is full of so much WIN)! I am crazy in love with this show, and normally the whole medieval thing isn't really my bag, which I feel is a testament to what excellent, excellent television this is.

    Or maybe it means I'm becoming a geek?!

  • Alice says:

    I think you're soo right that web facilitates this (just cos of way niche works online) and theirs a weird relationship here, but this sort of geeky fan / marketing thing has a lo-ong history. I'm on my phone so can't dog out bibliography easily, but Martin Barker and Henry Jenkins migrate be places to start. I also remember reading a book called 'fans the mirror of consumption' (sorry can't remember author off top of head).

    I also want to know if, seeing as the nature of geek is niche interest - we can talk of geeks in a collective sense? (that's a real q'n btw, I dobt know, not rhetorical way to say I disagree)

  • Aperture science t-shirt.

    "we do what we must because we can".

    Only other geeks recognize it 🙂

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