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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

The new normals

Geek style and consumer culture

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Never has there been a more glorious moment to be a geek: once caricatured as socially awkward outsiders gathered in basements playing Dungeons and Dragons (or Half Life), obsessing over the travails of Spider-Man, and dissecting Star Trek, geeks now have effected a complete reversal that witnesses them as the leading edge of style.

Those stereotypes may be dealt their death rites in San Diego this month, where over 130,000 people have descended for Comic Con International. Comic Con is the world's largest celebration of comic books and popular cultural geekery, and the influential mass media and marketing event confirms that comics, sci-fi, anime, and movies once disparaged as fringe have become popular culture's mainstream.

Rather than being disparaged as outcasts embracing something esoteric, geeks have become advance scouts for novel styles: zombies, aliens, and super heroes are a staple of TV and movies; Boba Fett and Batman t-shirts crowd shopping malls; and nearly every American home has a gaming system. These realities make it increasingly difficult for geeks to cling to their satisfied sense of being distinct from "normals."

Geeks' persistent romanticization of themselves as outsiders does acknowledge the fan passion, creativity, and novelty that depart from the master narratives of sit-coms, Top-40, sports, and square fashion. Nevertheless, it risks ignoring the implication of geeks and other subcultures in consumer culture: Comic-Con is fundamentally an advertisement for mass media franchises and a testing ground for consumer styles.

Indeed, of the 10 top-grossing movies last year, four were comic books (Avengers, Batman, Spider-Man, and Men in Black), and the Hobbit, Hunger Games, and Twilight all fielded panels at 2012 Comic-Con (though the latter's claim to geek status has been disputed).

Geeks are distinctive for their passionate commitment to novel if not esoteric discourses that imaginatively plumb the philosophical, social, and intellectual depths of human life: sci-fi, comics, and manga contemplate human universals like love, death, youth, and power in the garb of aliens, zombies, and monsters real and human alike.

These visual and textual discourses and the fan communities that surround them do depart in some fundamental ways from mainstream mass culture. Nevertheless, geeks' untroubled sense of "outsider" standing paints a shallow caricature of "mainstream culture" and master narratives, and it risks ignoring that geeks may be energizing mass culture rather than resisting it.

Self-described geek Patton Oswalt voices a common satisfaction he gets from "quietly being tuned in to something dark, complicated, and unknown just beneath the topsoil of popularity."

Yet he also circumspectly laments the mass appropriation of geek symbols, with "Boba Fett's helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells. The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan's. Our below-the-topsoil passions have been rudely dug up and displayed in the noonday sun."

Oswalt worries that any obsessive commitment to a discourse or interest—a Harlequin Romance fan, or a devoted craft beer consumer—can lay claim to a title once reserved for the most committed of fans. Those fans' obsessions were driven by a fundamental aversion to mainstream social life that was expressed however obliquely by the dissection of Doctor Who plots, the gathering of friends schooled in D&D monsters' behaviors, or recitations of Roy Batty's death soliloquy.

Oswalt sounds a common lament that the passion subcultures feel for alternative symbolism hazards appearing irrelevant in the face of marketers' dedication to profit. Dick Hebdige's classic 1979 study of punk style argued that subcultural aesthetics are re-defined by marketers in ways that neutralize anxiety-invoking distinctions. Those subcultural material forms—goth makeup, Doctor Who shirts, Iron Man messenger bags—become simply an aesthetic expressing no especially substantive social or political statement.

Indeed, fringe symbolism can be secured at the mall as a hollow style: pre-distressed shirts featuring the likes of Black Sabbath, David Bowie, or Joy Division evoke a historical fringe purged of the class, sexual, and social politics that once evoked anxiety among listeners; Batman earbuds invoke all the style and none of the pathos of the Caped Crusader; and Planet of the Apes toys evade the dystopian racial apocalypse that made the stories so compelling in the 1960s.

When geeks appropriate the moniker of "culture," they perhaps stake a clumsy claim to the social legitimacy, authenticity, and distinction associated with conventional definitions of bounded cultural groups. Social groups like geeks routinely celebrate themselves as a unified and distinct group separated from the materiality, taste, and practices of the masses, but such polarizations are increasingly problematic in a society in which we all know something about Harry Potter.

Any efforts to define geeks—call it a culture, subculture, post-subculture, tribe, or any other term—need to examine who we imagine ourselves to be; what socially unites a circle of people attracted to games, sci-fi, cosplay, and comics; and how dominant ideologies and market structure shape the expression of geek selfhood. This is because culture is partly an idea that imagines self and others; it is partly a document of shared experiences, a common everyday life; and it is partly a set of structural material conditions.

Geeks actually may have become the stylistic scouts for mass marketers: that is, perhaps the geek has now become valued by marketers precisely because geeks identify those social and stylistic niches into which people invest deep feelings. This no longer frames the geek as a bounded identity, a stereotypically obsessive fan without connections to broader popular cultural discourses or politics.

Instead, the vast number of people claiming geek status at Comic Con are wired hybrids thieving style and meaning from a range of "outsider" discourses. Marketers truly may have no interest in the distinctions between Batman and Evangelion fans except to capture their shared desire to step outside mainstream discourses, so geeks obsess over whether newcomers are authentic fans or simply poseurs appropriating geek styles without the depth of passion and intellectual creativity that geeks fancy as "authentic" geekdom.

Geeks may not be resisting any clearly defined mainstream, because normative social and stylistic codes are simply too dynamic and reside in ideology more than practice. Many geeks, though, hold onto the caricature of a normative mainstream to rationalize zealously guarding their unique identities, castigating newcomers as poseurs and warily patrolling the boundaries of the authentic canon. Perhaps the flood of geek DIY goods on sites like Red Bubble are the vanguard of material authenticity producing something "real" from popular cultural symbols, but there was never a moment of "authenticity" untouched by the media, since geek fandom is based on mass media products.

Contemporary consumer culture is perhaps no longer populated by distinct collectives crafting individual styles in isolation; rather, we live in a world of heterogeneous styles in which appearances of resistance, deviance, and rebellion are in some cases simply a fashion. Geeks may simply be prime examples of creative consumer spirits, distinctive for their capacity to find the symbolically rich niches in mass culture like super heroes, Doctor Who, and zombies.

Geeks are distinctive for their passionate commitment to novel if not esoteric discourses that imaginatively plumb the philosophical, social, and intellectual depths of human life

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Comic Con poster. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Comic Con 2009  Uploaded by maybeMaybeMaybe) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Comic Con poster. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Comic Con 2009 Uploaded by maybeMaybeMaybe) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.