What’s a Geek? Are there Fake Geeks? Do You Care?

I hate to keep relying on the same couple sources, but my internet friend Emmie keeps writing smart things. (It’s also a quantity issue, I think; by my calculations, Emmie is writing approximately 35 percent of the modern internet.) Yesterday she was at Spellbound Scribes, writing about the idea of the “fake geek” and how profoundly silly all that is. It isn’t the first time I’ve seen that subject dealt with (not by a longshot), but the writers of those other pieces typically lament (rightly) the treatment of certain women, especially cosplayers, at conferences and the like, and leave it at that; Emmie’s is a more inclusive and holistic approach. I won’t quote much, because you should go read her words for yourself, but the key takeaway: “Being a geek is about loving a thing.” Geeks know what it is to be an Other, and denying others their geekery is really just Other-izing someone else. What sense is there in keeping anyone out?

I love this. For the most part.

In addition to all the reasons Emmie gives: where does that weird geek pride even come from? I don’t get that, and I say that as a confirmed, dyed-in-the-wool, multidisciplinary geek; there’s just not much to be proud of in knowing every Doctor Who or Battlestar Galactica episode by name, number and its three most memorable quotes. You really, really like something that someone else created; come forward and claim your cookie! Don’t get me wrong: we loves what we loves, and should feel all sorts of good things (in addition to, y’know, love) about those things. Pride, though, the kind that makes you want to keep other people out of your exclusive little club? Eh. That’s pretty weak.

I do get where the impulse comes from, I think. It’s easy to say “you know what it’s like to be Othered, so stop Othering others.” The thing is, though, that to a large degree, geekdom developed because geeks were being Othered, and was created to allow them to escape all that, to escape the whole rest of the world. It’s a step beyond the Golden Rule; it’s asking your OG geeks to treat others not only as they would want to be treated, but precisely as they were not treated, growing up, by some of those same others, which is why their little club existed in the first place. I can see how some geeks would find that sort of thing a bit irksome, and especially so when the “fake geek” looks like the kind of guy or girl who gave you wedgies and swirlies and worse in school (or who dated that first guy or girl). It’s wrong, of course, it’s stupid, for Emmie’s reasons and the one or two above. I get the impulse, but impulses can and often should be ignored.

So my quibble isn’t with that, but with this: I want words to really mean something, and I want to avoid broadening their definitions so much that every word means exactly the same thing as a ton of other words, such that we just keep sliding further and further toward Newspeak. When you hear the word “geek,” you think certain things, and even beyond the unfortunate appearance- (or even gender-) based stereotypes, you think of certain real, immutable things, too. It can’t just mean “one who loves a thing” — we have words like “fan” and “devotee” and “connoisseur” and a dozen others that all mean basically that. A geek has to love a certain type of thing (or a thing within a certain range of types of things), and in a certain eccentric way. I’m not an authority on this (or on anything), and I’m not going to tell you what those types and ways are. But I definitely envision certain qualities, and so do you, and there’s a pretty good chance that what you are envisioning right now resembles what I’m envisioning, and it definitely goes well beyond just loving a thing. There’s plenty of room for differing types and degrees, but there’s a certain indispensable character to geekery.

Looking about, googling “define:geek” (am I the only one who still does it that way?) yields these two results:

  • An unfashionable or socially inept person.
  • A person with an eccentric devotion to a particular interest: “a computer geek”.

Good start. Merriam-Webster includes the old (gross, carnival-based) definition, and adds that the eccentric devotion is usually “technological.” Dictionary.com puts the same basic definitions in a better order, and adds “excessive enthusiasm” to the most modern entry. The Free Online Dictionary focuses on “single-minded” and “socially inept.” Wikipedia does Wikipedia things. Urban Dictionary does Urban Dictionary things.

My point is this: “geek” doesn’t have one agreed definition, but it definitely has a definition. If anyone who chooses to call him- or herself a “geek” (and who presumably really likes something) simply is one, then it doesn’t really have a definition at all anymore.

So here’s the thing: when “fake geek” is hauled out, it’s usually in the dumbest, worst possible way. A woman wears a costume (maybe one she spent months getting just right…seriously, I can’t think of anything more legitimately geeky than cosplay) or hosts a video game awards show or starts a web series, and an army of dudes who have no idea how to deal with live females attack her for her looks or weight or for their own assumptions about her motivations or knowledge of canon or (and, rather — let’s just face it, this one’s always there) her unwillingness to sleep with them. That’s not okay, never remotely okay, and if getting rid of the whole idea of “fake geek” altogether got rid of that type of BS, it’d certainly be worth it (it wouldn’t, of course, the sexist bit runs much deeper than that, but it’s a nice thought).

But if “geek” has a definition and it’s narrower than “person who loves something,” which would apply to everyone, then there almost has to be such a thing as a “fake geek,” right? The definition of “fake geek” certainly isn’t “pretty girl who claims to like geek things,” but that can’t mean it doesn’t have a legitimate definition, can it?

I think they’re out there, fake geeks. I don’t think they’re prevalent — in general, I think we geeks are seriously overestimating the impact the geek world is having or can have on the mainstream — but they’re there. And I think what they do is use the idea and stereotypes of geekery as a method of both self- and others-deprecation: recycling tired jokes, embracing the suggestion of geekery without actually having that kind of esoteric, eccentric devotion to anything. I believe fake geeks are male and female and probably transgendered and the various other possibilities too. I used to think Chris Hardwick was kind of a fake geek  based on one or two things I found obnoxious (“amazeballs,” his nasally high-pitched stock “nerd” voice), but I’ve come around, dude’s the real deal (and funny).

Actually, I can come up with only one more-or-less real-world example of what I think of as fake geekery:

Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh.

Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh. Not an actual Big Bang quote, probably.

A lot of people love The Big Bang Theory. I know and have finally made my peace with this. Some of those people, improbably, are even legitimate and self-described geeks. That’s okay, no accounting for taste and all that.

But. BBT is a totally typical, formulaic sitcom; to the extent there’s any difference, it’s that where the butts of the usual sitcom’s usual jokes are the hapless husband or the overbearing wife, the butt of all the jokes in BBT is geekdom. That’s right, we’re the butt, the target — the jokes are repetitive, obvious, and always at the expense of the stereotypically geeky/nerdy/antisocial aspects of the characters. A show that’s facially like BBT but that fairly, lovingly, creatively portrayed some more or less real version of “geek life” could be amazing (amazeballs, if you want me dead a touch sooner); BBT, to me, is basically the opposite of that.

So there are your fake geeks. It’s nothing to do with gender or attractiveness or costumes; it’s lazy, easy humor and a total lack of geeky depth. Come at me, BBT fans!

The utterly senseless new blog tagline is a paraphrasing from Matt Braunger.

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4 thoughts on “What’s a Geek? Are there Fake Geeks? Do You Care?

  1. Good analysis. The interesting thing to me is that geek culture in my experience is just as (sometime more) likely to do the “Othering” of people than non-geek cultures. This affect has always seemed more pronounced in male-dominated cultures. Gaming geeks, computer geeks, and sports card geeks are all groups I once traveled in and found them to be very exclusionary and downright hostile at times. On the other hand – Music geeks? Not very “othering”. Theater geeks? Pretty darn accepting.

    Most groups do a certain amount of “carding” to verify your cred to gain acceptance but earnestness seems to count for a lot more in the more accepting categories of geekery.

  2. Your blog totally ate my original comment. Booo.

    “It’s not what you love, it’s how you love it.”

    I think Wil Wheaton nailed it for me with that simple phrase.

    And if being a geek is about how you love it, about that eccentric devotion, should anyone else really be judging that?

    Fact is, most social groups have posers (or fakes), people who attach themselves to impress others or seem cool. And those same groups have jerky people with inferiority issues who like to dictate how others must go about loving what they love, calling any who dare to come up short posers or fakes.

    Geekdom is immune to neither. So I wouldn’t say there is no such thing as a fake geek.

    But, concerning myself with who falls into the fake category makes me feel awfully close to being the jerky dude with the inferiority issues, so I avoid calling out anyone for fake geekery.

    • Nnnnnn-O! BAD blog! BAD! Sorry about that.

      That’s a really good way to put it, yeah (especially “jerky people with inferiority issues”). It’s a very touchy, and at bottom kind of stupid, issue. Which is probably why I could ultimately only call out a TV show. :)

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