Redefining ‘geek’ isn’t killing authenticity

A year-old article by Devin Faraci popped up in my Twitter feed titled, “The Death of Geek,” subtitled “It’s official: the word ‘geek’ means nothing anymore. The subculture is over.” The reemergence of the article a year later signals that not only is the subculture not over, but the debate over what “geek” even means is not over either.

Faraci’s article traces the etymology of “geek” from its reference to “circus sideshows” to socially-awkward intellectuals to modern day “enthusiasts.” He outlines geeks as those who have an intense knowledge about esoteric subjects, fans as those who are simply passionate about a topic, and buffs or enthusiasts as something else entirely.

The argument, then, is that there are levels of geekdom and that “the co-opting of ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ only continues to marginalize the real geeks and nerds.” Problematic here is the definition of “real” geeks or nerds, turning the debate into one of subjective authenticity. “Real” geeks and nerds are supposedly those who have suffered the label as an indication of their abnormal interests. All other geeks and nerds are simply, by this definition, co-opting the title without the lived experience, making them less genuine.

The debate over authentic geekdom boils down to a debate over authentic experience. The tweets bringing the article to my attention, via blogger Cleolinda Jones, concluded, “As long as there is disagreement on whether a ‘geek’ is by definition a social outcast, this FAKE GEEKS OMG tiredness will continue.” This is, perhaps, at the heart of nerd elitism’s persistence.

The mainstreaming of geek culture, for some self-identified nerds, feels like a misappropriation of their personal experiences. Since labels like “geek” and “nerd” have traditionally been used as insults, the process of coming to terms with them is a personal one, an acceptance of being a social outsider to the point of it becoming synonymous with individual identity.

When that individual identity is taken over by new mainstream followers —without them suffering the backlash that comes with being one of the “socially-awkward” originators — it doesn’t feel like validation, it feels like exploitation. The transition of the concept feels like a mainstream denial of the experiences that were originally denoted by the words “geek” and “nerd.”

At the basis of the discussion is a desire for individual authenticity, a pervasive cultural longing spreading beyond nerd culture. We see it in the hipster discussion, in religion, even in our complaints about movie franchises. Our society’s thirst for originality too often becomes a hostile defensiveness of an aspect of ourselves we believe is the linchpin to our identities.

True, complete identity is the acceptance of our lived experiences as a part of us, yes, but it’s also a refusal to let those experiences define us completely. Rather than worrying that your identity as a “real” geek is being threatened, worry about what that anxiety says about how you’ve formed that identity. If it is dependent on the original definition of the word “geek,” perhaps it’s time for the death of “geek” after all.

 

Reach the columnist at Esther.Drown@asu.edu or follow her at @EMDrown

 

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