IT IS a strange time to be a geek. Avengers: Age Of Ultron, in cinemas this weekend, is likely to be the year’s highest-grossing movie. Game Of Thrones — luridly adapted from a thoroughly conventional fantasy novel — is the world’s favourite TV show.
The comedy series, Big Bang Theory, may be read as a big, sloppy kiss planted on the forehead of geekdom. Shunned, bullied, mocked, suddenly geeks have been co-opted by mass culture. Their moment is at hand.
“Basically, the geek has inherited the Earth,” actor and horror movie aficionado, Mark Gatiss, said this week. “‘Cult’ is now this huge thing…geekdom has become the mainstream.”
But this apparent golden era of geek-ery has a dark side. Stereotypes of geeks and nerds — we shan’t detain you by drawing a distinction — as misogynistic, mewlingly entitled, and hostile to newcomers have re-emerged, bubbling up in the bowels of the internet to be recycled endlessly by the media. If we’re all geeks now, some of us, it is obvious, are geekier than others.
That the backlash against geeks had gone mainstream became apparent last summer with the release of Michael Bay’s Transformers 4. Bay’s robot juggernaut is an acquired taste: loud, silly, knotted with unfathomable dialogue. But Transformers serves up satisfying quantities of giant robots punching one another and, for many, this glosses over a multitude of sins.
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The Transformers films also have a tradition of scantily-outfitted young women draped over car-bonnets, unexpurgated eye-candy to appeal to teenage boys. So, they share a DNA strand with 50% of blockbuster movies, and are no more sexist than, for instance, James Bond movies — whose title sequences objectify women, their silhouettes made to resemble guns and stylised lettering.
The critical distinction is that, unlike Bond, Transformers isn’t merely sexist — it is nerdy and sexist, and speaks to the caricature of the nerd as the woman-hating introvert, the Dungeons and Dragons player who can’t get a girlfriend and resents every woman who has ever lived for his rejection.
Preposterously, Transformers 4 was accused of advocating ‘rape culture’ — whatever that is — and of investing greater effort in objectifying women than in ogling giant robots (a charge that can only be levelled by someone who didn’t see the movie — with Bay, it’s ALL about ogling the robots). That all of this unfolded while Robin Thicke’s creepy ‘Blurred Lines’ song held the airwaves to ransom was an irony lost on everyone, aside from Transformers fans.
Similar cliches surfaced during last summer’s ‘Gamergate’ furore, in which prominent female figures in the video game industry were subjected to misogynistic vitriol and death threats. The obvious lesson from the scandal is that the internet is full of sad, sick people who hate women — and that video games have a problem with gender balance.
However, a genuine controversy was quickly spun into an attack on wider geek culture — to which video games are only peripherally connected (nothing geeky about Fifa 2015). Again, the caricature of the spurned, woman-hating nerd was conjured — the tragic fanboys retreating into Warhammer 40K, Frank Miller graphic novels and HP Lovecraft, just because they are fleeing a world they cannot fit into.
“Too many nerds have basically internalised the stereotype of themselves as ugly, friendless losers and decided that anyone who doesn’t fit that stereotype — particularly women — is a ‘fake geek’, taking advantage of the fact that being a geek is now ‘cool’,” charged Britain’s New Statesman.
“The overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to earn, to win,” wrote Arthur Chu in the Daily Beast. “That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.”
“A lot of sexist geek dudes are so used to seeing themselves as the oppressed ones,” said Amanda Marcotte on politics website, Raw Story. “They can’t admit that they’re actually bullies themselves, when it comes to women.”
To be clear, sexism exists in nerd culture. Dungeons and Dragons historically suffered ‘chain mail bikini’ syndrome, with female protagonists depicted as semi-clad and weirdly proportioned. In its early seasons, Game of Thrones crowbarred in as much female nudity as possible. Females are under-represented in comic books and in the tabletop gaming community (albeit not to anything like the extent popularly assumed — witness the prominence attached to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in Age of Ultron).
The question is whether any of these issues are specific to geek culture.
Action movies feature more men than women. Advertising has, for most of its history, had little difficulty with objectifying females. Sexism is a problem through society, not specific to the nerd ghetto.
It’s obvious what is happening. The mainstream has co-opted age-old signifiers of geekdom: comic books, swords and sorcery, hobby board-games.
But now that geek passions are everyone else’s too, new instruments for bullying and look down on nerds are required. With their JRR Tolkien novels and Magic the Gathering collections, they have been designated tragic outsiders who couldn’t get a girlfriend to save their lives and hate women for it (which, of course, eliminates the possibility that women can be natural-born nerds, too).
If there’s a positive it is that the vogue for decrying nerds as inherently misogynist will blow over. Game of Thrones is predicted to run two or three more years at most; the public’s appetite for super-heroes will eventually diminish. It will never be cool to play Dungeons and Dragons.
And then, when the rest of the world has forgotten and moved on, geeks can re-emerge from the undergrowth and reclaim all that was rightfully theirs.