Welcome to Geek Word Wednesdays, where we feature common terms relevant to geeks everywhere; and explore a more critical discussion on geek identity, culture, and discourse. If you have a word you’d like us to study, let us know!
What is a geek? What does “geek” even mean? Given how this appears to be the most popular term by which we all identify with (or try NOT to identify with, depending on who you’re asking), it’s natural that we’d start our column with this.
Google defines the word “geek” like this:
There’s a lot that one can glean just from that. In fact, as things stand, Emma Louise Back of The Geek Anthropologist actually published an entire article online that goes into the etymology and evolution of “geek” as a term, and as an identifying label. The original article in its full glory can be found over here, and it’s definitely something that every geek out there should read. For purposes of this column, though, I’ll put down some of the finer points here.
Initially used to refer to a very specific type of carnival performer… [the word geek] soon became synonymous with freaks—that is, any individual who exhibited a physical trait that deviated from what was commonly understood within a society or culture as “normal.” Although the term designated a sense of social stigma and shame, circus and sideshow performers adopted the term “geek” as a collective and positive form of identity. While the general public could come to gawk at the freaks, performers referred to themselves as geeks, established in opposition to the norms and rubes in the audience. In Katherine Dunn’s cult classic Geek Love (1989), the Binewski family of self-made freaks represent the sense of union and kinship amongst those who self-identified and celebrated their geek status.
This paragraph introduces us to the social element of labeling and identity. We use words to communicate and identify something, whether it’s an actual physical object, place or person, or it’s a social phenomenon. Individual languages tend to develop their own specialized terms that are steeped within their particular cultural context. For example, the Japanese word “otaku” is often used in casual parlance to refer to anyone who likes Japanese stuff. It’s ACTUAL definition and the cultural weight behind it, however, is a lot more complex than that, especially since one has to consider its localized use, and the way that international fans use it.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people shy away from labels these days. This is probably done in the interest of avoiding conflict or insult. The thing is, labels are necessary. They give us something to work with, and allow us to question whether we “fit” or we don’t. It also lets us explore contentious or problematic ideas behind the label, and – by extension – cultural or philosophical biases. On that note…
To be a geek, therefore, was to be set aside from “normal society.” Freaks or geeks were a community separated by physical difference, as well as social taboos and codes of morality at the time. As Robert Bogdan explains, “’Freak’ is not a quality that belongs to the person on display. It is something we created: a perspective, a set of practices—a social construction” (1990:xi). To a large extent, freakishness or geekishness were performed identities that capitalized on the spectacle of deformity or difference. Bogdan elaborates, “How we view people who are different has less to do with what they are physiologically than with who we are culturally […] ‘Freak’ is a way of thinking, of presenting, a set of practices, an institution—not a characteristic of an individual” (1990:10). Who a society deems to be freakish is exceptionally telling of a cultures system of moral codes, ideologies and structures of power and class. Social theorist Erving Goffman built Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity (1963) around the characteristics that invoke stigma, and the ways in which societies have controlled or manipulated this difference so as not to disrupt established social orders. As Chemers and Ferris have written, “a ‘freak’ cannot exist in the absence of a preexisting social stigma, and second that freakery requires conditioned theatrical conventions that often enter into subversive dialectics with that stigma” (2008:25). As a cultural rather than an overtly physical condition, freakery/geekery meant, to a certain extent, “to be accepted into a community unified on the basis of shared marginality” (Adams 2001:42). The identity of the geek, therefore, has historical precedents in stigma, exclusion and nonconformity.
Perhaps this can explain why there are divides in geekdom itself on top of the natural tensions that arise from differences in biological sex, gender identity, social class, educational attainment, religious beliefs, nationality, race, and the like. Many have called these years the Era of Geek, as evidenced by an explosion of adaptations, the rise of video games, and the infiltration of fandom and fandom discussion into mainstream news and rhetoric. Social media has made it easier for geeks to get together and talk about the things that they love. However, there is a clear generation divide between geeks who still remember what it was like to face very real biases against what they’re passionate about, and geeks are seen as “cool” for being into comics, video games, anime/manga, movies, and whatnot. Portrayals in pop culture might have solidified these ideas only further, and continue to shift as ideas on geeks and geekdom shift with the times.
Geeks are often seen with glasses and a poor sense of style, socially bumbling and ever pining for the beautiful, popular girls they’ll never date. While geeks can be male or female, and of various races (such as Jaleel White’s Steve Urkel, Data Wang in The Goonies or Oscar Wao in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), they tend to be characterized as white males that perceive themselves as social outcasts because of their interests and lifestyle.
As technology has changed and adapted, geek culture has also grown. Judd Apatow’s show Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) spotlighted the marginality of geeks while exploring the dimensions of what it truly means to be different. Throughout the show, Sam, Neill and Bill—the consummate geeks who completely own their geekiness—are the true heroes, while Lindsay’s “freak” friends represent the contingent of disaffected youth that seem to care about very little. The geeks are admirable in their self-confidence and sense of community held together by mutually held geeky interests.
The identity of the geek at the moment is therefore a contentious one, in which certain individuals are called upon to prove their geekery based off of a set of arbitrary interests or activities that often replicate stereotypes rather than acknowledge the complex dimensions of geekery.
Backe concludes her essay with some personal anecdotes on her struggle with identifying as a geek. She also leaves a quote from another article – John Scalzi’s “What It Means to Be A Geek?” – that claims that “geekdom is a nation without borders”. However, is that statement properly inclusive, or is it far too idealistic? Should common interests take precedence over everything, including issues of gender politics, racial representation, and religious conflict? I think that anyone who has ever participated in any sort of geeky discussion online has had their fair share of run-ins outside of a simple difference in opinion. This is often aggravated by the fact that being geeky about something means being passionate about it, and passion is personal.
What do you guys think? How would you define “geek”? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!