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‘CAUSE I’M NERDCORE LIKE THAT: Toward a Subversive Geek Identity

I started collecting X-Men Trading Cards in middle school. I would spend hours in the store sorting through identical silver packages, looking for The One. Or, at least, one that would have a limited edition holofoil or a rarity, something I could use to solidify my position in the daily cafeteria trading card stock market. I was working my way up the ranks, padding my collection with Marvel Masterpieces, being allowed the honor of trading with serious collectors. But I wanted The One, one particular card, a card none of my friends had ever seen: The 1995 Fleer Typhoid Mary. I can’t say why I fixated on this particular card, a card I still haven’t seen. (BRB searching eBay, Oh! Oh! Oh! THEY HAVE IT FOR A DOLLAR! Being an adult is the shit.) But the search epitomized my obsession with turn-of-the-century plague epidemics and my hot, heavy, panting love of the Marvel Universe.Those cards were the beginning of my nerd identity. I had read comics when I was a child, mostly Tales of Terror that my father bought at garage sales, but this was the first thing that was totally mine. As I entered High School, Harold came back from Germany (his father was in the military) and introduced me to Vampire: The Masquerade. For those of you who aren’t familiar with VTM, it is a role-playing game in which the players pretend to be vampires, imbued with vampire powers, skills, and abilities. There are different clans of vampires you can belong to, each with their own particular characteristics and weaknesses. I played a Toreador named Calypso Magnum, a rake, an artist and a scholar. I wore a cape and stopped using contractions. (OH GAWWWD I KNOW.) As my nerd identity expanded, it nurtured my queer identity. VTM’s theatricality allowed me to consider trying out for theater, where I found a support network of fellow misfits that found both my queer and nerd identities unremarkable. I had friends, I had comic books, I had free, unfettered access to wigs: I was saying YES to life.

I apologize, I’m sorry. I’m going off-script here, committing blasphemies, getting my swish all over nerd culture. Obviously my nerd identity developed in a separate warehouse from my queer identity, the two are totally and completely distinct. (Nothing queer about pages upon pages of men dressing in skin-tight costumes and wrestling each other – CLEARLY that’s the butchest sentence I’ve ever written!)  Because when I talk about the ways my queer and nerd identities are interconnected, I subvert the heteronormative standard. As a gay man, I simply don’t possess enough cachet within nerd culture to complicate the narrative with my intersectionality. For nerd culture is serious business.

Nerd culture exists on several different levels of participation. It is a culture of consumption, of devotion, of discussion, and sometimes, of creation. There is the media and entertainment that nerds consume: video games, anime, comic books, science fiction, television, music. Nerds consume these things – read books, play games, roll 20-sided die in their H.P. Lovecraft Based RPGs. (I’m looking at you, C.L.) They study these things in minute detail, dressing up in costumes and going to conventions, debating the finer points of Buffy’s love life or talking about how obvious it is that Ash is in a coma for most of the Pokemon series. Each nerd is defined by their areas of interest and their opinions, and a large part of being a nerd is explaining or defending those opinions.

This devotion, this fanaticism can make nerds insufferable. Nerd culture is about these little sparring matches, where we are encouraged to denigrate the other person, holding fiercely to our own beliefs. When we’re talking about the Avengers, I want to bring up the Young Avengers, especially the relationship developing between Wiccan and Hulkling, and speculate when they might get around to kissing. But that is going to raise some hackles. Iron Man is an Avenger, Thor is an Avenger, Captain America is an Avenger, and some comic book readers feel that a gay Avenger is beyond the pale, let alone two. They fall in love with the object, the idea, the past and forget that the things they love are constantly evolving. They care more about the “integrity” of the series than they do about people.

Their opinions matter more than mine do. There are long-established portions of the culture that define what a nerd looks like and who is allowed to speak and have their voices heard within nerd circles. The dominant face of the nerd culture is a straight cis white male one. He consumes, he indulges his devotion, he discusses, he creates. When he does, men are the only ones that are full partners in the collection of trivia, media, and information; women are the other half of the planet, the half you have to explain things to. Girlfriends are not supposed to be interested in what you are doing, they are supposed to cower in AWE. They’re supposed to marvel at your ability to work everything from the Linux operating system (yes, we understand, you loaded Ubuntu on a Graphing Calculator. WE ARE NOW SEXUALLY ATTRACTED TO YOU AND OH PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR GUILD ON WARCRAFT) to the toaster. They are supposed to listen to your boring, surface-level dissection of comic book dynamics. They are supposed to find your “get back in the kitchen” “jokes” to be just the highest order of wit. If women accidentally have opinions about things, they must submit them to the scrutiny of the male intellect, which has full veto power on everything women think they know about nerd culture. They are quite vicious about defending the things they love from the tiny thoughts of women.

If you haven’t read Courtney Stoker’s interview about women in the geek subculture on The Sexist, do so now. In it, she sums up what exactly makes men in the culture so repugnant:

Geek communities (particularly, in my experience, geek men) see themselves as outside of mainstream in several ways. They often consider themselves counter-cultural (in the U.S., this seems to be linked to the current trend of anti-intellectualism), progressive, and isolated. Because geeks situate themselves outside of the mainstream, it’s difficult for them to either accept that sexism is a problem in the community (this is so patently obvious, however, that only the most sexist of geeks will not acknowledge it) or that sexism in the community is not a special and different case of sexism. The idea that geek sexism is unrelated to mainstream sexism is related to the Growing Up Geek narrative.

YES YES YES. She goes on to point out how laughable it is for a culture whose identity is based on easy, consistent access to technology to see itself as lacking institutional power. Especially when POC, women, and queers are keenly aware of the ways that the “Growing Up Geek” narrative is a white male one. Every time we enter nerd communities, we do so knowing that we may be shouted down and dismissed, bored to tears by useless pissing contests, have our legitimacy or motives questioned, or just be completely ignored.

Rather than staying in hostile, unsafe spaces a number of us opt to inhabit sub-communities within the larger subculture. And we are constantly reminded why we do, because those fanatics COME TO US and TELL US how wrong we are. Like, when we point out that parts of Penny Arcade are problematic: HERE COMES THE NERD DEFENSE LEAGUE. If this piece doesn’t get at least 5 comments amounting to little more than PENNY ARCADE IS MY VERY LIFE I will eat my hat. Thus the nerd subculture at large becomes more ideologically pure, more douchey, making geek spaces more hostile, more unsafe. It is a negative feedback mechanism that will be running for a long time, until the nerds as a whole go through a reformation of thought.

In the meantime, subversive nerd subcultures form communities and alliances, fostering a collective cultural cross-fertilization that is strengthened by our multiple intelligences and identities. This week I started reading a webcomic called Riot Nrrd, which the author describes as “a webcomic about being a nerd who’s constantly facing down sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, fatphobia, and other phobias and -isms from their nerdery of choice. This webcomic was made by a frustrated nerd about frustrated nerds making comics.” The comic looks very promising — this bit about Joss Whedon is PRICELESS. Writing our own comics, and blogs and forming our own communities gives us strength. When confronted with the cultural purity police, the ones who swoop in to Geeksplain to us, we can answer from a position of solidarity. We can create safe spaces of our own. Spaces where we can debate and discuss the ways Science Fiction comments on society’s treatment of The Other, spaces where our voices aren’t drowned out by simplistic fanaticism. A place where, for instance, a group of people can watch one of the X-Men movies and someone can, during one of the many scenes where Cyclops and Wolverine are having tense arguments about who is better for Jean Gray (who is, incidentally, an Omega-level mutant and whose options are still limited to a guy with weak-ass laser beam eyes and the hairy dude whose best attribute is, like, fuckin’ sweet claws, yo AKA Sparkly Vampire or Werewolf) simply scream out GAWWWWD JUST KISS ALREADY! BROKEBACK THAT SHIT! and not have people get all middle school about it.

I think that those of us who are marginalized or underprivileged in society are drawn to nerd culture because it holds the potential to critique society and morality in complex, useful ways. The Star Trek franchise has been examining issues such as colonialism, xenophobia, and utilitarianism for over forty years. The Batman Mythos is such a deep, layered and multifaceted meditation on personal tragedy and vigilantism it destroys most of the people who attempt to improve upon it. And Science fiction and Fantasy are mirrors of the larger culture. Watching the four Sci-Fi films Charlton Heston made between 1968-73 — Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and The Omega Man — teaches you everything you need to know about the obsessions and anxieties of the decade. It is a genre that is always showing us the best and the worst of human potential.

But when we let ourselves be told that the media we consume can only be about simple things — the POW! and the ZAP! and the BAM; Guns, Big Breasts, Phasers, Racecars, Light Saber Battles — we rob the genre of its power to make larger statements about social equality and the abuse of power. When comic books only represent the Revenge Imperative, the Lone Male Who Saves the Day, it makes it less likely that more complex, nuanced stories will be told.

There are more than enough of us who feel this way, who want to bring a social consciousness to nerd culture. Let’s stop finding ourselves beholden to worst parts of the culture. Let’s geek out, Nerdy Beatdown, let’s do what we do best. Because no one can stop us.

Never give up. Never surrender.


  1. Garland Grey wrote:

    @Jaime I think a lot of how much you are the focus of negative geek attention is in a large part related to your particular area of geekdom. Usually the more you encroach upon action comics, fighting/FPS games, or D&D games the more negative experiences you will have. Or if you are asking people to think about the type of female characters are in the media they consume in a nonsexual way – that is the unforgivable sin. I am assuming you would have less conflict if you were really into Shonen-Ai or Buffy, because one’s queer-themed and the other has a strong female heroine.

    Essentially, it is possible to find a group of people who are supportive and great, and that is important. But geek spaces can be savage and insular in the world and online – some geeks make their savagery and insularity a point of pride, besides just being elitist assholes. These type of geeks swarm over a lot of nerd spaces and set up little fiefdoms, and a lot of us have come in contact with them. I mean, it’s a little much when you can’t even play X-Box live without people hurling slurs at you.

    Oh, and having a WoW guild makes you an ubernerd. Just ask my mom.

    Saturday, July 31, 2010 at 6:38 am | Permalink
  2. Taryn wrote:

    @ Garland: I think that was just Heinberg messing with us. I predict heart-wrenching “I love you but I can’t support you in this” pseudo!breaking up to add tension near the end of the run, followed by reuniting and a fan-appeasing kiss at the end. I’m holding on to the faith with both hands!!

    Saturday, July 31, 2010 at 8:22 pm | Permalink
  3. Beth Turner wrote:

    Ali and SeanH It made me give up on forums because I couldn’t stand the sexism apparent in EVERY post about Amy. Which killed me because she was honest and sexual and as she was described by the actress “She doesn’t want to be possessed and because of that isn’t possessive”. But the fact that they will flat out complain about things they claim Amy was doing that she DIDN’T do (like refuse to leave the Tardis WTF? That NEVER Happened) I just went “GAH!” and left.

    And WDT I was (and am SO angry about Martha she was sooooo possible to be cool and they ruined her. Grrr.)

    Sunday, August 1, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Permalink